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Adrian Mitchell Interview

(Originally published in The Argotist magazine in 1996)  

Adrian Mitchell was born near Hampstead Heath in 1932. He studied at Christ Church, Oxford. He was a reporter on the Oxford Mail, then the Evening Standard in London. Inheriting enough money to live on for a year, he wrote his first novel and first TV play. Soon afterwards he became a freelance journalist, writing about pop music for the Daily Mail and TV for the pre-tabloid Sun and the Sunday Times. He left journalism in the mid-Sixties and since then has been a poet, playwright and story writer. His various fellowships include:

Instructor, Writers Workshop, University of Iowa (1963-67); Granada Fellow in the Arts, University of Lancaster (1967-69); Fellow, Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University (1972); Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1987); Fellow in Drama, Nanyang University, Singapore (1995); Dylan Thomas Fellow, UK Year of Literature, Swansea (1995); and an Honorary Doctorate, North London University (1997).


Nick Watson is a graduate of Liverpool University and was the editor of The Argotist magazine from 1996-2000.  

 

 

NW: Is there a line of continuity for performance poetry?

AM: Originally all poetry was performed -- sung and danced. Writing came later. Print later still. There have always been poets who performed. Blake sang his Songs of Innocence and Experience to parties of friends. Post second World War Poetry: 

Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Spike Milligan, Mike Horovitz, Pete Brown, me, Patten, McGough, Henri, Tom Pickard, Ivor Cutler, Liz Lockhead, Edwin Morgan, John Cooper Clarke, Benjamin zephania, Michael Smitt, Carol Ann Duffy and John Hegley.

NW: You preface Ride the Nightmare with a note saying your work should not 'be used in connection with any examination whatsoever'. The relationship between popular performance poetry and the education system is often strained. Why is that?

AM: Lecturers in literature don't usually come to poetry readings so they don't know what goes on but are often happy to dismiss poetry performance. Reason for the note in my books -- the examination system was introduced to promote equality of opportunity -- to help poor kids get to university etc. -- to make education classless. It has failed -- it dominates secondary "education" and makes real education almost impossible. I won't collaborate with it, and use my little boycott as a way of drawing attention to the failure of exams -- hoping to provoke debating action.

NW: Performance poetry and rock'n roll -- any thoughts?

AM: Too general. I use rock and jazz and blues rhythms because I love that music. I hope my poetry has a relationship with good-time rock'n roll. But stadium rock and commercial rock are the opposite of what poetry needs. An audience of around 200 is ideal for poetry.

NW: Will a reader of a poem have a different experience to someone who listens to it?

AM: Of course. Written poetry is different. Best thing is to see it in performance first, then read it. Performance is more provocative because more complete -- it includes words but also sounds, movements, expressions and exchange of emotions between performer and audience. It is dangerous -- and any bloody thing can happen. I don't like writing essays or theory. What am I doing in this magazine at all?

NW: Popular poetry often uses language as it's used in everyday life. It's all a matter of being able to relate to the poetic voice, to identify, isn't it?

AM: I dunno. I want to speak, to sing to total strangers. It's my way of talking to the world or a small part of it. So I use the language I use to my friends. They wouldn't believe me if I used some high flown literary language. I want them to believe me.

NW: Performance poetry and accessibility, immediacy ... rebellion against elitism?

AM: You are asking me for an essay. Poetry for the people is fine -- it's part of the great Bohemian revolution which sees art as a way of salvation.

 

copyright Adrian Mitchell & Nick Watson