Jem Rolls has performed his poetry in London, in Edinburgh and, over the last decade, to audiences across Canada as part of the summer long Canadian Fringe Festivals. In 2013 he hopes to combine touring in Canada with the Edinburgh Free Fringe.
“Canada is the perfect medium for a performance poet but before me none had tried and it took quite a while for anyone else to try. There have been a few who have cropped up and done the odd fringe but very few have done the whole tour.
Usually what I do is write a new show and I do it for the whole tour. It only makes sense to me to do it that way because it takes so much work to get a show up to speed – to the point where you are happy with it.
The Canadian audience is not infinite at all. Basically you want everybody to think they can come to your show – old, young, whatever their backgrounds – that is the only way you can function. The big fringes are big but you still can’t exclude whole swathes of your potential audience.
A lot of the fringes go on for eight or ten days and I’d be there for two weeks – two week hops across the country.
Some of the fringes I organise my own venue within the fringe and have a show every night. In Winnipeg I was on at 7.30 which was perfect. In other places the time varies so you can have good time slots and bad time slots. If you’re not on at set times you don’t get into the actual rhythm of doing it.
Most years I have some problem with my voice especially when my voice is getting used to it because I don’t perform much, or at all, in the winter so it is a bit of a shock to the system each time. Air-conditioning can really stuff you up.
It is like doing a half-marathon while shouting every other day, or most days, so you end up super-fit with the lungs of a mountain goat.
Physically it is gruelling but the point is that I am actually getting to do the thing I wanted to do – be a performance poet in a way that functions and where there’s an audience for it.
Ultimately I can make a living in Canada and it is very hard to make a living at all in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is ludicrously tough … I know people who have done really well in Edinburgh, and there’s generally some luck involved, and I’ve know brilliant people do terribly. Most people out there struggle and I have no idea how I will do.
The thing about Edinburgh is you have to decide why you’re doing it. I’m really doing it for the aesthetic challenge. Most people do it, and are happy to lose money, if they are advancing their career in other ways.
There are more producers, more people who can help you out production wise, than anywhere else on Earth where the English language is spoken apart for perhaps New York.
Edinburgh is three weeks on the trot – a really, really full on three weeks. Winnipeg is also full on – it’s an intense, exhausting, chattering, exhilarating experience – and Edinburgh will be like that but more so.”
Who are the best performance poets – the Americans or the British?
“I always say that if you put the best of the Americans up against the best of the British performance poets it might well be that all the American acts are better than the British acts but you will probably rather watch the British acts because they will be fantastically more varied.
The whole slam way of doing it is a great homogeniser – it is almost as conventional as the 12-bar blues.
There are a lot of people trying to break out of that formulaic way of doing things.”
Have you ever sold any books or recordings of your work?
“No. I’ve never done that. I’ve never sold anything at all. Basically because if you do that it becomes something else. It would take me a long time to edit a poetry book to a point where I was actually happy with it and thought it was any good. To be honest it’s because I am not that impressed with most poetry books and I am not that mad about my own work on the page because they all start on the page.”
Try this link: the nakedness of the performance poet.