Welsh born Nathan Penlington has gained a reputation as an original and inventive performer across the UK by skillfully shattering the myths that surround poets and poetry. Seamlessly fusing comedy, storytelling, and award winning magic with writing that is intelligent, accessible and entertaining he creates a unique form of literary cabaret. He performs on BBC radio, at venues and festivals across the UK, Europe and the USA, and has shared stages with the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Ricky Gervais and Stewart Lee.
I asked him a few questions about why he likes to mix his genres and how he overcame his fear of crafters.
You use the word “crossover” as a punchline in one of your signature poems (“Poetry is not the New Rock and Roll”). And yet here you are crossing over the boundaries between poetry, comedy, magic and fine art. Is it difficult for you to choose one thing to focus on?
I have an active mind, and I am passionate about all of those things, but there are more similarities between them than differences so the boundaries are quite fluid. I try to not really categorise my work, some of what I do may be more suitable for performance, some for publication and some for putting in the bin. The crossover element comes from finding the most interesting form to communicate an idea.
Last year I was asked to produce some work for an art exhibition called ‘My Magic Life’, the final piece took the form of my teenage poetry journal which was written on a deck of playing cards. It was produced as a full colour artist’s book which reproduced the deck itself. Since then I have incorporated the cards into my performances by performing some of the poetry they contain and culminating with a magic routine using the journal. If a combination of forms or genres has some kind of internal logic then it will work, if not it will just come across as contrived or forced. I guess the audience, whether they are at a live performance, gallery, or reading your work, have to believe you or want to believe you.
And anyway the world is too interesting to only explore one small element of it.
Do you think you’re a love poet?
That sounds like a loaded question…erm, so, I wouldn’t say so. Although for my collection of graphic poems ‘Almost Nearly’ I set myself a challenge to write a series of love poems, each with a different form that reflects the content of the poem, and with the content influencing the form.
I think love is found in the tiniest of moments, paint spots from DIY, the smell of a certain brand of shampoo, a particular frown you haven’t seen before. For me poetry is about transforming an otherwise insignificant personal moment into something seemingly important. The graphic element of the poems is there to depersonalise and give that moment a sense of strange, to make the reader look harder, and hopefully think ‘ooh, I get it’, that can be missing from a lot of poetry.
You’re quite a fixture on BBC radio at the moment, is it harder or easier to deliver your poems without an audience?
I find performing on the radio quite relaxing as you don’t have the feedback loop you get with a live audience whose response acts as a gauge to your performance, so you can just concentrate on the sound of the words. With radio though you have to have confidence that your poems are strong enough to stand on their own when they get to wherever they are going – you are not there to hold the hands of the words when they arrive in a stranger’s kitchen, car or bathroom. Some poems might still need you around and they are the ones that work best in live performance.
I’ve seen your live show a few times, there’s a part where you pull out a scarf that someone once made for you and then it gets ugly. What do you have against knitters?
Let me state here that I have nothing against knitters in general, it is just that some knitters and I don’t get on.
The scarf is taller and wider than I am, and was knitted by an ex-girlfriend. The worst thing about it though is the colour. It is a horrible mottled beige, of a shade to make anyone look like they are Proust on a rare outing into the daylight. When the scarf was finished she also had enough wool left over to make another one. Soon afterwards I met another girl who crocheted a bouquet of roses for me, and was halfway through making a pair of red crochet trousers before she realised that wasn’t the way to woo someone you don’t know very well.
Since then I have come to accept that I attract people who like handicrafts, and that not everyone that knits needs relationship counselling.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a new solo show about the world’s most famous ‘psychic’. The show will feature spoken word, comedy, magic, and art…categorising it will be a marketing nightmare. It won’t be ready for a while yet, but I’ve just finished making a small zine as a precursor to the show which I’m happy to send to anyone that wants one if they post me a stamped addressed envelope. (Here’s some more about it on Facebook)
Can you please choose a few items from Etsy that you like the look of?
I’m not someone who likes to embarrass their pets, but I think our cat Monkey would really love one of these. We’d look great together in the winter.
This is stunning and appeals to the artist and magician in me: http://www.etsy.com/view_listing.php?listing_id=21231918
This shop is perfect for the creative chic geek in your life, so many lovely things: http://www.etsy.com/shop.php?user_id=5184324
If you’d like to know more about Nathan’s work, send him a stamped addressed envelope for the “Inspired by Uri Collection” zine or knit him something in an attempt to woo him (don’t do that), you can contact him here:
“Roadkill on the Digital Highway” by Nathan Penlington reprinted by kind permission of the author.