Poetry is not my thing. And anyone who swans around calling themselves a ‘people’s poet’… well, that can only conjure an image of the sad laments of Rik from The Young Ones philosophising above his station. But it was nice to run into a poet recently, a people’s poet no less, as a reminder of the power of the right words at the right time.
You may know Tony Chestnut Brown. He may have gegged into your conversation as you sat
drinking with your pals on a night out and laid down his challenge – to write you a poem about whatever you choose, right there on the spot. If you like it, you donate.
I met him in the garden of the Bluecoat at a recent festival. In his natty suit jacket and signature trilby looking for all the world like the kind of character Andy Serkis would win a BAFTA for getting down pat, he was selling photocopied little zines of his work, an old school method of promotion that, had it been anyone else, would have been given short shrift. I gave him £5 for one, went home and read his little verses about capitalism and ginger nuts, and was quite pleased. But none of it compared to the stuff he can write off the top of his head, just for you.
It’d been a while. The last time we met was in Negresco as it was then, on Lark Lane on November 27, 2008. This is going from the last poem he wrote me. If I remember correctly, I badgered him into a two-for-one deal with a friend and didn’t pay him for it, which is pretty much why the anthology had to be purchased. Karma (he’d probably have something to say about that).
At the time, everyone in my workplace had technically been made redundant and forced to reapply for their own jobs. The whole business was, as these things can be, pretty fishy. From the absurd and brilliant amount of detail in the poem, in my Merlot-induced stupor I had clearly given the poor sod chapter and verse. Still, what he wrote was a wonderfully uplifting and hopeful little piece. “Proof is in the pudding!/ So continue doing your thing/ As you know, you can”, it read in part.
There was something so perfect, or at least, perfectly resonant about his style. Every comma and exclamation mark and dash added a lovely new layer to his positive message. It wasn’t empty platitude, yay go you, you can do it; it was a lovely homage to growing, learning and self-belief. “As you know, you can”. The poem was written on the back of a flyer for some club night called Canvas at 3345 Parr Street. Don’t remember what that was.
If he didn’t have a pad on him, Tony would write on whatever he could get his hands on. He never gave the impression he was regurgitating stock phrases; his personal touch was a real gift, and something truly delightful to behold.
Later on it transpired, to cut a long story short, I didn’t get my job. It miraculously went to a personal friend of the boss who hadn’t even applied for it. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes”.
The whole unpleasant business left little there for me, so when soon after an offer of voluntary redundancy came along with a bit of cash for my pains, it was a welcome relief.
I’d find Tony’s poem in piles of stuff every now and then and it always retained its power. When I was sat at home wondering what the hell I’d done walking out of a potentially steady, but by then beyond-soul-destroying job in the middle of a recession, it gave me strength in my own beliefs. Looking at it now a way down the line, it makes me feel quite proud for not settling for being treated that way, and getting out and achieving other things.
This most recent meeting when Tony put it to us he could write a poem about any subject, for whatever reason my friend said “change”; and got a similar kind of work, full of encouragement and positivity. Surely poor old Tony gets this kind of thing all the time, people wanting some kind of validation of their choices, or some kind of sign. Me, me, me.
But the man brings a unique beauty and a simple joy into the world doing what he does, providing comfort and real moments of happiness – that have the potential to last, too. One time he caught a couple of us on a night we’d been thinking about a friend who had been having a really hard time. We talked about the things that made her special and that we loved about her, he listened, and wrote a lovely poem we gave to her the next day. He listened. Guess that might be the key to his prolific talent.
Tony is a post-punk Liverpool gem and a shining example of this city’s talent, its rebellious streak, its radical nature, its tenacity and – because life isn’t perfect – its harsh reality. He thanked us for our donations because he had a debt owing; he was off to buy a mate some lamb chops and a glass of red at Keith’s.