Arts: I think I'll go and eat worms

John Hegley never seems to be in the frame when there's a prize to be won. In fact, some would hardly class him as a `poet' at all. All the more reason to make him Poet Laureate.
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I used to enjoy spitting on little bits of tissue and flicking them at other children much more than I enjoyed poetry," admits John Hegley. "But I always loved having lingo on my breath, saying dib dib dib, dob dob dob, or reciting the Litany: `Blessed be God. Blessed be His Holy Name' - insisssstent, relentlesssss language," he surges catechismically, unleashing this barrage of sibilants as vigorously as gobbets of Kleenex from a warrior-schoolboy's ruler.

"But as soon as you call something poetry, you're in trouble. It's alienated from our lives. Maybe the word `poetry' is a bit worn out," he suggests. "Would people be less snotty if it were called bingo? Or pingo? Poetringo? Lingo? Would it change things?" he demands, the frenzied rhymes ringing through his coffee-spoon on to his saucer. "The Lingo Laureate! Doesn't that sound brilliant?"

Lingo King or Poet Laureate, whatever you choose to call it, William Hill has been offering odds of 14-1 for Hegley to succeed Ted Hughes to the royal butt of sack. An unlikely decision perhaps, but the 45-year- old cabaret poet would be a far from unpopular choice. Last October BBC audiences voted Hegley's scatological limerick about Miserable Malcolm's anally stoppered Rottweilers number two in the poll for the nation's favourite comic poem. John Peel sessions, Radio 4 series, Newsnight appearances, a long-running niche in The Guardian and six regularly reprinted volumes, compounded by years of tireless touring have made Hegley as familiar to the beatings of the public heart as a poet is likely to become.

On Sunday, London's Almeida Theatre plays host to a night of readings by the 10 writers shortlisted for the TS Eliot Poetry Prize, this year pitting Ted Hughes against an estimable cast including Jo Shapcott, Ruth Padel, Jackie Kay and Paul Muldoon. You won't find Hegley among their number, yet ironically, you will find him filling the same Almeida auditorium every other night this week, as he embarks on an ambitious run of solo performances based on his new collection, Beyond Our Kennel.

Does it worry Hegley that the world of mainstream poetry consistently fails to pick him to play on their team?

"I cease to worry," he sighs. "Dannie Abse once wrote in a journal that my stuff wouldn't endure, and I did then actually go up to him after a reading to show him a poem I thought was one of my best. I don't think he was overly impressed. Fair enough. If he thinks it's not poetry, fair enough. I know I'm making myself vulnerable by saying I want to go round with my poems like this, but there's nothing wrong with being vulnerable, is there?" he asks, with an accusatory yet imploring stare.

Pre-emptively self-deprecatory, on-stage and off, Hegley is an obsessively hard worker and inveterate worrier. Peering out from those Elvis Costello- issue NHS specs, chin jutting, Adam's apple bobbling, he's edgy, anxious, gawkily angular inside his skinny dark suits. His poetic world is unremittingly English and nostalgic, elegising train-spotters and low-budget camping, bungalows, dogs, glasses, and Luton Town FC - a world of unfulfilled yearnings, of everyday banalities punctuated by trauma and guilt. Moral crises abound: how to enter a newsagent with a paper you've bought elsewhere, whether it's a sin to dodge buying a bus ticket if you've already paid for a travel card but lost it; the vegetarian ethical dilemma of continuing to buy cheese from the butcher "even though I know/ that cheese money and meat money/ are not separated in the till."

Idiosyncratic, uproariously funny (only occasionally squibbily off-target), Hegley's poems are nearly always underpinned by a wrenchingly uncomfortable poignancy. The boy Hegley torments his younger sister, and frames her for his own petty calumnies, such as scribbling over his cub scout diary. In return, Hegley pere, foams at the mouth and flexes his belt: "I didn't understand his need to wallop me so much./ Except that it kept us in touch." He writes about his father, "He was one of the strangers he warned me about/ but without the sweets."

Now a father himself, Hegley finds the memory of this antagonistic relationship still causes flash-points of anger, but Beyond Our Kennel (dedicated "for my old dad") finally allows some redemptive healing. The poem "Mything my Father" gently lays to rest the guilt of missing his father's death (nearly 20 years ago), when he unexpectedly finds himself lighting a requiem candle on a recent holiday to Greece.

"I know a lot of what I do is verse," he says, "but here in Beyond Our Kennel is the beginning of something more poetic. It is my entrance to `the guild' - what was once called `the masterpiece' - I could submit this, and they can say, `you can come in', or `you cannot come in'."

Hegley started as a busker, singing in shopping centres in the late Seventies, accompanying his then girlfriend as she travelled the country working at flea markets. In the early Eighties he hooked up with rival buskers to form The Popticians, then started to make a name at the Comedy Store. "If I do an hour- and-a-half show, there's still easily 20 minutes you could do on a stand-up stage," he says. "But I don't want to just make people laugh all the time; they'd be short-changed. In the last few weeks I've also started writing songs again, and I find they're more close to poems than any of the verse stuff I've ever written. There's more ambiguity."

Ambiguity, though, Hegley believes, can be taken too far. "I feel disenfranchised from a lot of contemporary poetry," he says. "Sometimes the drunken facility helps, but usually I don't understand a word of it... I don't think the people at the Luton Town Supporters Club are going to go for it, but maybe those writers don't care. I like the puzzling aspect of poetry, but I want my work to be understood."

He's unduly defensive. Maybe he shares more points of contact with other poets than he appreciates.

"A man came up to me at a gig recently waving a crossword puzzle," he recalls. "Poet, six letters, H_G_E_. He'd put me, and got the answer wrong. Hegley and Hughes," he laughs. "Who would have thought we met so nearly?"

`Beyond Our Kennel' is published by Methuen, pounds 8.99. John Hegley is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1, to 9 January (0171-359 4404)

Mental Health Poem

by John Hegley

When he went out of his mind

we helped him find

the key to get back in.

It was behind

the dustbin.

The one that had it in for him

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