John Cooper Clarke: '˜I don't see myself as a national treasure because I'm not dead yet'

John Cooper Clarke is pondering recent sources of inspiration for his poetry.

John Cooper Clarke, who is appearing at Contains Strong Language in Hull. Picture: Gerald Jenkins
John Cooper Clarke, who is appearing at Contains Strong Language in Hull. Picture: Gerald Jenkins

“I just get an angle on something, just stuff that’s around,” says the 68-year-old Bard of Salford, who is famed works such as (I Married) A Monster From Outer Space, Beasley Street and Evidently Chickentown. “It’s a hard thing to explain, really, poetry, because it is what it is.

“I’m not really led by issues, I don’t think, it’s just my annual look at the last three days. Something could crop up on the news but I wouldn’t describe my stuff as particularly topical or political. I write about the world that we share, I suppose.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

On Friday Cooper Clarke will be sharing some of his new work – and old favourites – at Contains Strong Language, a BBC festival of poetry and performance at Hull UK City of Culture.

John Cooper Clarke cites Pam Ayres as an early inspriation for his performance poetry. Picture: Gerald Jenkins

The city was the longtime home of Philip Larkin, a poet with whom Cooper Clarke feels a common cause. “I write about the same things that he wrote about – everyday life. In fact if I was to point to a couple of people who I think I’m in the same building as, it would be Philip Larkin, John Betjeman and in my more inspired moments I like to think Charles Baudelaire, he’s a great inspiration for me. He put it best, his plan was to be ‘a mirror as big as the cloud itself’.”

It’s a thought that prompts more self-analysis.

“Like most artists, I’m very superstitious about looking beyond the mere mechanics and techniques of that I do. If I think about it too deeply I’m sure I would disappoint myself or I would fail to answer to some higher Platonic ideal of what poetry is supposed to be, which nobody’s ever told me yet. Like most art, it’s supremely useless, otherwise it’s something else. If it’s any use to anybody it’s advertising or propaganda. Like any other sort of art, it’s got one foot in the entertainment industry and one foot in some nebulous kind of self-expression.

“Put it this way,” he adds, “and I’m paraphrasing Bill Withers, the great soul singer, he said the writing of a song – and this goes for poetry here – involves the kind of magic that I don’t want to interfere with. Unfortunately next to Bill Withers I’m a bit of a windbag, something I hate to think of myself as being. I like to think that poetry is actually the shortest way of conveying something, not the full bag of tricks.”

John Cooper Clarke cites Pam Ayres as an early inspriation for his performance poetry. Picture: Gerald Jenkins

Cooper Clarke began to write his first poems at the age of 13. By 14 he’d “got a real thing for it”. “It was the only thing I could entertain doing professionally, it was the only thing I was exceptionally good at, I suppose,” he says.

Despite his obvious way with words, he was “discouraged at every turn from relying on poetry as a way of making a living”. There were, he points out, few role models. “Up until me, really, most poets had to do another job, they kept it as a hobby. But I was quite pig-headed about it. I thought if you write poetry that the public like they will reward you.”

One person he took “a great deal of inspiration from” was Pam Ayres, who became a regular fixture on television in the 1970s. “Suddenly on Opportunity Knocks week after week for about a year Pam Ayres was cleaning up there and she’s still around now, selling out concert halls, with her own show on Radio 4. She’s gone from strength to strength.”

However with few venues for performance poetry, Cooper Clarke had to take to stages in Manchester nightclubs. “I thought the more incongruous the better,” he says. “That will provoke some sort of polarised reaction and people will become either fans or non-fans, but I’ll know where I stand if I drag it into the public arena like that. So then I had to get good a reciting it.”

It seems he had an unlikely early benefactor. “One of the first people that gave me cash money for my stuff was the late Bernard Manning. He was quite sort of go-ahead. If he had 20 minutes to fill at the Embassy Club he’d give you a break, and I was lucky there.”

When punk happened he “slightly tweaked” the content of his material to make it “a bit more international in its roots and its subject matter...since then I’ve circumnavigated the globe nine times reciting poetry all the way”.

A deal with Epic Records yielded four albums, the most successful of which, Snap, Crackle & Bop, reached Number 26 in the charts. Today Cooper Clarke seems to have mixed feelings about his recorded work. “I really don’t think it’s the secret of my success. The records were a nice step in another direction if you like but none of those records conveyed what I do on stage. File under ‘Seemed like a good idea at the time’ with the music and that. I think it wasn’t always successful. There’s some good bits on them, but it’s very patchy. I simply wouldn’t do it now.”

He seems more proud of This Time It’s Personal, the album of songs he made last year with Hugh Cornwell. “That was great, I enjoyed that, I love singing,” he says. “That’s why making those records [in the 70s and 80s] and not singing was so difficult. My gimmick was I kind of spoke it, but then I wasn’t the first there either, there’s a great tradition of non-singing singers – Stanley Holloway, Rex Harrison, Phil Harris. In fact there’s a German term for it – sprechgesang, ‘speak sing’ – so there’s quite a history of it, but I didn’t know that then. It seemed against nature to speak when there’s music around. It’s usually either ‘join in the song or shut up and listen to the music’.”

Forty years into performing, Cooper Clarke has acquired a special status among performance poets. Just don’t call him a national treasure. “People who dish out them kind of accolades are very fickle and there’s a thin line between love and hate,” he says. “I don’t see myself as a national treasure because I’m not dead yet. Anything could happen, I could rob a bank and then what?” he laughs. “What I’m saying is I ain’t dead yet. Obviously I don’t see myself as a national treasure, that would make me insane.”

John Cooper Clarke is Middleton Hall, Hull on Friday September 29 at 8pm. Contains Strong Language runs from Thursday September 28-Sunday October 1.