‘Like anybody in showbiz, I’m kind of insecure’ - Dr John Cooper Clarke marks 50 years of punk poetry with new Irish tour

David Roy speaks to punk poet extraordinaire John Cooper Clarke about the Irish leg of his Get Him While He’s Alive! tour, his latest collection, What, and why poetry is just as competitive as rock and roll

Dr John Cooper Clarke
The Salford poet returns to Ireland this week. PICTURE: Paul Wolfgang Webster

“I THINK I first came over with Dr Feelgood around 1979,” recalls Dr John Cooper Clarke of his very first visit to the north, back in the days when he first rose to prominence as Britain’s premier ‘punk poet’ with his top 40 hit Gimmix! (Play Loud).

“They had a little tour there and it was a lot of fun, it was great – although the experience was marred a little bit, because I broke my wrist half-way through. But I don’t play air guitar or anything, so it didn’t really impinge on my work.

“However, it was very painful. I wouldn’t recommend it, as a doctor.”

Who said poetry couldn’t be rock and roll, eh? Not Cooper Clarke anyway, who received his honorary doctorate from the University of Salford in 2013 to acknowledge “a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians”.

Back in the day, the Salford-born man regularly shared bills with bands including the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, The Fall, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Elvis Costello, to mention but six familiar names, and recorded with celebrated producer Martin Hannett.

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Dr John Cooper Clarke
The poet turned 75 this year. PICTURE: Paul Wolfgang Webster

More recently, one of his most famous poems, the wedding favourite I Wanna Be Yours, was immortalised in musical form by the Arctic Monkeys on their 2013 album, AM.

Sadly, the story behind his Irish wrist break is not very rock and roll at all.

“It was an inadequate arrangement for getting on and off stage,” he explains in his signature deadpan delivery.

“A collapsible staircase, back in the inefficient days of the late 1970s.”

Happily, health and safety has improved somewhat since then, thus reducing the likelihood of similar mishaps marring Cooper Clarke’s upcoming run of Irish dates on his amusingly titled Get Him While He’s Alive! tour.

“Yeah, that was my idea – I figured I’d inject a little urgency into the proceedings,” chuckles the poet, who turned 75 this year.

Dr John Cooper Clarke's Get Him While He's Still Alive! tour poster 2024
The Get Him While He's Alive! tour rolls on

Billed as marking ‘50 years in showbiz’, the tour has already been a super successful affair which has seen Cooper Clarke and a selection of up and coming supporting-turn poets selling out a slew of dates.

However, when asked if he’s been enjoying the shows thus far, the Essex-based bard is not having it.

“Well, David, as I always say, if I wanted to enjoy it, I’d buy a ticket – I’m at work there, mate,” he chuckles.

“But no, seriously, it’s my favourite part of what I do, these public demonstrations. And as you say, me and my poetic group have been selling out large theatres all over the place.

“It’s myself, plus Mike Garry, Luke Wright, Toria Garbutt and Clare Ferguson-Walker. It’s a mix up of those people [across the various dates], but I’m the constant factor.

“I mean, it’s a very new development, where an evening of poetry can sell out the London Palladium, for example. It’s been great and people love it.”

However, while the tickets have been flying out as fast as the positive reviews have been flooding in, you won’t catch the headliner watching his fellow poets from the wings on this tour, as he explains.

John Cooper Clarke
PICTURE: Paul Wolfgang Webster

“You’ve hit on one there,” Cooper Clarke chuckles.

“Of course, we get on great on a social level, but like anybody in this flaky business, I’m kind of insecure. So I don’t watch too much of their acts.

“I mean, you know, what’s the best thing that can happen? They’re lousy. People have this idea that poetry is this kind of sedentary and mutually congratulatory world. But of course, it isn’t.

“I think it’s a hot house of competition: don’t watch that – watch watch this, everybody sucks but me.”

The parallels with the rock and roll world continue there, in the tradition of young and hungry support acts hoping to steal the show – and thus, fans – from the more established headliners.

“Of course you do, especially in the world of poetry, which is pretty kind of exposed,” says Cooper Clarke of the confidence required to get in front of a crowd with nothing but a microphone and your words.

“I don’t think anybody could do it if they didn’t think they were top dog. You’ve got to give it your all or nothing at all, as Sinatra used to sing.”

On this tour, the poet will be performing favourites from his vast repertoire, including the aforementioned I Wanna Be Yours and Evidently Chickentown – the latter expletive-strewn ditty having exposed the Englishman to a new global audience when it was featured in an episode of The Sopranos – alongside new poems from his most recent collection, the magnificently titled What.

“It’s not a question and it’s not an exclamation,” explains Cooper Clarke.

“It’s an attention-grabbing monosyllable that was employed by poets in the 19th century, in their salons.

“You know, they’ve just written a masterpiece, and they would spring to their feet and throw their hand out and cry ‘What!’

“And then everybody would drop their cutlery – I mean, you’re going to turn around with a word like that, aren’t you? It indicates an emergency of some kind.”

The cover of What by Dr John Cooper Clarke
What is the poet's latest collection

After half a century of verse and performance, you might wonder if Cooper Clarke now approaches each new collection with the intention of trying to do something completely different in order to satisfy a continued inner yearning.

The answer, however, is: “Not really, no.”

He continues: “I’ve always got an audience in mind, I’m not one of these poets that writes because it’s cathartic or to come to terms with anything. It’s all for the gratification of others in some indivisible way.

“Basically, the way I put it is that my latest book is the same kind of thing as the previous collection – with improvements, where necessary.”

Dr John Cooper Clarke, May 8, Millennium Forum, Derry / May 10, Mandela Hall, QUBSU / May 11, Seamus Heaney Homeplace, Bellaghy / May 14, Olympia Theatre, Dublin / May 15, Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick / May 16, The Black Box, Galway / May 18, Set Theatre, Kilkenny / May 19, Cyprus Theatre, Cork. Tickets via johncooperclarke.com