By Conor O’Neill
Peformance image courtesy of David Campbell
Michael Wilson Interview
Tuesday night saw Belfast’s Michael Wilson pick up the Brian Bailey Memorial Cup at Belfast Book Festival’s eighth Poetry Slam Competition. Unfortunately due to technical difficulties it’s nigh on impossible to offer a full review of what was an intense, entertaining, eye and mind opening night of competitive poetry.
The brain-child of http://www.poetryni.com, husband and wife team, compere Colin Dardis and with Geraldine O’Kane on the judging panel, 16 competitors threw all they had at both the judging panel, which included guest judges, Linda McKenna and Vincent Cleelan and a packed main theatre at Crescent Arts Centre. 16 were reduced to 9, then four: Rae O’Dowd, Nathan Armstrong, Elizabeth McGeown and Michael Wilson faced the crowd, recited their last of three poems with Wilson getting his mitts on the trophy.
CultureCrushNI caught up with him a few days after to chinwag about his love of the written word, a somewhat alternative few years off stage, how to become a bard, the nature of slams and, most importantly, what’s next?
Born in Belfast in 1977, then spending his formative years in Portstewart, I asked the usual initial question: when did you start writing?
“I started when I was eight. I seen an episode of Dempsey and Makepeace, it had a hostage situation, I wanted to replicate that with my family being taken hostage by paramilitaries. That is the first thing I ever wrote. Then I moved on to a long, short story. To me it felt like an novel. It was a flight of fantasy type of thing; incredibly cliched, the bad guy turning out to be the father of the good guy and then I just kept on writing until I started university.”
What brought you to poetry and in particular slam poetry?
“Well, for a long time I was writing prose. I started performing in 2004, for a long time I was too sick to work. I started going out and about until it got to, ‘next week I’ve got to perform’, so it was sort of out of necessity. Then I was writing every day.”
Did you study writing at all?
“I quite liked poetry when I was doing my A Levels. We read Chaucer, Larkin and then when I got to university, I really wanted to study English Literature but didn’t get good enough grades so I ended up studying history and politics. Part of my masters was a course of post modern American literature. Kerouac, Burroughs… during my studies I ended up studying Naked Lunch twice. I’ve always been interested in literature.”
What are your writing habits?
“I write when I can. In the last few years I’ve had so much admin where as previously I was purely performing. I think now it’s more concentrated rather than simply writing all the time. I always carry a notepad or simply use the phone.”
Your subject matter intrigues me. On Tuesday your first poem was about Electro Convulsive Therapy, the next about hedonistic days with a lot of drug references. What does it feel like to leave yourself so bare? I assume it takes a certain amount of courage?
“I don’t know. The funny thing is I was told in hospital not to tell anyone about the ECT because I’d be treated differently. I performed that poem to 500 people and at the end I got a big round of applause and people really appreciated it. But there is no reason for confessional poetry like that for simply confessing. Poetry like that has to have a message.
“Mental health issues are really big in my writing. My first book is based purely on my 20 years and experiences of hospitals and psychosis. It’s best not to be too miserable, it can also start to be narcistic, I think you need to have a reason for it.”
So writing and performing is not only cathartic for you but insightful and entertaining to the audience?
“It’s interesting about the ECT because people come up to me after and say, ‘my sister’, or, ‘my best friend went through that’, but I’ve always said, ‘It’s just my experience of it.’”
Apart from the Beats and other poets you’ve mentioned, who are your influences, who do you admire and when/how did you develop your writing style?
“I like modern American writers, I like Sylvia Plath, I also like an Indian poet called Rumi. He writes a lot about love, very, very simply, almost sickeningly simple poems about love.
“As for my style, I probably got that from other performance poets. I cut my teeth in Manchester and there are poets coming out of the walls there. Sometimes I write something or perform something and I realise I’m emulating other poets. You can see who is influencing who sometimes. That’s important to me and inspirational. You go to a poetry gig and come away inspired and then end up with a couple of poem off the back of it.
“I was lucky enough to perform along side Tony Walsh, whose obviously well known now. Gerry Potter, John Hall, Mike Garry; a lot of people from Manchester, though I should really be calling them Lancs poets. A lot of those names are well worth checking out.”
Next I question the notion of poetry as a competition. I use art as an example and go on to try and elaborate my confusion. Wilson is quick to explain:
“Those artistic things [going back to my art example] tend to be a little bit competitive any way. You’ve got the Turner Prize, the Booker Prize. In music with the whole TV thing you’ve X-Factor, and before that you had battle of the bands. I do get the point; you can take it one of two ways. One, people think poetry is very weighty and wordy and any way of making it competitive somehow makes it less profound. Another point which I think is more relevant is that people think you shouldn’t put an objective prang to something that is as subjective as poetry and I get that point…
“But I think the main point is producing a very high quality poetry night when everybody is on their A game and bring out their best poetry. It’s also exciting to see who gets through and who gets knocked out.”
Continuing on with the competitive theme I ask: when you’re writing a poem, or maybe have a random idea and get home and put pen to paper, do you think, ‘Ah, this is slam worthy’?
“Maybe, but not quite right away. There’s a new one I’ve yet to memorise and it’s about poetry itself and I think it could be quite good to do. Different poems do for different rounds. The first: high impact, something that unusual. Marcus Moore advises to people to ‘do your best poem first’, because that way you’ll definitely get to perform it. You’ve more people to get through in the first round. The second round, and it’s funny as this seems a generalisation but it seems to be true, the second one is generally more downbeat, a little more thoughtful and technically tends to be the least strong of the three.
“And then you get to the final, it’s got to be positive. Sometimes humour works with audiences, sometimes unusual experiences. The big thing at the moment is Identity Poetry, so you keep these things in mind. When I first started slams the big thing was Rant Poetry which is basically people shouting their heads off; they got big marks for expression but I didn’t think the poems were particularly good, it’s just they were popular at the time. At the moment Identity Poetry is big, especially with the Me Too movement and the gender fluidity, ‘this is me’ sort of stuff.
“Topical poetry can also be good. For instance, at the Wolverhampton Literature Slam, Nick Lovell did his final poem and changed the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody to Brexit politics and obviously he was onto a winner, it’s just being part of a zeitgeist as well.”
Finally, what’s next?
“I’ve just booked my tickets for Canada in September. I’m spending a week in Halifax, a week in Toronto and a week in Montreal. That’s why I’m missing the Edinburgh Fringe, I simply can’t afford to go. I’ve a gig lined up in Halifax with their former poet laureate, El Jones; in Toronto I’m performing at the Free Time café as part of the Art Bar Poetry Series and I’m just spending the rest of the time at open mic sessions and slams.
“Hopefully next year I’ll come back with a much fuller itinerary”
There you go. A free lesson on the ‘dos and don’ts’ of slam poetry; a well argued answer defending its credibility and a fascinating insight into the life and times of Michael Wilson.