'A poetic Pepysian diary': veteran performer Nick Toczek has written a daily Covid poem during the pandemic
In mid-March veteran performance poet Nick Toczek started writing a poem a day about the pandemic – and he’s still writing them. He has already published one book of his poetic Pepysian diary of our modern-day plague, and another is in the pipeline. In an interview with Write Out Loud he talks about how his ‘normal’ life changed with lockdown; why he felt impelled to write a pandemic poem a day – and how he manages to do it; and how he saw the ‘second peak restaurant’ coming. He also looks back at 50 years of performing his poetry, including his days as one of the ‘ranting poets’. And after the interview, read a sample of Nick’s daily pandemic poems:
How much did your life change because of lockdown? Has writing a poem a day about the virus helped you cope? When do you think you will stop?
As it did for everyone, my personal and local life changed totally. So did my professional life. As a writer and performer, I made my living from working as a writer-in-schools and doing gigs as a performer-poet in pubs, clubs, festivals, etc ... and through selling my books and CDs at these events. All of this disappeared overnight. All my school gigs were cancelled. This included overseas work. Prior to lockdown I was visiting up to 10 countries a year. I was due to go to Uzbekistan in late March and had other countries in the pipeline. None of that happened. So I set myself new targets. One of the first was to write one poem per day about the pandemic. This was partly to document the experience (which I thought of as a poetic Pepysian diary) and partly also to give me a daily discipline. Amazingly, I've now had a book out, Corona Diary (containing the first 108 of these poems) and have continued, with a second book, to be called The Year The World Stood Still (containing poems from July-October - so 123 poems). The daily poems have really been a challenge which I've loved. I've been posting each one daily on Facebook pages. The feedback's been a great guide to how well I've been doing. Low levels of 'likes' have spurred me to up my game. Amazingly, the reactions have brought me loads of new opportunities …. publications, online gigs, etc. When will all this daily work finish? Two options. 1) When the pandemic ends (presumably with a working vaccine) or 2) When the pandemic kills me (I'm 70 on 20 September and have low-level asthma and low-level prostate cancer, so the virus is in with a chance there!).
Have you always – or mostly – written in rhyme? Do you feel it’s more effective at getting a message across?
I love using both rhythm and rhyme. They're very flexible disciplines which lend poetry a framework that's challenging. When I started as a performance poet (over 50 years ago!) in the late 1960s, many of the gigs I did were between bands at rock and folk gigs, often to rowdy audiences which weren't into poetry. Using rhyme and rhythm cut through any talking or heckling. That stood me in really good stead (a) when I became a vocalist writing lyrics for my bands and (b) when I became a ranting poet in the early years of punk (late 1970s and early 1980s). And it still serves me well when gigging. However, I do write some non-rhyming poems ... though only when challenged to do so by someone (usually me!).
In your poems written in July and August, you seem to know in advance that the infection rates would increase as a result of pubs reopening, the government drive to persuade people to eat out, and schools going back, too. How does it feel to be proved so right? Unnerving?
I've been a researcher and investigative journalist for many years. Writing these viral poems, I've done a huge amount of research following 'the science' (for real, not as our government pretends to do). Also, I'm married to a senior manager in the NHS. I've made it my job to keep pace with the thinking and the genuine fears. Back in January, for example, I was mocked by almost everyone I knew when I bought (from China) 200 facemasks, half a dozen visors, 200 pairs of gloves and a load of handwash. That whole lot cost me less than twenty quid! I'd been in affected countries during SARS and other health scares. I took it seriously from the very outset. When you do the research, there's nothing uncanny or unnerving about what you write, except for how scary the truth is that you declare.
Some of your poems are political, but a lot of them aren’t … and I would venture to add, more effective for not being so. Not obviously, anyway. What do you feel about that?
I am and always have been a political poet. That doesn't mean I'm ONLY political. With these daily poems, I wanted to capture every aspect of living through the pandemic. That meant writing about the personal, familial, communal, social, national, global and - of course - political. And, given how dreadfully our and other governments handled the pandemic, given how many died and will still die, given the lies and distortions and ludicrous self-justifications that our leaders have thrown at us, and given the overall shambolic shit, how could I not write some political poems? Some are didactic, some simply enraged, some sarcastic, some critical, some mocking. Others aren't political at all. I reckon that's how it should be. They're daily efforts. I start early evening and finish before midnight. Some come quickly. Some take longer. Some work perfectly. Some fail. Most sit between. I'm pleased with how many actually cut through ... more than I could have hoped. The whole project has to reflect my own strengths and shortcomings, just as Pepys's diary does. Firstly it's my voice and, after that, I hope, the voice of many more of us. It's what I'm trying to be, warts and all!
That’s enough about the virus. You have an awesome back-story … so many things you have been involved in over the years. As a performance poet in the 1980s, for instance, were you part of what has been called the ‘ranting poetry’ scene? What are your key memories from that time?
When I started out as a performer-poet in the late sixties (influenced by the US Beat poets and the UK Liverpool poets plus others - many of whom later became friends) I had this naive faith in the spoken word. I'd get up and gig in pubs and working men’s clubs where there had never been a poet. I had a missionary zeal which still drives me today. Ranting poetry really put that bit between its teeth which is why I loved being a part of it (which I was, albeit older than many of my fellow performers - JCC [John Cooper Clarke], Swells [Steven 'Seething' Wells], Little Brother, Ben Zephaniah, LKJ [Linton Kwesi Johnson] and dozens of others). It was an extraordinary time. I ran punk and skinhead gigs around West Yorkshire throughout the early 1980s and ran alternative cabaret gigs in the late 1980s ... all were amazing. I'd got into punk in 1976 when I started going to punk gigs in Birmingham (where I was living) ... saw the Clash in Sept 1976 and dozens more punk band including the Ramones during 1977. Punk changed my life.
And here is a sample of Nick Toczek’s daily pandemic poems, month by month:
Evenings and mornings,
in this water-thin
slanting Spring sunlight,
midges mass and mingle.
We don’t. We stay single.
We heed our hard warnings.
These nights grow cold.
We wake to frost and
lost at home at first
we stall but soon re-start.
We keep ourselves apart.
We do as we’ve been told.
We mow, trim borders,
plant seed and feed the birds,
hang out washing,
do more garden chores.
We then return indoors.
We obey their orders.
I stir. I wake. I wash my hands.
I snooze. Daybreak. I wash my hands.
I’ve food to make. I wash my hands.
I fry. I bake. I wash my hands.
I grill a steak. I wash my hands.
I eat pancake. I wash my hands.
A thirst to slake. I wash my hands.
I drink milkshake. I wash my hands.
I shop. Queues snake. I wash my hands.
We crowd. I quake. I wash my hands.
A friend. Handshake. I wash my hands.
That’s my mistake. I wash my hands.
I need a break. I wash my hands.
A walk to take. I wash my hands.
The park. The lake. I wash my hands.
Feed duck and drake. I wash my hands.
Skin starts to flake. I wash my hands.
With life at stake, I wash my hands.
Come cough, headache. I wash my hands.
For heaven’s sake. I wash my hands.
Stuck in lockdown week on week.
It’s no game, this hide-and-seek.
You soon sense you start to freak.
Don’t we all? You’re not unique.
Weather forecast stalls on bleak.
All the timbers start to creak.
Ship seems like it’s sprung a leak.
Whole world’s on a losing streak.
Pews unused in God’s boutique.
Faith says turn the other cheek.
Some dumb stuff about the meek.
Virus decimates the weak.
Governed by this dodgy clique.
Info’s Double Dutch or Greek.
Can and can’t work, meet or speak.
We do. Deaths rise. Second peak.
Quietly ending a day that’s been fine.
Quietly these streets assure me they’re mine.
Quietly first through the woodland then park.
Quietly gardens preparing for dark.
Quietly insects inhabit the air.
Quietly governments pocket despair.
Quietly daily the patients all cough.
Quietly Covid still carries more off.
Quietly bodies are bagged up and gone.
Quietly moonlight moves in where sun shone.
Love to lousy leaders for deceptions they achieve.
Love too to their families for the funds they slyly sleeve.
Love to Covid they've allowed to kill and to bereave.
Love to penny-pinching profit in which they believe.
Love to our own populace, so easy to deceive.
Love to Brexiteers with fake futures they perceive.
Love to gullibility round which such fables weave.
Love to Europeans. Blow a kiss now as we leave.
Love to the hopes of have-nots that those who do have thieve.
Love to food-bank users for the pittance they receive.
Love to jobs lost, lifestyles wrecked, what little we retrieve.
Love to rich sophistication ripping off naive.
Love to left, right, centre, faced with facts they misconceive.
Love to those who cling to faith when fate holds no reprieve.
Love to the despairing for whom circumstances peeve.
Love to we who really care but, in the end, just grieve.
There’s really no pandemic. It doesn’t exist.
It’s a government plot that we’ve got to resist.
They’re targeting our freedom, taking it away.
It’s a thought-control scam to make us all obey,
A secret foreign lab created it for sure
Just to make a fortune by selling us the cure.
They introduced lockdown to stop us from talking.
Their phone app’s there to track us when we’re out walking.
The 5G masts cause this thing, not Covid-19.
They’ve mind-reading implants to put in their vaccine.
Masks breed infections, so don’t wear them. They’re a con.
People die in hospitals. Something’s going on
Cos they’re clearing the beaches and grounding the planes.
They’ve now got machines that can alter human brains.
You’ve not got the virus if you can hold your breath.
We can live forever. There’s no such thing as death.
SECOND PEAK RESTAURANT
Table for one. Customer’s seat.
Coronavirus sits to eat.
He’s looking forward to this treat.
He’s ordering both bread and meat.
That flesh is ours, so’s the wheat.
We are the starter, main course, sweet.
The maitre d’ was there to greet.
The tablecloth’s a spotless sheet.
The waiter’s cutlery lies neat.
The chef is turning up the heat.
The plates arrive. The scene’s complete.
The meal’s a dream that’s hard to beat.
Time passes till this plague’s replete
And pays and leaves with his receipt.
He owns this world, this town, this street.
Main photograph shows Nick with his two publicatons so far this year - Corona Diary, and Voices in my Head, the latter a poetry collection for adults and secondary pupils
'Ranting poets' photograph from the early 1980s shows, left to right, Little Brother, Attila the Stockbroker, Nick Toczek and Seething Wells after a gig at the International Poetry Festival in Amsterdam