-Reviewed by Sophie McKeand–
It’s Monday evening and, to quote an old Welsh language idiom, it’s raining old wives and walking sticks in Wrecsam town (mae’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn). We’re braving it anyway because local poet Jon Compliant is performing his first headline slot at Voicebox. More about Jon in a minute, first I want to talk about Voicebox, a diverse collective of poets headed by Tim Humphreys working to promote and support the north Wales poetry scene. I’m impressed with their inclusive approach to form and style: the open floor running at each event is supportive, with newcomers encouraged to get up and have a go. It’s the perfect place to try out new work, or to make your first stage appearance.
This ethos is as important to poetry as booking decent headline artists. Newcomers soon become regular audience members and performers; it’s how a strong, vibrant scene evolves and I’m delighted to see this emerge instead of an elitist, exclusive, navel-gazing affair. Don’t get me wrong, this inclusive approach can sometime irk, as we all have our own personal tastes, but I’ve loved the majority of headliners.
Back to our headline poet: Jon Compliant wastes no time bouncing on stage in a beanie hat, lager can glued to his right hand, firing expletives in a style reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke. This stage persona is going to put some people off – I doubt that bothers this poet – but it will. He also doesn’t give his poems titles, or at least doesn’t tell the audience what they are, so you find yourself saying afterwards ‘I laughed at the one about…’
What works for me with Jon Compliant, however, is watching his character unfold. In a revelation seemingly at odds with his stage persona, we learn that Carl works in a large financial institution having ‘spent half a decade in a windowless room as a research analyst’. Recently his ‘co-workers’ Googled him, then, ‘grassed him up’ for a poem because the content might have offended some people in management – how lovely of them. Cue the audience trying to imagine Carl attending a disciplinary meeting with senior management to explain ‘spoken word’. He’d probably do okay as long as he didn’t take Jon Compliant in with him. This also explains how Carl’s alter ego Jon Compliant was born.
The offending poem is clearly a crowd favourite. The first time I heard this format was over at Dead Good Poets Society in Liverpool around 2007, this one had the refrain ‘blame x y z, blame a b c, but you can’t blame Thatcher’. It was witty, sharp and political. All poets will use set pieces to structure the work at times; the important thing here is to add something new. Jon Compliant brings his love of music to this with the smart refrain of ‘but I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like Massive Attack’. I think about this for a minute. I think he’s probably right. So we get lead-in lines such as:
‘I knew a grime MC who joined the EDL and said he only wanted peace’ (true story), and, ‘I know a bloke in senior management who uses actual fucking sense’ (this is the line he got dragged into a meeting about).
The ‘polite but evil’ brigade are clearly the cause of many of the world’s problems, according to Carl, which explains much of his sweary swagger. He is at pains to be their polar opposite. This is cemented with a poem about eating crisps on the quiet coach. Jon finally gets smacked by one of the ‘polite but evil’ brigade for eating crisps loudly on the quiet coach, and this quickly escalates into total anarchy in a kind of butterfly or domino effect, with people across the globe finally standing up and speaking out at actions that wind them up. In this, Jon becomes a kind of reverse-psychology-genius-figure burning at the centre, finishing the poem wittily with the line ‘and that’s why I eat crisps on the quiet coach’.
We see another side to Carl with a new poem set to music about being in a coma in 2007, where his determination to work through the flu landed him in hospital with all vital organs shutting down – in fact, he died for a time. This is a sombre story well told, but elements of the presentation need work: for me, the music was too loud and the timing slightly off, but I’m intrigued to see where this leads as it’s an interesting element to Carl we don’t usually experience on stage. In his defense, he wasn’t supposed to do this slot until Spring next year when, he admitted, this new piece would have been better prepared. I don’t mind that – as artists we are multi-faceted and it’s important to take risks. In this case, Carl is pushing out of his funny/sweary comfort zone and into something more lyrical and philosophical in style, which is great to witness. I’m looking forward to seeing this develop.
To sum up: Jon Compliant is political and hilarious with machine-gun-fast delivery. He’s also starting to push boundaries with style and form. The banter between poems is polished and well judged in a way that belies the brash ‘off-the-cuff’ performance. Carl’s also only been performing for a year, during which time he’s won the Manchester heat of the Superheros of Slam and, in stark contrast, had a judge refuse to score him at One Mic Stand (I don’t know who the judge was so won’t comment here). This speaks volumes about Jon as a poet – you’re not going to watch him perform and say ‘ah, that was nice’. I think he’d tell you to fuck off if you did. But there’s method to the sweary/funny poetry and an underlying philosophy and intelligence that is taking this poet to some interesting places both lyrically and artistically. Definitely one to watch.