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Interview: Jude Simpson stand-up poet

22 September 2010

Not a lot of people have heard that expression, “stand-up poet”, but it blends stand-up comedy and poetry. “Performance poet” makes people think you’re terribly serious, worthy, and pompous.

I much prefer performing to writ­ing, because writing feels like work. There are phases when I’m writing new material for hours on end, and there are phases when I’m just going round performing, which mostly feels like fun.

My original inspiration was Dennis Ball. It must have been about 25 years ago, and he performed a poem about a church building being renovated, using it as a metaphor for the people themselves transformed. I remember thinking: “That guy has said some­thing really important, but he said it in such an easy way, that it doesn’t feel like . . . but then you think — Oh my goodness, that was really important!” just using rhyme, humour, words, and so on.

A lot of people have compared me to Joyce Grenfell or Victoria Wood. Although I do poems, they’re quite similar to character sketches.

I watch what people do, listen to what they say. I recognise things inside my­self when I see other people, and I think: “I know that’s going on there, because that’s a bit like I am when I do such and such.” I’m very prepared to lay myself open, laugh at my own foibles.

I like people quite a lot. I think they’re funny and silly and all those kinds of things, but I really quite like them — which is why I’m not a satirist.

It’s that sense of recognition: “Oh my goodness: that’s what I do!” — revealing people to themselves, and the unexpected. And, in my act, I think people laugh when they’re feel­ing comfortable and confident. If people feel that I’m their friend, I can point things out and laugh at things, but they don’t feel got at.

God is always sitting in the front row. I don’t write explicitly about faith — only when I’m commissioned for something.

When I first started out, I didn’t write about God because I didn’t think I was good enough to do it. And I’m not sure I’m good enough now — but equally, now I’ve got to know my gift a bit, I think I probably should. I would write about it because it’s such an important part of me, not because I must write evangelistic poems. What’s more important to me is that everything I write is coherent in the frame of my life, my belief, my personality. Every piece I write reflects that, anyway.

Mine is a very common story. I grew up with my parents as Christians, and we were part of the house-church movement in the ’70s. I have very good memories of Sunday meetings, being not “how to do church”, but “We’re a group of strange people come together, trying to find God together. . . Shall we sing a song?” It was a really great education.

The first time I re­member making a real commitment to God was when I was about seven, coming home and being quite dis­gusted with my own behaviour in the play­ground. It sounds a bit pompous now, but it really was a spiritual con­viction that I had done some­thing which was really not kind. That was my first mo­ment of re­pen­tance. From then on, each time I’ve made an important de­cision, it’s been a decision to­wards God rather than away from God.

I go to a New Fron­tiers church now. It’s much more organised and professional than my upbringing was, but much of the same spirit. One of the things that attracted me to that church is that the leadership is very humble. It’s not led by people who think they know everything about being a church.

God laughs out of joy a lot more than we do, I think. He probably finds puns funny. But I think he laughs for joy, and it would be nice if we did that a bit more.

My family memory is of us all being round the table, laughing at things. I came from an environment where we constantly tease each other. It was one of the cultural differences when I met my husband’s family: they are much more thoughtful, much more serious. My instinct is, immediately, if I like this person, to mercilessly tease them; so I had a lot to learn about that.

I have a seven-month-old baby and a year-and-a-half-old marriage. I had to wait until my late 30s to find the man I loved, but ever since then it’s been marvellous. I’m from a family of six — I’m the oldest of four children — and they’re definitely very im­portant to me. I’m very family orientated, really.

I was desperate to be a ballerina, and then desperate to be any kind of dancer, and that’s still really my one true love and joy. I wrote a poem called “Dancer” which described that desire and how it had to die, but, yes, I do dance when I perform. It’s less phy­sical and I don’t get to wear the tutu — that would be the wrong kind of comedy unless you’re under 20. Maybe when you’re over 70 you could get back into one, with fairy wings, and carry it off: “When I am old, I shall wear fairy wings. . .”

My most important decision was to take a year off work to see if I could write and perform. I’d been a civil servant full-time for seven years, and I didn’t want to get to retirement and wonder if I ever could have been a writer.

A handful of people said: “Will you come to perform at my poetry club and I’ll pay you five pounds?” The lowest rung of a long ladder. . .

Matt Harvey is a friend and is also a stand-up poet. I saw him the first time I went to the Edinburgh Festival, and was inspired because there was someone doing the same kind of genre as me, and doing it really well and successfully. He’s a good friend to me, and a mentor as well.

Margaret Forster and John Stein­beck are my favourite authors, because of their ex­tra­ordinary skill in observing human behaviour. They have a real, underlying compassion in the way they write, even about very flawed human beings.

I spent some time with YWAM when I was 18, and there was this ex-convict who was a larger-than-life charac­ter, and I remember one thing he said: “When Jesus called the disciples, he said, ‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.’ Your only responsibility is to follow Jesus, however you can, and it’s his responsibility to transform you. Don’t try and transform yourself – just fol­low Jesus and see what he does.” That’s really stayed with me.

My favourite place is in bed with my husband, or in the garden when it’s sunny. Did you expect me to say “Prague” or something?

I like the Book of Esther be­cause it’s got a strong story, lots of interesting flawed char­acters, lots of tricky moral decisions, lots of drama, not black-and-white. . . The bit about wives submitting to their husbands, and little bits like that — they annoy me. And the last book of Proverbs. . . I think it’s beautiful, but it’s a bit much to live up to. Though I like the last bit: “Charm is deceptive, beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” It’s a good maxim.

I love the sound of my little boy chuckling. It’s a cliché, perhaps, but I think the sound of children laughing is wonder­ful.

Illness, poverty — they make me angry. We are so helpless, spiritually, in the face of illness, though Jesus spent so much time healing people. Few of us try to emulate that.

I’m happiest now, now I’m mar­ried and with a child. I wish circumstances were less funda­mental to my happiness, but I’m afraid they are. Perhaps I’m just in the first bloom of it. . .

I most regularly pray for people who are ill, disabled, or who are single and lonely.

If I found myself locked in the classical Anglican sort of a church, I’d choose a really good singer, like Katherine Jenkins. She’d sing in that space, and it would be beau­tiful.

Jude Simpson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Her CDs Secret Rapper and Reptile Needs can be ordered at: www.judesimpson.co.uk .

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