Poetry and performing: Luke Wright on the rhythm of life
- Credit: Archant
Essex-born poet Luke Wright has surprised even himself by discovering that he is really a country boy at heart.
His recent poem Lovejoy is an autobiographical celebration of his childhood and growing up in East Anglia. It explores his love for watching the roguish antiques dealer on TV on Sunday nights, going to all the villages featured in the series on days out with his parents and eventually stealing his first kiss from a girl while trying to track down star of the show Ian McShane when the BBC came to film in his village.
Luke Wright’s poetry infuses humour with observation, with satire and autobiography, to create something that is unique. He also displays a love of language which transfers well to performance and gives his shows a feel that is part theatrical experience, part comedy stand-up, part rock’n’roll gig.
He creates a world of bawdy bar-room ballads which are fuelled by acerbic, fast, funny wordplay and are populated by greedy politicians and boozy ne’er-do-wells. People like Jeremy, the public schoolboy with an artistic bent, or Jean Claude Gendarme, a kung-fu-fighting French copper.
He also has a knack of making the most outrageous ideas seem vaguely plausible – ideas like the world’s first B-movie being set in Brentwood.
Born in Coggeshall, near Colchester, he moved to London in order to pursue his career as a poet with a leaning towards political satire, but decided two years ago, with a wife and two young children, that perhaps life in a heaving metropolis wasn’t for him.
Luke, with family in tow, decided to return to East Anglia and settled in Bungay. At first glance Bungay may not seem like the most likely of places for an edgy young poet to settle in, but life in Suffolk provides exactly what he needs – plus, the cultural life in the area has exploded.
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In recent years theatrical events like HighTide and arts festivals like Latitude have transformed the cultural provision in the area.
“I never thought that I would end up living in a small, rural market town but I love it and it’s home. It’s better living in East Anglia; I don’t get why it gets such a hard time.
“There’s so much going on. The arts are why I stay in East Anglia. In a way I never left, because I’m heavily involved in Latitude – I programme the poetry arena for Latitude and that’s very important as it gives a platform for young poets who may otherwise find it difficult to be heard, and also gives them an opportunity to perform alongside some more-established names.”
He said that after university he followed the well-worn path down to London but was tempted back by the fact that the Arts Council had introduced Escalator – a scheme not only to help send local talent to the Edinburgh Festival but also to keep local talent in the regions. It helped give UK arts a distinctive local voice. Suddenly arts didn’t need to be urban and London-centric.
Luke found this very appealing – particularly as he didn’t find London life suiting his outlook on the world.
“You wouldn’t have thought that a scheme would have made that much difference but it has. Artists are very transient people by nature. I work all over the country but I choose to live in East Anglia and we have Colchester Arts Centre, Norwich Arts Centre and the Writers Centre here to support us.
“Escalator was important in getting me to come back here and now I’m here I am putting down roots and I find it’s being reflected in my work. Even though I may not be specifically writing about East Anglia, my work does have an East Anglian sensibility – because that’s where I was born and brought up and now where I live again. It’s about knowing that I come from somewhere. The fact that I went to London and then came away from London and chose to live here is a big part of who I am now.”
Back in Suffolk, Luke immediately found himself swept up in the campaign to save local libraries from closure. A dedicated supporter of local libraries, he and his family were just discovering the joys of the library when it was announced that Suffolk County Council was planning to close it, along with other branches in the county.
“It is a fantastic library – a great place to bring the kids. We’d only just arrived and loved it. Local residents were determined to keep it open and we said ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’
“Libraries are so important for community life. They bring people together and they are a way of helping youngsters learn about the world, and introduces them to the wonders of reading and the power of language.”
The library has now been saved and Luke did a fund-raising concert last year to keep the doors open, and supplied some poems to newspapers to raise awareness. Earlier this year he was appointed as one of the library’s official patrons.
“It was a huge surprise and a great honour, because I was only doing my bit. I feel there are people doing so much more than me but I am a writer and they felt that was appropriate.”
Striking a balance between writing and performing is something that Luke says he continues to play around with. He regards himself as a writer first and foremost and most days he pens something – even if it is a stream of consciousness, he laughs – but the performing aspect is something that he has settled into and has grown more comfortable with.
He said he was never entirely confident that his career would blossom the way it has done. His current tour, Luke Wright – Your New Favourite Poet, is his sixth solo show and was reviewed in Edinburgh last year as being “funnier than the bulk of comedy section and more thoughtful than most of the theatre”.
In addition to his tours and one-night performances, Luke is poet-in-residence for BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live and contributed poetry to the Channel 4 documentary The Seven Ages of Love.
“I have always taken the view that you can only do your best, work as creatively as you can and hope you can build an audience for your work. I have had a couple of lucky breaks and just kept working away at it.
“Everything I’ve done I have really grafted for. But, I don’t sit back and have a grand plan. I just tend to concentrate on each new poem, each new show, each new book or collection and just try and make it the best that it can be – and hope that people like it.”
He said it was all part of making a connection with an audience – establishing a rapport.
“I find that it’s all about being able to walk into a room and able to strike up a dialogue with an audience – that there is a connection both at the performance and the writing level.”
So where does he feel more comfortable? Is he a writer first or a performer?
Luke answers without hesitation. “I have always thought of myself as a writer. The performing is something that I have always had to work at. I have got a lot better at both over the last six years but the writing has always been at the heart of what I do.
“For example, this week I wrote a poem about Iain Duncan Smith. I wrote it very quickly and just put it out there – an angry piece that was an instant response to something.
“I wrote it, I put it online on my website, it’s had loads of views, lots of great comments and it’s made an instant connection.”
He said that as he became more experienced the content of the work didn’t change necessarily, but the technique and the craft became more polished.
“Even when you are working fast, you are looking at the little details, the rhythms, the craft and the style of the piece.
“At the end of the day I suppose I am not writing for an audience; I am writing for myself, because no-one will judge a work more harshly than I do myself.”
He said that as an artist you shouldn’t try any harder or work any harder because you are being paid. “If you are doing it for yourself, if you are doing it because you love doing it, because you have to do it, then it should always be the best you can make it – whether you are being paid, whether you are performing to a couple of people in a pub or to millions on television. The approach and the commitment should be the same.”
He said that his love of performing was born when he was in an indie-band at college. “Music and performing went hand in hand with poetry and stand-up comedy, which were the other things I was interested in. It all seemed to go together for me. When we were in the band, we would write something and then send it out into the world – which is pretty much what I do now.
“But, as I have gone on, I have got much more interested in the writing side. I am more concerned with the craft of writing poems. The performing I enjoy and I only have to do it well enough to put on a good show and speak to an audience. Where I really agonise over stuff is in the writing process. I consider myself a writer first and a performer second these days.”
He said that he does get a special feeling when performing work he has written to an appreciative audience. “When you get someone telling you that they really loved a particular poem or that it meant something special to them, it means a lot, particularly if you wrote it rather than just performed it.”
He said that the real joy of being a writer/performer is that he can write a poem during the day and perform it at night and get instant feedback from audiences.
One of the ways that he is looking to develop his writing is to follow in the footsteps of poets like Roger McGough and investigate the dramatic possibilities of poetry.
“Once this current tour is over I will have some more writing time and I want to sit down and explore the possibilities of creating poetry for theatre – creating a dramatic performance with characters and poetic dialogue.
“I have some ideas floating around in my head but nothing more concrete. It will be interesting just to see where it takes me. I definitely think that this is a way my writing could develop. It’s also an interesting area to work in.”
Although it’s clear that Luke loves East Anglia, he has also developed a strong attachment with China – having performed there twice in recent years.
“Interestingly, two different organisations have taken me over to China in the last couple of years: first the British Council and then, this year, I performed at an international English-speaking book festival held at a bookshop called Bookworm.
“They like getting English-speaking performers over because they go down really well in China – it turns out that they really like poetry. I did three or four gigs and a number of workshops at international schools, and performed to largely international audiences, but I did one gig where there were Chinese in the audience who spoke English and I had a great time.
“We didn’t have a translator and I’m not sure how useful one would have been because I talk really fast and once you are concerned with metre, with rhyme and with metaphor that’s a lot to take in – particularly as I lace my work with jokes.
“I found that although they could quite understand everything I said, they responded to the rhythm of the work, and instead of being turned off by it they were really interested in how poetry worked.”
He said that two years ago, when he went to China with the British Council, he had the opportunity to work with Chinese poets through a translator, but felt the words became too literal and that the poetry was lost.
“Even so it was a fascinating experience and it was brilliant to have that cultural exchange. It was great to make a connection with a completely different culture and try to understand what made their poetry work.”
Talking to Luke, he is clearly in wonder of the way that country is developing and he would love to return just so he could explore more of the nation.
”It’s a wonderful vibrant place and yet at the same time there is still a lot of control on what people can say and do.
“Having said that, the people I met were wonderful and offered a window on a totally different world.”
n Luke Wright will be bringing his latest show, Your New Favourite Poet, to Ipswich next week. Promoted by the New Wolsey Theatre, he will be appearing at the Townhouse in Orwell Place, Ipswich, on April 18.