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in conversation // Patrick Widdess
words // Wesley Freeman-Smith

Just back from Brighton, Slate catch up with Cambridge’s premier polymath about all of the things; from his surrealist spoken word performances to the radio show / blog Headstand – which Fay Roberts describes colourfully as Cambridge’s answer to John Peel (but with bits of spoken word in there too).

Patrick will be performing alongside Hollie McNish, Russell J Turner and others as part of January’s SHINDIG event – a mash-up of poetry and music overseen and shaped by 7-piece outfit Wooden Arms. Considering his aptitude for juggling multiple mediums and always finding a somewhat alternative perspective, we’re looking forward to seeing what comes of the collaboration. For the uninitiated, here’s a little groundwork on all things Patrick Widdess…

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Good evening Patrick, thanks for talking to us today. How was it living in Brighton? I hear the place has a really vibrant music and arts scene.
I didn’t have as much time to really get under the skin of the cultural scene in Brighton. I went to a few events at the weekend in between doing all the work for the journalism course – I was lucky enough to catch Rob Orton who was doing his ‘Sky’ show when I saw him. I got to know a few people involved in the poetry scene; my biggest achievement would be coming second in the Hammer & Tongue slam. I had qualified for the Cambridge final, but wasn’t able to compete due to moving down to Brighton. When I got there I qualified for the Brighton final and came second, so it all turned out fairly well.

It’s a good job, or you might have ended up competing with yourself. When you were living in Cambridge you became quite well known for doing Headstand on Cambridge 105. How did you get started in radio broadcasting?
In my teens I listened to a lot of radio and was a big fan of John Peel, and once I reached University I managed to get involved with student radio – which meant I got to interview a lot of bands and go to a lot of gigs. After taking a break and moving to Japan, podcasting came along so I began experimenting with that a bit. Really what I was doing then became the blueprint for Headstand – my own unique choice of music, bits of spoken word, and when I finally moved back to Cambridge after a few years in Japan, 209 Radio was just gearing up to launch. So I joined up with them and put in a proposal for a show, and before I know it I was on the air! I’ve been doing stuff on community radio ever since.

Do you have any plans to relaunch the show while you’re back?
I had to give up my slot when I moved, but I’ve done one slot on 105fm since I’ve been back and did quite a few shows online independent of 105, so it’s never really stopped. I’ve also got the blog now, which allows me to post content on a bit more of a multimedia platform. Usually there’s a show up every two weeks.

As we’re on the cusp of new year, are there any artists from 2013 you feel should be celebrated more?
One person I’d really recommend is Aidan Smith. He’s just put out an album at the end of last year, so he missed the top lists of 2013 – which probably means the record will get overlooked this year as well. He’s a brilliant singer-songwriter, and very prolific- he’s already written and recorded some new work. And I’d love to see what Tom Adams has been up to.

For people who’ve never heard your poetry, how would you go about describing your style?
I like to look at the real world and give it a bit of a twist. I’m a big fan of Ivor Cutler, and the really absurd situations he explores through having just a very imaginative perception of reality. I always enjoyed that style of humour, and try to get some of it across in what I do. It depends on the audience or the kind of the event. Sometimes if it’s an unfamiliar night you can start with the more serious work and sneak in some funny and surreal ones to break it up. If it’s something like Hammer & Tongue, I can just let loose and go straight into the more amusing, strange stuff – just be myself really. I’ve written in a number of different styles over the years, but they’re all aspects of my personality that I’m happy to share with audiences.

For those afraid of live poetry, what would be a good way of enticing them into it?
There’s always a really friendly atmosphere, certainly in the Cambridge scene; there’s a lot of different voices and styles. There’s usually something there that everyone can appreciate and enjoy. As a poet, you just have to do your thing and trust that people will listen, and if they listen they’ll get it.

Do you find audiences mostly get it?
There were a couple of shows in Japan – though there are limited opportunities to perform English spoken word in a foreign country. I’d been there for 6 months to a year, and a colleague of mine asked if myself and a friend wanted to do poetry as support for his next music gig. When we got there it was a little underwhelming – many friends we’d expected had to cancel, and when we did our poetry the host announced “we’re going to have some poetry during the break”, which was basically inviting people to go to the bar and talk over it. No one seemed to be paying attention. But then a few weeks later I bumped into someone who’d been there, and he even remembered some of the poems I’d done. Then a year or two later a similar thing happened with someone else. I think the lesson is that no matter how badly it seems to be going, just keep going and there will be people out there listening and enjoying it – don’t worry about the rest.

Do you find the atmosphere differs in different places across the UK?
It’s almost like there’s a family network of spoken word artists you get to know as you do these things. When you start performing in other cities you gather a collection of certain people you’ll always be bumping into in different places and circumstances. I guess different places do have different scenes – it’s probably something people who’ve toured more extensively than me can comment on!

What would you say is the highlight of your previous year?
Aside from Hammer & Tongue, I did a May Ball here in Cambridge which was certainly a new experience for me. It was a slot at 3AM in the morning with me, Fay Roberts and Hollie McNish, and we really didn’t know if anyone would be up for spoken word at that time. I imagined it would just be a handful of people half-asleep. But actually it was very civilized; people were awake and attentive, and it seemed to go down really well. I feel privileged to be able to do an event like that. 3AM is apparently a good time for poetry readings…

Outside of being a solo performer, you’ve done a lot of work with Tom Adams – how did the collaboration come about?
It came about when I was organizing the 5th Year Anniversary Show for Headstand, and he got back and said not only would he be interested in playing but also collaborating with a spoken word artist. I’d done one or two musical collaborations in the past, but not for some time – I’d always been looking for an opportunity to do it again. We met up and had one rehearsal session. I was amazed by the way he was working – just creating these incredible soundscapes on the fly from really simple things that he played or that he sampled from me, and that was the only rehearsal we ever had really. After the Headstand gig we performed at several other gigs over the next few months – he’s such a talented musician, it was a real privilege to work with him. We’ve been talking about working together more.

And you’ve actually released a solo album, if I’m right?
It’s called The Smell of Cubes, and it came about almost by accident really. I was playing about with making music on a few iPhone apps and came up with several that seemed to work, and there were loads of recordings floating about that were part of live album I’d already made. So I just put the two together and put it out on Bandcamp… It would, er, be nice if more people heard it. (Wish granted! – Ed.)

Has the combination of music and poetry always been core to what you’re interested in?
It was a friend in Japan who started it, and we only did one gig – that was my leaving party! (laughs) Short-lived. But there are a lot of great acts that combine spoken word and music – like Dan le Sac and Scroobious Pip, who first came out around the time I started collaborating, and Spaghetti Faction who are a local band doing really good stuff together. In terms of the next event, the last time I did anything in the Unitarian Church was also a music-poetry crossover. It was a jazz night organized by Malcolm Guite with the beat poet Gerry Nicosia. He was someone who had great connections to the whole beat poetry scene, and actually wrote a biography of Jack Kerouac – the definitive biography, really. He just happened to be in town, so Malcolm pulled the whole thing together.

So as far as we know, you’ve done poetry, music, radio broadcasting, and teaching… are there any other limbs to your career we need to know about?
Well I’ve done some photography in amongst everything else. Yeah. It’s interesting doing a lot of things, but sometimes I just wish I could focus on doing just one of them and be REALLY good at it. I’d love to find my niche.

Is there anyone else you’d like to work with?
The work Toby Peters has done with various other poets has been really good, it’d be nice to have the opportunity to work with him. Obviously I have a lot of respect for all the poets I know in Cambridge.

Thanks for talking to us today Patrick – good to have you back in Cambridge!

Acoustic and Art Allographic

Patrick Widdess performs at SHINDIG on January 18th, held at The Unitarian Church, Emmanuel Road – more info / tickets