Performance poet Emma Purshouse, winner of poetry slams and the Rubery Book Award, is also a novelist and voice for the working class. Emma talked to me about her stage shows, her performances for children and her community projects. Emma says about herself: “I love the Black Country, it is part of me and I’m part of it, and therefore it’s always at the heart of the things I write.”
Leslie: What were the first signs of your calling as a performance poet? Along the way, who and/or what has encouraged you – how did they do that and how did it help you?
Emma: I truthfully never imagined I would be able to stand up on a stage and perform my poems. I first saw performance poetry at Glastonbury when I was in my 20s. I watched and realised that what I was seeing was what I was writing myself, and therefore my poems needed that kind of platform for them to work. But, I didn’t have the bottle to start sharing my work on the stage until I was nearly 40. A work colleague who was a poet himself, Nevel Vassel, was doing a charity event and he badgered and cajoled me into reading two poems as part of it. He was a lovely man and very persuasive. So I turned up and did it. I had an out-of-body experience, heard a weird noise which turned out to be the audience laughing at my punchline, and from then on I was hooked. Also at that event was the then Literature Development Officer for Wolverhampton libraries, Simon Fletcher, and he was able to point me in the right direction to do more performance work. Simon also went on to form the poetry press that now publishes my adult poetry. www.offaspress.co.uk.
As a writer I’ve had lots of support and encouragement from many wonderful people over the years. I’ve also been very lucky to work with brilliant organisations like Writing West Midlands, Poetry on Loan, and the Black Country arts organisation Multistory to name but a few.
Leslie: Can you tell us all about ‘The Professor Vyle Show’ please? What have you learned from creating it, and what other performances/projects has it led to?
Emma: ‘The Professor Vyle Show’ was a performance piece I did about 10 years ago. It was fast-moving, fun and very hard work. It was based on the traditional characters from Punch and Judy, but I put them into a modern context as though they were guests on something a bit like the Jeremy Kyle show. It was a one woman show. There were puppets, a full size Punch and Judy booth, quick changes, and audience participation. I learned a lot of stagecraft through doing that show. Like anything you do, other things often spin off. I have since done more full-length poetry/theatre crossover pieces. This includes ‘Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists’ with Dave Pitt and Steve Pottinger, which I took to the Edinburgh Fringe, and have now adapted into an online format. I love experimenting with what poetry can be, and collaborating.
Leslie: Can you give us an overview of poetry slams, please. What are the differences between them and how do you approach them to win?
Emma: Poetry slams are a great way of packaging poetry for audiences. They are usually diverse and fun to watch. The audience gets invested in rooting for their favourite poet. It’s like a live poetry competition really. There are different formats for poetry slams. Some slams have quite big audiences. The most usual format for the ones I’ve been involved with is where every poet gets to perform once in the first round, and are given marks by judges who have been appointed from the audience. There is usually a time limit of three minutes with penalties for going over. If a poet gets through to the next round they perform for another three minutes. If they get through to the final then that’s another three minutes.
I’d say the best way to approach a slam is not to get hung up on winning or losing, just see it as a chance to showcase your work for three minutes (six if you’re lucky, nine if you’re very lucky). Slams are very random things. I’ve gone out in the first round with a poem in one slam, and then gone on to win another slam with the same piece. The only thing you can do is make sure you are well prepared, and that you know your work fits into the given time slot, before enjoying being part of an event that is bringing poetry to audiences who might not have experienced it before.
I haven’t taken part in any slams since I won the Shambala Festival slam in 2018. But I’ve been running online slams with my fellow Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists. In 2020 we’ve run such events at Ironbridge Festival of the Imagination, Shrewsbury Festival of Literature , and Wolverhampton Literature Festival.
Leslie: What are the outstanding personal stories connected with your role as Poet Laureate for the City of Wolverhampton?
Emma: My plans for my Poet Laureate role, which is a two year honorary post, have been scuppered slightly by the arrival of the global pandemic. My writing is often about people and place and like many writers I enjoy mooching about, travelling by public transport, eavesdropping in cafes etc. But there hasn’t been any of that. I’ve also had to get all of work I usually do in order to earn a living up and running in an online format, so that’s been time-consuming and my own writing time has been limited as a result.
However, an unplanned Poet Laureate project did emerge out of lockdown. This was one I collaborated on with my dad. My dad was doing a lockdown walk each day round Bantock Park in Wolverhampton, and he decided to take photos. Each day he sent me a photo and I wrote a tanka (short form of syllabic verse) to accompany it. I then posted the picture/poem combination on Facebook and people got really into it. My dad was loving the feedback he was getting too which was great to see. A friend of mine offered to put a book of them together for free. This meant we were able to sell copies and raise money for the Friends of Bantock Park and our local foodbank.
Also as part of the laureateship I got a call from BBC local radio to write a poem celebrating 20 years of Wolverhampton being a city. I wrote a very quick piece (they gave me a day’s notice) which went out on the radio, and then the regional TV news got in touch and created a film of the poem which has had over a hundred thousand views. So that’s been exciting. And people have been very kind about the piece.
Leslie: What’s distinctive about your writing for children? How do you engage AND stretch them with your poetry?
Emma: I write for children as a result of running workshops for them. I often ask them what they would like poems about and write as a response to their prompts. I think engagement for children is often, initially, through quirky or funny poems. When I work in schools I take a bag of props in for assembly and get children to take things from the bag. Each thing in the bag relates to one of my poems. I then perform the poem and ask children to help me with that performance.
When I run workshops in classes then that’s about the children finding their own voices and them writing the things that they want to write about.
I have a children’s book of poetry, I once knew a poem who wore a hat, which contains top tips about performing and reading work aloud, so again it’s asking kids to engage and join in. It won the Poetry Category of the International Rubery Book Awards 2016, and it’s published by Fair Acre Press, who are a wonderful and highly eclectic small press based in Oswestry.
Leslie: How have your previous existences, e.g. living on a narrowboat, working as a taxi base operator, a sign writer, a car valeter and a Coca-Cola mystery customer, crept into or had an effect (in one way or another) on your creative work?
Emma: Everything is writing material. I carry a notebook everywhere. I’ve written about all of these things in some way. Sometimes in multiple ways. Actually, I’ve said that and I realise I’ve never written about being a Coca-Cola mystery customer…as yet.
Leslie: If you’re writing for performance, how does that change the end result as compared to ‘on the page’ writing?
Emma: For me performance pieces are written for the air rather than the page. Some of my performance pieces look very sloppy on the page. But they work on stage because the words might be coupled with gesture, movement, facial expression, pauses, audience response, change of volume, accent etc. In the same way as a play script might work.
Page poetry has to consider the space on the page, and would perhaps be written in a more rigid form, and sometimes more tightly. Page poetry doesn’t have to be as direct, as people can go back and re-read it. On the stage they have one chance to hear and understand. Having said that, what I really do is write in whatever format or style appears to be the best vehicle for what I want to say. Both page and stage work are equally but differently crafted, but there is sadly often a snobbery about performance stuff that needs stamping out.
Leslie: Tell us about your novels. How does writing a book modify your creative process? What do you hope readers will take away from your novels?
Emma: My first novel was shortlisted for the Mslexia unpublished novel prize years ago. It didn’t get picked up even though I got the opportunity to go to London and pitch to a room full of agents and publishers. I felt very out of my comfort zone. I was writing about an unfashionable place, using accent and dialect. Most of the people I spoke to were very nice but I don’t think they understood what I was doing with my work (to be fair I couldn’t articulate it very well). It was suggested I might want to lose the local speech. That was the only thing I couldn’t compromise on.
I love ‘Trainspotting’ and I love ‘A Clockwork Orange’. No one suggested that they should drop the dialect or fictional language (in the case of the second one). So I didn’t see why I should lose it in my novel. Incidentally, talking of using dialect or other languages, I’m reading Liz Hyder’s ‘Bearmouth’ at the moment. It’s brilliant. It’s another example of that type of book that doesn’t conform in terms of voice.
There seems to be interest in working-class fiction again at the moment. This in part is perhaps due to ‘Common People’, the anthology edited by Kit De Waal. I had a piece in there about playing pool called ‘Misspent Youth’.
My second novel, the one that has just been published, is a much better piece of work due to me having written the first one. I learned a lot. I’m pleased with the way the second one works. It’s called ‘Dogged’ and is published by a small press called Ignite Books. They’ve been fantastic. They usually publish biographies of punk musicians. Although, they have previously published fiction by Joolz Denby.
The challenge now is to let people know the book is out there. I’m getting fantastic feedback from everybody that has read it so far. But my own personal reach is small, and because I’m not gigging at the moment due to Covid restrictions I can’t tell people about it in the same way as I usually would i.e. getting in front of them and reading or performing bits.
If you’re in the market for a bit of working-class fiction and would like to support a free-lance writer and a small press then here is the link…just saying J
I’d love people to read it. I want folk to enjoy a good story, and care about the people I care about. I’m also really pleased with it in terms of the main characters, two of whom are strong women in their 70s, which isn’t perhaps your usual focus for a novel.
I know of two people who have read it who don’t usually read for pleasure. And they’ve loved it. One of them said they were going to read more novels now. That is the best response ever in my book….or perhaps that should be to my book.
People are already asking if I have plans to write another. It’s hard because creating something like this, for me, is very different to the way I create poetry. For a novel I need chunks of time that are structured. I need about four hours a day over many consecutive days to focus, and enable me to hold the complexities of it in my head. And that doesn’t work out like that when I’m needing to make a living from writing and performing. My lifestyle revolves around this work and is often erratic. I work long hours and often odd hours. Not that I’m complaining. I love what I do.
Leslie: Folk musicians see their work as ‘The Music of the People’, preserving working class experiences, histories, characters, traditions etc. What do you see as the various purposes of your writing/performances?
Emma: Absolutely that. That all day long. I do want to preserve the things I see and hear. Although preservation sometimes suggests something’s dying out, which I don’t think is the case. Things are always in flux. Working-class culture and language slowly changes and shifts for various reasons. I think what I really want to do is celebrate the voices, accents, dialect words and people of my region – the place itself. I love the Black Country, it is part of me and I’m part of it, and therefore it’s always at the heart of the things I write.
Next week I interview artist Debbie Lyddon who uses all her senses to create artworks informed by memory, close observation and the rhythms of nature.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here