Luke Wright is a British poet, performer and broadcaster. He has written eight poetry shows, three books of verse and his poems can often be heard on BBC Radios 3 & 4. This year, he has two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe: What I Learned From Johnny Bevan and Stay-at-Home Dandy. Carly Brown sat down with him to discuss poetry, creating characters and what his two Fringe shows have in common.
Good characters will get into your subconscious and let it do the work for you.
Tell us about your shows.
What I Learned From Johnny Bevan is a play, a sixty-minute poetic monologue. It’s all in verse, apart from one short section in it. It’s my first ever play and my first foray into the world of drama. It’s going really well and I’m really excited about it. It’s a coming of age story of two friends, one from a working class background and one from a middle class background, and their friendship. Nick, the middle class kid, who is pretty wet behind the ears, tells the story. His friend, Johnny, gives him a political and personal awakening, gets him into music and really shapes his life. But things go wrong and we meet them in the present day, eighteen years down the line, and Nick is reviewing the launch of a festival called Urbania, which is a horrible, derelict, poor-chic festival set in a tower block and Nick realizes this is where Johnny used to live. Then, his mind sends him back to his time in uni.
Then twenty-five minutes after that show comes down, I do a show called Stay-at-Home Dandy which is a poetry show, like the seven poetry shows I’ve done before. It’s essentially got the concept of a day in the life. I take the kids to school, meet a couple of people and pick the kids up at the end of the day.
The way I write that show is that I write the poems and then I work them into sets. All the stuff I say between the poems is adlibbed and not scripted, apart from the poems, which have been written off stage. I used to script all that stuff and it was nowhere near as funny. I think it’s impossible to write stand-up on the computer, you have to sort of try it out in front of an audience. It’s all about mucking around and I love that, because the poems are so rigid. I love that element of it and it’s a big part of my shows.
So I guess you have more freedom to play around with your second show, Dandy, than with Johnny Bevan, which has a poetic script?
Absolutely, because Johnny Bevan is totally scripted. It’s half and half with my other show. It’s more relaxed. It’s definitely the right way around to do it. I come out of Johnny Bevan pumped up, full of importance and then I have to go down the road to the other show which is a bit more fun, a bit more personal.
I liked that both of your shows incorporated a lot of different characters. Even though we meet these characters briefly, they were still quite nuanced, such as The Bastard of Bungay. That could be just a funny caricature, a merlot-drinking old man, but you explore his loneliness, as well. Where do these characters come from? How do you create them?
The Bastard of Bungay is a true story, I saw that guy in an off license and I thought I should write a poem about him, call it The Bastard of Bungay. So I had a bit of fun with that. The poem started out a bit flippant, I enjoy the character and I enjoy that archetype, but halfway through it, it just seemed like that was the right way to do it. It just felt like a progression. So often what happens is that you get a really neat idea for the ending for something that you didn’t know at the starting point. People always assume that your neat ending is your starting point. A quote that I like is: ‘If thought can influence language then language can influence thought.’ When you come to write something, it pushes you in all sorts of directions. Never has a truer word been spoken about writing poetry.
Sometimes I feel like poetry writes itself. Do you ever find that?
Yes, if you have a good character. Because good characters know what their stories are. Virginia Woolf gave a speech in 1923, the year of modernism, about her and her colleagues versus the Victorian novelists. The speech is called Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. It’s all about character and how Mr Arnold Bennett would have described a man based on what their clothes were like. I’m with him on that in some ways. I like that distancing and sketching. But the modernists want to get inside a character. Woolf describes it as chasing her character through a station concourse. Just trying to grab ahold of the flap of her coat so she could reel her in.
My character Tracy is a character very much like that. I just wanted to write about a tollbooth, so I came up with this character, Tollbooth Tracy. I sat down for ages and I just started building, layering and layering, there was a mother, then there was a father. It sort of wrote itself and by the end of it you have a really good sense of what kind of person Tracy is. Good characters will get into your subconscious and let it do the work for you.
One of the thematic links that I noticed between the shows was dealing with the loss of idealism. Is that something you’ve been thinking about recently?
I don’t know if I’m losing my religion; my religion is socialism and leftism. I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in that. I believe in equality and in the greater good. But I’m in the wilderness since the last election. I don’t know if the left can ever win power in this country again. It’s lovely to do Johnny Bevan because I don’t have to give any answers. I can just present two lost people having an argument with each other. That’s much easier than being able to say: ‘Look guys, I’ve got a way out of this!’ I’m not into answers. I used to be. But the older I get more I think that there aren’t any answers, so you might as well make pretty noises describing the chaos.
What do you want audiences to feel after your shows, Johnny Bevan particularly?
I guess I want people to be knocked for six by it. I want it to overpower people and for them to go away and to try and work it out. I want people to come out of Dandy having had a really good time and with a couple of ideas in their heads. I want the shows to linger.
I think the best poems help you understand your own life, in a way. I want that. The best ones you put in your pocket and carry around forever and I guess we all want to write a poem like that, don’t we? And, in the meantime, if I can entertain people in the moment, then that’s great.
What I Learned from Johnny Bevan: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/what-i-learned-from-johnny-bevan/707523
Luke Wright: Stay-at-Home Dandy: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/luke-wright-stay-at-home-dandy/706793
Photo by Steve Ullathorne