Luke Wright: East Anglia's rock star poet
- Credit: Emily Fae
Luke Wright is immersed in his UK tour; one that truly takes him to all points of the compass, from Manchester to Bristol, Jersey to the Isle of Arran, and Diss and Lowestoft.
New dates are being added too, a clear sign of optimism as we claw ourselves out of the grasp of the pandemic.
Touring with his poetry and plays, like most things, came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 as Covid struck, but undeterred he switched to a new, often-challenging, performance format, sustaining himself - and his audience - with the now legendary 100-day nightly half-hour shows on Twitter.
But now he’s back in person, on the road, in good form, and in a good place too.
In one of those throwaway questions that you can find yourself asking a comic or poet as an interviewer, I inquire what is irritating him at the moment.
The response, coated in contentment, is that of a man happy with his lot.
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“I am so happy at the moment,” he replies. “I am in love, I am getting married, and I’m in a really good place personally, the best I have ever been.
“It is hard to stay angry, even at our feckless politicians, and I have made a conscious decision not to be dominated by the news. I am in no way surprised to hear that they had parties at No 10 but I am not going to let it ruin my night, I haven’t got time to be angry at Boris Johnson.”
That’s not to say he’s not concerned, or out of touch with real life and the everyday around him.
Quite the opposite; it is everywhere in his poems and plays.
His work has a frank honesty, from the mundane to the sublime, but with this constant thread of the ‘ordinariness’ and those aspects that touch us all daily.
He is always in there, notably in his latest book, The Feelgood Movie of the Year, with several poems aired in the current shows.
“I am writing about where I am right now in my life,” he continues. “I have just turned 40. I’m at the stage of life where I have kids and there is stuff about being a father, but my parents are getting older as well, so there is a poem about my dad, and about the pandemic.
“I have not lent too heavily on that because we all went through it in our own way, we are all keen to move on with other things but there is definitely stuff about what it was like from my point of view. But it is a show about finding joy.
“In my 30s I was quite preoccupied about my own difficulties but this show is about what is next and what people feel in their 40s, of having more confidence in themselves.”
In recent years, he has alternated between a play and poetry show. This year is “poetry show territory” with new material worked on and honed during the pandemic.
“I always aim to take people on an emotional journey; with poetry you can make people laugh and you can make them cry as well, so I think why not do both.
“There are funny moments, and satirical moments, as there always are in my show. But there are some heartfelt, poignant, moments as well.
“I think you are at your best in poetry if you are being honest. It is from honesty that you get the funny moments and the sad moments, and a good poem stays with you.”
New poems and favourites
He emphasises the show is for all ages, with audiences ranging from teenagers to those in their 80s, but adds: “It is just someone talking about themselves, honestly, and using language that hopefully is exciting and engaging.”
Along with newer poems, as well as crowd favourites, there’ll be some visuals too with some “beautiful tube lighting.”
“We are dressing up the fact that there is one bloke on the stage talking,” he adds with a laugh.
The tour began in earnest mid-February after preliminary dates in Norwich last December and continues into the summer, including a show at Diss Corn Hall (March 18) and Lowestoft Marina Theatre (March 31), where the poem Lowestoft from the new book will get an outing with the opening lines: “I think I’ll go to Lowestoft. No, don’t laugh, it’s all right there.”
“It’s a nice poem, I am very fond of Lowestoft,” he is quick to add.
When he first began writing and performing, he didn’t immediately see it as a long-term career option.
“I saw John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell, but as a teenager I thought this will be fun for a bit and then I will have to grow up.
“We are fed a lie that artists are either utterly impoverished or superstars and there is nothing in between. But there is an in between, you can tour the country and survive, though I never thought I would be able to do it as a job.
“I love every single part of it: doing big gigs with cool people that I have always admired – and who wouldn’t - but also doing the little gigs in a library in Barnsley and staying in some weird hotel in the middle of nowhere. I like stopping at motorway service stations and spending hours in the car alone with myself.”
That, as you might expect, is an experience also captured in verse (The Lay-bys and Bypasses).
A game changer was moving from a collective to solo shows in 2006 and to the Edinburgh Festival, facing up to the challenge of creating new material every year, touring regularly, and more recently a touring partner with John Cooper Clarke.
Inspirations are numerous, diverse, personal, humorous, but nearly always based on his life.
“I do come back to England and Englishness, I think my work is at is best when it is connecting the personal with the ‘political’, and when it can say something about the inner self and the outside world as well, so I try and do that.
“I am inspired by this country, its glorious bits and its crap bits as well, and increasingly I write about myself in a humorous, honest and unflinching way. I, like anyone, am just trying to work out what it is all about, what the point of all this is and it comes out in my work.”
He looks back on important moments: dictating stories to his mum as a child, playing the Monty Python tape until it broke, seeing Stewart Lee do stand-up onstage for the first time at the Edinburgh Festival, or the lyrics to Country House by Blur.
He also recalls a song-writing course with Martin Newell at Colchester Sixth Form, the first time he heard Jake Thackray perform The Blacksmith and the Toffee Maker, of hearing Flanders and Swann do their stuff, or more recently Baxter Dury.
“Nick Cave’s work,” he continues, “has no relevance to mine – it is a million miles away – but there is something so beautiful about what he does and I love it so much and it must influence me in some way.”
Funny and tragic
It is ordinariness brought to life, combing the sublime and the mundane.
“Life is both funny and tragic, and I think poetry should represent that. If a poem is too poetic, then I feel it is a bit dishonest, it is about trying to capture things in as honest a way as possible.”
He more recently wrote about a friend who took her own life after her colleagues asked if he would create a piece for the funeral service.
A daunting task, unclear where he should start, he said: “It was only when I started to slowly interrogate my response to the news, I realised there was all these tiny little details that appear in the poem now.
“It was not about making sweeping statements. It was about trying to be honest about how it affected me.”
The words to Sophie are moving and powerful, conveying the effect of the news on him.
Yet he also believes poems do not always have to “say something massive.”
“It is the old maxim: if you try to say something about the meaning of life, you end up staring at a brick wall. But say something about a brick wall, and you might just say something about the meaning of life. You just have to focus on the detail and hopefully the good stuff comes out.”
While acknowledging the growing seriousness that comes with age, Luke's goal is always to try to make people laugh.
Amid the weighty poems is the element of stand-up but there is no shirking dealing with graver issues too.
“One of the things I want to do in this show is to take people to sad, fragile, places and not ever make it an uncomfortable experience,” he explains.
“I have sat in poetry rooms and someone has gone in hard and heavy on a serious subject and made some people feel really uncomfortable. I never want to do that.
“It is always a case of can you present this fragile serious poem in a way that everyone can go there and then you can lead them safely out of that mire. I think that is something now 23 years, into this, I feel confident to do, to really be able to lead people further down different paths, and yet bring them back with me.”
During lockdown, Luke’s Twitter shows attracted wide attention, running for 100 consecutive days.
“It was a form of busking, putting a virtual cap on the ground, but it became like a support group for all of us. People said to me that it was nice to know that I would be there every night. Some days I was dishevelled, sad and despondent, and other days I was joyous and showing new work.
“It was the continuity, the fact that it was every single day no matter what, it was about the endurance of it. There were nights that I did not want to do it but I nearly always felt better for having done it and on that final day - the 100th gig - it felt brilliant.”
He also began playing guitar during 2020, as a sort of hobby, working with collaborator Jim Taylor from Sheffield who set some of the poems to music. That has evolved into the band The People Who Run the Country, with two albums worth of music and songs now part of the shows.
Plays and awards
Plays, all reflective of his life, are an important facet of his output.
“What I Learned from Johnny Bevan is about a friendship, while Frankie Vah is about a new relationship,” he says.
The Remains of Logan Dankworth completed the trilogy, about a relationship disintegrating against the backdrop of Brexit, while the latest play he is working on, called The Count of the Saxon Shore, and about someone getting married for a second time.
“Where do I get my ideas from?” he adds. “I use the plays to talk about things I want to talk about and what is going on in my life but the characters do take over and have their own story and it becomes less about your life. But there is a lot of my personal life in them.”
His several books and collections of poems also include The Ballad Seller illustrated by cartoonist Martin Rowson, and The Toll.
Awards include a Scotsman Fringe First (2015), a Stage Award for Acting Excellence and three Saboteur Awards including Best Performer in 2021.
Luke is getting married in the summer, though keeping the details private, apart from revealing that he and his future wife are currently going through the romantic process of booking portable loos.
Having grown up in Coggleshall, which he left and swore never again to live in a small market town in East Anglia, he has lived in the ‘small East Anglian market town’ of Bungay for the past 11 years.
“It turns out it is really nice,” he concedes. “Bungay is a great place to live, there are so many interesting people doing all sorts of interesting things. I am friends with a portrait artist and a thatcher, all sorts of artisans and fascinating people.”
*See Luke Wright on March 18 at Corn Hall Diss and March 31 at Lowestoft Marina Theatre. For more information visit lukewright.co.uk/on-tour-2022