The Write Out Loud interview: Mark Niel
Mark Niel had a career in financial services – and then he threw it all up for the world of spoken word, to do something with his life “that fitted the real me”. The poet laureate of Milton Keynes tells Greg Freeman about a moment of revelation in the Savoy hotel, the cultural riches of his home city, and the hard work - and the happiness - involved in making some sort of living from poetry, taking in gigs on cruise chips, at rotary clubs and at the WI.
You transmit bonhomie and exuberance on stage, with your positive take on Larkin’s This Be The Verse, and a poem in which your message basically seems to be: “Look, you can do this, too, if you seize the moment.” Is that a fair reflection of what you’re about?
It’s certainly a big part of what I’m about. I believe that poetry can be entertainment as well as art and I hope to help poetry reach a wider audience. I like it when audience members say: “I didn’t think I was going to enjoy the evening but I did.” Of course I have a range of material, some with serious messages but in the Rhythm Method tour with The Antipoet, we’re primarily looking to give the audience a great night out.
In your current set you give the audience a hunk of your back story … which includes the fact you formerly worked in financial services, and were thankful to be released from it through redundancy, even though it now means confronting your own personal “fiscal cliff”. Did the financial crash of 2007-08 have anything to do with your decision to get out? Is it possible to make a living out of poetry, do you think?
The worldwide financial crash was almost certainly entirely my fault! I have a poem that I don’t often read, which was about attending a large training event in London at the Savoy hotel. I imagine the ballroom is weeping, that such a beautiful space designed for dances attended by ladies in fine, floaty dresses and gentlemen in cravats now hosts 400 financial advisers in the same grey suit. I called that poem Tipping Point, as it was the moment I decided I didn’t want to do long hours and sacrifice family life just to have money and the trappings that come with it. I wanted to do something with my life that fitted the real me. I wish I had been braver sooner. It is possible to make a living from poetry but it is hard work. It’s been a big drop in earnings this first year but I’m certainly a happier person. I’m pleased to say that schools, venues and festivals seem to want me back after I’ve performed or run workshops. I’ve tried to be creative in my thinking and that has led me to think about non-poetry audiences that could be persuaded to listen to a poet. So I am doing rotary clubs, WIs, cruise ships etc. as well as the expected gigs, readings, commissions, workshops and festivals.
As the poet laureate of Milton Keynes, you are quick to defend the place - and quite right, too - in the face of lazy stereotypes often bandied around. From what I gather there is a thriving cultural and particularly spoken word scene in MK. Can you tell us some more about that?
I’m proud to represent Milton Keynes and there is a very healthy cultural scene. I was part of the singer-songwriter circuit for a while as well as a writer and actor with various theatrical companies. I was awarded local funding for acting and poetry courses, and part of my commitment was to run workshops in Milton Keynes, to bring what I had learned back to pass on to others. As far as writing and poetry is concerned, there is a writing workshop that has been going on for over 25 years and Stony Stratford hosts a Stony Words festival each January. All my early encouragement as a poet was from local sources. Monkey Kettle printed my first poem, Poetry Kapow! was my first open mic experience. I found a group of kindred spirits and as we visited open mics further afield (Write Out Loud was my excellent guide in finding them by the way: Thanks!) a regular group of us became close, supported each other as fans and critical friends and collaborations began to form. The poem below is a tribute to them and that period. I wrote it when I went full-time, as I realised the debt I owed to those friends and that formative time.
A love letter to poet friends
We drove home
under the most glorious moon.
Every one of us so different yet
sharing the same lyrical DNA.
We had smashed the gig;
one with silk, one with honesty,
another with fire, one with laughter,
the last with truth.
We celebrated our triumphs
more pleased for each other
than we were ourselves.
It was a poet’s moon;
rarer than Halley’s comet
viewed by Shakespeare, Byron and Shelley
and it glistened like honeyed love.
sewed stitches of
binding us for always.
That was the time.
A spiritual planting of seed.
fed with friendship and
watered with destiny.
There is no breaking that.
Time, distance, work or absence
will never matter because
blood and ink will always flow.
How much time do your “civic duties” as poet laureate of Milton Keynes take up? Tell us more about your involvement with MK Dons, and other projects.
As my role is unpaid, it isn’t a formal arrangement. But I keep an eye on local events and special occasions so I can write something appropriate. I wrote a poem at Christmas for the mayor’s carol service and a poem for Bletchley library’s 50th birthday in December. When the mayor asks me to attend certain functions, I always try to go, and I’ve accompanied the current mayor of trips to schools and services as well as her charity dinner when I performed as part of the entertainment. The current mayor’s charity is the MK Dons Sports and Education Trust and I’m running a programme of workshops and poetry slams in each senior school this season. I write an occasional column and poem for the Dons’ match day programmes and sometimes perform at fans’ forums and in the build-up to matches. Again, it’s all part of my mission to win more of the public over to poetry.
You look like you’re enjoying your current Rhythm Method tour with The Antipoet (Ian Newman and Paul Eccentric), How long is that going on for?
Our plan is to keeping adding dates through the spring and summer, ending with a week’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. We’re still looking for venues that will have us, so please ask us if you’re interested! We met on the same bill a few years ago when both supporting David J and we liked each other’s sets and we’ve kept in touch since. We seem like an odd pairing at first, but I think our acts complement each other well. The main thing is we’re having fun and enjoying gigging together, so that comes across to the audience.
Can you name some of your performing highlights … and low moments, as well, if you like.
Performing highlights? Almost too many to name. Looking back, there have been some key moments. One of my favourites was one of my first slams in Oxford at Hammer & Tongue. No one knew me there and it’s a key test if you can build rapport and communicate with a new audience. My name was announced to polite applause but the three minutes went exactly as I planned; they got every joke and reference and were a dream crowd. I won that night and I felt that three minutes changed the room’s perception of me. Other stand-out moments have been at the Cheltenham literature festival slam and the New Act of the Year Showcase in the Bloomsbury theatre. Playing on big stages to sell-out crowds is a definite buzz but it’s just as satisfying performing to smaller but enthusiastic crowds. My favourite example of this was my first one man show at the Wenlock poetry festival in 2011. The tearoom only held 30 or 40 but it was full and they were another wonderful audience.
In terms of lowlights, I’m afraid there is a stand-out gig. I was talked into doing a “Britain’s Got Talent” type event in a nightclub starting at 10pm on a Sunday night. But not just any Sunday night - the Sunday that Germany knocked England out of the World Cup. So the entire audience had been drowning their sorrows for six hours and when they heard I was announced as a poet, they started to boo and jeer before I even reached the mic. I politely and professionally kept a smile on my face as I delivered my poems in the face of a barrage of heckling. I somehow knew it wasn’t personal, it was the alcohol and the wrong environment for poetry. However, I discovered as I stood there in the middle of a wall of abuse, I knew this was something I had to do and it made me determined to succeed.
Who are your favourite performers and/or poets?
This is always a difficult question, as I have a long list of people I admire, and I don’t wish to offend anyone I leave out. So in terms of performance poets: Zena Edwards, David J, John Hegley, Danni Antagonist , Mark Gwynne Jones, Dominic Berry, Indigo Williams, AF Harrold and the Dead Poets. Other poets I love include Philip Larkin, Luke Wright, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Jo Bell, Roger McGough, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ian McMillan
If it’s not the money, why do you do it? What is the buzz that you get out of it?
I think it’s the sense of mission that I have in wanting to win new readers and audience. Three people stand out:
1) A man in a pub in King’s Cross who had just come in for a drink and didn’t have any interest in poetry. He laughed at the funny ones and listened to the quieter or serious ones. After, he said to me: “I’ve never thought about poetry in my life. I’m going to go away and read some more.”
2) A teacher told me: “I wasn’t interested in poetry in school. If I’d had a lesson like yours, I would have been.”
3) Finally, I recently undertook a speaking engagement on a cruise ship over Christmas. I did six talks on various aspects of poetry. On my last day, a guest stopped me and asked to sign a copy of my book. She said: “You have changed my outlook on poetry.”
It is these person by person conversions to an art form I love that mean most to me. The turning round of attitudes, when people have been put off by bad experiences at school or elsewhere, and seeing the penny drop. There is poetry for everyone; they just need to find the poems that are right for them.
Mark Niel’s first collection, Somewhere South of Normal, is available directly from Mark and for a limited period includes free post and packing. RRP £8.99. A Kick in the Arts, 9 Quadrans Close, Pennyland, Milton Keynes. MK15 8AU.
Mark Niel’s website is www.AKickInTheArts.co.uk and you can follow him on Twitter @MKPoetLaureate