Chris White: blurring the lines between spoken word poetry and stand-up comedy

Chris White is a poet. I first came across him at Exeter’s 8th Annual Poetry Slam a few weeks ago. He came second in the competition and I was completely enamoured with his witty poetic chops from the outset.

Flashback to the 15th October 2017. Procrastination and a final year sense of I-should-be-doing-more has led me to the cosy Bike Shed Theatre on a Sunday night. There’s a group of poets sitting in a circle onstage, waiting their turn to perform. Chris is attractive, red-haired and armed with a bottle of wine which accompanies him throughout the night. He channels a careless hipster look, perhaps subconsciously, which proves to suit his performance style to a T.

As the night progresses, Chris performs three poems. His first makes it immediately plain that his work relies as heavily on humour and irony as clever wordplay and the emotiveness of his language. What starts as a charming exploration of “second date nerves”, the name of the piece, rapidly turns into a satire on the nature of romantic poetry and dating itself, that has the entire audience laughing. “It’s a crowd pleaser”, he later explains, “a cheap laugh basically”, although it’s far from cheap. The way he navigates sensitivity, a shock factor and comic value, combined with a subject well known to every listener, makes the piece remarkable for its deeply refreshing perspective on modern dating culture.

Chris studied scriptwriting at UEA, and beyond the clear mastery of words in his work, his performance background is also very evident – the “comedy-poetry” relies on body language, facial expressions and audience engagement, to master his unique brand of (in his own words, two weeks later) “take-the-piss” poetry. “I feel like stand-up poetry is getting bigger” – a term I’ve never heard before, but which certainly elucidates his style. Chris is hesitant when I ask him about getting poetry published: “what I’m more interested in is poetry in a theatrical setting. The shows I do, they’re kind of pieces of theatre more than anything else”. Quite simply, calling Chris a poet isn’t quite right, he’s also an actor and comedian.

His upcoming one-man show will showcase his theatre background more pronouncedly. He says, of how his rehearsals are going: “I’m literally forgetting to do the poetry. I’m doing a lot of other stuff, clowning and stupid stuff and just writing a lot of gags, and it’s like, this is supposed to be a spoken word show and what am I doing – I’m dressing in a wig and bouncing around”. Because of this, he wants to market the show as comedy rather than spoken word, and I agree with him that people without the remotest interest in poetry will adore his performance.

Chris was late to discover poetry, not engaging with the scene until his final year of university when he joined the UEA creative writing society. He says “I didn’t read poetry. Even the classics that we’d done at school. I wouldn’t remember it”. Now he credits Jonny Fluffypunk and John Cooper Clarke as his major poetic influences, two writers known for unconventional poetry, use of colloquial language and brutal honesty. The influence is clear in Chris’s work, which tackles relationships and bodies candidly and unpretentiously.

Beyond the humour, there is something about Chris White’s poems that sensitively addresses issues and feelings in a poignant way. He’s a fan of Ted Hughes and we discuss his definition of good poetry: “anything that strikes you as being truthful.  Honest. Whatever that may be”. “It’s all about just capturing a moment, capturing a person or an event, whatever it is, or just a feeling you’re having. Just as succinctly as you possibly can. And making it connect”. I can see this in ‘Second Date Nerves’, which expresses anxiety and emotion through humour, in turn revealing and concealing the extent of the feeling behind it.

The final poem Chris performed at the Slam was a sensitive piece, leaning less on the tongue-in-cheek style I’d come to expect. He knowingly exceeded the time limit as he tackled pain, love and loss with eloquence and at times bitterness. I ask him if he writes more for emotional release or comic value. “I think mostly I do go for laughs”, he says. “I know I’m going to be able to connect with people. It’s terrible if you write something that’s emotional and no one connects with it. You’d just be like “oh I just poured my heart out there”. I can do the romantic thing. But I have to make it a bit funny and a bit strange”.

So, can we expect more comedy than emotional outpouring from your upcoming show?

“This show’s a comedy about the titanic, it’s all about rising the titanic”, he explains, with a deadpan face. “I’m never sure whether to market things as a spoken word show or a comedy…because I just want people to come even if they don’t care about poetry at all because – it sounds big-headed – but I feel like they would enjoy it”.

This isn’t big-headed of Chris: his unique brand of comedy-poetry, balancing banter with beauty and a refreshing perspective on universal experiences, impressed the judges within seconds and had the audience in fits.

Chris’ Show Sunked is playing at the Bike Shed Theatre from the 14th-18th November 2017. Get tickets now before they’re gone!

 

Katie Rivers

 

FEATURED IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.bikeshedtheatre.co.uk/shows/sunked-2/

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