One of the great myths surrounding the late gnarled bard John Tripp is that he drank to excess. No, maybe I should rephrase that. One of the great myths is that he was usually drunk when he did readings. Hardly ever, in my memory. Afterwards, when stray poets, raconteurs and other Tripp aficionados settled for conversation in the back room of the Conway or in the bar of Cardiff docklands’ Big Windsor almost certainly. But never on stage. Tripp understood well that place in which a performer needs to be in order to give a decent performance. Not stone cold, scientifically clean and Baptist sober for sure. But not plastered either.
JT could walk on stage and engage his audience just by looking at them and shuffling his papers. If he happened to have papers at the time, that is. He knew how to mix his programme – something serious next to something racy, a profound slice of Welsh political positioning followed by a touch of nostalgia, a slice of kitchen sink before a devastating funny. Stand still, he told me once. Don’t wander all over the stage. You might fall off. Know what you are going to do before you do it. Check your texts. Look into their eyes.
The eyes bit is quite important. Politicians are experts at this. Check them out. Very few stare at their papers when they deliver their speeches. Instead they engage directly with their audience. Stare straight at them. What the speechmakers are actually doing is fixing their eyes in a sort of roving pattern across the back wall of the hall. Audience members all imagine that they are being spoken to directly. Dark glasses are a complete no no, no matter how pop-star they may make you feel. Tripp wore the same clothes he had happened to put on when he got up that day, as a rule. But wear your suede jacket, Finch, he’d advise me, it gives you style.
What JT had managed to do was to combine literary ability with delivery. People listening to his readings were, dare I use the word, entertained. The biennial Academi-run competition in his name looks for the same qualities. The 2009 John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry runs this October. There will be heats in Llanhilleth, Pontardawe, The Gate in Cardiff, and Venue Cymru in Llandudno. The final is at the Wharf in Cardiff Bay on Thursday November, 19th.
It costs £6 to enter and forms are available by ringing the Academi on 02920472266 or from the website at www.academi.org. If you get through your heat and into the final expect some entertaining competition. First prize is £500. Runners-up were once given packets of tea and bananas but I’m not sure yet about 2009. Watch this space.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Western Mail of Saturday 26th September, 2009 as The Insider