Martin Figura is an award winning poet, performer, spoken word artist, photographer, teacher and the creator of Whistle; a multi-media depiction of loss, family and growing up in Post War Britain. I spoke with him about the process of turning a book into a performance, the retrieval of memory, writing autobiographically and why everyone should try their hand at poetry.
-So how autobiographical is Whistle?
It’s completely autobiographical.
-Were there any changes that you had to make? Does the writing come from journals you’ve kept?
It mainly comes from family photographs.
But essentially it’s as it was.
What made you decide to use autobiography in your writing?
Well, because I had this story to tell, about what happened, in my life, in my childhood. And about the consequences of what happened, and it was just that really.
You tell stories from your childhood in great detail. How difficult was it to retrieve these memories? Was this something that came easily?
It came relatively easily. It’s written through poetry so it’s not a detailed factual account. In fact there’s very few facts in there, it’s more a sort of metaphorical response, about the retrieval of memory, of how it felt. Or how I remembering it feeling- memory is an elusive thing.
Whistle is also a book, which came first the book or the performance?
The book came first. I had decided to make it into a performance but I set about doing the book first, and when that was finished I set about making it into a one man show.
And how did you find the process of changing the book into a performance? Did you feel that the poems gained new meanings when they were performed?
In the book people have the chance to go back and re-fresh things.
And the book was sequenced in a way so that it was sort of blocks of characters, if you like, so that people didn’t disappear in memory.
In the show I introduced a narrative link. The show is more chronological because people don’t have the chance to re-read something, or re-listen to something. So yes, there isn’t that much but there is some narrative in between the poems, so that I’m just sort of keeping the audience on board with what’s happening and who’s who, where necessary. And there aren’t as many poems; I think there’s only one poem that isn’t in the book. And it’s driven to more of a dramatic ark in the show than in the book.
And there’s the images…
Yes that’s right. There’s the images taken from family photographs and also some new created images.
And this was collaborative?
Yes, I worked with Karen Hall, who I’d worked with before. And I worked with Andre Barreau. Andre is George Harrison in the Boot Leg Beatles, and Karen worked for him creating the backdrops for their shows, so I thought he’d be very good to bring on board; he was born in the same year as me. He had a lot of imagery that they’d used in their shows available, he also had a very imaginative approach to solving problems. So it worked very well.
When you perform your poems do you have a performance persona that you use?
No there’s no real persona. It’s kind of just me, it’s really kind of straight forward. And it’s kind of understated, it’s not without humour. I mean the words are very dramatic in places, given the subject matter. But you know I’m not acting as it were, or acting up, it’s delivered in quite a straight way, because the words are enough. I supposed I do act it in a way, I mean more than I would in a straight poetry reading.
Would you say that you were a writer more than a performer?
Well, I have no background in acting. I’m a writer, but I am also a performer. But I suppose my background in writing, prior to this project, was more towards the performance end, and poetry and I kind of still do that, so it’s more humorous work. I’ve recently done things like Book Slam and Poetry Death Match in London, with different material. So I think it’s fair to say that I come from a performance background.
There is a beautiful sound to your poems, some of them are almost musical. Do you think about the way the words sound when you write? How do you arrive at that rhythm?
It’s part of the writing process. While I’m writing I read them out loud, I think you have to write for the ear in poetry. But they’re poems that work on the page, I’m not writing for performance as such. But I suppose my poems are fairly robust they don’t slip quietly into the room, they come in with their elbows out. And I think that’s just part of the process, you know I think all poems have that element; they all have some sense of music to them.
Absolutely- and do you think that poetry should be read aloud?
I think so yes. I mean poetry can be a really private thing as well, it’s something done alone in a room. But when I’m reading other poetry I do tend to read it aloud to myself, or with my wife, or in the bath. You know it’s how I prefer it, to be hearing it.
I’m wary of the split between performance and page prose. I regard myself as a spoken word poet, so I publish with what you would call a page poetry press but I also perform. And I think there’s a suspicion between the two camps but you know I think I kind of belong to both. And I think that no matter what kind of poetry you are writing, whether you are a performance poet or not, poetry should be read aloud. I don’t see how you could write poetry without reading it aloud.
Absolutely, I agree.
And I wanted to ask you about the poem The News to Vanishing Point, which is my personal favourite. I think it has an almost post-apocalyptic feel, is that a feeling that you would relate to grief?
Absolutely. There was an interesting process in writing that poem. I wanted to give a sense of a childhood disappearing over night, and it actually came as a cinematic reference. I was watching a lot of films while I was writing this poem, and then the sort of backdrop came up behind it, and there’s a motif of mirrors coming through the work, looking back into a rear view mirror, and that seemed appropriate to have a backdrop that’s kind of fixed, like a child’s gaze. And it came as a reference to when I was shoved off to boarding school after all this happened. It’s just this idea of a film ending coming away, and that’s it a childhood’s over, you know irreversibly gone. I wanted that sense of loss I suppose, which is something shown in the image of me on my bike trying to keep up as I disappear.
You performed an extract of Whistle for the Norfolk Conference for Looked After Children, and you’ve also worked with people in prisons- do you think there is a therapeutic benefit to performing poetry for both the writer and the spectator?
Well, I’ve been performing this show for about eighteen months or so. And every time I’ve performed it there’s always someone in the audience who can relate to it. You think it’s not your usual story, but there are slots within it that people can relate to. Normally its middle aged men who’ve been dragged along to a poetry reading by their wives, who are the ones that get in touch with me afterwards and have been effected by it. And people from East European Backgrounds, whose fathers fought in the war and had a different sort of experience, and the kind of consequences of that. And people in care, quite a few people contact me. And I think it’s about someone talking about their experience and understanding it that has been good for them.
But for myself, I haven’t really done it for therapy, it was more a way of understanding. You know it’s a complicated thing, and the events that followed by mother’s death are complicated. These things are never simple and as reductive as they’re sometimes portrayed, and I really wanted that to come across. Just to try and understand it.
I had to kind of put myself in my dad’s shoes, and imagine his point of view.
But it was more a kind of honouring for my mother and documenting her life and what happened to her, which was crucially important to me. I wasn’t in need of therapy, I’m very happy; I’ve got a very nice life. So I wasn’t trying to sort myself out, it was more a way of understanding it.
And you’ve also taught poetry to young people…
Well I’ve just done something for the Poetry School, on writing about difficult things.
Why do you think young people should be encouraged to write poetry?
I think they get something out of it, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a way of expressing yourself and it’s a way of understanding the world and negotiating the world. You can kind of say things in poetry that you can’t say in any other way. It’s not direct language it’s kind of the bridge between thought and language, and through that you can say the un-sayable. You can say things that are just too difficult to state directly. And it’s enjoyable, we live in poetry, its right there before we’re born in the heartbeat and the sound of it, and it’s been around for thousands of years. People have always turned to it in times of celebration or need. And it’s about how we live, the rhythms in our language. I think there’s a real pleasure to be got from it.
In my experience people are quite put off by the idea of writing poetry, if it’s not something that comes naturally. What would you say to someone who’s frightened of writing poetry?
I would say read some first. Everyone will have their own lexicon, and some of it can seem impenetrable, but it is. I think it requires some effort, you have to be prepared to put that effort in, and you have to be prepared to read poetry before you write it. Lots of people indulge themselves by writing poetry without really understanding it. But you wouldn’t get on a bike and ride it down a dual carriage way without learning how to ride it and really understand it, it’s just a matter of respect. Otherwise you’re indulging, so you’re just showing off, I suppose you can’t express yourself without learning the craft of it.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to make their work more accessible?
Well I think you write what you write. I think my work is fairly accessible, but you don’t want everything to be there on the first reading. For me it’s about the music and the sound of it, not everything has to be understandable. It’s not a narrative, or a story. There’s the pleasure simply in the sound of the words. But I think, to make people want to read it again there has to be enough of that, to make them think ‘Oh I really enjoyed reading that, I’ll read it again’, and maybe find more in it, and then read it again, and find more in it each time. In the same way that people listen to songs again and again.
And if you state things plainly they have a lot more power and resonance, not just for yourself but for the reader. I think there’s something to be said of the understatement, in making work, it doesn’t lack drama but it doesn’t need to be so played up as it were, it’s right there.
Whistle will be on at The Roundhouse from the 22nd to the 26th of May. Don’t miss it.
For tickets go to, http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whatson/productions/whistle.