'Poetry books will sell if people can relate to what you are writing': Attila the Stockbroker
Performance poet and musician Attila the Stockbroker has been on the road for 35 years, and in that time has appeared at around 3,400 gigs, “shouting poems and thrashing songs” on his mandola – and now has a highly entertaining autobiography, Arguments Yard, out to prove it. In an interview with Greg Freeman he tells of his admiration for Hilaire Belloc, how he has managed to make poetry pay, why page poetry is not “superior” to performance poetry and that ranting poetry is still alive and kicking – and that after decades of protest, he is angrier than ever.
Firstly, may I say that it’s been a great pleasure reading your autobiography, which is packed with information and history, humour, poetry, and revelations. A poetry-writing father who miraculously escaped death in the first world war, and then was involved in a divorce case that hit the national headlines; a mother who worked at Bletchley Park; and your schooldays at an elite institution that you hated. Did all these factors play their part in you becoming Attila the Stockbroker?
As I make clear early in the book, I inherited a way with words from my dad, who was reading me Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales almost before I could talk, and a talent for music from my mum: from the age of about 14, I was determined that I was going to earn my living from words and music and do it on my own terms. My parents came from the kinds of backgrounds and grew up in the kind of times when such a thing was viewed as completely impossible unless you were from a rich family. My dad died horribly in front of me from a brain tumour when I was 10, and my winning the scholarship to the charity school I went to was a dying wish come true for him, though ghastly for me. It was traumatising at first, but then stroppiness and determination took over and I got through. I was already coming up with musical and lyrical ideas before punk, but having grown up with T Rex, the Velvet Underground and Mott the Hoople, punk was completely logical to me, and I was lucky enough to have been 19 in 1977 and to have seen the Clash at the Rainbow then … that was that.
I started off as a bass player, but standing in the background playing bass was never going to be a long-term prospect (anyone who knows me will understand that) and I did my first gig out of about 3,400 as Attila on September 8 1980, shouting poems and thrashing songs on the mandolin at a punk gig. Very soon things started to happen (thanks John Peel!) and I have earned my living as a poet and musician since 1982. You’ll note all the musical references: apart from Belloc it’s fair to say that my main poetic inspiration always came and comes from rock lyrics rather than “conventional’ poetry.
Your book is also fascinating for me on the early days of ranting poetry, and characters such as Steven “Seething” Wells, who, like yourself, also wrote articles for the NME. Earlier this year a tour called Stand up and Spit, in which you appeared, paid homage to those days and culture. It was backed by the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Do you feel that ranting poetry is still relevant, or is now just part of cultural history?
Ranting poetry is happening all over the country right now, although some of the people doing it probably wouldn’t describe themselves as ranters (many now do though). If you get up on stage and perform energetic, socially relevant spoken word, as so many do, you’re a ranter as far as I’m concerned! There is a massive upsurge in interest in poetry as live performance/entertainment - your website is testimony to this. And many of the new generation pay homage to the original ranters (John Cooper Clarke, Seething Wells, Little Brother, Joolz, Benjamin Zephaniah and myself, plus many more who followed in our footsteps) as an inspiration: that’s what the ‘Stand Up and Spit’ project is all about, showing a new generation how we went about it in an age before internet, social media etc when phones were attached to WIRES and a mailing list meant ENVELOPES and STAMPS! Big respect to Tim Wells for heading up the project. He’s put a lot of hard work into it.
The whole idea of ranting verse was/is to write poetry for people who thought they didn’t like poetry and then inspire them to start writing and performing it themselves, and it worked. A logical extension of the whole punk DIY ethic. Back in the 80s we had a whole posse of ranters (a football team’s worth, though not a very good football team – we lost 8-0 in our one game!) It’s very amusing that the Arts Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund backed the recent celebration of ranting verse. We got absolutely no help 30 years ago and didn’t ask for any …
Many say that poetry doesn’t pay, but in your book you take pride in the fact that for you it has, enabling you eventually to buy your house on the Sussex coast without needing a mortgage, and never requiring any kind of arts subsidy. Maybe the fact that you are a musician as well as a performance poet has helped you earn a living, and won you bookings all over the world for decades? What’s the secret of your success? Does your name, an inspired choice, have any part in it?
If there is a secret it isn’t a secret, because it could apply to any walk of life: hard work, single-mindedness, a clear vision of what I wanted and absolute determination to achieve it. The name certainly helped at the beginning: I got many of my early gigs on the strength of it alone. I’m best known as a performance poet, and it’s predominantly from live spoken word that I have earned my living for more than 30 years. I am completely DIY: I organise all my own gigs (plus loads for other people, including two festivals). The crux of the matter is this. If you write and perform material which people can relate to, which inspires them, which basically gives them “a good time” in the widest possible sense of the word when they go out for the evening to see you, making then think, laugh, cry, they’ll keep coming back to see you, buy your books and records and tell their friends! And if you keep doing that, build a fanbase through social media and maybe a bit of mainstream media coverage and support, and have total self-belief and good organisational skills, you could end up as I have, with a global cult following and the ability to earn a living as a poet.
It all depends on what you want to do. If you write a slim volume with no desire to get up and perform the words in it, it’s a book for people to read as and when they choose and for critics to muse over in literary publications. It goes without saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you get up on a stage and perform those words, if indeed you “write out loud”, then by definition it’s ENTERTAINMENT. It has to be. You’ve got an audience – you have to entertain them! Otherwise there’s no point in doing it. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to joke, swear or be loud or “political”. Listen to Simon Armitage. But it does mean you have to engage. And – a very important point – “page poetry” is not “superior” to performance poetry, as many in the literary arena seem to think. They occupy different spaces in the same world.
You were once commissioned to write a poem about Slough, in which you take Sir John Betjeman to task … “a poet of the teacup class, obsessed with railways and stained glass”, which I think is rather neat. But was that tongue in cheek, or is it how you really feel about him? In the book you talk about your admiration for Hilaire Belloc. Who else are your poetic heroes?
It was a parody of his Slough poem – but in the main I have little time for Betjeman. Sometimes, with tongue slightly in cheek, my erudite and literary-minded wife Robina will describe me as a “poet who doesn’t like poetry”, and as I’ve said already much of my inspiration has come from rock lyrics. But Belloc has always been a huge inspiration, not just his Cautionary Tales but his wider work such as ‘The South Country’ (I’m from Sussex too) his political satire (‘On A General Election’) and his life as an outsider, bombastic, self-opinionated, thunderingly confident and regarded as very much “a lesser poet” by the opinion formers of his day. I can relate to that! I was hugely inspired by the ‘Mersey Sound’ collection featuring Patten, McGough and Henri which I chanced upon when I was in my mid-teens: they were the first people I had found who were making the connection between the rock culture of the time and poetry. Adrian Mitchell was a wonderful, human poet. I like bits of Shelley, Wilfred Owen (a massive favourite of my father’s for obvious reasons) and obviously John Cooper Clarke had a big effect when I was starting out because he was the first, indeed the only one before me from the punk generation. But, yes, Belloc is the big one. I wrote and performed a show about him in the 90s, ‘Bellocose’, which was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please. Needless to say, it dealt with the rather fraught question of his (often rightwing) politics as well as the funny and inspirational stuff …
Would you say that, for you, poetry is a means to an end, a way of getting a message across, rather than art for art’s sake?
Oh, absolutely. I have never got “art for art’s sake”. My favourite analogy is a football one. Some poets are content to weave pretty patterns in midfield. I am partial to a pretty midfield pattern myself sometimes, but only as part of the wider strategy which is to get the ball down to the other end of the field and smash it into the net. If a poem doesn’t mean anything it will always leave me cold. (Except if it’s ‘Jabberwocky’, of course.)
You have Adrian Mitchell’s quote , “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people” on a T-shirt, and have published your last five poetry books yourself. Many poets would regard it as quite something to have your second poetry collection published by Bloodaxe, although you have said that “I did however always have the impression that their desire to publish me was based more on the fact that I had a big following (for a poet) rather than any particular respect for my work”. Both your first two collections had 5,000 print runs, and in both cases you eventually bought up any copies that would otherwise have been remaindered, and sold them all at your gigs. Would you say that your work seems to defy the odds of poetry publishing? Why is that, do you think?
I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier and to the Mitchell quote on the T –shirt. Books will sell if people want to buy them, and people will want to buy them if they can relate to what you are writing! I am pretty certain that Neil Astley at Bloodaxe didn’t think much of my poetry but had big respect for me for getting out there and doing what I was doing, and he knew the book would sell. (Same applies to my first book to be honest, which was published by an even bigger company, George Allen & Unwin.) Right from the start I was buying my books from Bloodaxe at 50% of cover price or something like that and selling them at my gigs – far more copies of my poetry books have always been sold at my gigs than in the shops, since people are far more likely to buy one when they have seen and heard me bring the poems to life rather than in the relatively sterile confines of a bookshop.
It soon became apparent to me that there was little point in having someone else publish my books if most were going to be bought by me at 50% of cover price to be sold at my gigs: I was already producing my own CDs and a few inquiries about book publishing made it clear to be that it would be vastly more cost-effective for me to self-publish. So, yes, I have published my last five books myself. To give you one example: 2,000 copies of my latest book, UK Gin Dependence Party and Other Peculiarities, arrived on a large pallet at our front door just before xmas 2013. My 4,000- strong email list and 10,000-plus Facebook and Twitter pages had already generated sufficient orders for me to have broken even on printing costs before I even got the books. I don’t bother with shops or other websites: I just sell them at gigs, on my website and via social media. It works!
There is an awful stigma about “self-publishing” as there is about “self-promotion” . Both have the inferred criticism that you’re doing it because no one else wants to. But if it’s more cost-effective for you to self-publish, and experience has taught you that you get better results promoting yourself than entrusting same to any of the people who set themselves up as PR firms, then sod the stigma – it’s the way to go! The internet, social media and digital publishing have demystified the process to a huge degree. This is my number one message in my autobiography. Aspirant poets and musicians: if you have talent and believe in what you are doing, get out there and do it. Don’t wait for a publisher or agent to spot you or a manager to take you on – get a website, bring out your own poetry books and CDs, book your own gigs, do it yourself!
My autobiography, of course, is an entirely different proposition altogether: published by Cherry Red Books, whose record division released my first two albums back in the 80s. I hope it’ll reach a far wider audience than those who would buy my poetry books, and I wanted the distribution and clout that an established label could provide. It is totally significant, incidentally, that my book is published by what is basically a record label. Remember what I said about my main inspiration being rock lyrics?
Your poetry is not always about political protest, or rallying people to a cause. You’ve written a moving poem about your mother’s slow descent into dementia, ‘The Long Goodbye’, which can be found on your profile page on Write Out Loud. And a similarly poignant one about your stepfather, ‘Never Too Late’. Do such poems take you by surprise when they come to you?
I always say that I write about what I see happening in the world and what happens to me personally. As I have got older, the very nature of life means that difficult things have happened to my loved ones and I have written about them. I am certain that I am writing my best ever material now: there is a lot more depth and diversity, for sure. The personal aspect of my work is very, very important to me, and increasingly more so. I am as fired up as ever, as angry as ever, still do 100 gigs a year, still stay up till 2am drinking real ale and putting the world to rights – but I’m 57, so I have a lot more experience of all the different sides of life than I had as a 22-year-old ranting poet, and hopefully am a lot better at my craft as well.
You’ve toured the former East Germany a number of times, appeared at events in support of the striking miners, against Rupert Murdoch, been part of Labour’s Red Wedge, protested about both Gulf wars. Towards the end of your book you say: “I am angrier than ever before.” Does that depress you, that there are more things to be angry about now, after so many years of protest? Or does anger also help you to get up in the morning?
I am outraged and saddened by the increasing amount of injustice in the world, and inspired to write about it as I was 30 years ago. I’d like not to be so angry – it’d mean Britain and the world was a better place and there wasn’t so much to be angry about. I don’t need anger or political injustice to get me writing: I’d always have plenty of subjects, as I always have. The stereotype of me as an angry ranting political poet is just that – a stereotype. The book is about that too … there is an awful lot more to me than some lazy commentators appear to think!
Your own health has been a cause for concern recently, and you had to undergo a procedure to combat skin cancer in your bladder. Has that changed the way you look at the world? I know you have written a poem, ‘Candid Camera’, about it.
“A procedure …” I’ve had a camera up my knob three times in the last six months!!! It just makes me realise how precious life is, and want to celebrate it even more and encourage others (especially blokes of my age who get embarrassed about such things) to get themselves checked out if they are feeling dodgy, as I did. My poem ‘Candid Camera ‘ isn’t just a bit of fun – I want reading it to help people find the courage to take themselves off to the surgery. The first knob gag poem to save lives!
You’ve been involved in a few gigs over the years in which things have sometimes turned rough. And now you’ve been booked for the Aldeburgh poetry festival. You and Hollie McNish will be the only performance poets there. Are you expecting any trouble?!
Well, I’ve had my mandolin smashed over my head by fascists and had darts thrown at me on stage. So I reckon I can deal with a couple of sneers from a Martian poet, or whatever J Seriously, I love doing festivals like that. Quite a few people come along with one perception of me and leave with another, and many of them tell me so as they buy my books and CDs! That makes me smile.
Cheers everyone! The book is available from www.attilathestockbroker.com, www.cherryred.co.uk and in some discerning bookshops, by the way. Plus of course at every gig I do – and there are about another 28 in the next eight weeks on the current tour, all over England and Wales.
You can find out details of Attila’s tour on his website and on his profile page on Write Out Loud
PHOTOGRAPH: GRAHAM MUNN