Tyneside poet and former weather presenter meets media storm after relocating from Caymans
A Tyneside poet and former TV weatherman has found himself at the centre of a blizzard of local media coverage. American Joey Avary relocated from his job as a TV journalist and weatherman in the Cayman Islands to working as a customer adviser on the Tyne and Wear Metro. Since the news got out, Joey has been visited by news crews from BBC Look North and ITV Tyne Tees, with articles appearing in the Newcastle Chronicle, Sunderland Echo, and Shields Gazette. Joey was also due to appear with Look North weather presenter Paul Mooney helping to give the weather forecast. But in the midst of this media storm, there’s been little or no mention of Joey’s poetry – published under the name J Archer Avary - even though he has a new chapbook out. Write Out Loud sought to remedy that in this interview:
I enjoyed your chapbook Total Rhubarb. Lively and amusing, and not 'English' at all! Refreshing. I like the DIY production style, too, very much.
Thanks for the feedback - I’m thrilled you like the book. Credit to Darren Beaney and Back Room Poetry for the lo-fi aesthetic. It gives the chapbook a punk rock look and feel, and I think it suits the work. I originally intended to self-publish Total Rhubarb so I commissioned Aleah Dye (@bearsbeetspoet) to create this amazing cover that didn’t get used. I suppose if the Back Room edition goes out of print I could self-pub a few copies with Aleah’s cover art. I love what Aleah came up with, the design encapsulates the energy of the book. I would really love to get to do this, so please order Total Rhubarb from Back Room Poetry and take this rhubarb out of print.
Any reason why you went with the title Total Rhubarb? It sounds a bit unnecessarily self-deprecating to me?
Being a new resident, and an ex-journalist I am fascinated with UK politics. I first heard the phrase “total rhubarb” uttered by Boris Johnson as he dismissively waved-off scrutiny of the myriad Tory sleaze scandals of the day. It earwormed its way into my subconsciousness and somehow set the tone for that period of time when the poems came together, my first winter in the north-east of England. I love the way “total rhubarb” rolls off the tongue, and I knew early on it would be the title for my next project. I like how the term came from the theatre world, where stage actors repeated ‘rhubarb' over and over to approximate the din of simultaneous conversations. “Total rhubarb” is punchy. It can also mean bullshit, which also appeals to me. I hadn’t considered it a self-deprecating title, maybe you’re on to something. I take my work seriously, but try not to take it too seriously, if you know what I mean? Total Rhubarb is a wink and a nudge to the reader, letting them in on the joke.
When did you start writing poetry?
I left the Cayman Islands in 2019 after a long career in television broadcasting. I grafted hard as a news reporter and TV weatherman for Cayman 27 News and that lifestyle didn’t leave me much energy to devote to creative projects. When the TV station went out of business my wife Claire and I moved across the Atlantic to Guernsey. I had always wanted to be a writer, and for the first time in my life I had time to do it. I joined Ric Carter’s writing workshop through the Guille-Alles Library and started working on short stories. I started a novel that still isn’t finished. The frustration of not finishing the novel led me to poetry. I could sit down and write three or four poems in an afternoon. It's relatively low stakes. If you spend five years writing a novel and it’s not any good you’ve wasted a huge chunk of your life, whereas when you sit down one afternoon and curl off five bad poems, you’ve only wasted an afternoon.
Who are you influenced or inspired by?
Kurt Vonnegut made me want to be a writer. Charles Bukowski made me think I could be a writer.
Which open-mic venues do you frequent?
Spoken word is alive and well in the north-east. I found out about Tynemouth’s Under the Arches shortly after my wife and I arrived on Tyneside, and Penny Blackburn invited me to do my first-ever headline set when my last book Reverse Into Space came out. I’ve been out to Words on the Wall in Hexham. King Ink in Sunderland is always a great night. Helen Wilko runs it and James Whitman does the podcast. The two of them are both super creative and the venue Pop Recs is fantastic. I’ve done headline sets there, and at Steve Urwin’s Poetry Jam in Durham at the Waddington Street Centre. I’ve done one of Donald Jenkins’ Born Lippy poetry workshops and found it really worthwhile.
I’m hoping to take Total Rhubarb to some events further afield this year. I’m planning a trek down to Brighton for a set at Flight of the Dragonfly in April. I would love to get on the bill at a poetry festival in the Yorkshire countryside. I want to engineer a British invasion in reverse. I want to conquer London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, York, and Torquay with my Velveeta baritone and unique brand of Total Rhubarb.
Name a few of the cultural differences between the Cayman Islands and Tyneside.
My family moved to a new city every three or four years, so I got used to being the new kid at school. Moving to the Cayman Islands opened my eyes to a whole new world outside the United States. I made lifelong friendships with people from all over the world, and realised that Americans need to get out more! My role as a TV news reporter and weatherman made me a household name in the Cayman Islands, and I worked hard to earn the trust of the Caymanian people. Thriving on a tiny island requires one to acquiesce to evolution, and I adapted myself to the island lifestyle. My happiest times were lionfish hunting on Grand Cayman’s famous north wall dive sites and selling my catch to local restaurants. Life was simple. We had mango, ackee, and breadfruit trees in the back garden. We lived in an area of Grand Cayman called West Bay, and preferred its Caribbean hospitality to the tourist glitz of Seven Mile Beach. On Friday nights my wife and I hung out in local establishments. Our favourite was at Liberty’s revelling in total rhubarb with old seafarers, Mr Paul behind the bar, and unforgettable characters like Mr Stacey who stopped just short of accusing me over the untimely death of his beloved Jack the Donkey. But that’s a story for another day. Maybe there’s a second unfinished novel in the works? Am I crazy? I’m still finding my niche in the north-east, but it already feels like home. The people are friendly here and I love a Sunday roast at the pub.
How many media outlets featured you recently, and what were they? Did any of them mention your poetry?
My past life as a TV weatherman in paradise has captivated the local media on Tyneside lately. On the Metro I frequently make passenger announcements over the Tannoy. My American accent stands out and naturally, the Nexus [Tyne and Wear transport authority] media officer David Punton approached me to do an article for social media channels. Suddenly I found myself in the eye of a media hurricane. I’ve been visited by news crews from BBC Look North and ITV Tyne and Tees, and articles appeared in the Newcastle Chronicle, the Sunderland Echo. My father-in-law gets the Shields Gazette and he cut the article out of the paper and sent it to me. Last week I was invited to BBC studios in Newcastle to film a piece with Look North weather presenter Paul Mooney for an upcoming newscast. My poetry did not get a mention (mostly by design). Let’s hope the media will be there for me when I finish a novel.
Anything else you want to mention? Like the Toon Army, for instance …?
I’m a massive Newcastle United supporter. My wife and I go to the match whenever we can, it’s an amazing experience. We take the Metro to Haymarket, pop into the Hotspur for one or two, occasionally the Percy Arms, where I’ve been known to scran on M&S sushi, then maybe the legendary Strawberry pub outside St James Park. We were in the Leazes when Toon stomped Aston Villa, but we normally sit in the Gallowgate end where the supporters are most vocal. We sing our hearts out win or lose, then head to the Labour Club for a couple more in the name of letting the crowds thin out on the Metro.
Hope to see you again at an open-mic venue before too long.
TOP PHOTOGRAPH: HELEN WILKO
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