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John Hegley choosing his words very carefully

This article is over 15 years, 5 months old
Poet John Hegley spoke to Ken Olende about his work and performances
Issue 2011
John Hegley performs at a benefit gig for Iraqi oil workers at the Marxism 2006 conference (Pic: Guy Smallman)
John Hegley performs at a benefit gig for Iraqi oil workers at the Marxism 2006 conference (Pic: Guy Smallman)

John Hegley’s poetry is comic, with a quirky mixture of nostalgia, melancholy and hope. His new collection, Uncut Confetti, returns to some of his regular themes – including growing up in Luton and his relationship with his father.

He said, “When I first wrote about my father I was quite angry. Now the glare of my anger has dimmed and I’ve been able to see the moon of some of the more beautiful things about him.

“It’s been a therapeutic journey for me through the medium of performance and writing. It’s cheaper than therapy anyway – I got paid for it.”

During a recent show, which was a warm-up for the Edinburgh festival, he read out slogans and demands from the radical students occupying the Sorbonne university in Paris during May 1968.

Their poetic demands fitted well with the atmosphere of a John Hegley performance. He explained, “I’m writing a drama for the BBC World Service about my French grandmother. That came from that.”

While not overtly political, John’s work is gently subversive, questioning the order of things.

“I think that’s the job of the poet,” he said. “Not necessarily looking from a different view, but looking at the same view for longer. Look at a potato. Study it until you see not only the eyes, but the eyelashes as well.

“I choose my words carefully. It’s interesting to use phrases and shift them to get away from cliches. Poetry is supposed to freshen things up, what DH Lawrence called looking with a new attention.”

Hegley performed at a recent benefit for the Iraqi Oil Workers Union. He said, “I thought it would be good to get away from just having the British media’s view of what was going on there, to hear some people from the country and get their perspective on it.”

His show mixes poems with more overtly comic songs. John comments, “Once you start singing it becomes more entertainment than melancholic comment, even if it is quite melancholic. The fact that you’re strumming the guitar and stretching your vocal tones tends to give it something else.”

John emerged from the alternative comedy movement in the 1980s. He commented, “I don’t see a lot of comedy now. Anything that’s just comedy, comedy, comedy, comedy is too one dimensional. I like something that is comedy, tragedy, travesty, comedy – and a bit of poetry thrown in.

“I’ve just got back from playing the Liverpool Comedy Festival. I felt a bit guilty because sometimes I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

He is very excited by his work in education. “I do a lot of work with children. I talk about mythological paintings, bringing those stories to life or getting them to tell a new story. I take groups round the National Gallery.

“I was at a school in Lincolnshire recently and asked the kids to come up with new terms of abuse: ‘You dirty piece of carpet’, ‘You empty box’, ‘You over-elongated ostrich’, ‘You piece of gum on the floor’, ‘You table leg’, ‘You burglar alarm’, ‘You lamp with no bulb in it’, ‘You blunt pencil’, ‘You sports hall floor’, ‘You rusty bus’. It’s encouraging isn’t it?

“I think that children nowadays have a much better perspective on poetry than I did in my time. A lot of poetry teaching goes on in schools and children are glad to have a poet in there. I tell them to write song lyrics and when they’ve done it tell them that it’s poetry. They find that less alienating than trying to write ‘poetry’.

“There is a lot of really fantastic stuff out there now. Take Michael Rosen, who is somebody my daughter loves. He just hits the button with the facts of what it’s like to be a child in an adult’s world.

“I feel very optimistic about poetry at the moment. There are so many children being turned on to it. I hope that in ten or 15 years they will blossom in their own way.”

John Hegley’s website is at

His new book is Uncut Confetti, Methuen £9.99. He will be appearing at the Edinburgh Festival at the Pleasance, 8-28 August. To book phone 0131 556 6550 or go to

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