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John Cooper Clarke Sci-fi, surveillance and social significance

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What can one say by manner of introducing the notoriously shock-mopped John Cooper Clarke, pioneer of punk poetry and honorary doctor of the arts, rock'n'roll collaborator, alternative British institution and all-round legend, that hasn't been said before?

Not much, but it's all true, nonetheless. And after a career spanning more than four decades, Clarke's still hard at work, with a new book of poems and an ongoing tour, both entitled The Luckiest Guy Alive. "I wouldn't swap places with anybody," he tells me and given his place is onstage, whether supporting international rock acts or as a headline act in his own right, you can understand why.

I gave the Bard of Salford a bell on a January afternoon for a discussion that spanned science fiction and rock'n'roll, but which started with a question about the often overlooked craft (or is that graft?) of poetry.

Do you write every day?

I haven't been lately, but normally, yeah. I try to keep my hand in. You've gotta put the hours in. It's no good relying on inspiration. That's for amateurs. [laughs]

What sort of thing sparks a new piece?

It varies from number to number. Sometimes you get hit out of leftfield. A lot of times I get the title first. With 'Beasley Street', for example, I got the last line first and then I worked backwards. I got it from a musical number in a Busby Berkeley movie called 42nd Street, which finishes off with the line: "Naughty, gaudy, sporty Forty-Second Street," loads of words that rhyme into a big-production finish.

So I thought, what's the reverse of that? What would give a bad impression of a street? So, cheesy, queasy, sleazy. And then I thought, what roughly rhymes with that, but will sound realistic? So that's where I got the street name. There was a jockey called Scobie Breasley, so I thought, 'I'll just knock the 'R' off.' [laughs] This is the prosaic machinery that hopefully gives rise to a poetical masterpiece! It's all about getting an angle.

I write science fiction and it's a similar thing. You have to find things in the world that you can twist a little bit.

Right, otherwise it's just fantasy. If you can't anchor it to something that's happening now that's readily recognisable, it fails. I'm not the biggest science fiction reader, but it seems to me that all the famous works have some foot in the now, or even, y'know, 50 years ago.

I'm just rediscovering George Orwell, actually. I was talking to my daughter about him, which led me to re-read all his stuff. He's better than I remembered. The one that comes to mind, obviously, is 1984, which is really about 1948. It seems nostalgic now. The level of surveillance that we undergo each day makes 1984 look pretty tame by comparison. Back then you only had your TV spying on you.

As for smartphones, y'know, I can live with mystery. It's the lifeblood of poetry. Having the answer to every pissing little question. Where are you gonna go? I used to fancy myself as a thriller writer in the manner of Mickey Spillane when I was a 12 year old. I was particularly good at graphic descriptions of violence, so I thought, 'I'll make a living out of this!' But if I wrote a thriller now, it would have to be set in the past. I know so little about the apparatus of the modern world, people would be asking, 'Well, why doesn't he just Skype it? Why didn't he send up a drone and then tweet his findings?' [laughs] I can't even make it up. I'd have to set it around 1965.

I've actually written a song eulogising the city of Sheffield

There might be a market for that like, alternate history thrillers.

I'm quite serious about it, actually. There can't be many people from those years who still have all their memories intact. I've never forgotten anything, me. That's my trouble. I'm incapable of forgetting things. But I've never seen myself as a didactic force in the world. I think you could live without any lessons that you'd learn from my poetry quite easily. [laughs] So I'm on the side of entertainment, I guess. I think I've always been style over content. Anything else is an accident.

How do you go about selecting the few pieces you can get into a book or a show?

I left it to somebody else. [laughs] I guess I'm too close to the material. But there's a revamp of 'Beasley Street' called 'Beasley Boulevard' and I almost missed that out. It gives a historical perspective. 'Beasley Street' is in my first book, which came out in 1980, and now, all these years later, we've revisited the area and as tends to happen, the place has been done up. "Urban splash art-ghetto gym, Beasley Boulevard..." That poem really nails these two books together.

You've worked a fair bit with artists from Sheffield over the years, particularly recently.

Yeah, I did some MCing for your very own Arctic Monkeys just before Christmas at the Arena. Always a pleasure to see the guys and that was the first time I heard the latest album. Terrific. They go from strength to strength. It's having a real rock'n'roll moment, isn't it, Sheffield? I've actually written a song eulogising the city of Sheffield. I'm pitching it at well, I'm not gonna go on about this, because I'll jinx it...

You were an influence on my becoming a writer. I thought I was gonna be a musician, but then I realised you have to be moderately good at music to do that

[laughs] I think we did the right thing. We didn't look at the over-crowded music marketplace and think, 'Why not me?' Once you've got something in print, it could take off at a later date, when you didn't plan on it, whereas if you miss the boat with a pop record, you're just in the bin. But sometimes events are magnified by something that was written before that event, and then you get lumbered with, y'know, 'social significance'.

Britain's going through quite a poetic moment

The burden of being a prophet?

Right, which, commercially speaking, isn't a bad thing. The trick is to have it happen while you're alive! [laughs]

What advice would you give to struggling poets?

My advice to poets is this: you're not gonna invent a new style of poetry, so find somebody whose work you admire and copy their style, but write about your world. I don't think Bob Dylan could've written 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' if he'd not had the lyric sheet to 'Too Much Monkey Business' by Chuck Berry. [recites an impressive chunk of lyrics]

It's very fast-flowing, splatter-technique imagery, but with pinpoint accuracy. Gotta be the greatest pop lyricist that ever lived. Fantastic. [Chuck's work] is like a conversation that just happens to have a tune and rhymes. But with me it was two people: Alexander Pope and Rudyard Kipling. Two very different world-views, but very similar styles.

Any fresh new poets we should be looking out for?

Loads. Ever since I opened the floodgates, Britain is awash with fine, gifted poets! If I start mentioning names, I'm gonna forget somebody: Luke Wright; Mike Garry; Clare Ferguson-Walker; Kate Tempest, obviously; Linton Kwesi Johnson. Britain's going through quite a poetic moment, as it does from time to time. It's a broad church.

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John Cooper Clarke performs The Luckiest Guy Alive at the Octagon Centre on Thursday 7 March.

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