OBSESSIONS / Poetic licence: Poetry is the new rock 'n' roll. Official. Dominic Cavendish discovers the verse-mongers fronting the new movement

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The Independent Culture
Most people write poems about this planet, but my poetry is about other planets. My next poem is in fact about this planet but, of course, written from the point of view of an alien.' If you scratch away at the surface of performance poetry, sooner or later you will uncover someone like Hazel Lezah. Lezah, a self- styled 'deep pan-sexual' is MC at the Cryptic Club - which was launched with candlelight meetings in the vaults of St George's Church, Bloomsbury.

Although a newcomer to London's burgeoning poetry club scene, the Cryptic's laissez-faire approach immediately attracted a sizeable crowd. This despite offering a distinctly mixed bag: for example, a ranting French poet called Said, an adolescent-looking Jewish stand-up, two men called Ravi and Tom who plug away at an African kora (harp) and Indian tambour, and a woman who insists on showing slides of her recent trip to Papua New Guinea. It is left to Lezah to come up with the poetry proper, lines like 'physical existence is a distraction leading to destruction'. The audience applauds each poem, often no more than a few, briefly spaced words long. If more evidence were needed, after Matthew Bannister's decision to give 20 new poets airtime on One FM in May, that poetry is 'the new rock 'n' roll', here it is. The poetry soiree of yesteryear is today's stand-up gig.

'There are more clubs than ever before, and hundreds of performance poets round the country,' says Steve Tasane, who runs Covent Garden-based Apples and Snakes, now in its 11th year and one of the biggest London venues. 'Whether or not there are more people who are good at it, I really couldn't say.' Certainly setting yourself up as a performance poet is an inexpensive business - you don't even need a paper and pen. However egalitarian Tasane believes poetry to be, his concern is more whether a poet can cut it live than whether he or she has been visited by the muse. 'The public don't know who to go and see - it's a bit of a lucky dip. There are a lot of people on the scene who really are very dull and if people go to an evening which isn't very entertaining they won't come again. Apples and Snakes is trying to show where the boom is really coming from.'

Recent line-ups have included big circuit names like John Hegley, Attila the Stockbroker and Poets of the Machine. Last month's New Faces night was, it turned out, composed of fairly accomplished old voices, including a peroxide-blonde with a guitar called Fisch ('I'm a dyke, not a lesbian') who cheerfully strummed along to choruses of 'Your country house, your sexless wife / Your sole sensation is a surgeon's knife / Why don't you take the gun hidden in the shed and point and shoot / through your head?'.

The rise of professional acts has not yet threatened the survival of the informal poetry-reading session. Invited guests at Torriano Poets, which started in the early 1980s, are not expected to 'perform' in the same way as they are at A & S, indeed the audience is actively encouraged to share their outpourings. John Rety, who founded the group, notes an ever-increasing zest for participation. 'There seem to be more would-be poets than people who want to listen,' he sighs. 'We had Sir Stephen Spender here once and he had to wait three quarters of an hour while poets spoke from the floor. If William Shakespeare himself walked in, I'm sure he'd have to wait a couple of hours.'

Apples and Snakes: New Voices 7.30pm 18 Mar, Earlham St, London WC2 (071-639 9656); John Heath-Stubbs reads at Torriano Poets 7.30pm 20 Mar, Torriano Ave, London NW5 (071-267 2751); Cryptic Club closed, looking for new venue (071-289 1078)

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