Fred Slattern's interludes at the Colchester Big Book Bang were a Triumph. And not in a broken-down rust-bucket 1960s-British-car kind of way. Big Swifty caught up with Fred this morning to hear about where Fred has come from, and places to avoid if we never want to hear him again. Here's what he had to say for himself:
Big Swifty: Why did you take up live poetry?
Fred Slattern: Well I can't play an instrument, or sing, and I can't act. Besides I'd be worried about letting the others down if I was in a group activity. With live poetry it's just you, on your own, exposed.
BS: Are you a bit of an exhibitionist then?
FS: Far from it. I just set myself the challenge coming up to Colchester Free festival last September. I was happy to be a litter-picker, but I thought I'd like to do something creative too. And as "I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin" (BS note - it's a quote from "Oh Well", a Peter Green/ Fleetwood Mac song) nobody would have me on their stage, so I decided to create my own. So Fred Slattern was born from a sort of bet with myself regarding the least likely thing I'd ever do, and it was delivered at a busk stop by Colchester Castle at the Free Festival.
BS: How did it go, were you nervous?
FS: I had no idea what to expect. I put together about 15 minutes of material, and half expected just to be ranting at myself, with people walking by, trying to avoid me. But, to my surprise a small crowd gathered, and they were quite encouraging. And, no I wasn't nervous, I had nothing to lose, and I had won my bet with myself that I would actually do it. Besides, doing stand up poetry in the park is easy, compared with the task that occupies a large proportion of my life, looking after a child with Type 1 Diabetes.
BS: What's your stuff about?
FS: The act is from the point of view of a regular guy from the suburbs, commenting on what he sees. I am entirely self-taught, as anyone can tell that has seen me, and I would say I am the leader of my own "I saw this, and I saw that" school of poetry. Terms like "untutored", "naive", "primitive" and "self-educated" are sometimes used in a derogatory sense, but I don't accept that viewpoint. People can have something to say, without having studied classics at Oxbridge. As for content, I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in absolutely everything, so ideas for pieces of writing are always cropping up.
BS: What about influences?
FS: I try not to follow any particular people, as I don't want my pieces to consciously be derivative. But I have read lots of things over the years, and you can't help absorbing something from them at some level. One of my earliest memories of live poetry was attending a gig by Grimms at Essex Uni around 1972, and Brian Patten was with them. It made me realise there is such a thing as contemporary poetry, and that poetry didn't stop with posh people reading poets like Wordsworth and Shelley. People have permission to shoot me if I ever use words like "thee, thou art or thine" in my material.
I like popular poets like Betjeman, Larkin and Owen. And people like Alan Bennett, Ivor Cutler and Victoria Wood with their observations of ordinary life are very appealing. And of course song lyrics have been a big interest; I particularly admire Chuck Berry's lyrics, Bob Dylan, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the wordplay of Captain Beefheart. I adore accents and dialects! I listen to and read some contemporary poetry, in amongst many other interests.
BS: So we're not likely to improve our vocabulary from your show?
FS: That's right! I'm not here to educate, it's just entertainment. And if I have a particular niche it would to celebrate Colchester's people and the town, generally in a positive way, with maybe a little dig at ourselves now and then. I am fascinated by local history and the landscape we have inherited. I love the fact that my own little patch of suburbia was walked over by the Celts and the Romans two thousand years ago. So many stories from the past and the present, are there to be told.
BS: What about publication?
FS: The pieces are not intended to be read by others. They are merely the script for a live reading. If I was asking you round for a meal, I wouldn't give you the recipe, I'd give you the food. Much as I enjoy going to the theatre, I generally wouldn't get far with reading the script of a play. So, for me, it's Fred live, or nothing!
BS: What are your plans?
FS: The way my readings have been received has given me the confidence to try something outrageously ambitious. I am going to north west Scotland in May, catching a train to the west coast at Plockton, and cycle camping 300 miles to Lairg, via Cape Wrath, Great Britain's very remote north west corner. At stops along the way I am giving short shows, mainly for fun, but also to raise awareness of Type 1 Diabetes. It's an event as part of a fundraising year for JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund). The poetry tour will be titled "message from essex".
BS: I look forward to hearing about the "message from essex" tour, and hope it goes well. Can I give you a plug for your fundraising?
FS: Thank you very much. Here it is - http://andrewbudd.blogspot.com/p/planetfrank-fundraising-for-jdrf.html and that includes a link to www.justgiving.com/planetfrank And please join me on facebook "fred slattern", the person!