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John Cooper Clarke: 'I heard on the news that Bono's leather pants were robbed, so I put it to rhyme'

The godfather of British performance poetry will embark on an Irish tour in March and April.

John Cooper Clarke
John Cooper Clarke
Image: Paul Wolfgang Webster

MORE THAN THREE decades passed between the publication of John Cooper Clarke’s last two poetry collections.

During that time, Clarke has appeared everywhere from The Sopranos, to Arctic Monkeys recordings, the UK school syllabus, and ads for Sugar Puffs.

But casual fans of the so-called ‘Bard of Salford’ might be hard pushed to name the 1983 collection, Ten Years In an Open Necked Shirt, that was his last published work before The Luckiest Guy Alive came out last year.

So what was he doing between both collections? “I don’t have an intelligent answer,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

“I’m just bone idle. But you’ve just got to keep trying. Inspiration’s for amateurs – I’m a professional. Some days are better than others: sometimes it ain’t happening, sometimes it is.”

Instead, a unique performative style has seen him dubbed “the godfather of British performance poetry” and endeared him to fans across the world.

Clarke first shot to fame as the ‘people’s poet’ alongside British punk bands in the late 1970s, and his rapid delivery of humourous verse led to him being dubbed a “punk poet”.

The tag has no doubt been aided by his distinctive appearance, with Ronnie Wood-like hair and dark sunglasses a constant throughout his decades of fame.

But he jokes that, despite his rock star credentials, he could never be in a band.

“I’m not really a team player,” he says.

“From time to time I’ve worked with musicians in the studio on albums and things like that. But every school report I got back in the day said the same thing: no team spirit.

“I think that would forbid me from being in a band. I’m too much of a person of sudden impulse. You can’t do that when you’re working on a committee with five other guys.

“You just can’t work in the way that I like to work. Let’s give it a name: I’m a control freak, and as such, unbearable in a bad situation. I’m a tyrant.”

Bono’s trousers

Earlier this week, Clarke announced a series of April shows across Ireland – on top of an appearance at Dublin’s Vicar Street in March – to promote his new book.

The tour will take in dates in Letterkenny, Belfast, Sligo and Cork, locations Clarke says he has been to many times before and describes as “fantastic”.

On top of his thoughts on life, jokes, and classic material, fans can also expect to hear some of the poems in his latest collection.

The book contains verses on the destructive rampage of a 50ft tall woman, the fragile temperament of someone on psychedelic drugs, and an policeman who has a mental breakdown (“PC gone mad”).

There’s even a piece about Bono’s trousers.

“That’s something that actually happened – I heard it on the news on Radio 4,” he says.

“There was one of those ‘save the planet’ type meetings that they have, and I heard Bono had been robbed of his key pieces: the stetson, the shades, and the leather pants.

“So I converted it, hot off the news, into rhyme.”

But although the news might seem like an easy source of inspiration (“something’s happening all the time”), Clarke points out that he aims to avoid too much direct social commentary.

“I don’t really deal with politics at all, because it would date what I do in my poems,” he says.

“What I write is nothing to do with what’s happening this week. I like to think that I deal with all the eternal stuff, irrespective of things like Britain leaving the EU.

“I leave that to people who know what they’re talking about.”

The luckiest guy alive

At the same time, Clarke acknowledges that his work has social value when asked how he felt about his poems being taught on the UK’s school syllabus (“really glad”).

However, he’s almost as quick to distinguish himself as different to those he appears alongside in school textbooks.

“People have asked me since I began in poetry if I consider myself a romantic, because as everybody knows, the language of romance is poetry,” he says.

“My answer to that question is always the same: yes, I consider myself to a romantic – but to a sadistic degree.”

Despite his self-deprecation, Clarke doesn’t blink when asked if he considers himself the luckiest guy alive, as the title of his new book suggests.

“Oh without a doubt, no contest,” he says.

“I’ve got it all baby: a lovely wife, a beautiful daughter, a nice place to live. I make a living out of doing what it is that I’ll do anyway.

“What more could you possibly ask for than this?”

John Cooper Clarke will play in Dublin next month, and in Letterkenny, Belfast, Sligo and Cork in April as part of ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive Tour’.

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