Wash House Poets: St Bride Foundation chats with Jazzman John Clarke

Last Monday was the first ever Wash House Poets, a new, monthly lunchtime poetry event in the Bridewell Bar. For this inaugural session we welcomed John Hegley, Claire Booker and Jazzman John Clarke. WASH HOUSE POETSAs well as provide us with some quality entertainment, they were also kind enough to sit down and give us a few words. Here is the first of these conversations. It’s with Jazzman John Clarke.

If there’s a poetry gig on in London, then it’s likely that Jazzman John Clarke will be there. Our MC and resident poet, Isabel, actually introduced him to the stage as ‘the hardest working man in show business.’ His busy punctuality is indicative of how much he appreciates the spoken word – an art form that he was introduced to from a very early age.

‘My father recited poems to me quite a lot’, says John. ‘That kind of then forced me to recite poetry myself and begin to understand the depth of it’. These early interactions increased over time, as there were regular poetry lessons while John was at secondary school. Nevertheless, this didn’t necessarily mean that he was instantly hooked. ‘It felt like they were shoving the poems down your throat. At that time I wanted to hear something a bit more modern’.

Inchoate discontent from the curriculum comes as no surprise. John is, after all, a jazz poet. His style is vastly different from the traditional poems that were likely handed to him in the classroom. As such, it took other sources of exposure to truly spark a passion. He elaborates, ‘It was The Beat Generation that really spoke to me. I guess that’s when it really got into my blood’. It isn’t long, though, before he reels off a list of other influences, including Bob Dylan, W.B. Yates and the poetry stumbled upon in novels such as ‘Wuthering Heights’. ‘I guess I always found the spoken and written word very appealing. Maybe it was just the teacher’s fault’, he grins, before taking a sip of tea.

John’s wearing a blue blazer with a collection of badges pinned to the collar; there is a bright floral handkerchief in his top pocket; on his head, rests a grey flat cap. The three items all look independently distinct in the same way that three lines in a performance of his would sound. Phonetics is something that takes precedence in John’s poetry. ‘For me it’s more about how it sounds. I think that some poets can try and be too complex, and get too lost in meaning’. Throughout a single poem, Jazzman John Clarke can go from subtle whispers to shouts. A line may be repeated three times like a hook in a song, or he may unleash a long, relentless paragraph of spoken prose. ‘With regard to meaning, I like to make it very direct and I use colloquialisms to reinforce that’.


John spent 25 years working in a bank and also a period of time in Covent Garden. These were experiences that he believes were quite essential for his creative exploits. ‘I worked in Covent Garden when it was a very poetic place to be at the time’, he explains. ‘All the publishing houses were still there and even places like the markets had a feeling of creativity. It was a creative hub’. For John, even a seemingly unconnected avenue of employment such as banking had an influence. ‘It’s funny how long a poem can take to write’, John says, expanding on his time in the bank. ‘Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull came to my counter one day and I finally wrote a poem about it thirty years later’. He laughs, ‘I called it Origami because he came to my desk with a rolled up 100 dollar bill. It was crumpled into about 17 different folds. It’s funny how that eventually created a poem’.

The anecdote leads onto a rather poignant point regarding who can be a writer. ‘You see, you don’t need a degree to be a writer’, he says, before exemplifying his point through one of his favourite poets, Bob Kaufman. ‘He was a black, African- American, Jewish, Catholic, voodoo. Now you’re going to get some interesting poetry from someone like him’. For John, academic credentials are redundant in comparison to the day-to-day experiences of a person. A poem can form from the typical stories of a 9-5 job or from the mind of someone more unique like Bob Kaufman.

Jazzman John Clarke was probably the most unique of all the acts we had in the Bridewell Bar last Monday. For many people it was a first insight into jazz poetry and it’s likely that plenty others will enjoy his performances in the future. As I part with John, and allow him a final few swigs of tea in peace, he leaves me with a quote from a fellow artist to explain why he remains so active. ‘I heard an interview with John Cooper Clarke the other day and he said that performance poets don’t really need to retire’. ‘Why?’, I ask, to which he swiftly responds, ‘because there’s no heavy lifting involved’.

I thought it was a fair point.

Wash House Poets will return Monday 1st December. For our first event, our headliner, John Hegley, wrote us a poem, which we then had printed on-site in The St Bride Printing Workshop. These limited edition prints are now available to buy. Simply email reception (reception@sbf.org.uk) to order your copy. Prices: Standard £5, Signed £10.

Keep checking our Facebook, Twitter and our website for future updates on Wash House Poets and everything else going on a St Bride Foundation.


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