If you haven't heard of Luke Wright yet, he's something of a star in the spoken word circuit. Energetic, witty, and undeniably magnetic with a rock-n-roll swagger, he's become one of Londonist's favourite performers. Starting this week, you'll be able to make your own mind up as Wright brings his optimistically-titled show Your New Favourite Poet to the Leicester Square Theatre Basement.
From how he speaks and looks you might not expect Wright to be a poet unless you were specifically told as much. He's well-dressed, for one thing, in a suit, with pink shirt and matching pocket square, the hint of a gold chain, but his hair is insane — inspirational, even. The whole image makes him seem more like a frontman, with his pent-up energy and booming Essex-er voice reverberating off the walls, punctuated with choice four-letter words at least once per sentence. Which might be why he's one of the stars of the spoken-word circuit right now: he's not what you'd expect. Your correspondent made and re-made assumptions during the interview, but he managed to turn them around several times in half an hour. In this way, Wright reveals himself in his work; the poems are a reflection of the man.
Written in the middle of the Leveson Enquiry, Your New Favourite Poet is, broadly, about the tabloids. But despite the serious subject matter there's a slightly bawdy, tabloid-y element to Luke's poems themselves — a very "carry on" element, he says. What he wants to do is a really fun, enjoyable poetry set — this in contrast with his earlier, more serious shows that delved further into the craft of poetry. There'll be none of that in Y.N.F.P.; Luke wants to take his audience on a visceral emotional journey. Hopefully they won't hate it. If you like it, you can expect a range of emotions. Laughing one minute, pensive the next. The majority of the poems are played for laughs. The sole exception, as you might expect from the title, is "The Ballad of Raoul Moat".
It's not particularly about the media — there's no given theme for this one. The poems fit together aesthetically, stylistically — not thematically. It's more of a set than a show.
Like any musician or comedian that's been in the business for a while, the way Wright talks about his work becomes quite technical. He sticks to certain metres. He "delights" in using certain words. The work is musical, he says: "the mouth can make beautiful, beautiful sounds". In China recently, playing to non-English speakers, he found that the audience appreciated the sounds and rhythms and melodies of the poems. If you appreciate the forms, you can use them to your advantage.
Belying the jovial tone and swagger with which he says all of this, the attitude runs deeper than a simple, rebellious "learn the rules so you know how to break them" thing; with a deeper appreciation for form and function, Wright genuinely feels that he got a lot better at his art, even though he'd been doing it for years. Everything pre-2009 he's pretty much discarded; the book Mondeo Man contains just a couple of free-verse pieces he'll return to. He got a lot more confident in his process performing weekly on Saturday Live at short notice, often having to produce pieces in a few hours' time. "If I can do it for them," he reasoned, "I can pull my finger out and do it for me".
Lately he's been on a tour of rural England, and has started to think this might be the best way of performing. They're "up for it". The audience tends to know each other, and they often end up going to the pub afterwards with Wright. Do you get this in London? "You'd be surprised".
Venue is important. "A theatre can suck the life out of a performance. They're black boxes, so you can kind of take over that space. I can do this anywhere." A lot of bookers don't know quite what to do with a poet. But given a microphone, he reasons, he can perform pretty much anywhere. There isn't much functional difference between playing a sold-out village hall and a dark theatre basement with just a few audience members. The most satisfying gigs are those in which he can bring someone around who didn't know what they're expecting.
When the topic inevitably comes around to Edinburgh — it's only a couple of months away — Wright confesses that he no longer goes every year. There are two youngsters at home now. This year he's performing for the whole run, and they'll come up for a week or so this year, while he's doing new show Essex Lion, but probably won't understand the madness. The festival is a "theme park of booze and art," he says, but doesn't specify whether that's for him or the kids.
While he's there he hopes to see Ross Sutherland's new show (if they don't clash), John Osborne, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring. There are, he estimates, fifty or so spoken word shows now, a lot of them in ensembles. It's changed a lot since his first days; there's something of a rennaissance in recent years. But he doesn't see the others as competitive: he's been doing it longer, but he thinks the resurgence of spoken word as building a larger audience. He feels like he's "done his bit" in building up that audience.
Every year, midway through a show's run, he wonders whether he's really being creative, or whether he's just ploughing through the motions. Of course, he's limited to what he can change in the course of the run — generally speaking, the poems are fixed once they're written. But between them, Wright likes to leave the show loose and unscripted. He'll write a script, but not learn it — more taking the "sense" of it to the stage.
So what can we expect to see in Your New Favourite Poet? The question shuts him down for a moment, he deflates in his chair. It's a difficult question, even in broad strokes. The show has been running for more than a year, but it's still impossible to answer. Wright's work, like the artist himself, tends towards the unexpected. Spoken word is usually seen as the littler, more eager sibling of comedy, but with Wright you can never quite be sure. There's a good chance this show could be "bigger". There doesn't seem to be a better way to find out than by showing up on the day — and that would appear to be the case for both the audience and for the poet.
Luke Wright will be performing at the Leicester Square Theatre Basement from the 22 May-8 June. Tickets are available via the website for £10.