Interview: We speak to Matt Abbott ahead of his upcoming visit to The Edge

Ahead of his Two Little Ducks performance in Manchester, urban performance poet and political activist, Matt Abbott, tells Molly Court about the Brexit influence behind his new show and his experience in the Calais Jungle.

What first drew you to performance poetry? And do you have any poetry idols?
It would have been John Cooper Clarke in the early days. I discovered him when I was 17 because Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys was obsessed with him and at the time I was really into their music. Being interested in the Yorkshire indie scene, I started to perform poetry between bands because I wanted to be on stage, but I couldn’t sing or play guitar. I first started introducing bands and then I’d get on stage and do a minute-long poem. Some people loved it, some people hated it. I liked the immediacy of performance poetry and the fact it was unexpected. You could write about something that happened to you in the past week and perform it.

Are you looking forward to bringing the show to Manchester?
I love Manchester. I’ve always gigged there, even when I was in a band. It is the best city in the North. Manchester is steeped in culture, particularly with literature, music and television. I can’t wait to perform.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to Chorlton and The Edge?
I like the programming, I think they take a little bit of a risk with it. They’re not scared to show things that might be political like my show. A lot of the time venues are reluctant to do that sort of thing as it can be very divisive. They’re willing to take a gamble and they obviously care about what they do. It’s a great area, I’ve done some gigs in Chorlton in the past. In October I performed at the Chorlton Irish Club to a sold-out show.

What’s been your favourite part of the tour so far?
These shows are just a few warm up bits. One of the core themes of the show is Brexit and talking about why working-class communities voted leave. There’s one poem in the set that lists things myself or my friends have experienced about working on zero-hour contracts in retail. You think I’m talking about myself but at the end I say, “hello, nice to meet you, we’re the 52%”. Some people will massively cheer because they’re one of the 52% and some people don’t know how to react. It’s completely different every time I perform it which is quite fun. It’s interesting to see the different reactions because Brexit is one thing that no one wants to talk about but it’s all anybody ever talks about.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?
I want to challenge preconceptions, either about people who voted leave or about refugees. A lot of people presume that every person who voted leave is racist and ignorant but it’s not useful to categorise people as ‘bulldog Brexitieers’, so I’m trying to change that. Some people think refugees are all terrorists and have smartphones, who want to come over here and rinse benefits. It’s ridiculous because there’s nearly 1000 children in the Jungle and 78% of them are on their own. If I can challenge preconceptions of one or both then I’ll be very happy.

The show is political, but I don’t want people to be put off by it. It’s personal story telling and looking at the human impact of politics. I’m not talking about policies and statistics, it really is just a show for people who love stories and who love human beings.

Do you get a different reception to the show dependent on the towns and cities you visit?Sometimes people are really up for the Brexit material or it’s the other way around. If it’s a middle-class town, they don’t really feel comfortable with the Brexit side but they’re onside with the refugee poetry. It’s a really strange combination but that’s why I’ve done it.

In ‘Two Little Ducks’ you discuss your experiences volunteering with refugees in Calais. Did your time in The Jungle influence your poetry and the way you approached writing the show?
I didn’t know I was going to write the show when I went out there, but I’ve been writing about things that I never would have dreamed about writing before. As a poet and a writer, I think it’s really important to only talk about things you’ve experienced to some extent. I couldn’t write a poem as a refugee in a first-person narrative because that would be ridiculous. All I’m doing is talking about stuff I’ve witnessed, so I’m writing about things that are very bleak and harrowing. It’s a difficult thing to write about. You have to be careful you don’t sound like you’re writing on their behalf and you want to be able to do it justice. The stories are really extreme and dramatic. I’m constantly wrestling with self-doubt because someone might think I’m a relatively privileged white male, who’s gone there for a week so why am I able talk about these situations. All I’m trying to do is highlight that it’s a lot different in reality to what it is in the news.

I think it’s made my poetry a lot better. It’s made me really think about who my poetry is representing and what it’s about because it’s such a serious issue. Every time I write a poem, I now think about it in terms of who it might impact. To be honest, it took me a long time to be able to write about it because I didn’t know where to start. I’m glad that this show forced me to do it because otherwise I wouldn’t have written about it. I’d only written one poem about my experience and I think that would have been a tragedy.

You deliver a lot of spoken word and poetry classes to young people. As various changes are being made to the school curriculum, do you think it’s important to ensure that skills like poetry and performance are encouraged?
The way that poetry is taught to children, particularly at primary schools is absolutely ridiculous. In all honesty there’s some things they are taught that I don’t even understand. I haven’t got a degree or anything, I’ve never formally studied poetry at all. The way they teach 10-year-olds to think and write is absurd. When I go into a school, I teach 10-year-olds to think like 10-year-olds. They teach them about past participles, modal verbs and metaphors. Although you can teach young children about metaphors, you can’t teach them to think metaphorically because they’re too young. It’s more and more important to let people like me come into schools and bring them joy to poetry, because at that age poetry can be really fun. It’s playful and imaginative but the way they’re taught, you can see them tensing up.

Are you currently working on anything you’re particularly excited about?
I’m writing a children’s book for 10-12-year-olds, it’s with a big publisher and I’m very excited. The book will be about identity and coming of age, not just Gruffalo’s and imaginary dragons. It will include challenging gender stereotypes because I think children at that age do think about it, it’s just never really put into poetry. I also have a 22-date tour booked in the Autumn so if I try to think about anything other than that my head will explode!

You can see Matt in action at The Edge Theatre & Arts Centre, Chorlton, Thursday 17 May, 7:30pm.