Literature: In the middle of a chain reaction

For many people, listening to performance poetry may be the equivalent of root-canal work. But Jem Rolls aims to change that perception with a high-quality line-up, including Stacy Makishi, and Kevin Jollie and his Singing Dad

It's unlikely that high up - or, indeed, anywhere - on your list of New Year's resolutions is there a pledge to "see more performance poetry in 1998". For most people, the prospect of watching someone eat their own words on stage is about as tantalising as undergoing major dental surgery without anaesthetic. It's a comfort, then, to find that Jem Rolls, who runs Islington's Big Word club, understands those fears completely. "There is nothing worse than bad poetry," he agrees. "Bad poetry is worse than bad music or even bad theatre." (And that's saying something).

So Rolls's mission - to showcase the prime movers of the raw-word world - couldn't be more treacherous. But, in the three years since he set up the weekly "cabaret-cum-zoo", he has acquired a glowing reputation for providing a good night out. Last year, the club even received critical approval at the Edinburgh Fringe (where Rolls also broke a festival record, and ranted himself hoarse, by clocking up 14 separate gigs in one day). How has he managed to defeat such low expectation? Obviously, by being choosy ("I would like to think I have the highest quality threshold in town"). But, more importantly, by oozing a rare confidence in the form itself. Vaunting himself as a "bizarrely erudite cockney", his locks tumbling before his eyes almost as relentlessly as vowels and consonants spew from his mouth, he habitually launches his sessions as MC with a vigorous, tongue-twisting "Manifesto". Down with words that are "washed and scrubbed, squashed and rubbed". Long live: "a perpetual motion/a constant explosion/a chain reaction of thoughts and newness."

There is, he believes, a growing army willing and able to march under this banner. "At the moment, there are more good acts than ever before." The season kick-off boasts "the best bill I have ever put on". He would say that, of course, but his promise that the likes of Olga Michael (sample line: "hairy women have hair") and Kevin Jollie and his Singing Dad are hilarious ("though not in a performing monkey, stand-up way," he insists), is underwritten by his astute booking of Stacy Makishi. This Hawaiian hula-hoops phrases with eerie self-possession; her dead-pan sacrifice of a water-melon to the wails of Madame Butterfly was one of last year's unexpected personal highlights. Don't miss her bare fruit this time around.

Finnegan's Wake, 2 Essex Road, Islington Green, N1 (0171-354 2016) 15 Jan, 9pm

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