Live Rhyme 

Kate Fox tells Janet Phillips about a day in the life of a poet on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live

Every Saturday morning, on BBC Radio 4, there’s an hour of current affairs, chat and poetry hosted by Fi Glover, in the form of Saturday Live. The poetry – witty, topical, of the minute in its response to items on the show and in the news – is provided by a rotating team of poets, including Matt Harvey, Elvis McGonigal, Murray Lachlan Young and Lemn Sissay. The latest poet to join this team is Newcastle-based poet, Kate Fox.

So how did she get the gig? “They’d been looking for a female poet,” Kate says, modestly, and she’d already been recommended by some of the other poets on the team. Plus, she’d won second prize in Radio 4’s poetry slam and been approached at this by one of the BBC’s commissioning editors, Caroline Raphael.

“She asked me if I would be able to write poems to order, and quickly,” Kate remembers, “and I said, I think I can.” The way she relates it, it sounds as though she almost took herself by surprise by saying yes. Whether that’s so or not, the challenge she accepted should not be underestimated.

Although the poets on Saturday Live don’t have to write their verses live on air in the studio, they often won’t get more than two days notice of what the material in the show will be. Kate explains: “The producer will ring at some point during the week to tell you the line-up. If you’re lucky it might be Tuesday, sometimes we don’t know for sure until Friday.”

The brief consists of one short opening poem (thirty seconds long) and a longer poem (one minute) for later in the programme. Kate travels down from Newcastle to London on the Friday before the show, and writes the poems on the train. “I’m still tweaking them on Friday night”, she says. “The closest it’s ever been was when there hadn’t been a big enough news story to write the opening poem and I thought, I’ll just have to risk leaving it until the last minute, and hope that when I wake up on Saturday morning there’ll be something in the news which fits. And Cherie Blair’s memoirs were all over the papers that day. So I was working on this poem, and there were two minutes to go, and Fi Glover was saying, are you all right? And I was saying yes, I’ll be fine, and I thought, millions of people are going to listen to this poem, and it’s not written! But it worked out fine in the end.” You can read the resulting poem, ‘Cherie Blossom’, on the Saturday Live website.

Kate’s experience working for commercial radio in the North East is one of the reasons why she was able to achieve this. “I had to write short, snappy, pun-filled news bulletins, very quickly”, she explains. This, and the fact that she already had a lot of experience performing her poety, proved to be an ideal apprenticeship for the demands of the programme.

In her broadcast poems, Kate often uses witty and provocative rhyme. Her end-rhymes alone can make you laugh out loud; I particularly like “gusset / discuss it” (in a poem about Jeremy Paxman’s pants). “Quite a lot of my Saturday Live poems are thinly disguised stand-up comedy that rhymes,” she says. Often, the poem is constructed around rhymes and punchlines. “It’s a bit like having voices in my head. I’ll hear a word first and then I’ll hear a rhyme which seems to fit with the rhythm”, she says. “When I’m doing it at speed it becomes an automatic process. I have to get into the flow and that can mean doodling for a long time, but then something will come and break the block.”

She likes to feed the audience punchlines and I ask her if she thinks, that you have to employ rhyme to produce effective satire. “Rhyme emphasises points”, she says, “so often it gives you that nursery-rhyme feel, which you can disrupt. I always have a point to make, and doing it in this silly, rhymey way can be quite subtle.”

Kate’s satirical subjects inevitably include politicians and she has written many poems about Gordon Brown. When I ask her if she’s obsessed with him, she splutters: “I start to write a poem and suddenly he’s there, with his Scottish disaster persona!” Last year, for National Poetry Day, she was commissioned by the BBC2’s Daily Politics Show to write a poem about Brown’s first 100 days in office. The producer rang on a Tuesday; the show was being televised live the following Thursday. “I said, alright then, thinking, can I? I don’t yet know if I can, but I’d better say yes”, she remembers. But ‘Unflash Gordon’ came into being in time for the slot, fitting the bill in a most entertaining way. “He’s irresistible – as a poetic, satirical subject,” she admits.

There’s a more serious, and more personal, side to the subject-matter of the poetry she’s published in book form (with Zebra Press). We Are Not Stone, in particular, she says, includes her “miserable poems”, and this is not material she would perform. Most recently, she’s written about her family in memoir form – she calls it “a sort of misery memoir” – and she also writes movingly about this part of her life on her MySpace blog. She explains: “I divide into two really, the performance poet and the non-performance side of me.” But it seems to me that bravery links these two halves: the ability to say yes to a challenge, whatever may have happened in the past.

Kate has also won a couple of awards, including the Andrew Waterhouse Award, to support her writing, and she runs her own series of live shows, which she’s called Hyperlexic. “I’d like to mix it up a bit more and do gigs which put performance poets on alongside page poets”, she says. She’s also keen to see a new generation of poets reach the stage: “it’s hard to get a foothold in performance poetry in the North. There are lots of poets who are potential performance poets but haven’t got any gigs to perform at. I’d like to give them the opportunities that I’ve had”.

Although she felt privileged to have a slot on the Daily Politics Show she is wary of the way that poets can be presented on TV. “There can be this kind of deference towards the poet, let us hear the words of the poet for they are coming from a separate, poetic world, and I don’t like that. I’d like to see less of a separation between the Poet with capital letter and other commentators. For me, that’s one of the amazing things about Saturday Live: there’s no big fuss about us, we’re just part of things, another voice.” To hear those voices riffing on the week’s news, and to find out if anyone’s got a good rhyme for, say, Miliband, listen in on Saturday morning at nine o’clock.

Kate Fox will next be appearing on the programme on 12 July.
www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/saturdaylive/