John Hegley is one of the few poets in the UK who is likely to be recognised in the street and his poetry is just as distinctive. A poet, editor, comedian, musician, songwriter and much more, he finds poetry in the everyday and wants to put it back there. He writes for adults and children and has published nearly 20 books in a career spanning four decades. A popular performer, he appears regularly at schools as well as festivals – from Glastonbury to Hay – as well as contributing to radio and TV. He received an honorary Arts Doctorate from Luton University in 2000 and was Writer in Residence at Keats House in 2012.
Hegley's poetry is a mix of anecdotes, jokes, idiosyncratic observations, confessions and surreal narratives, often illustrated with his own drawings. It is famed for its large helpings of potatoes and dogs. Some poems are simply punchlines for the title, others take a set of familiar characters on a bizarre adventure. His biography will be familiar to his audiences as he threads the stories of his life into his poems. Born in London in 1953, he grew up in Luton:
there were five of us in my family in the Luton Bungalow.
('The Luton Bungalow')
The rhythm and music, simultaneously mundane and foreign (like Hegley's beloved potatoes), 'the Luton Bungalow' becomes a refrain in this poem and beyond. Childhood is never far away in Hegley's poetry, for it was as a child that he learned the joy and power of words. He discovered Hilaire Belloc and found delight and creativity in playground rhymes, part of what he calls 'The common poetry': 'rhyming slang, bingo calls, the names given to racehorses'.
Hegley studied Literature and Sociology at Bradford University. In typically glib and light-hearted style he sums up the effect of education in 'Luton' (reproduced here in full):
as I'm swallowing my crout'n
Rhymes are prevalent in Hegley's work, often used or abused to comic effect. His scansion is sometimes lax, sometimes overly tight, enacting his laidback drawl. His attitude to the rules of poetry is an extension of his attitude to everything:
but I don't believe that rules are made to be broken
because that's just another rule.
('Beliefs and Promises')
After graduating, Hegley did a stint as a bus conductor in Bristol before working in children's theatre in London, where he also began busking. In the early eighties, he fronted an act called the Popticians and performed regularly at London's Comedy Club. He hasn't stopped performing since. He combines physical performance, dance, props and drawings in his performance and has an interactive ethos. He doesn't think of himself as a 'performance poet':
In 1998, Hegley's poem 'Malcolm' was voted the UK's second favourite comic poem. Comedy is central to Hegley's work and he happily embraces the term 'comic poet', but there is a reason for the levity:
There are plenty of serious subjects in Hegley's seemingly light-hearted verse. In recounting his own childhood he often writes of corporal punishment in school and of being beaten by his father.
is what my brother
called the bright right handprints
that my dad would add to my arms and legs
when I was bad…
Here wordplay has a serious purpose; by playing with language we exert control. The ability to manipulate, own, rework, ruin and reuse language is a powerful way in which we shape our worlds. That project is at the heart of Hegley's work. It is always stridently playful. As he states in 'Holy Orders:
hunt out the fox
of your own vox popular.
Be jocular, be ocular,
however much they mocular;
be rigorous, irregular,
but don't go being negular.
Although his own life provides a wealth of material, nothing is out of bounds for Hegley. There are caffs and gaffs, blokes and jokes, but there are also Romans and Cubists. Politics is present and solid. There are paeans to public libraries, appreciations of the health service and love letters to NHS specs. In 2010 he launched a project to increase awareness of mental illness. He also writes about religion as irreverently as you'd expect:
but not without his thin flat halo.
The wise men they were reverent,
the shepherds they were coarser:
'That shiny, floating hat,' said one,
'it's like a flying saucer.'
('The Halo and the Dozy Dozen')
(interview with The Independent)
Hegley's poems are mostly short, but every so often he will launch into a longer narrative – sometimes in verse, sometimes in prose. In these tales, bizarre adventures occur, featuring familiar characters, props and locations. The absurdity of events is underscored by acknowledging they are made up. Speaking to Joan of Arc in 'Keeping Mum and Dad':
Joan says, 'Quite honestly, I should be dust.'
How she's learned English it isn't discussed.
While Hegley's subjects have not changed over his long career, the extrovert introspection of his self-interrogation has found subtler methods. In more recent work he digs deeper, goes further back and further afield in search of home truths. Revisiting the same stories, he revises his personal mythology. Now a parent himself, he readdresses his relationship with his mother and father in more tender, moving poems.
His new outlook also prompts Hegley to ask questions about our world and world views, for instance in 'An Alien Address':
Do you start off as a baby and then increase in size,
but lose your sense of wonderment in the process.
The reference to specs, the silly delight of the rhyming questions and the serious note, slipping out of the rhythm and form – all are typical Hegley. We might think of his poetry as an attempt to retain that wonderment, to reawaken the child's delight and openness to the word and the world.
I am a Poetato, Frances Lincoln, London, 2013
New and Selected Potatoes, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2013
Peace, Love and Potatoes, Serpent's Tail, London, 2012
Stanley's Stick, (with Neal Layton), Hodder, London, 2012
The Adventures of Monsieur Robinet, Donut Press, Newton Abbot, 2009
Uncut Confetti, Methuen, London, 2006
The Sound of Paint Drying, Methuen, London, 2003
My Dog is a Carrot, Walker Books, London, 2002
Dog, Methuen, London, 2000
Beyond Our Kennel, Methuen, London, 1998
The Family Pack, Methuen, London, 1996
Love Cuts, Methuen, London, 1995
These Were Your Father's, Methuen, London, 1994
Five Sugars Please, Methuen, London, 1993
Can I Come Down Now, Dad?, Methuen, London, 1991
Glad To Wear Glasses, Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 1990
Hegley's profile on The Poetry Archive
An interview with The English Association
An interview with the Roundhouse
Hegley's profile at Bloodaxe Books
Video of Hegley performing at Tate Britain
Hegley's essay 'The Uses of Idiocy'