Congratulations to Rob Auton for winning the best joke of the Edinburgh Fringe 2013!
Rob’s joke was:
I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.
A few years ago Rob kindly let me take his portrait and do an interview for a magazine I was working on at the time.
You can read my interview with Rob below:
Robert Auton was born yesterday (in York) and runs a weekly poetry event in London called Bang! Said The Gun.
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Adriaan van Heerden: When did you start doing Bang! Said The Gun?
Rob Auton: About two years ago  I worked in advertising as an art director and Martin Galton, who was my creative director at the time, had been running BSTG for about 10 years with a friend of his called Dan Cockrill. I told Martin that I’d been writing poetry and he said I should come and read a few at a fireworks party in his back garden. I read about 10 short poems, nine of which were rubbish but one was ok. After that I tried to read at as many places as possible. So it’s about two years that the three of us have been running BSTG.
AvH: You were born in York. Did you study there as well?
RA: No, I did a graphics degree at Newcastle, but that was all just ideas. We got briefs and just had to answer them in a creative way. I try to have ideas all the time, you know. I worked in advertising for a while, and eventually my own stuff took over.
AvH: And how did you first start getting into poetry?
RA: I had this friend called Mickey, and he said he was always depressed because he thought the only person called Mickey who was ever going to be successful was Mickey Mouse. So he started dressing as a clown to try and make himself feel better about himself, but it wasn’t really working. And his brain changed into a rain-cloud and he went all downhill. He inspired me to start writing really by the way he did that change. It’s funny with these things really because I just wanted to have some fun with him, you know. I just love poetry nights. I remember the first time I read at the Poetry Unplugged when it was John Citizen who was doing it. It’s a real buzz isn’t it?
AvH: Yes, I’ve been there when it’s been really quiet, when there have only been about eight people there, and I’ve also been there when it’s been more like forty people. So I’ve seen both extremes. The last few times I’ve been have been great, some really cracking stuff. I think the last time I went might have been the time when you read Carspotter, which is probably the most fun I’ve had at the Poetry Cafe.
RA: I had the idea for that when it was my grandmother’s funeral at the start of the year. When we were in the cars behind the hearse and everyone was upset. The idea was born there. It was a really sad day and it made me realize that poetry can help you get through a difficult situation. I’ve done comedy nights but I prefer poetry gigs, because people don’t go with the idea that if they don’t laugh they’ve had a crap time, whereas at poetry you can feel sorrow and laughter.
AvH: Yes, you can have a real rollercoaster of emotions at a poetry night, which makes it really interesting.
RA: Well that’s what we want to try to achieve through BSTG—a night where people leave thinking that they’ve felt every emotion you can feel.
AvH: In terms of your own poetry it seems that Spike Milligan is a big influence.
RA: He is yeah. I just love his poems, his comic scripts, his drawings—everything really. But it’s funny, I’ve got quite a few influences but I don’t obsess over them too much. Bob Dylan was the first one; he made me realize that you can do anything with words. My favourite album is Bringing It All Back Home—I love his anger on that in songs like Maggie’s Farm and It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).
AvH: I’m a big Dylan fan myself, particularly Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde, but I like the new stuff as well. But picking up on your point of not getting too hung up on any particular influence, I suppose it’s having the confidence of your own voice, even though it may not be the greatest poetry the world has ever seen.
RA: But what is the greatest poetry in the world? I’m reading Bukowski at the moment and he says there’s no poetry strong enough to make you stop doing things, like going out with your friends. Life has to go on. If there was a massive famine and there was a poet reading next to a guy selling hot dogs, everyone would go to the hot dog man. But if there’s no art things would be a bit boring. When people say I’ve got this what do you think, it’s like Picasso doing so many thousands of paintings and just throwing things down on canvas. He was painting as good as the old masters when he was 13 and then he just threw it all away and did his own thing.
AvH: I was actually thinking about Picasso just this morning, because I was thinking about the quotation on the home page of BSTG, saying that it was poetry for people who don’t like poetry. And I was thinking about Stephen Fry’s recent book on poetry where he almost seems to want to go back to a previous age, saying that poetry has to conform to certain rhythmical patterns and structures and I thought I don’t have any sympathy with that view at all. And if you take Picasso’s view of art, the purpose of art is to continually reinvent itself, and I was wondering if what you’re about is part of that, reinventing the way we look at poetry.
RA: Well, for me the great thing about BSTG is that people come who have never been to a poetry gig before, who have never written poetry before, but they go away and think “maybe I could write poetry”. And they do go away and write poetry for the first time and perform for the first time. There shouldn’t be any rules. All that old stuff is past and all we’ve got is now. I think everyone should have a go.
AvH: It seems like there’s potential in everyone, everyone has the capacity to be creative in some way. But we live in a world where that expression isn’t really appreciated or valued as much. We have prefabricated brands of things that people buy into, so your creativity is reduced to how you combine those brands on your own person. It’s not something that you yourself produce or bring forth. When I was a student in South Africa we had a great philosophy professor, and a saying he often quoted was from the Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus says that if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; but if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. I think there is something to that. You begin to live a different kind of life when you start expressing yourself, but the difficult part is the first step, writing something down and sharing it with other people.
RA: I know what we’re trying to do with BSTG is get poetry to more people, because people think that poetry is so boring. If you asked people at a football turnstile what they think of poetry they’ll probably say that it’s crap, but if you ask them what they think of The Clash a lot of them will probably say they like them. But Joe Strummer just oozes poetry in every way—the way he looked on life, his attitude to just about everything. And even if he couldn’t change anything he still wanted to have a go. A lot of the time poetry just hasn’t got any guts, or dance, or mocksy. There’s nothing for people to buy into. I think it is about time there’s a big change in people’s perception of poetry. There is so much amazing poetry that is being written and it should be celebrated. But I find all the older poets and poems really difficult and hard to understand, I don’t really get anything from reading it. Maybe I’m not intellectual enough.
AvH: But maybe that’s part of the issue, that poetry has this image of being intellectual and niche, rather than something that is fundamental to all human beings and that takes us back to the origins of language itself.
RA: It should be part of everyday life. There’s just so much excitement in words, isn’t there. For example on the way here there was a woman on the overland from Liverpool Street. She was old and had a really bad cough, and she had a plastic bag and she pulled out a pasta sauce dish that was empty, and she’d filled it full of water from the tap and she was just going to drink it. I’d never seen that before, and if I can turn that into somethingv, something more than that. And these little things are everywhere, that I just try to scavenge.
AvH: And that’s big part of it, isn’t it: seeing things that other people don’t normally see. It’s the same with photography. The really stunning photographs are the ones where you think “why didn’t I see that?” If I was in that situation I wouldn’t have bothered taking a photo, but someone has seen something, some combination of elements that other people would have passed by.
RA: There’s a bit in Bukowski where he talks about his teacher who had a lisp, and he says “I want to kiss that lisp.” Just the idea of trying to make people look at things in a slightly different way.
AvH: And you take well-known sayings and cliches and you twist them around and pull them apart and stretch them a bit.
RA: That’s right.
AvH: You know the Spike Milligan poem Jumbo Jet, about the elephant in London who wants to go back to Africa. That’s not just playing with words, it’s putting linguistic objects into unfamiliar territory. I think that’s something you do as well.
RA: That’s what I try to do. I’ve got this poem that says “I’m bind, I’m bind”, and Dr Ossiman says, “Don’t you mean you’re blind?” And he says “No I just can’t see Ls.” I want to put things in people’s heads that weren’t there before.
AvH: And the reason you want to put things there, is there something you’d like to see happen as a result of it?
RA: I’d like to bring things to life. Like red peppers being the devil’s testicles. If I can say that and then someone goes into a supermarket and looks at a pepper and goes “oh yeah”. That’s the objective, for that person to think it’s more than just a pepper.
AvH: That’s a very interesting point. Our phrases that we use day to day are really dead metaphors, aren’t they? Nietzsche said something like that, that language is a conglomeration of dead metaphors—they had a life once upon a time but through constant years over years and years they had all the life sucked out of them. So bringing all that stuff to life again is quite exciting.
RA: It’s probably been in the last five years that I thought it doesn’t have to be like this. Someone once upon a time drew the letter O for the first time and said this is what it’s going to be. If I’d been there I’d have said “can’t we have a bit of the O missing because that’s going to confuse people, it being the same as the 0”. Like reading and Reading—why are they different? There’s no reason for it. It just seems that there are mistakes like that in language. And that’s what makes me think we’ve got a licence to do things.
AvH: Is it something about absurdity? I mean, you’re basically saying that the way we use language is absurd, and that somehow we’ve just got used to it. We’ve forgotten about the absurdity.
RA: I didn’t realize it until quite recently, but that’s my thing: absurdity. The vast majority of stuff is absurd. It’s absolutely unreal that we’re sitting here doing this. I’ve got this poem “if I have a son his name will be Dad, after my dad”.
AvH: Yeah I love that one, I just think it’s so fantastic.
RA: The fact that everyone calls their dad “Dad”. We all say it. All these rules have been put in place by other people. There’s a massive creative opportunity to do something here.
AvH: Have you got a vision of how things should be? Or do you think it’s all anarchic, that we can’t do much to order things because it’s all too absurd? Or that by continuing to draw attention to the absurd we can actually in some ways overcome it?
RA: I think that’s it—realizing that the absurd is there and then overcoming it.