the real risks of whoring

I’m enjoying Leicester.

The Flashback show was brilliant last night. I’m really loving the complete lack of pressure on me in the whole thing. Unlike a scurvy show where if I’m not brilliant then it makes both me and the whole thing look bad, this is a no-lose situation: if I get the sound cues right and my little cameo goes well, it’s great; but if I fuck up it doesn’t really matter because nothing I can do can really mess up the whole show, and even if it did, it’s not my name or my face on the poster this time round. If things go horribly wrong, nobody who sees the show will ever remember me. It’s like doing a striptease in a mask so nobody knows it’s you. There’s no risk of my personal ‘credibility’ being lost.

What this means is that I don’t have to worry about committing my heart to the act like I do with my stand-up – I can do my little cameo bit, with the silly accent and blank expression and the slapstick pratfall, and just really enjoy doing it. So even though I haven’t really ever done any proper clowning or physical comedy before, I think the lack of pressure comes out in the performance and it’s been getting really good laughs…

Anyway, after the show we all went out in Leicester, where we ended up at a bizarre club night called the Imaginarium. Which was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been to. It was a kind of burlesque-themed night where lots of people had dressed up and when we arrived the person on the door said, “the poetry brothel’s closing in ten minutes, so grab yourselves a whore.”


It turned out that one room was set aside as a ‘poetry brothel’. You went in, paid £3 and had a boy or girl in burlesque costume read you some poetry. Which I thought sounded interesting but potentially awful, because I like poetry a lot but it turned out to be the person’s own poetry. And I have read some really dire amateur poetry in my life.

As it turned out, the poet I got – called something like ‘Miss Mary’ or ‘Mistress Mary’ – was really, really good. I was a bit drunk at the time so annoyingly I can’t remember much of the poems she read, but the first one had some brilliant alliteration with consonents clattering sweetly on top of each other; and when she asked what kind of poetry I liked and I asked for something with a strong rhythm, she read one about a person succumbing to alzheimer’s that had a line in it about a ‘backwards sphinx’, which is such a good image that I could still remember it this morning. And then that was my time up and I had to go back out to find the others.

And it left me wondering about the different circumstances in which people are prepared to reveal parts of themselves. I’ve had this idea, which I think I’ve mentioned before, that stand-up is similar in many ways to striptease – it’s just a different part of the artist is being revealed. But whether it’s in jokes or poetry or stripping, the dynamic is different when it becomes a commodity. As soon as money is handed over, the personal risk, the part of yourself that you put into it, is disrupted somehow – in Marx’s terms, we’re alienated from the product of our labour, even when that product is something that would normally be deeply personal, like humour or sex or poetry. The paradox is that it’s precisely this lack of personal risk that frees you up to commit to it completely, because the danger of humiliation is mitigated slightly – it’s like the mask I mentioned earlier.

But poetry is a special case. People say stand-up is brave; even Simon Critchley – who is, in my humble opinion, the world’s most insightful philosopher of humour – told me in a reply to an email I wrote him that he thought that stand-up was ‘the hardest thing in the world’. But as long as it gets laughs, stand-up isn’t that hard or brave because the personal trauma that is revealed is cloaked in laughs. But poetry is much more naked, and the self-ness of it is guarded only by rhythm and metaphor.

I’ve written bad poetry myself before, and I even occasionally try (and often fail) to do slightly poetic things with my stand-up. But I’ve only once read my honest poetry for an audience, and it was horrible. I wouldn’t subject anyone to it unless they were a poet themselves, or specifically asked for it because they honestly wanted to know what was really going on in my brain; and even then I’d be quite likely to warn them about the dangers of that first.

So I think if you’re a good poet, reading your poetry to people, or letting them read it, is the hardest thing in the world. Even for money, the personal risk is just too great. And considering how relieved I am at the moment to just be getting laughs from turning up in my friends’ show and doing a comedy falling-over because it contains no personal risk, I’ve got to give ‘Mary’ credit for that.

(I heard some of the other poets weren’t that good. They don’t get that credit…)