John Hegley is a poet, comedian, songwriter and mandolin tinkler. He was brought up in Luton by a French father and English mother, embarking on a career as a bus conductor after school before deciding to move to Bradford and study European literature and the history of ideas.
He began his performing career at London’s comedy store in 1980, receiving national exposure after appearing on Carrott’s Lib and the John Peel show in 1983. His poems have been featured regularly in The Guardian and he has become a cult hero at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. He has published 12 volumes of poetry, including the popular My Dog is a Carrot and Uncut Confetti, and two children’s books.
We caught up with John ahead of his appearance at the Word Smack Cabaret in Rotherham to talk about his career and his new book, Love, Peace and Potatoes.
How would you describe your act?
Well my act is one which involves singing, speaking in verse and rhythm and rhyme, asking the audience to move the action along with me, and be part of the action. There is some, largely I would say, jolly stuff, but there is also some that is more of a melancholic, poignant nature, and then there are some potatoes, occasionally handkerchiefs, face cloths.
You took the brave decision to take poetry into stand up clubs. Why?
I suppose there wasn’t much poetry around then and I thought, “Why shouldn’t poetry be in front of a comedy audience?” It just seemed worth a crack really.
And what was the reaction?
It was accepted because it had a comedic element, and comedy is poetic anyway. Sometimes I listen to the stuff Bill Bailey says and they’re like poems. They are poetical constructed phrases and sentences that he uses.
Do you think the poetry landscape has changed during your career and are there are more opportunities for poets now?
Yeah I do. There’s more open mic opportunities now and poets will have more chance of getting into cabarets and comedy shows.
One of the really encouraging things is that there are loads of really good English teachers now who were brought up on Roger McGough and the like. Poetry is more widely available, and they get poets going into the schools. So really, I think the effect of the poetry boom is yet to be seen.
Do you have any advice for aspirational poets?
Always have a sample of your work in case you bump into somebody who might be able to help you with your poetry. And I think it’s worth collaborating with other folk – finding someone like minded. In terms of writing, much of what I try to do with the book really – make it personal but make it public.
Your new collection explores your French roots and in particular your relationship with your grandmother. Do you feel like a mixture of the two cultures, like marmite on a baguette?
I’m probably more baguette than marmite. No, I’m more marmite than baguette I think, but you’ve got to be careful when putting too much marmite on bread haven’t you? It can get a bit distasteful. When I went into a place of older people in their 80s, one of them said, “What does he keep going on about the French for? We’re not interested in the French here.” So yeah, I have got French blood but this book is a combination of things about my family and more general things. Half to do with my bits, and half to do with other peoples bits.
What is it about the potato that fascinates you?
I like them when they’ve still got the mud on in the shop. It gives you a sense of the outside world. They’re basic but one forgets that they’re exotic because they’re Peruvian, aren’t they? They’re versatile. They can do a lot but they’re a bit of an underdog in the vegetable world. But then most vegetables are underdogs, so I suppose they are underground underdogs.
And lastly, how many words can you rhyme with log?
Eleven. And that’s the end of our dia.. logue. But I can’t have that cos it’s got the word ‘log’ in it, so it’s probably tenInterview by Stan Skinny.