Bang Said the Gun: an open mic adventure
Five minutes’ walk down Great Dover Street in Southwark – the route Chaucer’s pilgrims would have taken on their way to Canterbury nearly 7 centuries ago – is a pub called the Roebuck. Upstairs on a Thursday night they have a poetry evening which they call Bang Said the Gun. The choice of title for this weekly event gives a clue that this might not be the kind of poetry reading experience I am familiar with. Nor is it: when they say Bang, they really mean it. It’s “stand-up poetry for those who don’t like poetry, especially the stuff about thwarted love and daffodils”. Or how about this: “It’s poetry not ponce, it’s not pornography but it’s still pretty good”. Beginning to feel about as dated as one of those Canterbury pilgrims, I decide to give it a go.
I walk up the stairs at just gone 8 pm to sign up for the open mic slot. The only space left is the first, so I’m doomed. Why don’t I just go in as audience, and see if it’s for me before making a complete fool of myself? But then I curse myself for a chicken, and sign. I sit through the first acts on the bill in a state of mounting panic, fight-or-flight states alternating, sweaty palms, rapid breathing. This is definitely not like any poetry events I’ve been to before. The place is packed, for a start. Everybody in the room seems to be under 25, though one of two of the performers are definitely over 50. Several of the acts have their poems by heart, and most have a breathtaking lack of self-effacement or false modesty. Some of the material is filthy, some political, radical. The stuff that appeals to me is surreal and bizarre rather than loud and in-your-face.
The scariest element in this first half is that on every table is a paper-covered plastic bottle containing pebbles. Someone chosen as cheer-leader for the evening conducts audience response to the acts. We’re encouraged to cheer, shout, rattle, and make the loudest noise possible. At first I cringe, then decide to join in. Pretty soon I notice the audience, during each act and regardless of content, are listening attentively, laughing and responding. With no heckling or booing, the atmosphere is supportive and encouraging, loud but not raucous for its own sake. The whole thing is rather good-humoured and lively, and I like the fact that the performers don’t go in for apologising for their material in advance, something that irritates me at some poetry readings.
It’s not all great. Naturally enough the quality is very uneven. There are plenty of cliched stand-up routines, about such things as embarrassment and complaints about features of everyday life. And some of the older performers seem to have self-denigration about their age as part of their presentation, as if getting in first before the audience can. This I find a bit depressing.
After the break, it’s my turn. I get up and read my poem. I wish I’d learnt it: I wish I’d put some make-up on. The lights are fierce and I’m very nervous. But the room feels supportive, even kindly, and I don’t feel as if I’ve let myself down. The other one-off poets vary hugely in style and content, but all are treated magnanimously. This isn’t gladiatorial combat, I’m thankful to realise. There’s the equivalent of a public vote for the best open mic performer, won hands-down by a petite, pretty girl whose poems are very short, witty and shrewd. She wins the Golden Spud Gun Award, which she gets to keep for a week, and on the following Thursday she will be featured in her own, longer slot, which she thoroughly deserves.
At the end of the evening I stagger out with a strange mixture of reactions; part of me horrified and embarrassed, though not as much as if I’d gone with friends, part of me enlivened and excited by the experience. It’s intriguing being so much older than most people there, and I start to consider what it might be like to do this regularly. Would I have to tailor my material to suit the environment? Would I need to write poems bewailing my advanced age, decline in sexual conquests, moaning about the raft of inconveniences for seniors? Or maybe gloat about privileges like my Freedom Pass on public transport, or exult in my permanent holiday from gainful employment? I can’t see it, somehow. Still, Brian Patten is performing there next week, so I might just go along and see how he gets on. Bang Said the Gun is at http://www.bangsaidthegun.com/ if you feel like giving it a try. I might see you there.