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Up The Nerd Punks 2 at EdFringe 16.15-17.15 @ Opium

Sunday, 25 September 2016

20.16 Blog #21: Page Against The Machine

The Unspoken Rule of Spoken Word

Last night myself and Stu Freestone presented our 11th Say Owt Slam at the Basement, 23 months after we first started in October 2014.  It’s been an enormously fun time giving a platform to local and travelling poets and showcasing some of the breath-taking talents across the UK with guest poets.

It’s been a long road learning about promotion, comparing, marketing and performance and sometimes in the haze of drinking in Dusk afterwards I can forget those lessons and the need to record them.

But one thing I noticed at the Slam last night was all but one of our poets read from the page.

There are plenty of reasons why a poet would want to read from the page.  I’ve seen Ross Sutherland use a notebook as a prop, despite the fact he knew the poem and revealed the page was blank, in order to play with the concept of a story-teller.  John Cooper Clarke and Rob Auton use a huge overflowing notebook of scribbles like a giant tome of blurted thoughts matching their styles.  Poets might want to use the page as a way to emphasise the literary-ness of their work, or even plug their book by visually using it.  The poem might be work-in-progress so no point learning it just yet.  But, at the end of the day, the most likely reason we poets read from the page if we simply haven’t learn out poem.

This is not a swipe at any poet, especially the ones last night, who read from the page.  It’s scary enough getting on a stage in front of a crowd to express yourself, especially hard if it’s a slam and at the end 5 strangers will judge your performance.  And our winner did read his 2nd round poem from paper, so page poetry =/= loser by any stretch.

Plenty of times I’ve not learnt the poem.  I’ve been guilty of trying the poem without fully practising, only to scarper into my pocket for the print-off like clutching for the lifebelt, drowning in a sea of forgetfulness.

Sometimes you just can’t learn a poem, and that might because of your mind, your time or even the fault of the poem’s ungraspableness.

So here’s some offhand thoughts about reading from the page:

1.  It has the potential to root you.  If you’re a poet whose feet end up doing the awkward dance on stage, it means they won’t wander.
2.  It can give an aura of authority as a story-teller or literary crafter.
3.  It draw attention to the poem rather than the performer, giving focus to the use of language.

But on the flip side:

1.  It limits your hands, which are an useful expressive tool.
2.  It means your eyes, and mouth, are face-down, meaning less connection and limiting vocals into the mic.
3.  It creates the (false) suggestion you don’t know the poem or are less invested in the poem.
4.  If it gets lost, damaged, the lights make it unreadable or it rustles you’re in trouble.

So I would always suggest if you are to read off the page, get a notebook.  Cover it in stickers or doodles, or get one slick and impressively smart.  Make it appear like your brain physicalised, a wad of papers or a precious tome.  Use it as a prop.  I know that people read off their phones, again, I have read off my phone and I get we live in a digital age and I also get that not everyone can afford printers or printing costs, but for every problem there is with paper, reading from the phone (or other electronic device) adds a devilish extra issue:  it looks like you didn’t go to the effort to even print off the page.  Obviously this is not true, you could know this poem inside-out, back-to-front, intimately and beautifully connected with this piece.  But the casualness of a phone give that extra element of suspicion from the audience.  Poetry has such raw live connecting power beyond connecting to Facebook.

The audience are your friends, but audiences also make assumptions.  In theatre, we understand signifiers.  Colours, such as purples and greens, detonate villains, whilst reds and blues denote heroes.  Status is ‘read’ through action and stance.  Characters with swords are warriors, characters with flowers are lovers.  Put an old character and a young character on stage we assume they are related.  The stage is a canvas which we interpret signs and symbols.  

So last night I presented as a scrawny guy in an Anarchist t-shirt and patches on his trousers which probably meant the audience expected political/protest poetry, so I tripped up the audience up by doing a poem about dinosaurs.  Scott, our guest last night, tripped up the audience several times with awkwardly graphic but hilarious tales, like his piece Coitus Interuptus, and that’s where some of the humour can come from, being surprised and belaying expectation is one of the funniest, or even touching, experiences audiences can have.

So subsequently, if you come to the stage with paper on your head, the audience are already unpacking this situation with expectation and assumption, and you can use the page to your advantage.

When I did my EdFringe show, Up The Nerd Punks 2, I read a fictionalised tour diary from my notebook, which broke up the more energetic non-page-read performances.  I also read a poem I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig from the notebook, but cut up the piece so it flopped out of the notebook like a scroll.  Cheap laugh, but just gave reading from the page an extra dynamic.  After years of trying to resist the page and just learning everything, I see the potential of using the page.

So I am not going to say: “Just go learn your poems!” because everyone approaches the text and performance in a different way, but I will say, whether poem mic or (indeed especially slam) do consider how you are presenting yourself and, inevitably, your poem to the audience.

All the best!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

20.16 Blog #20: Can I just say...

Last week my band played a gig in Sheffield, which was riotous, sweaty and proved to me that underground DIY punk music isn’t dead, it just went folk-punk.

But something happened after our set which (conveniently) sets up something that’s been in my head for a few months now.

A young punk (I think a University student) came straight up to me to offer feedback on not only the set, but the make-up of the band.  This is just after we’d played our last song, as the applause from the welcoming audience died away, just as I was taking off my guitar, with all my body choked full of adrenalin, this guy started explaining to me how the band could work better.  I couldn’t focus on his, or what he was saying.  It barely registered.  I changed the conversation to DIY venues.  He felt that Wharf Chambers in Leeds was “too far down the rabbit hole”, by which he meant, to left-wing (I think).

The fact is, I have often felt that we as artists need to be quicker to find honesty in conversations.  Too many times have I seen a poet, actor or musician and felt they could have been better, if they changed a line, did a different poem, sorted out their introductions, slowed down, sped up, looked for the humour, used the mic.  Whatever.  Likewise I have learned for someone to point out the obvious in my work and sets.

This is a question of ‘quality’, a definition loosely set by a collective consciousness.  Problem is, how do we grade art?  The Clash’s London Calling is a high quality album to me, but probably not to a classical music fan.

So often, standards are set by a collective conscious, but that consciousness is dictated by people in power, reviewers, funders, programmers, professors.  The gatekeepers of culture.  And your gig-goer or theatre-attendee doesn’t always factor into this grand scheme.

So if it boils down to opinion, we should be ready to offer some thought on the art we have experienced.  That’s what this guy was doing, he just did it at the wrong time, too forward, too
So when is it the right time to offer constructive feedback?  When that person is in the bar afterwards, chuffed with their performance?  Later on, through the de-humanising social media which lacks the subtly and nuance necessary to offer feedback?

In my experience, this guy should have waited until a break between future bands, because actually his points were fair enough.  But I kinda felt accosted, I switched into Friendly mode rather than being able to properly acknowledge his feedback.

But if we’re ever going to improve what we share, we do need to share our thoughts afterwards.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

20.16 Blog #19: Guns Blazing

This year’s Edinburgh Fringe was a real lesson in captivating audiences.  And caging them.


Some acts come out guns a’blazing.  They absolutely and unequivocally nail it from the get-go.

My chum Stu recommended Jayde31, a show I would have never bothered with otherwise, simply due to being late a night, stand-up cabaret and in a venue I don’t often frequent.  But Jayde hit the audience like an avalanche, giving no time to breathe, question or flinch as she bombarded us with the greasy parts of growing up.  Key, she never gave us real pause to consider or think until she allowed such a moment in the beautifully crafted moment of pathos so necessarily on the Fringe, and so rarely given so earnestly.

Mark Thomas blew me away when I stumbled across Bravo Figaro, and only after did I read up on his history in the left movement.  Red Shed was expensive on my poor wallet.  But the show was full of hilarious and heart-wrenching stories and character from the Yorkshire working class.  I was almost tearing up within the first 5 minutes, and was in tears for the final song of Solidarity Forever echoing around the room, and history.  But Mark looked like he’d taken a swim in the North Sea by the end of his show, dripping with dark sweat.  Because he worked the crowd marvellous.  Mark throws himself around, the characters and action are enormous to fill this large space, but also to bulk up our hearts.

Milk Present’s JOAN featured Drag King Louis Cyfer, who portrayed the fumbling frantic and fantastic Joan of Arc  Who’d have thought a Saint could be so boisterous as she leapt around in this round space, grabbing audience members onto stage, leading us in a chorus of battle and portraying three men in her life.  The final scene was heart-wrenching as Joan (spoiler alert) prays to Saint Catherine, and we couldn’t have got to that point if we didn’t laugh with her and love her for the past 70 minutes.

So this ‘Guns Blazing’ approach makes me think about absolutely confidence, and control, of an audience.  Other poets on the Free fringe exhibit this well, Dom Berry and Monkey Poet springing to mind, whereas others, like Harry Bake, favour a more relaxed, welcoming approach.

Guns Blazing is hard to maintain, and harder to make tight and accessible.  But Guns Blazing doesn’t mean an intensity that scares, it can also be a friendly intensity.  I’ve always thought about the way that punk poetry should try and reflect a full punk band, how can only individual be the equivalent of guitars, drums and shouting?

In theatre, we often say if you aim for as much energy as you can muster, make your character unbelievably big, then you can always tone it down.  It’s much harder to work from less.

So whilst I never hit the ground running to the extent of the examples I’ve given, it was fascinating to see three different performers (a stand-up comic, a piece of theatre and a story-teller) all hit the audience hard, keep on pummelling and, inevitably, also make me feel deep emotions I’ll carry with me for a long time.


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Blog 20.16 #18: The EdFringe Hiya

The day after Edinburgh Fringe was made for unpacking, washing, eating and powering through Stranger Things like a Normal Human Being.

I took the show UP THE NERD PUNKS 2, a sequel to Up The Nerd Punks last year.  I don’t know quite why a sequel seemed to fit.  It obviously suits the nerdiness of film and game sequels, but I felt there was more to say on the subject.

The show began as exploring what it means to ‘battle’, in the sense the inspiration, whether you are a villain or a hero, when two ideologies clash etc.  But as the world has increasingly become tense with racism and nationalism, the show became about drawing lines in the sand.  Not exploring the fight, but committing to the fight.  It hard for me, despite my Anarcho-Tendencies (not a crust band) I’ve always liberally acknowledged everyone has their own opinions and backgrounds.  This is true, but as the world feels edging closer to a darker 1932-esque fascism, there’s less requirement for introspection and more need for action.

I started off with audience hovering around 6, but my final show (admittedly a Saturday) ended with a rammed room of 30.  I did about 2-3 hours flyering a day, and got to hang out with poets from across the UK all lovely people.  I didn’t get to hang out with as many people as I’d like. 

The curse of the Fringe is the “Hiya!” as you pass someone in the street, or it is for me.  I put flyering, show, seeing shows and rest as priority, and seeing people seems to slip away.  For that, I am sorry to people I didn’t get to see, but I guess it reinforces everyone does Edinburgh differently.  I guess that's my battle every year to simply hang, and actually, in retrospect, without realising it, thatw as a central part of Up The Nerd Punks 2.

I wish the Fringe could accommodate for people not able to spend hours in bars spending money on booze to have a place to hang out.  If there is such a space, let me know.

Thanks so much to everyone who came to the show, my 11 guests over the 10 shows and general smiley friends.  Much love xxx (angry scrawny punk love)

This was my 3rd year taking up a show, and I was racking my brains as to how I approached it in 2012 with Letter To The Man (from the boy).  Every time I return, I learn about a new venue, cafĂ©, takeaway, bus route or method of flyering.  I always see Edinburgh as a way to raise my game.

So what have I learnt from this EdFringe which I didn’t know before:

·         You can always tweak your show.  Don’t be afraid to keep teasing with it, that’s the specialty of doing so many shows back-to-back.
·         The size of an audience doesn’t always reflect how loud they react.
·         The Free Fringe people are lovely.  They have to be.  When you flyer next to them, exit flyer them and guest with them everyone has to support each other.  I don’t mean be friendly with each other, I really do mean support each other, whether propping up at a bar or propping up that keenness.

So UP THE NERD PUNKS will return for the 3rd, and probably final, instalment.  I will make the branding around this less nerdy, and the show less pop culture heavy so it’s more universal.  I want to explore the origins of punk, and part of activism, with the history of sci-fi and fantasy and how punk culture and nerd culture might just help us save.  It’s the end of the world, the destruction of all life, the apocalypse.   We need to travel in time.  We need to be the Kitty Pryde, Terminator, Doc Brown.  We need to save the future.  We need to save the world from…Bromaggeddon. 

Where we’re going, we don’t need bros.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

England poem references

If anyone's seen Up The Nerd Punks 2, I have a poem which references several struggles in English history.  Here they are if you wanted to read more:

Wat Tyler and the Peasent's Revolt 1381:  Uprising against higher taxes due to the Hundred Years war and an end to unpaid serfdom

The Diggers 1649:  Amidst the Civil War, they demanded anyone could work the land for the good of everyone.

The Luddites 1811-16:  Used direct action to oppose machines taking their jobs in cotton and wool mills.

Peterloo 1819:  Protest of 60-80,000 people protesting high corn prices, land laws and demanding more rights and the vote.  Were charged by soldiers and 15 were killed, 700 injured

The Match Girls 1888:  Went on strike for better working conditions in match factories

Suffragettes 1897 onwards:  Women and men fighting for votes for women.  Used tactics including arson, vandalism, occupation, intimidation, disrupting meetings  Were often arrested and forcefed

Conscientious Objectors:  Anti-war and anti-militarism has always been part of British culture.  If you were bullied or pressured into joining the army or being conscripted, but refused to kill, you would be shot for 'cowardice'.

Miner's Strike 1984-85:  Miner's defended their livelihoods and the working class across the UK.

Monday, 15 August 2016

20.16 Blog #17: Here & Heritage

Last week I worked on a Play In A Week project for the Laurence Batley Theatre and Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield.

The Heritage Quay is an archive of Huddersfield’s local and international history, and it’s a fantastic snapshot of the character of Hudd, something this little York lad has grown to appreciate over the years.

The young people I’ve worked with through the LBT have been feisty, inventive and full of character, and this project was no exception.  Using items from the archive, as well as local historian Cyril Pearce popping in for a chat, and the group’s own knowledge, we devised a show around the Conscientious Objectors of the 1st World War, mainly from the perspective of the people of Huddersfield.

This involved first a lot of unpacking ‘socialism’, ‘conscription’, ‘liberalism’ and the women’s movement.  I even managed to slide some anarchism in there.  This was just sly of a slog, and we kept it fun and open rather than narrow and intense.  But it had to form the bedrock of the show, like the archive it had to reflect the real stories of the city.  We couldn’t be afraid of these words, terms and historical accuracy.

But it was important to make sure the group knew we were telling the story of these people, their lives, opinions, beliefs, families, friends, work and hopes.  As much as international socialism was a cornerstone, was what more important was making the audience care about these people living 100 years ago.

The group did marvellously well at balancing both, and I didn’t try and force my opinion on them.  Hopefully there was room for debate.  Certainly the show told the COs tale, but the issue was explored from a number of angles.

I think we are told continually that the COs were mainly religious men, but the Huddersfield story is one of working class solidarity as well.  The politics cannot be ignored.  Nor the fact it split the women’s movement, and though some proved themselves good citizens, others opposed a male government’s profit-hungry war.

As much as we need to encourage young people to tell their relevant current stories, it’s also important to remember the place they come from, the world that’s trying to be covered up, forgotten about, rejected and remade.  100 years ago socialism and anti-militarism were not dirty words, they were part and parcel of modern life for the working class of Huddersfield, and a history that should not only be presented and explored, but celebrated and learnt from.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

20.16 Blog #16: Deer Shed & DissFest

A few weeks ago, myself and Chris Singleton spent the weekend stood in a field shouting poetry at each other.

Around us was a festival, Deer Shed to be precise, a swarm of 10,000 people 45% of the under 16.  Amidst the chaos of workshops and music we performed poems by request.  On the spot improvisations.  Based on audience’s suggestions.  Anything for an easy life, right?

When I’ve done this before in cafes, pubs and libraries there’s always more resistance and uncertainty, but in the middle of a wacky festival we are just one more attraction the kids get excited by, and that’s a testament to the intense madcapness of Deer Shed.

Some of my favourite requests were the ones me and Chris tag-teamed, telling a story between ourselves and often the people who had suggested the poem. Though me and Chris aren’t necessarily from a rap background, we tried to take part in rap battles.  Child-friendly of course.  Monsters vs. Robots, Shrek vs. Nemo, meat-eaters vs. vegetarians.   Not poems I’d ever claim to be worthy of Don’t Flop videos, but fun in the moment nevertheless.

You can watch one of our battles here:  https://www.facebook.com/DeerShed/videos/10153585201676619/

It was also fun collaborating with Chris, who is a lovely poet from Leeds running Verbal Remedies and running into a few lovely folks, like Kate Fox and the Holy Moly & The Crackers ensemble.

Deer Shed is a great fun festival, designed for families, so maybe not one of my favourite as a participant (seriously, no ska-punk stage?) but definitely my favourite to visit as a performer and poet.
Here’s a poem what I wrote for the Festival inspired by the suggestions of passing peoples:

At Deer Shed Festival I ate the best
The tastiest
Most monstrous Hot Dog ever
At Deer Shed Festival I watched the Card Ninja
Boomeranging cards with calculating power.
I spent a good hour cart-wheeling by the Helter Skelter
Filled up the comedy tent with roaring laughter
Then some crowd-surfing like a winged monster.
I strummed a metallic 3 stringed guitar
Elementary!  I went to see Sherlock Improv
Grumbling bears, stories to hear, a raggle taggle of cracker folk.
Zombies!  All around me!  That’s realistic blood!
I stayed up partying as late as I possibly could.
The Blacksmith clattered in metal-melting heat
I opened my Northern gob to speak (and eat)
And I don’t know who won, the Monsters or Machines
But if this Festival was a film
It would be an action-filled classic.

Similarly, this weekend I was at DissFest writing poems for people visiting the very sublime Fairchild’s Tea Room.  This time more relaxed, you could almost say tamer, as I penned some poems for people supping delicious fruity teas in the mega civilised and friendly atmosphere.  Here’s one of the poems I wrote about the English weather:

As you know, as summers go
The English one is to-and-fro
Enjoy the parks, the fields, the beach
The trees cast shadows in the heat
It’s shades and spades and t-shirt weather
Carry an umbrella?  Ha!  Never!
We’ll get toasted, burnt red
Feel the rays upon my head
But, what’s this?  In a flash
The dusty dirt is a muddy splash
The rain comes in buckets and buckets
No!  We cry:  SKY STOPPIT
The rivers rise, the wind it cries
Cats and dogs storms and spray
It ruins our sunny day
So now we know, us soggy fools
Never break the golden rule
Always carry a cagoule.

DissFest, run by Unity Twenty Three, is like the LittleFests I've worked on in Yorkshire, a way to get people to engage with arts in their town by putting it into unusual spaces, or making it as accessible as possible.  Lovely friendly, and important, work by the team.

And another I wrote for a women about the Ukraine, her home country

Last night we heard the mountains cracking
Like skin from burning sunshine
We saw the rocks peel away
And the countryside cower into itself
In the morning we walked from the river
And, like pulsing veins over stinging skin,
We passed forests deep like black tea
Then the old sky mixed colours of blues and greys
And the rain washed down like a heavy tea
Poured with gentle care
And we smiled, and we washed away the night
And carried on walking