Journeys off the Sunken Roads

A professional poet for twenty years, Luke Wright is taking a new show on the road. He talked to Fergus Byrne ahead of his visit to Bridport.

A poet for 23 years and scraping a living from it for 20, Luke Wright describes his genre as ‘nimble’. He talks about poetry’s ability to take you on a roller coaster of emotions. ‘From a really sad moment that might make you cry’ to something funny in the space of a minute. ‘That’s what poetry can do better than any other genre’ he says.
He is talking about his new show which comes to Bridport in March. ‘I want to make you laugh. I want to make you cry. I want to make you angry and retching and soft, and all of those things’ he says.
It might be described as a show of two halves—with maybe a middle, a start and a finish. And there will also be ups and downs, laughs and tears, and visceral observations in between. He’s not promising to make you feel good. ‘But I am promising to make you feel’.
Luke Wright has form when it comes to making his audience feel something. Whether he’s opening for the Libertines or reciting Georgian ballads down your local, Luke is adept at taking poetry to places it doesn’t normally go. Long time host of Latitude’s Poetry Arena and John Cooper Clarke’s regular warm-up guy, he writes poems that are tender, riotous, caustic, and romantic then delivers them with ferocity and panache.
And although the excitement, freshness, and spirit that erupts from his sometimes fevered mind are unlikely to ever abate, there is change in the air. Luke has just turned forty and is keenly aware of the onset of wisdom—a development that often comes to those who wait. Now divorced and the father of two boys, his latest book The Feel-Good Movie of the Year presents what he describes as an older, more battle-hardened man ‘but also a more mature and wider person.’
He describes the title as a bit of a joke because he hates that line that is so often used to promote new movies. For him, a ‘feel-good’ movie is very different. ‘What I’m hinting at is that I realise that feeling good, feeling positive is about looking at all the difficult stuff head on’ he says. ‘I feel enriched in many ways by the pain that I’ve gone through and the difficult things that I’ve gone through. And if I want to feel good I watch difficult films’. He laughs. ‘For me, a feel-good movie is one that really makes me weep and cry, and it doesn’t necessarily have to have a happy ending. It’s an appreciation of life and all its peaks and pitfalls.’
The book offers a window into that same world of emotional snakes and ladders. Heart-wrenching poems like Ex or A Piece of Quiet, Merch Stall, and Reading for Pleasure are about his children. The poems plant poignant frozen moments into the pages—and they leave a long footprint. The Lay-bys and Bypasses asks aching questions about how well we know the country we live in. “I love and loathe it as I love and loathe myself,” he writes “and yes, I know it, because I know myself”.
Status Update could be a cry for help, screaming for a hand to pull us out of the quicksand of social media. Luke is part of the growing assemblage of people disillusioned with it. ‘I hate it’ he says. He was an early adopter and at first found it quite cool. ‘I have to be on it because of my job really’. He liked the shop front feel of having a website and enjoyed blogging when that started, but social media he sees as a shouting match. He talks about a new band he is working with and a song they released called The People who run the Country. He spent ‘all week on bloody Twitter shouting about the song. I just found it such a depressing place to be. I hate it really and I think that Status Update is a direct result of that. I’m aware of that now, I’m much more aware of how social media makes me feel. I just kind of avoid it.’
He is also aware of a depressing shift in the world around him since Brexit. Initially, a staunch Remainer Luke was quick to accept that other people didn’t feel the same way. ‘Some stuff is obvious’ he says. ‘Being socially liberal is a no-brainer. It’s not really up for debate. I mean why wouldn’t you be socially liberal? I think that’s my generation in that respect. With Brexit I was pro-Remain, I didn’t see the point of leaving. I thought it was a really divisive thing to have a referendum, and it was.’ He talks about the social media bubble where people are sucked into thinking that everybody feels the same way as they do. He recognises the algorithm that sucks you down a rabbit hole to keep you engaged on the platform. ‘I think Brexit was a really interesting moment for me politically because I thought quite quickly that actually, we need to accept that other people have an opinion too.’
He thinks we could have had a better Brexit but says there were very few Remainer voices in those discussions ‘because they were still playing the whole “we don’t accept the result” thing, which just smacked of privilege. It was the worst of us’ he says. ‘Left-wing people are supposed to be open-minded and progressive but what came out of that Remainer camp was this gross snobbishness about how the working classes shouldn’t be allowed to vote because they don’t know what they’re voting for, “they’re idiots” and all that. And it made me feel so uncomfortable and I really hated it.’ He believes the culture war that’s being fought in the wake of Brexit is being lost. ‘The idea that being, “woke” is somehow a bad thing, when it just means to be awake to the world.’
Luke also bemoans the damage caused by the trail left by keyboard activists ‘that go on social crusades but don’t live that life’—what he describes as people of privilege who want to lecture those they see beneath them. ‘I think it’s done us a lot of damage and it’s going to make it harder to win other wars, because I think we’ve been setting ourselves up to be quite intolerant people.’
However, despite his new ‘middle-aged’ self-styling, Luke Wright is as driven as ever. He remembers making up stories with his mother when he was tiny. He would dictate his ideas to her to write down because he hadn’t yet learned to write. But he also remembers encouragement. ‘It certainly would have given me a sense that I was able to, I was entitled to, I was allowed to create’ he says. ‘Because a lot of kids aren’t encouraged or told that. It’s a great gift she gave to me. It is super satisfying to create something, to see it on the page. I’m adopted and you could look at it psychologically as an attempt to create a sense of self. You know who you are. It’s a beautiful thing to have made something and I would have been aware of that almost immediately.’ When he first saw John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell perform he saw it as ‘something I could do. It played to my strengths.’
He remembers being ‘horrendously bullied’ for about a year when he was 15 or 16. And now muses on whether you could argue that writing gave him something positive away from all that. Playing in a band before he took to performing poetry, there was lots of teenage angst in his songs. ‘But when I started writing the poetry it was the opposite.’ Seeing other poets writing about actual things, making comments on society flipped a switch. ‘I suddenly realised that was so much better than writing all this vague, sort of depressive bullshit about nothing. And then all of a sudden people wanted to hear them because they were about something. They weren’t self-indulgent.’ He agrees that you have to be allowed to be a little self-indulgent ‘but ultimately don’t be surprised if no one wants to hear it.’
It’s hard to talk about ‘actual things’ without politics creeping in. However, Luke doesn’t believe in using his work to promote a crusade. ‘I am now—in my more advanced years—unconvinced of the use of poetry as a sort of political soapbox tool’ he says. ‘I think generally short poems about politics are just soapboxing on the whole. In my new show, I’ve got a poem about the culture war which doesn’t really come down on either side. It talks about my anxiety around it.’
But there are moments where his writing gets political ‘but I don’t have a soapbox anymore because I don’t see the point of it. The older I get the more uncertain I feel about things. I like to explore it in longer pieces where you really are slowly building up a picture and trying to explore political ideas and political events, and I think that’s more satisfying.’
Today, as we look forward to Spring in what some people are calling an early ‘post pandemic’ period in our lives, maybe we can tentatively hope that we are awakening from a deeply uncomfortable slumber. If so, looking forward to Luke Wright’s new show might give us a glimpse and a sense of being back in real life—albeit with his own particular nod to ‘actual things’. He describes the show as being about how to present these more complex, more touching, empathetic—‘in a literary sense’—moments on stage, and still be able to present a proper night out.
‘I’ve worked really hard at being able to take the audience to what I hope are moments of genuine pathos and emotion’ he says. ‘I really want to make people laugh and cry in this show and not have one ruin the other. It’s a show about being at a mid-point in life, and I’m examining that from a political sense. I’m looking at the culture war. And it’s also being aware that there are a whole lot of younger people now who are sneering at me the way I sneered at my parents. But it’s also about looking for the joy in life and saying “yea it’s ok to be sad” and “it’s ok to not be snobby”. And it’s also about how I was becoming a bit snobby about the new way I’d been writing poems, being a bit disparaging about rhyme and stuff like that.’
Under the hood of Luke Wright’s thought processes, there is a turbocharged engine trying to live with the many gear changes of life. And there is no doubt that they will occasionally crunch or that he might take corners at a startlingly rapid speed. Or that, like the rest of us, he might once in a while go down a dead end. It might be a wild ride, but we could do a lot worse than hop on board and enjoy it.