The Argotist Online
Adrian Henri Interview
The Argotist magazine in 1996)
is perhaps best known as one of the Liverpool poets, with Brian Patten and Roger
McGough, but his career spanned everything from artist and poet to teacher, rock
and roll performer, playwright and librettist. Inspired by his home city of
Liverpool, his characterisation of popular culture in verse helped to widen the
audience for poetry among 1960s British youth, and he could name among his
friends John Lennon and Paul McCartney. When Henri, McGough and Patten became
well known nationally, Henri chose to remain in Liverpool, turning his back on
the trendier London scene, saying there was nowhere he loved better.
1963, he was one of the founding members (with McGough, John Gorman and Mike
McCartney) of the musical group that became the Scaffold, which went on to
record many singles, several of which were hits. In 1967 he founded the
poetry/rock group Liverpool Scene, and in 1973 he was a founding member of the
Grimms, which presented a mixture of poetry and songs, and recorded several
exhibited paintings both nationally and internationally; his first major London
exhibition was held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968.
numerous publications include The Mersey Sound (with McGough and Patten),
Wish You Were Here and Not Fade Away. He was a firm believer in
the live poetry reading and read his poetry at many and varied venues as well as
holding poetry workshops at schools and colleges.
died in Liverpool, aged 68, in 2000 following a long illness. Shortly before his
death he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool in recognition of his
contribution to Liverpool's cultural scene. He also received an honorary
doctorate from Liverpool University.
Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
Is there a difference between poetry that is read aloud at book launches etc and
poetry that is read aloud to a paying audience in a bar or as part of a pub
There is, but there shouldn't be. Talking about performance poetry, in my terms,
is a false dichotomy because I see reading the poem out loud and reading the
poem on the page as two aspects of the poem's life. Both are equally important.
But I can quite see that from the late 70s there is a whole school of
"performance" poets whose work is primarily not for the page. It's to
some extent ephemeral. It's often issue-based and it's intended for consumption
in the kind of environment you've just mentioned. It's meant to be entertaining,
maybe thought provoking, and it does all these things, at best, extremely well.
But it doesn't really cut it as far as being poetry is concerned because poetry
is something that has to live past the occasion. It's probably a more fruitful
distinction to say that there is a poetry that occurs for an audience and poetry
that does not. One branch of which would be performance poetry. A much bigger
branch is poetry that is simply concerned with reaching out towards the world.
Adrian Mitchell, in the preface to his first book, says, ‘Most people ignore
most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’. At this moment, lots of
poets are working in a way that does ignore most people. A whole lot of academic
poetry, written certainly in America and England, has nothing to do with the
kinds of issues we're talking about.
When we read a poem silently to ourselves we can control the speed at which it
is read; we can give the poem more time and attention than a performance would
allow. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I suppose the analogy is with music; you can get something from a
performance that you will never get from a CD. Listening to a poem read out loud
is a first contact with the writer and whatever skill the writer has in
projecting their work makes it a different experience than reading it on the
page. Both are valid. And this is where the issue for performance comes: the
poem has to be good enough to stand up in the cold light of day.
So with the spoken poem, the sound of the voice is part of the
experience—other than any supposed content? It's not really necessary to be
too hung up over getting a message?
Yes. T.S. Eliot said, I think, ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is
understood’. Some part of what the poem is about hopefully transfers itself at
the reading. It's quantatively
different from reading from a page because you can't get the tone or inflection
that you get in performance. It's not theatre, it's not being an actor; you're
not pretending to be anything you're not. I think it boils down to honesty, the
feeling that somebody is talking directly to you. It's not just talking down a
telephone. It's a very considered, distilled way of talking that articulates
something for you so you go away from the reading feeling you've had a good
night out and that certain things have been made clear to you.
There seems to be a continuum: at one end there is someone like John Cooper
Clarke and at the other someone like James Fenton.
There's another thing: Fenton's thought of as being the darling of the
academics, yet he's a wonderful performer of his poetry. There are people who
are mainly page poets. I don't think you'd gain an awful lot from going to
listen to Geoffrey Hill read his poems. You'd gain a lot, assuming you liked
that kind of thing, if you studied them on the page.
Now in performance poetry, it's the personality of the poet, theatricals,
gimmicks, which are the main thing, whereas spoken poetry, however much the poet
is bracketed as a performer, is essentially a communication process.
Yes. Pure performance poetry often becomes the springboard to something else.
I'm thinking of someone like John Hegley who's become an alternative comedian in
all but name. That kind of performance poetry is defined almost by what happens
to people who do it. Which is not true of other poets, poets who are concerned
with writing and their craft but at the same time happen to be rather good at
projecting their work.
seen an awful lot of awful poetry readings in my time—sometimes I feel I don't
get paid for performing, I get paid for sitting through the others. It does
demand a "something". You can't just stand up and stammer over your
words. There are performance skills; attitudes that you learn by experience and
listening to other people. But it's not theatrical quite in that sense. You are
not acting but you are projecting, slightly, an enlarged version of yourself.
You're being yourself, plus.
there are other factors: things like programming and running order are
incredibly important. I've seen people who write good poems make an utter hash
of reading them because they haven't given any attention to a lot of basics. And
your audience varies. If I go into a primary school then my whole approach is
going to be different to talking to an audience of adults. It never gets boring
because you really don't get the same audience twice.
Does the "pop" tag come from "poetry for the people"
coinciding with the popular song?
Yes, absolutely. If you thought, as I did, that the majority of poetry in
Britain up until the end of the 50s was elitist, and if you wanted to do
something about it, then that was an issue you had to take on board. Because you
weren't looking for models from the immediate past, you looked around for other
models. In my case, things like the 32 bar pop song form, the Blues, Talking
Blues; all these idioms offered possibilities that more traditional things like
sonnets didn't because they came loaded with something already.
How do you go about getting bookings? Do you do it yourself?
At the moment I have an agent, simply because it takes the workload off
me and I always get embarrassed talking about money. At one point there was the
London Poetry Secretariat, then a National Poetry Secretariat. They would issue
contracts, fix readings and, to some extent, provide subsidy. Unfortunately,
both of these have now gone, so one has to work in the commercial world. My
agent would insist on conditions, like; every reading I do now, on the contract
it says there has to be a bookstall. Simple things like that are enormously
important; partly for me because of royalties, but also because people want to
buy books at readings. They like the idea of getting their book signed, of
buying them as a memento. So it's very useful to have someone who nags people,
who will check up on all the arrangements.
With music or theatre, the public don't mind paying but I get the feeling that
this would be different for poetry. Do you feel comfortable asking for payment
when you perform?
I think labour is worthy of its hire. Promoters wouldn't pay me to go and do
things and the audience wouldn't pay to come and see me if they didn't think I
was worth it. The whole idea about fees is a bit thorny. There are some people
who earn a lot more than I do and a lot who earn less. If you're not giving
value for money, then in the long-term you're not going to get asked to do
Why do you sometimes use musical accompaniment?
Well, it goes back to the situation in the early 60s. There was great excitement
about the music that was going on, what we had heard had happened in
America—poetry and jazz. But then, all the poetry and jazz I'd heard seemed to
be a battle between the jazz and the words. On the other hand, music expects
lyrics. So it seemed logical to (a) work with what was to hand (the Beat groups)
and (b) work in an idiom that was word-friendly rather than word-antipathetic.
Pop music is a vehicle for words. Since the mid 60s, Andy Roberts has been
setting my poems to music: mostly to solo acoustic guitar. He tailors the music
very closely to the words and the mood. He's also amazingly good at picking up
How would that work out in practical terms?
If it's a set thing, like 12 bar blues, it's then simply a matter of finding the
tempo for it. It's partly what's written on the page, but it's also the speech
rhythms, the way I accent the words. These things determine the tune that he
How is a poem accompanied by music different from a song?
It is different. It's very hard for poets to write songs because your natural
instinct is to make the words do all the work. The really great songs have holes
to allow the music through. The poet's instinct is to fill up those spaces. In a
song, there's an equivalence of words and music but the poem can exist on its
own, without the music. There are other things, like giving the musician room to
display what he's got to offer. In that sense, the form of the poem—as it
would be read out loud on its own—would be changed; we'd get an instrumental
passage somewhere in it.
Is there a different way of writing poems that are to be performed and that are
for the page?
I honestly don't think there is a distinction. It varies over the years, but
there are always some things that lend themselves slightly more to performance
than others. Which is not to say that one couldn't read any of them out loud,
ultimately. You get to have a backlog of performance-friendly poems. One of the
problems is that there are favourite poems that everyone who turns up probably
knows. If I don't read them, they feel cheated. If I do, they'll think,
"God! Hasn't he written anything new?" So I try and include some of
the "Merseysound" poems, some from the in-between period, but maybe
stress the more recent ones.
Apparently, when people ask Bob Dylan to sing his old songs he says they're not
"old" because he sings them every night. Could this apply to you?
One of the whole points of writing poetry is that you take a set of
circumstances and, by getting words in the right order, you preserve it. So they
do exist in a continuing present. Really great performers can perform the same
thing night after night and make it sound new every time. Bob Dylan, for
instance: you never hear him on his tours doing songs the way they were
originally recorded. And that's presumably the way he keeps himself sane, by not
just reproducing the same performance. Some of the things I do with Andy Roberts
that date back to the 60s we've either consciously or unconsciously changed. A
lot of the things we do are very free structures. But even on your own, you can
read the same poem very differently. You have to get to know the poems,
particularly new ones. Sometimes it can be quite hard because you don't know
what words are coming next. Until you do, you can't get on top of the rhythms.
That's perhaps one of the advantages of performance poetry—the freshness. Once
the poem is on the page, it becomes the reader's poem to some extent.
As far as I'm concerned, once the poem is published or on record—in the public
domain—then it isn't, in any real sense, mine.
I've been to a lot of readings where the introductions are better than the
actual poems, but how would you talk beforehand about some of your more abstract
One of the crucial elements in reading poetry out loud is that it would be
almost impossible for one to simply stand there and read poems: you know:
“Title—Poem”... “Title—Poem”... for half an hour. It would drive
everybody mad. Poetry is a very heightened form of words and demands
concentration. Nevertheless, I think the poem should stand up on its own and
shouldn't need introductions and footnotes. Part of the function of talking in
between the poems is to relax attention. It's a focusing in and out of attention
on the words.
Why do you sometimes leave double spaces between words in your printed poems?
I think of the printed page as a script for performance. The use of white space
is just for indicating a pause. It really is quite fundamental because this
whole thing arose from the idea that the poet's own voice and breath was a
measure of the rhythm of the poem. Initially, I always used to read my poems out
loud to myself or into a tape recorder. But now I just work on the page. I can
hear it in my head; I can hear my voice saying it. It's the idea of writing for
your own voice which seems to me almost paramount.
© Adrian Henri & Jeffrey Side