Interview with Roger McGough

Roger McGough: Alive and Gigging – Stage4Beverley Winter Festival

Kate from the East Riding Arts Team went to Toll Gavel United Church in Beverley to chat with poetic legend and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme Roger McGough before his show Alive and Gigging, one of the many events of this year’s Stage4Beverley Winter Festival.

Can you tell our readers a little bit about Alive and Gigging?

I’m 85 and it’s time for a new show and some new poems. My last book was called ‘Safety in Numbers’ and that was written during Covid. As you know, theatres closed, the whole thing closed down, but if you’re a writer you go on doing it, and when theatres opened, I went back on the road again. When you’re taken off the road for two years, as we all were, you reassess your work, and so I sort of dipped into the beginning of my early childhood, my earliest poems, and then it goes up to more recent poems. I’ve got a new collection coming out in June, which is collected poems from 1959 to 2024. It’s quite a long span, what I’m working on now. Alive and Gigging, it’s more about rather than coming on stage and standing there and talking and reading and reading, it’s more settled, more sitting down and talking to the audience.

Why do you think poetry, and the arts generally, remain vital in our lives?

It’s just been part of my life since I was a teenager. I went to Hull University – I remember going, four of us from St Mary’s College Liverpool on the train, going to Hull, I’d never been before. The first time I came to Hull was my first day as a student. It was like Liverpool, like a mirror image. Some guys from school had also been here – Kevin McNamara who became quite a famous MP – so we all arrived here in Hull. I have a great fondness for the place, and a good four years here. Larkin was here. It was always very special for me. And it was where I discovered poetry, when I was here really. I didn’t do English, I did Geography and French. I became aware of poetry, visiting poets came along, then I became a poet. I thought whatever I do in my life – and I didn’t know what I was going to do – I would be writing poetry, that would be what I would be doing. I didn’t think I’d make a living out of it or be known for it, but that’s what I’d be doing, like something between me and myself. And that’s what the arts are really. I know people say what’s the point of being an artist, what’s the point of doing a painting unless people see your painting, no use writing poetry unless people read it or hear it, but that wasn’t the point initially, it never has been, but it’s been an offshoot. You do realise when you show it to people, when you read the poem people like it and The Scaffold helped of course, you come a bit more well-known.

And also in those days, there was a sort of anti-poetry thing, the poetry scene was very posh really in a sense, there was that sort of attitude, which I never got. But I had to put up with that, I had to cope with a lot of critics saying it’s not poetry, it’s just to please the public, but I think it’s proved wrong because there are so many young poets, and the way poetry is now, and it’s accessible to everybody. And that’s what all my life I’ve been trying to find – if I can do it, you can do it. Don’t be afraid of it, find ways of expressing it, and you don’t always have to be too serious.

If you could share with our readers just one insight from your life in the arts, what would that be?

There isn’t just one… if you decide you want to write poetry, and then you write a poem and then you write another poem, and if you like that you write another poem. The more you write, the more you write, the more you write, and the more you want to write. And until eventually you realise that that’s what you’re doing. And so, there is no one instant. I’ll mention having met so-and-so, or so-and-so, or this happened, but they are just part and parcel, just very small bits of a whole adventure in language, and in seeing where you go. And never envy anybody else and what they’re doing, just do it your own sort of way, give voice to it. I always feel, when I give workshops and people send me poems, the important thing is that you’re writing poetry, not that you’re getting published, not that you’re well known. The gift is the writing. That’s what the arts – being a painter, being a writer – are. What you have got is hands and a soul. Keep writing.

And for our readers who missed today’s performance, where can they catch you next?

At the moment I’m doing a show for Glastonbury, and the Edinburgh Festival. And Radio 4’s Poetry Please goes on.

Now in its eighth year and hosted across various Beverley venues, the Stage4Beverley Winter Festival, which is supported by an East Riding Arts Grant, returned last week for its annual brightening of our winter days. Bringing a celebration of music to the town, from Folk to Blues, Jazz to Classical, Americana to World Music, the festival also features comedy, spoken word and drama, appealing to all tastes and ages.

Roger McGough was supported by award-winning local wordsmith and Stage4Beverley Festival Poet Chris Sewart.

The Stage4Beverley Winter Festival returns in February 2025.