His genre being somewhat unusual tops my neat list of questions, with which Hegley's eclectic answers are wreaking havoc. He can't even decide what to call the strange brew of verse, humour and music that illuminates his shows.
"Performance poetry sounds like a low hybrid not quite poetry and not quite performing art. But then it's not just comedy either," his friendly voice takes on a note of distress as he searches for an adequate description.
"Maybe I'm a spoken word performer?" he ventures.
We decide to scrap this suggestion, since it evokes the aggressive poetry slams of America, which are a far cry from Hegley's quirky style.
Anyway 'spoken word' hardly embraces the dance routines he incorporated recently. He perks up at the mention of choreography. "I'm a dance poet, yeah, that sounds dramatic!"
Whatever the label, the manic outpourings of Hegley's brain are gaining popularity among beer guzzlers and wine sippers alike. He's moved from busking to recording BBC TV programmes with one of his inspirations Seamus Heaney and has published five books along the way.
He demands my honest impression of his printed efforts. Though continually warned to save candid observations till the end of the interview (when you have enough material to risk an offended dial tone), I take a deep breath and confess. "Well there were some terribly clever bits and much of it was touching, but some parts didn't quite work for me. I'm assuming that's because it was written for a multidimensional performance."
Luckily, he agrees: "Some of the things are designed for print but a lot are meant to be read aloud. I just hope they stand up on paper."
It's this very dilemma that makes some cynics question Hegley's involvement in the Cheltenham Literary Festival hallowed showcase of the UK print industry. Yet Hegley has as much right if not more for inclusion.
After all, his uncategorised medium is the ancestor of the starched and proper corps of wordsmiths with their dust-jacket blurbs, book tours and best-seller lists. He's tapping into a tradition of poetic performance that predates The Odyssey (which was orally transmitted for at least seven centuries before the first-edition papyrus).
Hegley is good-humoured about his detractors, accepting such backbiting as typical of poetry circles. "Posh poets are snotty about performance poets. Performance poets are snotty about comedians. Comedians are snotty about all poets. It all balances out."
He believes performance poetry standards need to rise before practitioners get any snottier though. "They should be as good as comedians or better and that hasn't happened yet." He speaks from experience: Hegley's background on the comedy circuit stood him in good stead, honing his stage patter and showmanship before he launched into experimental verse.
The apprenticeship shaped some very definite views on the importance and the role of the audience. Hegley's fans are generally not a distant crowd, adoring language through insulating layers of print they are party to his poems. "I like the idea of a performance being an exchange, a therapy session, a religious experience, a good laugh," he says earnestly. "I want it to be a formative experience.
"I like to bring out the humour in commonplace things dogs, fathers, glasses, Romans and seeing how things compare, like how does our conception of the ideal potato compare with the reality of a potato?"
This last bit brings me sharply back to my University days and the Introduction to Philosophy course. I've heard this concept before, though couched in more dignified examples than tubers.
"Very Plato," I murmur, allowing myself a small flash of intellectual name-dropping. After all, he has been grilling me unmercifully about Roman history for almost half an hour.
"Very potato," he quips and the interview once more descends into riotous laughter. "Hey, we just wrote a poem," he enthuses, "Very Plato, very potato! I like it!"
So do I, and I like John Hegley. I may not keep his books on my coffee table, but I'll definitely be in the audience for his upcoming tour. And if it is possible to have a religious experience or even another good laugh at the expense of potatoes, I firmly believe John Hegley will be the man to deliver it.
like the idea of a
performance being an
exchange, a therapy
session, a religious
experience, a good
laugh," he says.
"Hey, we just wrote
a poem," he enthuses,
"Very Plato, very
potato. I like it!"
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