Interview with Helen Johnson – Glastonbury Poetry’s Heart and Soul

I thought it was about time that the true unsung hero of Poetry&Words stepped out of the shadows. She’s the woman who’s poured over thousands of applications over the years, given emerging stars a world stage to perform on, faced abuse by prima donna poets that didn’t make the line up (Don’t you know who I am?!!! How dare you pass me over!!!) and fought mud-soaked technical, emotional, inclement, bureaucratic battles and won. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the stoic, sleep-deprived, possibly currently-lactating high commander of Poetry&Words, Dr. Helen Johnson…

Helen Gregory (1)

You’ve been running the Poetry&Words tent at Glastonbury since you took over from Pat V T West in 2008. How has it changed in that time?

In her time, Pat would take over a small, empty corner of the Green Fields and transform it into a poetry haven.  She’d take several weeks and a small crew of miracle workers to do so.  When she asked me to take over the reins just before she passed away, I said I’d love to, but couldn’t possibly put in all that pre-festival work on the infrastructure.  With her help, we moved Poetry&Words to our current home in the Theatre and Circus fields.  We now share a tent with Mavericks (late night cabaret), so I don’t have to worry about getting the tent, green room etc set-up weeks before the festival starts.

That’s a great relief, as there’s plenty to worry about with the just programming!  We started off programming just 4½ hours a day with around 20 poets.  Now we’re on non-stop from 11.30-19.00 every day (Friday to Sunday) and we book around 30 poets.  That first year, I had no crew to speak off and was quite literally asleep on my feet Sunday evening.  Since then I have learned the joys of delegating and I now have a crew of around 7 to help make things happen!

It being Glastonbury there are a huge of number of poets and spoken word artists each year applying for a spot at one of the greatest festivals on Earth and I understand this year has had the highest volume of applications (close to 900). What are your criteria for who makes the stage?

That’s a really difficult question!  Obviously we’re looking for amazing poets.  The Festival isn’t an easy gig – There are a hundred other things competing for the audience’s attention at any one time, so our poets need to be great performers as well as great writers.  They need to know how to work an audience; how to grab and keep their attention.  That means we’re looking for experienced, professional artists and definitely not people who are new to the scene; though we’ve had some fantastic up-and-coming poets on the stage over the years.  We also look for a mix of voices, in terms of writing/performance style, poets’ background, subject matter, poetic genre etc.  It’s important for us to have a balanced bill, which showcases a good selection of the rich, wonderful and varied spoken word offerings currently on the scene.

Without naming names, which have been your strangest applications over the years?

We’ve had all sorts!  Last year, there was someone who wanted to come and give a nappy demonstration.  This year, we had several poets who were keen on performing naked – One I could have overlooked, but there was a real trend emerging there!  Then we get a good chunk of applications every year from musicians trying to sneak in under the radar – reading their song lyrics out without musical backing, submitting clips of shows where they introduce their songs with a lot of banter; that kind of thing.  We’ve had so many of them now that I don’t think they really count as strange anymore; but it is rather strange that, with so many different music venues at Glastonbury, musicians are directing their attentions to the poetry stage!

How has the type of poetry performed at the festival changed over time? Has the influence of rap and slam poetry had an influence in the line ups in recent years?

When I first started in 2008 we had a lot of comic poets on the bill, now the balance has shifted more towards serious, hard hitting poetry with a message, though a lot of our poets have a range of serious and funny work in their repertoires.  We did go through a phase of getting lots of rappers applying to perform on the stage.  A highlight for me, rap-wise, would have to be the fantastic Baba Brinkman.  Things seem to have quietened down on that front now however.  One notable trend in recent years has been an increase in poetry-music combos and particularly poetry bands.  I’m sure that artists like Kate Tempest and Dizraeli (both of whom have graced the stage in the past) have played a role in this.  We could probably fill the bill with poetry-music acts now.  A limited ticket allocation and the need for a balanced bill vetoes this though and we tend just to have a handful of acts that bring music into their sets as a dominant influence.  This year, we have Jess Green and the Mischief Thieves, for instance, as well as the inimitable Antipoet who will be opening the stage every day with their poetry pre-show.

As for ‘slam poetry,’ I wrote my PhD thesis on that, so it’s probably best not to get me started.  I have about 100,000 words to offer up on the subject if you’re having trouble sleeping at any point…

I realise your role as manager of the Poetry&Words tent doesn’t allow you a lot time to relax and enjoy the acts, but in the rare moments when you’ve had the opportunity were there any standout performances you’ve seen that have left their mark?

Can I say all of them?  Seriously, with hundreds of amazing poets to choose from, we don’t book anyone who’s less than fantastic!  You’re right that I miss a lot of the in-tent action though.  A lot of my enduring memories have been backstage – John Hegley rehearsing in the green room with Keith Moore; Raymond Antrobus humouring me by reprising a poem I’d caught a brief snippet of when passing through the P&W tent; Hollie McNish, Andreatta Chuma and Pete Hunter performing their segments for the BBC Radio 4 show Glastonbury Poetry Diaries which we recorded in 2010…  I also make the trek up to festival radio Worthy FM’s HQ every year, leading a small gaggle of poets behind me, and we’ve had some really great moments recording poetry for them in the fields.

You’ve seen a lot of young poets who’ve performed at Glastonbury go on to become huge stars in the field of performance poetry and literature. Are there are any who you are especially proud of?

I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘proud,’ as that implies we’re somehow responsible for their achievements, but we have been privileged to book some truly fantastic up and coming poets over the years.  We’ve hosted some particularly strong young performance poets, who’ve come up through the youth spoken word and slam scene, honing their talents on programmes like Slambassadors and in groups like Barbican Young Poets.  By the time we come across them they are already  incredible, strong writers, confident, engaging performers and consummate professionals with a lot of experience performing on the scene. Some names to watch out for this year in that regard are Antosh Wojcik, Megan Beech, Kayo Chingonyi, Charlotte Higgins and Vanessa Kisuule.  We’ve had Antosh and Vanessa along in the past, and the others will be joining us for the first time this year.

Can you share any of your more weirder moments at Glastonbury?

I’ll always remember the first time John Hegley performed with Keith Moore.  Keith plays the double bass and we had to get them and their instruments safely off site after the gig.  I’d tried to organise some kind of transport, but after about an hour of failure on that front, I ended up borrowing a wheelbarrow.  We then proceeded to push this, laden with Keith’s double bass, up a variety of muddy, crowded slopes to the car park!

Have you ever been tempted to persuade Michael or Emily Eavis to sign up for the Poetry Slam?

Michael has been spotted hanging out in the Poetry&Words tent, but I’m not sure how he or Emily would respond if I asked them to join in on stage!  They’d have to be quick anyway, if they wanted to sign up.  The lists for the slam and the open mic fill up really quickly and both are really popular events.  I’m sure some of the lure of the slam is the fact that the winner gets a spot in the following year’s programme, but there’s also the kudos of competing in one of the longest running slams in the country and performing on the same stage as some of the top poets in the UK and beyond.

The running of the Poetry&Words tent is a military operation with a handful of dedicated staff zig-zagging like honey bees trying to keep everything ticking over. I’ve seen how stressful it can get but has there ever been a situation that has completely flummoxed you?

There’s always something. It constantly amazes me that such a vast and complex festival appears to come off so smoothly every year.  Usually, whatever hitches there are stay firmly behind the scenes, but occasionally there’s something that shows front of stage.  Two particular incidents spring to mind: A few years’ ago, we were almost half an hour late oepning on the first morning as we were missing our fire exit signs.  You might think the exits are obvious in a large tent, but Health and Safety rules say we can’t open without the signs, so we had to put the show on hold while we franticly tried to obtain some.  Luckily our intrepid compere, Dreadlockalien, was able to keep our audience entertained outside the tent by rapping into a small PA he just happened to have on hand!  I now keep my own supply of fire exit signs on standby just in case…

The other incident happened last year.  Just as our Friday evening headliners, The Fugitives, were due to take the stage, there was a big thunder storm and all tents were ordered to cut the power to their generators.  The Fugitives are an amazing four piece poetry band from Canada and they were obviously expecting to perform with full amplification.  Luckily they are consummate professionals and took it all in their stride.  They stepped down from the stage, drew the audience close and performed unplugged to an incredibly attentive crowd.  It turned out to be a wonderfully intimate gig in the suddenly quiet setting of Bella’s Field.

Finally, you’re taking this year off and handing over the reins to Benita Johnson, due to the arrival of baby Johnson. What words of wisdom would you give to Benita to cope in your absence? And do you plan to return to Glastonbury next year with young Jake?

Benita’s held me up (sometimes literally!) as I’ve run the stage for the past four years, so I’m not sure there’s much I could say that would surprise her!  Also, she will have a solid crew to rely on in the form of Jack Bird, Joe Sawdon-Smith, Paul Vallis, Jane Yarham and our brilliant sound guys Mark Bothwick and Adrian Keefe.  I guess I’d tell her to rely on their experience and to listen to her own advice to me – roll with the punches, enjoy the highs, remember to take breaks (and eat!) and believe that, ultimately, it will all come together wonderfully, as it always does!

Baby Jake and I are hoping to come to the festival this year just for the Saturday and Sunday, but we will be there in a strictly punters-only capacity.  Next year, we should be back as a whole family, running the P&W stage.  I imagine Jake will be giving the orders!  Talking of which, would anyone like to see my baby photos?  He’s really very cute…

He is. I’ve seen the photos..so many photos. So, future Glastonbury poets – be prepared to be stage-managed by a very serious toddler 😉

More exclusive interviews on the way…

Scott 🙂

 

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