Performing poetry has taught me many things about myself. The top 3 being:
1. Microphones are not as terrifying as you think
2. I cannot accept a compliment
And the most important:
3. I have no dignity when it comes to poets I admire. Maximum fangirling ensues.
This is especially true of Matt Abbott. I saw a version of his show, Two Little Ducks, in Manchester in May this year, having been intrigued by the concept of a spoken word ‘show’ rather than the traditional open mic night. Not only did I completely love the show, but by the end of the night, I’d posted to express just how much on every social media platform for both me AND Testify Poetry, tagging Matt.
Fast forward five months – I’m managing to keep myself calm during our interview. I ask how he feels about the show now that he’s embarked on a massive twenty-two date tour with an updated final version.
‘I’m very proud of it,’ he says. ‘Not like in an arrogant way.’
It appears I’m not the only one who can’t take a compliment.
Matt has every right to be proud of the show. It’s had five-star reviews during its run in London and the final date of the tour, in his hometown of Wakefield, has already sold out.
Whilst usually selling out in your home time might be an easy win, that’s not the case here. During the show, Matt thoughtfully and thoroughly investigates the time surrounding the Brexit vote – in Wakefield, 66% of the population voted to leave. Bringing a spoken word show to this environment could be risky. As Matt himself acknowledges, the poetry world in which he makes his living consists of a high number of white, middle-class liberals who might find it easy to discard all leave voters as plain racists. But that isn’t what Matt is here to do. Wakefield is where he is from, where his peers are from and he knows how deep and corrosive the social divide between those who voted leave and those who voted remain is becoming. The show is not here to add to that. Rather it reflects on what it was like to grow up in a northern ex-mining town and how the closing of the mines affected both his town and his own family.
Whilst Matt has always spoken about social divisions and class, it was the Brexit vote and his experiences that year that inspired the final show. In the summer of 2016, Matt received a phone call at 7 pm. By 7 am the next day he was on a Megabus to London, the first leg of his journey to the Calais jungle with the organisation, ‘We are Wakefield.’ It was a while before he could write about the things he saw there, but he knew it was something he needed to write about.
And some of those things were harrowing. As an audience member you cannot fail to be moved, but did he exercise caution with sharing what he saw? I ask him if he consciously tried to avoid ‘white saviour’ complex.
‘Yeah, 100%,’ he answers straight away, ‘there’s a line in the first poem that says, “call it white liberal guilt or checking my privilege but right now I feel awkward.” I’m very aware that I was a bystander for a limited amount of time. I do get that.’
The show is self-aware and grounded, not preaching to its audience. Rather, sharing the unique perspective of being in the Calais jungle either side of the Brexit vote. Matt speaks not on behalf of the refugees, but rather as a ‘British person who watched the news and read the newspapers then also went to the Calais jungle; the two things were not the same.’
Spoken word shows are a relatively new emergence on the scene. Rather than stop writing poetry and start writing a play, Matt tells me how he consciously kept it poetry. Theatrical poetry, yes, but still poetry. Poetry can still be regarded as boring and dusty, I wonder if he thinks spoken word ‘shows’ will go some way to dispel this myth.
‘Yes,’ he replies, ‘in a theatre, you’re reaching people who might not usually go and see live poetry.’
This is certainly not your typical poetry open mic scene affair, the space of an hour show allows the poetry to be more subtle and layered.
With Chester being the penultimate date of the tour, it feels only right (if not a little cliché) to ask what is next on the agenda. As well as being a busy and successful poet, Matt also runs well known spoken word record label, Nymphs and Thugs, which has released work from big names like Salena Godden.
‘I’ll be working on the next show,’ he says, ‘as well as some exciting publishing news coming in the new year’.
But for now, he’s focussing on finishing the twenty-two date tour. Whilst Matt admits it’s been tiring and difficult at times, he can’t stop talking about how amazing it’s all been, a transformative time in his career, illuminating mistakes not to repeat as well as victories.
‘I’m very proud of what I’m doing’, he adds, ‘especially with Two Little Ducks. If I’d done it three or four years ago it wouldn’t have been as good.’
Then the final and most important question of the interview; I ask him if he’s going to get drunk after the final show.
‘Probably,’ he replies, ‘although I’m flying to New York the next day.’
The busiest city in the world for a relaxing holiday? Sounds about right.
Book your tickets here.