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Poetry Competitions UK
15 Jun 2011

Mark Grist

Mark Grist is a Peterborough teacher, performance poet, (who reached 2009's UK SLAM! Championship finals), and poetry activist, and from March 2009 was also his town's first slam master and host. Mark is also one half of the poetry team 'Dead Poets', whose spoken word act was a huge hit at this year's Edinburgh Fringe.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I was about 10. I used to spend a lot of time typing up fairly silly rhymes on my parents' old computer, and then sharing them with my friends at school. I liked writing things that made people laugh.

When and where was your first poem published?

I think it must have been shortly afterwards at 11 or 12. I think it was a poem called 'The Argly Woo' about a friend of mine who killed this monster that was terrorising the country. I can still remember it word for word now!

Which of your poems is your favourite and why?

I've got a few poems that I like to share with people but my favourite changes a lot! Normally my favourite poem is the one I'm working on or have most recently finished.

What has been your greatest (poetry) success to date?

I guess performing with Patrick Stewart in The House of Commons a year ago was pretty exciting - particularly for my girlfriend who is a bit of a closet Star Trek fan. I was really chuffed when my double act 'Dead Poets' got to go on tour with Murray Lachlan Young, Aoife Mannix and a Canadian band called Woodpigeon.

Do you have a special place you write?

I have this really strange habit of pacing whilst I write - or writing a lot of my material while cycling / walking. I like using rhythm in my pieces and don't often like to sit still while writing. I'm sure I must have worn a trench into my bedroom carpet, I pace across it that much.

Who is your favourite poet and why?

That's a tricky one. I was actually more interested in songwriters than poets when I started writing. I'd say that bands and lyricists have inspired me at least as much as poets. At the moment (and in no particular order) I particularly like Carol Anne Duffy, Beck, Murray Lachlan Young, Eels, Tim Clare, Cake, Simon Armitage, Harvey Danger, Luke Kennard, Chris Ware and Benjamin Zephaniah.

2007/08 you were Peterborough's Poet Laureate - what did this mean to you and what was your favourite laureate experience during this time?

This was a great role that I got really into. I used to have a local radio slot every week where I'd try to get people sending their poetry in. I seemed to spend a lot of time performing at formal dinners and events and stuff. I enjoyed working with people to get them writing and so I'd say that the school visits were probably the most enjoyable moments.

As a former teacher, did you find that poetry still has a 'boring and old-fashioned' image with teens?

Hahaha! Yes, I think it still does with many teenagers. The students I teach seem to have got used to my interest in poetry. They're pretty keen to hear what I'm writing. Some of them take the mick, but then swing by at the end of the week with a few lines they've written themselves. Some boys I've taught have even written love poems to get a girl's attention. I think it's safe to say that several lads I know have a lot to thank poetry for.

Do you prefer classical or contemporary poetry?

I prefer contemporary poetry, I'd say, but I'm also very interested in song lyrics.

What do you think makes a poem stand the test of time?

It needs to tackle universal themes - love, hate, death, life. Truly great poetry is always relevant, no matter where, when or how you lived. A piece about my X box 360 is not going to mean much to someone who lives in a society that has no access to electricity. That doesn't mean that my 360 doesn't deserve a poem, it just means that the poem has a fairly small and immediate audience.

Can you tell us more about the Dead Poets?

Sure. Dead Poets is a double act that I created with Peterborough hip hop artist MC Mixy. We have been performing around the country and recently gained Arts Council funding to develop a full length hour-long show. We've showcased the show at The Edinburgh Fringe this summer and are touring schools and arts venues throughout autumn.

Our website can be found at www.deadpoetry.co.uk.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of poetry slamming for the first time?

Make sure that you're well rehearsed. Read the material over. If you can, try to perform it without notes. If you can't, make sure that the paper in your hand doesn't get in front of your face. The delivery needs to be clear, confident and honest. Being able to connect with the performer and learn about them through the poem is very important.

Do you have any projects in the pipeline you'd like to share with us?

I'm writing a show about growing up in the Shetland Islands - I lived on an Island called Unst until I was 11 years old, with very little to do except read books. I want to go back and visit the island sometime to see how it's changed. Aside from that, I'm also working on a 'Choose your own adventure' poem, where an audience member will make decisions that affect the poem that is being told. It's really complicated as I've got about 40 or so different potential endings and all the routes that lead to those endings to remember. I think I'll be trying it out at the Latitude Festival this year.

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