Examining Mike Garry’s biography gives the briefest of peeks behind the curtain. Alongside the poet’s involvement with prisons, libraries, museums and mental health charities, Garry describes ‘[working] closely with Manchester United, the BBC [and] the Barclays Premier League’. Accordingly, his poetry regularly appears on BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio 4, BBC Breakfast, Match of the Day and Sky TV. But Garry’s work transcends the UK footballing fraternity: working with Manchester United ‘has truly elevated Mike’s poetry to an international audience’.
That global reach is built on a very straightforward form, an introduction to which is best made via an unlikely source. In Alan Partridge’s mockumentary Scissored Isle, Norwich’s finest speaks with a beat about ‘City, United, Albion, Rovers / Cobbled streets that advertise Hovis’. Garry has seen the clip. He might even be the clip. ‘I think Coogan’s a genius,’ the author of books like God is a Manc says down the phone from his home in Hackney. ‘I’ve seen him impersonate me, a film I made ages ago.’ Whether Scissored Isle continues that caricature is beside the point though, for, as is his noble aim, Partridge speaks not just to the man on the street, but to something higher, too. Here, a particularly ubiquitous form of spoken word poetry gets a battering. You know the type: earnest and ordinary, rhyming and jaunty, with grit and toil and passion, with probably some reference to manual labour and, after a final lingering pause, and a sharp suck through the teeth, poignancy.
Unfortunately, the form’s popularity has failed to launch any of its primary exponents into the public consciousness (Tony Walsh or John Cooper Clarke are perhaps the two exceptions). Instead, it’s become a byword for companies trying to sell products, or even worse, themselves. Building societies peddling mortgages, global corporations propagating a down-to-earth image or an out-of-touch football industry desperately trying to be one of the lads. But still, someone’s got to write them, even if the price of authenticity is paid with anonymity. ‘Someone at the BBC once told me: “You either get your name out there, or you get paid”,’ Garry says. And in many cases, he has chosen the latter.
It’s probably unfair to lay the blame for the commercialisation of spoken word solely at Garry’s door, though he’s certainly been a cog in the machine, establishing himself as one of a handful of go-to guys for when the BBC or Sky need a sprinkle of poetic magic to zhuzh up a matchday.
All of which is fine, though football poetry does, with the greatest respect, now seem more Football Focus than FA Cup Final. Part of that is down to the sheer availability of the stuff, fuelled by the stealthy rise of Building Society Prose, something Garry has had a hand in too. Take Armbands (2017), a short, touching verse about swimming lessons delivered to-camera from Garry’s kitchen table. ‘Here’s an armband for your not-so-little ones,’ the advert reads at the conclusion of Garry’s verse: ‘Our student current account.’ It’s doesn’t quite have the stomach-turning feeling of Richard Ayoade charming the pants off you with his dorky-suited nerdery before the HSBC logo flashes on the screen, but it still gives the uneasy impression that your feelings have been taken for a ride and then unwittingly sold at. For as much as they might try to convince you otherwise, you just can’t cuddle a bank.
But where did this glut of advert poetry come from? The first time the link between poetry and advertising clicked for Garry was during childhood: the rhythm of Ben Sherman ad campaigns (‘That’s a nice shirt. It’s a Ben Sherman’) and the narrative poetry of 1970s public information films, specifically the chilling delivery of Donald Pleasence’s Grim Reaper character in a film about the dangers of drowning. There are other examples too, from British Rail matching Vangelis’s dystopian lurches with WH Auden’s clickety-clack commentary on their 1988 Night Mail ad to Nick Toczek’s utterly bleak verse for Prudential’s 2002 ‘Plan from the Pru’ campaign, all leading to the moment the Spoken Word Advert became truly mainstream: with McDonald’s’ 2009 upbeat effort, ‘Just Passing By’.
That ad was a crowning moment for the form, crystallising a kind of communal ordinariness tied to vocational graft (‘the labourers, the cablers, the council motion tablers’) and combining it with a poetic structure dependent on some form of refrain (Garry calls it chant-like), a rhythmic quirk the copywriters nabbed from one Rolf Harris. Garry has mastered that combination of content, form and function: family/community/industry, time/place/life, threaded together – whatever the weather! – to sell football shirts and fries.
Over the course of our conversation, Garry flits between two worldviews. The first places a divide between artistic and commercial, typical of the ‘job’s a job’ mentality expressed by artists since time immemorial. ‘We need patronage,’ he says. ‘Advertising agencies are my patrons, and it’s about working together to achieve a goal. And in most cases, I’m really open. I’m not up my own arse, so there won’t be any [mock precious poet voice] “I’m not changing a single line.”’ So far, so pragmatic.
Later on, he becomes more explicit. ‘Everything as an artist is a commercial project, because ultimately, you’re going to want to sell it. And the bottom line is, when I write poems, it’s a product. When I do a series of poems, it’s a book. If I do a CD… These are all products. People have this real problem with making money through art. I haven’t, I recognise that I create products. And in some cases, I’m the only person in the whole world who could create that product for that organisation how they want it.’
Has he always been so mercenary? (The only ‘proper job’ he had was the 13 years spent working in Manchester Libraries, where he talks of the democratic project to get more working-class kids reading). ‘I once saw it where I was creating bespoke pieces of art, and that’s all they were. But then I realised, ultimately, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a growing family. Poetry becomes a product because I’ve got to eat. And I’ve got to get rid of that product to the highest…’ He stumbles slightly, then rephrases. ‘Not necessarily the highest bidder, but the bidder who I like the most.’
Are there any gigs he’s turned down? Yes, he says, followed by a list. They include:
• Oasis (‘They didn’t put the same value on my poetry as what I did,’ Garry says neutrally, before revealing the price they were prepared to pay to commemorate the anniversary of the fifth-best-selling album in British history).
• A market-leading grooming company, on tonal grounds (‘It was about the sensitivity of man, but it felt like the Athena ad.’)
• A former footballer’s much-criticised hotel development, twice.
• A daily newspaper, who phoned Garry up to try and buy a poem the BBC had already commissioned from him.
• Many requests from beleaguered councils, in dire need of some easy rehabilitation. (‘When they’ve got negative press, they’ll come to me and ask me to write something positive and rhythmic.’)
‘Sometimes, [organisations] will do a piece of public art and it’s shit, and no one likes it. So they’ll ask me to write a poem as if that somehow compensates for it. Nine times out of ten, I’ll say, “No, no, can’t do it”. It’s a surprisingly high rate of acceptance, given how busy Garry is, that makes you wonder just how many publicly-funded squiggles carry Garry’s bustling texts.
In spite of the commerciality of it all, it’s not as if Garry is uncaring about his work, even pursuing legal action for creative misuse. (He was involved in a lengthy court case with a sportswear brand and a football club who failed to pay him as the campaign unexpectedly went global.) But the scales of commerce and quality are rarely balanced for long. One brief for a leading Manchester-based retailer involved him incorporating the words of customers into his poem, a red flag for Garry. The poem didn’t end up going ‘big’, which pleased him greatly, as it was ‘a total bag of shit’.
It’s not only in reference to commerciality where Garry is bracingly honest. He takes aim at the poetry world’s sniffiness towards his work and describes how working-class artists ‘remove themselves from the word “poetry”, because it represents a world which we don’t belong to, and one we’ve never been welcome in.’ They retaliate by calling it anything else.
His manifesto-cum-sales-pitch doesn’t all add up though. Does he want to be popular? Sometimes, no (‘I’m not Black Lace. I’m not Elvis’). Then again, yes (‘I want to get my work out to as many people as possible’). But then again, maybe not (‘Just give me the 1%, yeah. Just the one person who gets the joke. Then I’ll be happy’). Whatever his views on non-popular pop poetry, the enthusiasm he shows for the whole enterprise is admirable, completely side-lining the grimacingly self-flagellating, got-to-do-what-you’ve-got-to-do response to selling out that the art world is yet to get over.
You get the feeling that Garry is trying to tap into something radical by selling so brazenly. Like a joyful inversion of the stages of grief, Garry’s relationship with commerce has gone from begrudging acceptance of artistic fate, via a craftsman-like appreciation of form, through to a full-chested defence of adland, eventually arriving in a state of total immersion. ‘That’s another thing,’ he says. ‘I am the product. I am what people want. I’m employed by schools internationally, because they want me in their classroom speaking to those kids, the way I speak to them. Nobody else can do it in the same way.’ Garry’s fusion of art, artist and commerce does what might be described as a reverse Gandhi: the beautiful creations come when the poet transcends poetry.