Robert Garnham, aka The Professor of Whimsy, has been taking his much-loved brand of LGBT whimsy and humour to UK audiences for over a decade. He’s an inveterate performer at the Edinburgh fringe, a prolific writer and co-host of popular South Devon Spoken Word night Stanza Extravaganza. He has recently been commissioned by the Arts Council and Torbay Culture to produce a sequence of poems about the Brixham fishing industry.
You have to run fast to catch up with him – he’s a whirl of activity and costume changes – but I tracked him down to see what was new after lockdown.
Hello! Could you introduce yourself? How would you describe your work?
Hello, my name is Robert Garnham. I am a comedy performance poet. There, I’ve said it! I know it’s a simple question but it’s one that’s led to a lot of inner debate lately.
How would you describe your writing life?
I loved writing when I was a kid. I hoped for rain every day at school so that we could stay in the classrooms at lunchtime and I could write. I loved exercise books and pens and typewriters; I’d write short stories, hundreds and hundreds of them. I still have them.
In my teenage years I abandoned lighthearted comedy short stories and tried to write deep and philosophical existentialist novels. I’d read far too much Camus for someone living on a council estate near Heathrow Airport.
I didn’t get into performance poetry until 2009 and it completely changed my life.
Have you had to overcome any barriers to write?
This is something I often chat about with people. There’s still a big class thing in the UK, I believe, and the whole time I was being brought up there was this sense that certain things ‘weren’t for the likes of us’. So culture, theatre, dance and poetry fell very much into that category. This has had a weird impact on my creative life because my first impulse with any project is to assume that it’s not as good as those who come from a more middle class background, and that such opportunities aren’t really for me. I think this attitude held me back for almost twenty years. Lately I’ve started to see my work as being as valid as anyone else’s.
Also, it took a huge amount of time to find my voice, and I realised that it was only when I started mentioning my homosexuality in my work and not being scared of the consequences that I started to have any belief in myself. It’s like I’d come out to the world but not to myself as a writer! And now people probably can’t shut me up . .
Does poetry have a function? What do you think it might be?
That’s an interesting question. The function of my poetry is hopefully to amuse people and make them laugh, to forget about day-to-day life. But poetry for others is a way of engaging with the world and injustice, and to help them make sense of their own lives. I see Salena Godden as someone trying to change the world and help people see the world differently. The same with Chanje Kunde, who I adore as a poet and as a person, and Vanessa Kisuule, and Melanie Branton and Dominic Berry, and so many others. In this sense I think poetry is absolutely necessary as it gives people a voice and an audience.
Is there a difference between poetry and spoken word? Does it matter?
I remember reading somewhere that all poetry is written to be spoken. I’m not sure if this is the case. I believe that there is a very definite boundary between the two disciplines, and in most parts of the country I see the two ‘sides’ kind of peering at each other, like cats around the wheelie bin. But I’m hugely proud of the scene in South Devon, where both sides have come together to support each other in spite of the many different styles we have. The gigs I’ve been to on the local circuit have every conceivable type of poet, and that’s marvellous.
Through my work with poetry magazine Acumen I met the late William Oxley and despite our differences, we became good friends. What I learned was that there’s no difference in what we do; it’s just words ordered interestingly.
What makes a good poem?
A good poem for me takes the listener on a journey, mentally or philosophically. It explores emotions and makes you think. It’s also got power and movement and words which fall like treacle on a bucket full of pebbles. It can make you laugh and cry, possibly both at the same time.
Poetry for me is very close to stand up comedy. Jerry Seinfeld said that poetry is stand-up without a punchline.
What makes a good performance? Do you enjoy performing?
I love performing. I get very nervous beforehand and so didn’t always enjoy it. I’ve learned that you can be as weird as you like, so long as you go for it, unapologetically, and with enthusiasm. Dominic Berry once told me to treat every audience as if they’re a full theatre house rather than two people in a basement at the Swindon Fringe.
My own advice would be, have fun, experiment, play around, and most importantly; develop your own voice. Be yourself! Find who you are and then go for it with absolute conviction. You will feel better and the audience will feel better.
Do you find that you reuse particular words or phrases and are there themes that you return to in your work?
I’m currently proofreading something and I made a list of all the words and things that I seem to mention more than perhaps I should. And do you know what? Most of them were brand names. Lidls, for example. Quavers. Ford Cortina. They’re all words that have that comedy hard sound in them. Also, the word ‘chafing’ appeared quite a lot. I don’t know what this says about my inner subconscious. Probably too much!
Most of my poems are set in fairly mundane locations or situations and are about inconsequential things. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, they’re poems about nothing! But there’s an undercurrent of social critique in there, and a nod to LGBTQ rights and identity. Not enough to make them preachy, more that I can normalise certain lifestyles and themes; my poetry is usually performed at non-poetry events such as festivals or in places like pubs.
How did you find lockdown? Did it affect your creativity?
Well, I got loads done! I’ve been writing next year’s show and some short stories and I’m working on a newspaper column. I’ve also been recording vocals for the band I’m in, Croydon Tourist Office, and recording a poem a day for my podcast, Perpendicular. I had a tour of the UK set up for this year. But mustn’t grumble, others have had it so much worse.
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I have so many interests and fascinations that I’m not sure. I love Laurie Anderson, she would be top of my list; engaging and artistic, endlessly enthusiastic. I’m sure we’d get on well and she wouldn’t eat everything. I absolutely love both of the Pet Shop Boys, so Neil and Chris would be there because they’d be incredibly witty and spill all the gossip about modern celebrities and they’d probably end up having a row. Michael Palin, for no other reason than he’d keep the conversation going. And the Obamas, definitely.
Tell us a joke
In 2017 a line from my show Juicy was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. So I ended up in all the big newspapers and on BBC radio and was thoroughly fed up with the joke by the time the fringe was done. But in case anyone hasn’t heard it:
I do suffer terribly with insomnia. Insomnia is an awful thing, but on the plus side, there’s only three more sleeps till Christmas.
Tell us a secret
I used to date Michael Caine’s cousin.
Cat, dog or reptile?
Ysella Sims is a poet and writer. She has had work published in Brittle Star, The Blue Nib and The Guardian and has just moved to an awkward, falling-down house outside Exeter where she co-hosts Poetic Licence:Poetry in the Pub.