Dominic Berry Interview

Slam-winning poet Dominic Berry is currently touring the country with his one-person poetry show The Dragon Who Hates Poetry. As part of Ilkley Literature Festival’s 40th anniversary celebrations, you can catch Dominic’s show on Sunday October 13th. 

I understand that you have performed your poetry on Channel 4 News. How did that come about and what was the topic of your performance? Not sure I’ve ever heard poetry in a news broadcast!
My first time performing poetry on TV was when I had a show on during Manchester’s (much missed) ‘Not Part Of’ festival. The crew filmed me performing my poem ‘Pulse’ outside The Royal Exchange Theatre and used that recording to promote the festival. It was all arranged very last minute.

‘Not Part Of’ was a great force for good - an attempt to build something here a bit like Edinburgh Fringe. It was great stuff, got me my first telly gig, and staged a load of quality work here in my city. Really miss it.

As for the Channel 4 team, they were incredibly friendly and seemed to really care about what we were making.  They were a force for good too. In my opinion, not enough telly is.

How did you first become involved in performance poetry?
I adored poetry at school. I was lucky to have awesome teachers both at primary and secondary who got in guest speakers and generally taught poetry in a really fun way. I know that’s not everyone’s experience of poetry in education!

When I moved to Manchester I saw performed poetry for the first time. James Quinn - an amazing actor (currently, I believe, playing a copper on Corrie) and Liverpool’s finest Ms Chloe Poems. I had never seen poetry so political, so funny and so deeply engaging expressed so very theatrically. When I say theatrical I don’t necessarily mean flamboyant - though I do love that too - I mean those intense moments of quiet only a theatre space can really give you. It was a ‘This is it! I want to do this!’ moment in my life.

The best way to improve at anything is just to do it do it do it. I did every open mic and slam competition I could - often with material I look back on and consider truly cringe-inducingly awful - but through recognising what did and didn’t hit the nail on the head I did my best to get better and keep improving.

I understand that you’ve worked with school children, tackling prejudices and bullying. How do the children respond to your work?
With honesty!

A good artist should be aware whether their work is keeping their audience attentive or not. Unless you’re doing comedy, where its pretty easy to tell if someone is laughing or not, you have to be very present with an adult gig to gauge how well your stuff is connecting because the chances are everyone will be very polite after and not say if they weren’t keen. It is easy for a performer to get caught up in their own moment and not even know if people are falling asleep as they speak.

Unless you are with children!

Children are so amazingly present, honest and open with their feelings. It is such a joy to work with and for children and get that level of integrity you sometimes have to dig deep for to derive from adults.

You’ve also worked with mental health support groups and run workshops with older people; what do you hope participants will gain from these sessions?
I hope they think ‘that was better than telly.’ I hope they think ‘maybe X Factor isn’t such a good thing’. I hope they think ‘It is rubbish that the telly can’t talk back to you, can’t engage with you, can’t care about what you’re feeling, but an independent artist can and does.’ I hope they think ‘Live performance is great, I am going to switch off my telly (or better yet get rid of it) and more see real people produce more heartfelt work’. Most of all I hope they think ‘This is a performance which, unlike so much telly, doesn’t judge me on my gender, weight, income, background or appearance. This is a kind space where I can be who I want to be.’ I hope more organisers of events for people who find it hard to get out feel inspired to do all they can to bring great work to these people.

You have won both the Manchester Literature Festival’s ‘Superheroes of Slam’ and New York’s ‘Nuyorican Poetry Café Slam’. How do you combat those pre-show nerves?
I don’t know if I do do that very well! Try to be in the present, not fret about what is past or stress about the future. Try not to think ‘I hope this goes as well as last time’ or ‘what other stuff might this gig get me?’ Those kind of distractions make an artist less focussed on what is happening in the here and now and the best performances are the most focussed.

Enjoy it!

Don’t ever perform stuff you think is no good. No apologising before speaking, ‘I only wrote this this morning, I know it isn’t very good….’ If the artist thinks it is no good, why should the audience be subjected to it? Go on stage with integrity knowing that you believe in what you have brought and enjoy delivering it to whoever’s come to hear, be it an audience of two or two hundred and thirty (I have audiences of both sizes in different parts of the country in just the last week!)

Do you have a favourite children’s poem (other than one of your own!)?
Changes all the time. Day to day. Having harped on a bit about kindness I will say ‘Thidwick, the Big Hearted Moose’ by Dr Seuss.

Were there any particular poets who inspired you as a child?
Michael Rosen. I saw him recently perform and he is a living legend. I really mean that - proper living legend. Of course Roald Dahl, all the way. I actually got into Leonard Cohen at a pretty young age. Leonard Cohen, especially the piece ‘Suzanne’ (which I heard for the first time, of all places, on Radio 1!) deeply inspired me.

Your current show, The Dragon Who Hates Poetry is currently touring the country. Where did you get the inspiration for the show?
I auditioned for the BBC show ‘Rhyme Rocket’ with a dragon poem I wrote especially for that interview. Getting on that show was amazing - getting to film my work in Media City - I am hugely proud of that show (I have bashed telly a lot in this haven’t I? it’s not all bad. ‘Doctor Who’ is good. And I like what I have seen of ‘Agents of Shield’. I like stuff about being kind and too much telly is the opposite of that! ‘Rhyme Rocket’ was a kind show).

After that it seemed a good move to create a show that expanded on the type of mythology and fantasy I enjoy exploring so much, so with much support from the Manchester theatre Z Arts and Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts this show was born.

Each step of its development has been tested in front of an audience of different children. The best editors are the people you are creating your work for.

Any hints about future shows or TV appearances in the pipeline?
Ramsbottom Festival commissioned me to write a follow up. ‘Spark, the Goblin Wizard’, which I performed for them last month and am now starting to get national bookings for. I’ll be performing ‘Goblin’ in Manchester Literature Festival on Sunday 20th October.

As for TV appearances, there is always stuff in the pipeline, but so often it falls through last minute. Usually because funding doesn’t come through! I was all geared up to be on a show performing poems for adults connected to themes around current situations in the NHS but right at the eleventh hour the whole thing was cancelled.
Anyone who wants to get into showbiz - for increasingly the literature world is also, like it or not, the world of showbiz - you have to embrace the unexpected. The flip side to that is you can get a call at any time saying ‘someone’s dropped out, can you fill in’ and with little or no notice I find myself zipping all over the country doing all kinds of art and massively enjoying the never predictable, always exciting whirlwind world I’ve chosen to inhabit. Its not a life style that’d suit everyone, but it is never, ever boring!
If you’d like to find out more about Dominic, please take a look at his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
Details of Dominic’s The Dragon Who Hates Poetry tour dates can be found on his website by clicking here.
Dominic will be appearing at Ilkley Literature Festival this October, as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations. For reviews and behind-the-scenes news about the festival, visit The Pickled Egg, the festival’s official blogger.
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