Performance poet John Hegley tells Katherine MacAlister he aims for ‘fluidity, vulnerability and acceptability’ – as well as taking off his ‘upper attire’.
JOHN Hegley is as impossible to pigeon-hole in life as on stage. Slippery as an eel when you try to pin him down about anything, he slithers from my grasp so often that eventually I give up trying
to work out exactly what he does, wants or any quantifiable answer at all and instead just enjoy our conversation.
But if you’ve never heard of him and want something to hold on to, he’s a poet, musician, singer, comedian, improviser and cabaret performer, as well as a dancer, he tells me laughing, the latter
being a new addition to the list.
“Yes, I thought I might do a bit of dancing on stage this time around, but not striptease – although I do take my glasses off, so you can say ‘removal of upper attire’.”
He is also headlining Oxfringe this year and the best way to appreciate John Hegley is to see him live.
Sounds obvious, I know, but it works. “Well you’re not going to be able to get it across in words, are you?” he says, which is fighting talk coming from a poet.
But then John Hegley, 58, is above all else a performer.
“It’s all about entertainment really isn’t it,” he tells me, “but just like jazz you improvise and then go off and do a solo.”
Any the wiser? Thought not.
“You just have to aim for fluidity, vulnerability and acceptability,” he says, “and to know how to deal with it, not be afraid to fall over and if you do, to get up again, a bit like a clown,” he
Hegley’s stage act involves audience participation, for example by having a dog drawing competition during the interval, or by asking his audience to try writing poetry themselves.
But writing all these poems and planning his act must take time, which is the one thing he doesn’t have as a performer.
“Well, I had eight hours on the train on Saturday coming back from Glasgow, because I can’t drive, so I tend to use the tables on trains, and wherever I lay my paper is my home,” he says.
“And to some extent it is a job, so I do have to sit down and think ‘right I’m going to do this now’ and compartmentalise, although one of my friends was surprised to find that I don’t have a desk
at home,” he adds.
“And anyway, you don’t have to seek material. There’s enough happening in front of you every night on stage, and if you can’t think of something to say about that, you should be doing something
As if headlining gigs and festivals, publishing poetry, composing songs and practising his dance moves isn’t enough, then you can find John plying his wares in colleges up and down the country.
Not because he needs to but, one suspects, because it’s a hard sell.
“They are the consumers of the future so I went to Scunthope a few weeks ago and thought I could just turn up and improvise and hope for the best, but it was quite a struggle,” he admits.
“I left wondering what I could do for these people and what I could say to them.”
So what does your 14 year-old daughter advise? “She says: ‘you’re good dad, but ...’” and he laughs.
So why bother then?
“Because I’d like to spread the word to as many people as possible. I mean I don’t set out to make life hard for myself, although if I did do the act as straight comedy it would be an easier sell,
but I don’t want to go down that route.”
And then he pauses.
“People say they like the songs best, so I’d have to say singing and interacting with an audience are my strengths.”
And then he starts talking about what he’s going to play at his gig in the Jacqueline Du Pre building in Cowley Place, Oxford, and how to get a bit of dancing in there.
Would your daughter be embarrassed to watch, I ask?
“Embarrassed no, but horrified yes,” he laughs. Which leaves us with no choice, but to go and see John Hegley in the flesh.
l Bone dry wit, hilarity, powerful drama, haunting characters, acclaimed theatre, vibrant variety. Oxfringe 2009 – an unforgettable physical and mental feast featuring music, literature, comedy and
theatre, from Wednesday over the next two weeks. John Hegley is performing at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building on Tuesday, April 11, supported by George Chopping. The gig is billed as suitable
for anyone seven-plus. Tickets cost £10 for adults, £8 for concessions. Go to www.oxfringe.com for a full programme.