ARCHIVE: The Mama Dada – An Interview with Gerry Potter

Andrew interviewed Gerry Potter back in 2005, he touched on the argument between performance poetry and poetry on the page and how critics and readers perceive this. Andrew says of the interview, ‘ I couldn’t resist interviewing Gerry, I got a phone call and I was asked if I wanted to interview him. I thought at first they wanted me to interview Chloe Poems (Gerry’s alter ego). I had interviewed Chloe many times for The Big Issue, Flux and Manchester Evening News and I felt there was nothing more I could bring to the table but then I was told, “No, you will be interviewing Gerry”. I jumped at the chance at interviewing him, to see the man behind the mask. Gerry is a warm, funny man and seeing him apart from Chloe was refreshing, Chloe always scared me in interviews but Gerry made me feel welcome. That I suspect is the crux of all art, never confuse the product with the person’.

The Mama Dada: An Interview with Gerry Potter aka Chloe Poems. An Interview by Andrew Oldham

Chloe Poems first appeared in “The Beige Experience” – a Liverpool-based cabaret double-act in the late eighties. Born again, a fully rounded, impassioned visionary in gingham in 1993, Chloe has since followed her emotional mission to make the world a better place. Chloe has toured

nationally over the last seven years with her full length theatre shows, Knockers, Chloe Poems Healing Roadshow, Universal Rentboy, Kinky and ME. A stalwart of the cabaret circuit, Chloe has performed and hosted a diverse

range of events, from hosting Gay Pride in front of 100,000 people, to being ushered out of a Bristol pub whilst being told “Bristol isn’t ready for you”. Her anthology Universal Rentboy, was published in 2000 and her

latest book, Adult Entertainment is now available. Gerry Potter, creator of Chloe Poems, is also a playwright, director, actor and workshop leader. He talks here about his work, his career and his creation.

You brought two strong traditions together with Chloe Poems, the creation of a Dada like character and stand up. Where did this ‘ideal’ first come about?

‘I think I’m rather more Mama than Dada, don’t you? But I see what you mean. For me the whole essence of Chloe is about a cross-pollination of creativity, fusing a myriad of theatrical and lyrical styles. A lot of entertainment formats, such as stand-up, drag and dare I say it, even

performance poetry, have become staid in their presentation. Chloe is an opportunity to invigorate and enliven, whilst at the same time obeying the traditions of performance. I believe Chloe is as Rabelaisian as she is simplistic – a guerrilla in the minimalist shall we say. And why? Because as writers and entertainers we owe it to whichever artform we work in, to challenge the perceptions it surrounds’.

Critics of your work never sit on the fence; neither do your audiences, what has been your most positive and negative experiences on the road?

‘Critics, 99% of the time, are fine, whether they like my work or not, but there is 1% who should never have become literary critics and instead, if they ever could have married, would have been as happy then to beat up

their wives instead. Get over your childhood trauma and stop using the page as a place to abuse artists. There have been a number of occasions where I have been threatened with violence. Once I was nearly arrested by the police on a public order charge at a Manchester people’s festival (what price free speech eh?). However,

even these seemingly negative experiences have their plus points. A drag queen being hassled by a policeman is an image I find intriguingly compelling. The most positive aspect is, of course, audience appreciation. I get the most fantastic response from people who come to see me. For most of my audience, I think Chloe is a life-affirming, joyous and entertaining spectacle. These aren’t my words, these are reactions I hear on a regular

basis. Also, the diversity of my audience is a constant joy, from professors of Literary Criticism at Harvard University to people who’ve never been to a poetry event before in their lives’.

What processes do you go through to create new work?

‘The process is continuous. There is never a day that doesn’t spawn another ten ideas. I will then take one of those ideas and let it percolate, coffee-like, at the back of my mind, until it is ready to be poured onto

the page. There are ideas I’ve had percolating for many years, which still haven’t found the right moment to appear, and then there are some which are newer, who find their space on the coffee-stained page quite quickly. If I

could write as fast as I think then there would be an international library full of work’.

How hard was it for you to initially get your work published?

‘Very. A lot of people’s perceptions at that time were of a silly drag cabaret artist, understandably so, because I did a lot of silly drag cabaret venues. So I knew I had to take the character away from those environments and instate her somewhere else – on the performance poetry

circuit. As you can imagine it was quite a shock to both them and me, but gradually, and with a lot of time and effort, I managed to cement Chloe firmly in that world, including the Literature Festival circuit. It was only then that publishing could become an option, so thank you Bad Press for being aware enough to take the chance where so many others didn’t. After the first publication “Universal Rentboy”, and an increasingly higher profile, Route came forward with the second book and accompanying CD “Adult Entertainment”. A limited edition box-set of poetry “I’m Kamp” (not to be confused with Meine Kampf) also by Bad Press, and inclusion in anthologies such as Apples & Snakes Anniversary Compendium “Velocity” are steadily building up my publication catalogue. I’m very happy with the freedom

smaller independent publishing houses can give you – it feels a bit punk in its energy’.

What advice would you give to other poets out there looking to get published?

‘I would advise any writer who wants to say something different to approach a small press and not be smothered by the dogged rules and insistences of the larger poetry-by-numbers companies’.

You’re also a playwright, how does this work differ from poetry for you on both a private and public level?

‘It’s much easier being a poet. Putting on a piece of theatre can take years from inception to production. Although very rewarding, the process can be

frustrating and tiring. With performance poetry it’s almost all set up for you. You just have to supply the material. It’s quicker and more immediate, and if you have the skills you can make a performance poetry space as

dynamic as a theatre, without the incumbence of props and bitchy actors’.

Poetry is often seen as personal, both being written and in many cases performed alone, but as an actor you effectively become public property, how have you dealt with both having to direct your own work and in turn be

directed by others?

‘I think it’s the performance and not the actor that is public property, which is where Chloe, as a costume, is very important to me. I, as Gerry Potter, have no wish or desire to be recognised in public. I would find that distressing and rude. Having the artifice of Chloe is a very useful tool for me, as both a writer and performer. I have a compulsion to perform, not to be a celebrity. I direct the Chloe concept myself, but have been directed by others, namely Gary Padden. Those early shows were a joy and helped cement Chloe as a national touring figure. I’m very seldom directed now, and if I am, it’s with other people’s work. For example recently I played J Edgar Hoover in Mayhew & Co’s Mania at the Contact

Theatre, Manchester. Being directed in that production was a delight and an inspiration, and of course, I bring elements of that into my own performances as Chloe’.

When Chloe Poems becomes too much how will you be rid of her, will we be looking at a Sunset Boulevard ending or Who Killed Baby Jane?

‘At this moment in time I can’t see Chloe becoming too much. Paradoxically it would be too much for me if she wasn’t there. If that day should come, it wouldn’t be anything as melodramatic as a camp movie cliche, but perhaps something rather more subtle, like blowing up the queen. I think Chloe could only go if she committed the ultimate sacrifice’.

Adult Entertainment (Route) was an independent success, how hard was it for you to write and then promote the collection?

‘There are moments in “Adult Entertainment” which were very difficult for me. I still wonder if I should ever have written Are we Myra Hindley, but I did write it and because I don’t believe in absolutes I felt it should be

included. I sometimes don’t live comfortably with my work because I know it has affected people on any different levels. Some of those levels aren’t pleasant. But most of the time it was a joy to write. It allowed my to play

with the structure of language and make malleable what most intellectual purveyors of the craft would scoff at. It cemented my belief that language belongs to everybody and not the chosen clichéd cliques. It follows no form

that any other poetry book has been written in. I think people’s recognition of the freedoms, as opposed to the

restrictions I write within, contribute to its success. Much poetry at the moment, no matter how technically brilliant, feels constrained to me and lacks a certain instinct that I find essential. To me, many different poems by different authors feel like they’ve been written by the same person, or students at the same school. Route’s support certainly helped boost its visibility. Promotion is easy – it means I put a frock on and perform.

What do you think defines funny? An absence of guilt. The freedom to command language without remorse’.

What do you think defines poetry?

‘The freedom to explore the intricacies of language, the ability to restructure language and an ear for the language you grew up with as well as the new languages that will always surround you. Language is ever changing, ever brutal, ever delicate. I think what defines poetry is the poets compulsion to possess this’.

There is snobbery in the poetry world about performance poets, if you had the chance to answer your critics what would you say?

‘Grow Up! The people who want to imprison language should themselves be locked up for crimes against humanity. Performance poetry is the human voice communicating to today’s human beings, not yesterday’s librarians. I agree with some critics that performance poetry can topple into its own cliché, but can’t that be said for every form of entertainment? I’ve seen it at its most powerful and overwhelming, gob smacking an audience into silence, laughter and applause. It is a valid art form, which is finding an increasingly wide audience – an art form that belongs to the people, an art form that will produce and is producing performers and writers of the highest calibre. Its critics are now sounding as hackneyed and as clichéd as they are. Jump on board; explore the art form before you condemn it. I stand proud in my gingham gown, as an out-and-out performance poet’.

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