Blog: John Osborne

The poet writes about 10 years of making poetry accessible and matchmaking at spoken word events

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It’s January and I’m putting the finishing touches to my new poetry book. It feels like a good thing to do in these dark January days. The central heating’s on, the shiny red Italian cafetiere I got for Christmas is warming on the hob and my poems are scattered across the floor of my front room as I sit cross-legged trying to put them in some kind of order.

This will be my second poetry book. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years. It’s more of a hobby than a career. I don’t make much money from it and I don’t have that much time to work on poems. It’s a big part of my life though. I spend my summers at festivals performing poems. Glastonbury, Latitude, Bestival – all have dedicated poetry or literature tents and watching poetry at a festival is becoming an increasingly normal thing to do.

Every summer I try to have three or four new poems that will appeal to festival crowds. I like to write about things that have been in the news or well-known people. Some of my new work includes a poem about Kylie internet dating, a man called Michael Jackson and how his name impacts on his life, and the one person in the office who wasn’t part of the national lottery sweepstake who had to watch on as the rest of his work colleagues became millionaires. In that sense choosing my material is similar to a stand-up comedian choosing what to write jokes about. It’s observing the world, reading stories, working out wide themes that people in your audience will relate to. It’s a hard balance to get right – even if you are writing about Justin Bieber or Gogglebox or Kylie Minogue it still needs to feel like a poem. It needs depth and feeling and to evoke something to people who are watching or reading.

2016 marks the tenth anniversary of my first poetry performance. A couple of us decided to hire a room for an evening, invite some friends along and perform some things we’d written. It was never meant to be a career, but I really loved the feeling, not just of performing but the preparation and working out which poems work well with different audiences. It’s something I’ve grown to love more and more in the last decade.

At the moment I’m on tour with my friend Molly. She’s a writer, theatre maker and has the same relationship with poetry as I do. Last year we decided that as we both loved performing and both had lots of new poems we’d like to try out we’d get in touch with theatres, arts centres and people who ran poetry nights to see if we could put a tour together. Our tour was one of my highlights of 2015 and we’ve added some extra dates, including Salford Lowry on Saturday 23 January.

I think our favourite audience members are people who hadn’t expected to enjoy themselves. Maybe they’d been brought along by their partner or went along with friends or hadn’t realised that it would be poetry. It makes me so happy when people come up to you afterwards or email or tweet you or are next to you in the urinal in the gents and say: “I thought that would be boring… but it was good!” One of the highlights of our tour was a night when only six people came to our show. It seemed a hugely disappointing turnout at first, but during the interval Molly saw two people who had turned up on their own exchanging numbers. They sat next to each other in the second half and left together. The start of a poetry audience romcom. Poetry brings people together. It’s a fun, beautiful thing to have in your life. So hopefully it’s something I can do for another 10 years. And hopefully there will be more tours and more books and a nice full room at the Lowry on a Saturday evening in January.

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