Annie McGann interviews 2011 Glastonbury Festival Poet in Residence Tony Walsh



My name is Annie McGann and I am the festival blogger for the Glastonbury Poetry & Words stage.

I just had a conversation with my old mate Tony Walsh aka Longfella, who is this year’s Official Poet in Residence at Glastonbury Festival. He’s come a long way since ‘jamming under a giant wicker frog’ but I get the feeling that there’s not much more he’d rather do …

A.McG: So Tony, what year was it when you first appeared at Glastonbury? Who else was on the bill?

TW: 2005. Carol Ann Duffy was the headliner. Rich (Dreadlock Alien) brought the New October Poets. Polarbear made me cry a couple of times – it was about his third ever gig. Andy Craven Griffiths, Berko (John Berkovitch) and Inua were there. Jamie Woon was knocking around. We did some guerilla poetry and jamming under a giant wicker frog. It began a journey that has changed my life!

A.McG: How did you come to be there?

TW: I just googled around, found Pat VT’s name, bless her, and emailed her. My CV was a bit thin at that point. I was blagging it really!

A.McG: She must have really liked you because I can’t remember her asking me what I thought (I used to assist her in selecting the Glasto poets at that time). Pat loved giving unknown poets a chance. She didn’t care about anyone’s fame – she liked to spot new talent herself. Were you part of a team or did you apply separately?

TW: I applied on my own with just a nice letter, a few quotes and a bit of blarney …

A.McG: Did Pat make you wash up? What was she like? Poet Lucy English claims that Pat once asked her to rinse her smalls :- p

TW: Ha ha 🙂 Yeah, I washed up, swept up, compered. I was Carol Ann’s chair roadie! I think people were maybe a bit scared of Pat but I respected what she’d done as a poet and as a political and social activist and in creating the P&W tent. I’ll always be grateful for that early opportunity. Life changing.

A.McG: 2005. That was a very muddy year.

TW: God, yeah. It was the year of the deluged tents. There’s a clip on youtube of a guy swimming back for his gear. I also saw some guy dead on K within an hour of being there – me and Nathan Filer. It rained once like something from The Bible then spent all weekend baking off.

A.McG: Mmmmmm hot mud – a Glasto speciality. Had you been to the festival before?

TW: No! It didn’t happen in my teens or twenties and then I had little kids. 2005 was around my 40th birthday – life begins at 40!

A.McG: It must have been a real eye opener for you; a wild party in a hot mud swamp.

TW: An eye opener certainly. I’d a million clubs/gigs under my belt but never made it to a festie …

A.McG: … and Glastonbury is the Goddess of all festivals. I remember that Carol Ann didn’t smile once.

TW: Spoz (Giovanni Esposito) was compering and introduced her straight from his “Glasto toilets” poem. Her face! I think she’ll be in the audience when I’m at Ledbury straight after Glasto. I’ve been to fifteen or twenty festies now and Glasto and Shambala are my favourites. Pete Hogg’s ‘Wandering Word’ set up at Shambala is an incredible thing to be a part of …

A.McG: Over the years you’ve been a performer at P&W but you’ve also been a valued member of the P&W backstage crew.

TW: Yeah, I’m very happy to be part of the team. I’m a student of my game and like to spend time watching top poets and I love the company of poets so it’s a pleasure to be involved. Mind you, I wasn’t saying that when I was sweeping up a ton of rice the morning after the guy who smashes records up and chucks rice about had been on …

A.McG: You’ve certainly done your time and you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and now you’re the official poet in residence!

TW: Yes! Wow! What an incredible honour! I keep pinching myself. I’m really looking forward to it. Some incredible footsteps to follow in and an incredibly broad canvas to draw from …

A.McG: You mentioned Spoz before – I listened to a Radio 4 show a couple of years back which was about what had happened to the workers that were made redundant from the car industry in the Midlands and suddenly there was Spoz talking about how he’d reinvented himself as a full time performance poet…

TW: Yes, there are real parallels from Spoz’s story with my own. I’ve recently taken redundancy after 18 years in the public sector –community/neighbourhood roles – and so I’m picking up quite a bit of press attention from that angle.

A.McG: And the trade union UNISON have just commissioned you to write a poem?

TW: Yes. I was a Unison member throughout my career and Unison have commissioned me to write a piece in support of public services. They’ll be doing a press release and we’re looking for a suitable platform for it at Glasto. I’m proud and excited to be asked but a little nervous of the responsibility and the response. The piece is coming along nicely.

A.McG: With your whirlwind of interviews and performances over the Glastonbury weekend, how will you find the time to write your poems?

TW: Well, obviously, I’ve been before, which helps and I often write to riffs, form and structures and I’ve had a few ideas in advance. There may be a lot of haiku. I’ll just have to work hard is the short answer. I wont be traipsing miles to see bands. Also if people follow me at @longfellapoet I’ll be tweeting and crowd sourcing a piece, probably at #GlastoPoet

A.McG: So which parts of the festival are the most inspiring for a poet?

TW: I want to record the parts of the festival that people don’t always see. Glasto is so big that very different people can have very different experiences and never cross paths. I’m hoping to reflect both the incredible diversity and some of the lesser-explored corners.

A.McG: I think that some poems set in tents would be good. I mean in the tents of the festival goers …

TW: Tents? I’ve got a title! Do you really want to yurt me?

A.McG: Haha …

TW: I’ll see if I can get any invites … LOL! I’ll see if anyone fancies having a poem tattooed, lol

A.McG: Haha … not me – your poems are too long …

TW: No, not always!

A.McG: The answer’s still no … You know, Lucy English’s sister Mary is in the healing fields doing homeopathy. That might be a cool place to find some material for poems. Have you seen those stalls where you can have a gong massage? You lie there and they bong a gong over you and the vibes give you a massage.

TW: Cool, I’ll try and drop by the healing field. One year I set Elvis (McGonagall) and AF (Harrold) the challenge of mentioning sea sponge tampons in a poem. They didn’t, so maybe I’ll have to …

A.McG: There’s so much gloriously wacky stuff goes on – I love it.

TW: Yeah, maybe I should have a load of those therapies. Here’s another title: Gentlemen Prefer Bongs!

A.McG: I am travelling to Glasto with a friend who is there every year running laughter workshops. He does them in corporate settings usually …

TW: I went on one the other week funnily enough, it was really good. They offered to train me up. Might be a decent sideline …

A.McG: It takes a lot of bottle to go full time as a poet when you’ve got a home and family to support. Do you think that the new age is the way to go?

TW: I don’t know about new age but I find my poetry going both deeper into human relationships and zooming right out into the big questions about how the world is run and our place in it and the universe. Maaan!

A.McG: What is a poet’s role in community Tony? You have worked in Manchester on the front line – how do people relate to the idea of poetry and one of their own being a poet? I mean, people fall back on poetry when there is a tragedy or some kind or special occasion like a funeral or a wedding, don’t they?

TW: I love taking my poetry, both in performance and workshops, to people who don’t think they’ll like it. I’ve been asked to take the same set of poems everywhere from prisons and goth club nights to black tie dinners and universities. I write about the big stuff; love, life, loss, loneliness, longing, laughter…and they are universal themes. I also hope that my poetry sometimes says the unsayable, or at least the little-said, and I love helping people to find their own voice. I still often get embarrassed talking about being a poet though. A poet is for life – not just for weddings/funerals.

A.McG: I have always admired Linton Kwesi Johnson in the way that his poems witness events in the community.

TW: I’m hoping that my poem for Unison will be a bit of a landmark. LKJ ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ was on the radio the first night I ever listened to John Peel – one of my favourite songs ever, never mind poems. Such power! Apart from the music the poetry scene owes Peel so much. Saying big things in colloquial language with interesting rhyme schemes is, I think, one of the things that I try to do and no doubt LKJ is an influence in that.

A.McG: You say you sometimes feel embarrassed talking about being a poet but don’t you find that when you’re ‘out’ about it that the most surprising people reveal that they to have written poems or suddenly recite one to you when they think no one is listening?

TW: Yes, there are so many secret poets – I was one for many years! I’d encourage all poets, new or more experienced, to check out where they can find a welcoming and fun poetry night near them and start to get involved.

A.McG: Poetry has certainly had a huge impact on your life. I met your daughter once, years ago, and she seemed a very forthright little girl. What does she think of Dad’s new career?

TW: I think they’re secretly a bit proud but nothing Dad does can ever be cool can it? I got a tiny bit cooler when we were backstage at the Big Chill though and they got to see the chart acts that they like…

A.McG: I bet they’ll be secretly chuffed when they hear you on the radio over the festival weekend. When are you on?

TW: I’m live on BBC6 Music with Cerys Mathews and Sean Keaveny on Saturday night. Then I’ll be on the Jo Whiley show on the evening of the 30th. Yeah, secretly chuffed, but until I’m on 4Music or MTV or whatever …

A.McG: … and you’ll be on at P&W too of course …

TW: I’m on about 6.30 on the Friday and lunchtime on the Sunday with a mixture of older pieces and my festival poems. I’ll also be popping up on stages around the site, no doubt.

A.McG: You know we’ll all be rooting for you over at Poetry & Words and you can always find sanctuary with us – you’re going to need a bit of space to write!

TW: Cheers, Annie. I daresay that I’ll be back there quite a bit. Nicking lines. (Of poetry!) 

A.McG: Haha …. Yes … research into poems can only go so far … I don’t think your stint as Glasto poet in residence would be a good time to start experimenting with hallucinogenics!

TW: Tony in the Sky with Diamonds! No, a couple of cans will do me!

A.McG: Well, I hope you don’t wear yourself out too much in the day because some of the best bits of Glasto happen in the middle of the night. Your job is going to be full on. Good Luck.

TW: I’ve sat in the P&W tent for hours over the last few years and if there’s a tent at the festival that generates more wit and wisdom, more fun and insight, more beauty and joy, then I wanna go there!

And with that he ebbed off into the poetic ether. Tony Walsh goes from strength to strength and it couldn’t happen to a nicer Longfella (groan).

Here is a link to his web site:

Here is a link to a film of Tony’s poem ‘Sometimes’:

You can follow Tony on twitter: @longfellapoet tag: #GlastoPoet


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