Chris White is the multi slam-winning former bard of Exeter and the creator of several one-man shows including Sunked (TRP, Camden People’s Theatre, The Bike Shed,) and Moist Moist Moist. He produces the regular spoken word night Spork, was a finalist in last year’s Roundhouse London Slam and has just been selected as a Siren Poet for the Cape Farewell Project, a project to create a cultural response to the climate challenge.
As a performer he combines the careful with the reckless, the serious with the silly and shy self-effacement with abandoned coquetry. As an audience you’re never quite sure where he’s going to take you but quickly learn that, wherever it is, you’re going to want to go.
I caught up with him, back in lockdown proper, to see how he was faring.
Hi Chris, how are you finding lockdown? Is it affecting your creativity
Yes!! Lockdown sucks. For about 3 weeks I didn’t work or do anything at all. I moved back into my mums. I wandered around in the woods. I wrote a load of stuff I’d never normally write. I saw some deer for the first time ever. I recorded birds singing. I started noticing different types of butterflies. But I’ve also been feeling overwhelmed, angry and depressed, just like everybody else. I shaved all my hair off, I’m still not sleeping properly and I miss my friends.
I had a couple of exciting projects in the works which are on hold for now. It feels a little strange not to be able to crack on with things, especially heading towards summer when I’d usually be making a show or getting busy with other stuff. But I’m also totally fine with being on hold for a while. I know it sounds a ridiculous thing to say, but I’m (kind of) enjoying the break. Normally I live pretty much hand to mouth and bounce around from job to job, opportunity to project, to set to show, with no real thought about what I’m doing or why. So maybe this is all good for me. To be honest I’m really happy with the not knowing.
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a spoken-word artist who creates stories that are often silly, surreal and ironic. I try to make stuff that’s engaging and accessible. In shows and sets I like to blur the line between theatre, comedy and poetry. I write a lot about queerness, class, relationships, identity, anxiety and ducks.
Do you write in genres other than poetry?
Not really. I used to write prose and plays and all sorts. I’m sure I will again at some point. The shows I write are sort of like plays. But I don’t have to worry about dialogue or anything, and I’m mostly just playing myself.
How did you come to writing?
I went to uni in Norwich to study scriptwriting and started writing poetry in my second year. I didn’t have any real interest in poetry before then. I joined the creative writing society for the exact same reason I joined the Christian Union – free food and a boy I fancied. We started going on these organised trips to the Birdcage to see poetry open-mics.
It was such a weird novelty. I had no idea that people actually sat round in pubs and recited poems to each other. I thought it was weird then and I still do. But I gave it a go, found I could make people laugh a bit and carried on doing it. Poems are just a lot easier to write than plays. You don’t have to keep remembering a load of names, or worry about stage directions.
At the end of 3rd year we all got given these jokey awards. Mine was the “John Cooper Clarke Award for F*cking Brilliant F*cking Poetry,” and I still hadn’t seen that much spoken-word, I had no idea who John Cooper Clarke even was. After that I moved to Bristol and realised that spoken-word is absolutely everywhere and absolutely everyone is a poet. It’s great. I lost my degree ages ago, but I’ve still got that award.
Are there themes that you return to in your work? Do you have a favourite word or words?
I don’t know. There’s a lot of words I use way too often; ‘suddenly’ and ‘and’ are some of the chief offenders. And rhyming words like kissed / wrist are a cliché waiting to happen – but they’re so nice to use. I try to learn new words all the time. My vocabulary’s crap but I often stop people mid-sentence or underline a word in a book to find out what it means. I usually forget it the next day though.
I’ve just started working in a call centre and in my profound boredom I’ve discovered I really like the word ‘pre-populate’. It’s fun to say because it’s so plosive and it’s got that nice onomatopoeic POP in the middle. It really livens up the drudgery of an electronic form.
Splodge. Spork. Spurt. Squirt.
Bungling!! That’s a pretty fun word. Even though it does make me think of Boris Johnson. It seems to be used exclusively for when jewellery shops or banks get robbed. No-one ever bungles up a piano recital.
As for themes – Boys. Sex. The sea, for some reason; that’s about it. I like writing about bodies and stuff that’s maybe a bit graphic or gross, ‘visceral,’ I imagine Lynne Gardener would call it if she ever came to see one of my shows … “Visceral, bodily bungling. Five stars.”
Do you think there’s a difference between poetry and spoken word? Does it matter?
I think there is a bit of a difference. I know it’s not as simple as saying you read one aloud and one to yourself (one stage and the other page.) I think it probably doesn’t matter too much.
This is a fairly abstract question, but what do you think ‘Poetry’ is?
I should answer this really poetically; ‘Poetry is the epitaph of the living.’
Do you think there are elements that can help to make a ‘good’ poem?One that expresses almost perfectly a thought you never knew you had. Or I’m just happy if I can make something silly with a knob gag and a pun title.
Has anybody inspired you in your writing along the way?
Sure, loads of people! Some of my favourite poets I’ve seen live include Vanessa Kisuule, Hollie McNish and Luke Wright (there’s way too many to mention.) It’s not just their words, but their energy onstage, their interaction with the audience, the way they craft their sets.
John Cooper Clarke is pretty great. And I’ve got a lot of time for Bukowski. There’s performers like Rob Auton and Tim Key who really got me into poetry.
There’s a couple of local Devon poets I admire because they can seemingly do anything in the name of poetry. People like Robert Garnham, Jackie Juno and Julie Mullen. They wrap themselves up in tape and sing about badgers and it’s mad and beautiful. And then there are the poets who do other stuff too – like provide opportunities, run workshops and make stuff happen. People like Malaika Kegode, Liv Torc and loads of others.
Have you had to overcome any barriers in order to write?
Mostly my own laziness. Sometimes a bit of imposter syndrome. I mostly work full-time and spend my downtime thinking about being creative, rather than actually writing. I’m never sure if poetry and performing is just a hobby of mine or something more serious. I know that like with any craft you need patience, practice and a bit of hard work. But I just tend to write when I feel the urge (which is not very often at all)
What makes a good performance? Do you enjoy performing?
I always get nervous. A bit of dry heaving. Sometimes I’ll go outside pre-gig to be sick discreetly in a bush. I always get a bit tipsy (it helps with the nerves, maybe not with the sick). And if I’m doing a show I’ll always do a little warm-up. But sometimes I’m just absolutely shit. It falls flat. I have no idea why. But mostly I enjoy it – I say silly stuff and get surprised that me and the audience are actually having a nice time. I don’t think the nerves will ever go away (if I don’t feel nervous that’s usually a bad sign.)
I’ve been doing a load of Sofar Sounds gigs recently. They’re nights where no-one knows the line-up in advance, and most of the acts are bands and musicians. So the audience are almost never expecting poetry. I like to think I’ve got quite good at grabbing people’s attention and keeping it for 20 minutes or so. Those gigs – when they go okay – can be the most fun.
You just have to be confident. Sometimes I feel like I’m being apologetic just for being on the stage. But you have to trust the audience and have confidence in your own work.
Is there a piece of advice that somebody has given you that has been particularly helpful? Do you have your own that you pass on?
I did a workshop with Buddy Wakefield once and he told us that instead of saying we felt anxious, we should say something like “I feel like 10 cats in a mailbox.” I think that’s really good advice.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I really wish you’d given me a limit on the number of guests!! This is so hard when you actually start thinking about it. I’ve just whittled it down to 6:
Bukowski (I don’t think we’d actually get on but I’d love to chat to him, it would probably be horrible).
Sarah Pascoe! (every time I see her I think about how I’d actually love to be her mate. She’s so flipping clever and funny and lovely).
Leonard Cohen (for obvious reasons).
My current, all-time biggest ever crush, Lucas Hedges (I’m not expecting anything to happen there, but I think he’s great and I also think we’d really get on, and I really want to borrow some of his clothes).
Lucas Hedges’ girlfriend, Taylor Russell (she seems nice… I feel like she’d have to be there, and if I saw how happy and cute they were together maybe I’d be able to finally be at peace).
And Jesus (just to ask him a few questions and finally put that whole debate to bed).
Tell us a joke
This is pretty much the only joke I know:
I bought the world’s worst thesaurus yesterday
It’s rubbish. In fact, it’s worse than that. It’s really rubbish
Tell us a secret
Kim Jong-un is alive and well and living in Droitwich.
Cat, dog or reptile?
I would really like a dog. I’d definitely suit a cat more. And for reasons I can’t be bothered to get into I’m currently living with 2 tortoises (Bob and Tom,) 2 terrapins (Fluffy and Agnes Brown) and a turtle (I can’t remember its name)
The Spork Podcast is launching next week – follow @sporkpoetry on Facebook and Twitter to find out more
Tesco’s website’s crashed and so have I
It happened somewhere at an empty shelf
Or handing my CV to some poor guy
Stood two feet back and holding on to health
Outside the sun shone on. He didn’t care
He smirked down at our almost empty roads
At everything we had that’s been laid bare
It’s worrying, how quickly it erodes
If you don’t believe me, go and have a look
He’s watching now, that big smug orange fuck
Outside, the world is drenched in Spring
here I’m tightly coiled, packed in
strange hibernator air bed
pressed into the edges of me
palms pushed into walls worry
wound round me like a bear hug
drowning almost in the fear
in everybody’s fear
daffodils open theirs gobs to the sun
the small birds laugh. The field sings