Gareth Durasow is one of the most engaging performance poets I have seen recently with a real stage presence that totally engages with the audience. Combining a mixture of shouting, singing and softness he reminded me of Gethin Price, the anti-hero of Trevor Griffith’s political drama Comedians - which was an adaptation of a 1975 Nottingham Playhouse production, later transferred to Broadway. In the play Gethin harnesses football violence, politics, skinhead culture and mime into his act to give a spellbinding performance which attempts to find truth through an aggressively unfunny act. Gareth is a more watered down version, who uses humour with acute observations to emotionally bombard his audience. James Walker caught up with this future starlet to find out why he loves ‘ramming my words down peoples’ throats’.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I’m training to be a performing arts teacher, so it’s been a matter of balancing prospective career with the development of my writing. I write every day, which is a real labour of love, but I think it’s important to tap into something, even if I’m just writing a few lines here and there on the back of a receipt or train ticket. Teaching was something I considered for years, partially because I didn’t know what else I could do with a drama degree and also because it beats pulling pints for a living; something I’m all too familiar with. I do have more honourable reasons for becoming a teacher, but writing is my first passion.
When did you first start writing?
I started writing plays whilst studying at college. As time went on I began to get commissions from Horizon Arts, which meant that my work was being put on a stage; a luxury that isn’t afforded to many young writers. But I had so many stories to tell that I couldn’t possibly write plays or novellas about them all, so I turned to poetry as a way of exorcising some of my creative demons. I suppose my first attempts at poetry were quick fix solutions; a way of getting ideas down on a page without having to worry about endless redrafting and whether or not they would ever see the light of day. Now I’ve come to realise that with poetry I have an endless array of imagery at my disposal and a cast of millions if I like; not exactly feasible with theatre. As time went on I became enthralled by the process of paring text down. I love cutting words, possible more than I enjoy writing them.
Tell us about your first poetry event:
I first performed at an exhibition ran with an artist friend, David Prudhoe. It was called Words & Music. The title wasn’t the most inspired, but it was exactly what it said on the tin. About fifty people showed up expecting to see the type of work David has become renowned for. What they got was something completely different. There are so many aspiring writers who rely entirely on publication as a way of reaching out to an audience. I figured that the best way of generating interest was to get on stage and ram my work down their throats. Looking back I reckon my delivery was poor, but the relative success of the evening gave me the confidence to develop my performance style.
Have you found that your style has changed with more performances?
I’m still an inexperienced performance poet, but have been encouraged to drop the tried-and-tested ‘quiet poet getting up in front of the mic and bumbling their way through a sequence of poems’ approach, in favour of a spectacle where the performer is amongst the crowd.
This must have been quite daunting?
It’s a new direction for me but there was something about the immediacy, the danger element, and the silences between my poems that has worked well at recent gigs. Other poets might think that silence between poems means that they’re dying a death, but it’s a more honest reaction than the hackneyed ripple of applause that audiences feel obligated to give. Silence shows that the audience are thinking; that they’re into it, and they’re waiting for your next word, breath, action… unless of course their eyes are closed, then they may well be asleep. I also like the relationship between comedy and menace, combining contrasting material and delivery so that the audience are unsure of how they are supposed to react.
Your style is certainly theatrical. Where does this come from?
I studied performance from college through to a Masters Degree in Theatre Studies, where we spent a lot of time devising theatre. I came to realise that I’m a very idiosyncratic performer and that if I was to pursue an acting career then this would either be a blessing or a curse. I became very disenchanted with acting on stage, because of a tendency to beat myself up over the holes in my performances, usually whilst the rest of the cast were celebrating a job well done. But with performance poetry no acting is involved. I perform my own words. I perform myself, or a version of myself; warts and all. Theatre is essentially a well-crafted lie, ideally. The message behind a play may ring true, but the vehicle for the message’s delivery is a lie. I’m learning that performance poetry is visceral, brutal and authentic. The audience are spectators at what could either be someone’s coronation or their execution.
Other than live performances, how else do you get your work across?
I’ve got a selection of poems due to be published next year. United Press are publishing two of my poems in two different anthologies and Pennine Ink will be publishing another pair of poems in their magazine. I’ve also set up a Facebook group called A Certain Reflection: Poems by Gareth Durasow, which everyone is free to join and submit feedback if they wish… or failing that they should join simply for the sake of increasing the number of members, so as to make me look popular.
How would you describe your poetry?
I sent my poems to Ian McMillan who described them as having ‘a West-Yorkshire sensibility that stretches out to something universal’. I like to write about all manner of things from the mundane to the cosmic; things relevant to all of us in varying capacities, whether it’s ogling some ‘last orders horror’ on a night out or ‘reassembling the dead’ in the wake of a suicide bombing. I don’t think a writer can deal with things like the threat of extremism with a straight face. There’s a danger of spouting platitudes and sounding preachy. We’re writers not reverends. Best to play devil’s advocate and let the audience make their own mind up… and have a guilty laugh whilst they do it.
Which four poets would you like to invite over for tea and why?
Leonard Cohen, because his caustic humour got me through a nasty stint in hospital. A friend left me with a pile of books, one of which was The Energy of Slaves. Most people would balk at the prospect of Leonard Cohen being considered anything but gloomy, but there’s a wealth of wit amongst his haunting imagery. His work triggers the kind of laughter you want to keep to yourself though, unlike Brian Patten whose work makes me laugh out loud on public transport, which isn’t always ideal. Brian Patten’s writing taught me that simple ideas told simply have far greater impact than the work of writers who use poetry to show off their vocabulary. John Cooper Clarke would be able to regale us with tales about the post-punk Manchester music scene and it would be fun to get him hammered and see if he can still recite Evidently Chickentown at breakneck speed. I love the pace of his poems. They’re furious and unstoppable. I’d also invite Sarah Kane because if she showed up it would be the most spectacular dinner party ever, given that she’s dead. Although her work was written for the stage, her last two plays are more like poetry than playtexts and I have her to thank for re-igniting my interest in theatre.
Your house is on fire and you can only save one of your poems. Which one would it be?
I suppose if I could only save one of them from a burning building it would have to be The Years of Change. It’s one of my earliest poems and sums up my interest in the relationship between comedy and menace, and how a writer can use a global concern as a framework for an intimate story, rather than getting on their soapbox and preaching about how we’ll be buried inside our own carbon footprints. It’s also one of the poems that will appear in Pennine Ink, so I’m quite proud of it.
Finally, what are your plans for the New Year?
Horizon Arts are performing The Last Christmas in February. I finished writing that play months ago and now it’s just a matter of sitting back and letting the director and cast take it in some unexpected direction. Check out Horizon Arts for news and dates. I’m working on a book called 101 Things Every Pair of Hands Should Do Whilst They Are Alive. It was inspired by Snowball’s speech in Animal Farm; ‘the hand is the instrument with which man does all his mischief’. I hope to perform it in some capacity, but that will be a huge project. As always I’m writing, but would like to attract the attention of musicians in the area, with a view to forming an outfit which can provide sonic backdrops to my writing. That possibility is far more interesting than the prospect of spending the next year sat in my room writing poetry and plays all by myself. I’m hoping collaboration will yield some exciting results!