Poets in motion

Aisle 16 are a poetry collective of guys, who are currently posing as Britain’s only poetry boyband. Formed in Norwich by Luke Wright and heading back to the city on their UK tour, Pat Parker says they could well be on their way to poetry superstardom.

Luke Wright, member of Britain's only poetry boyband, is sitting in the corner of a pub, clutching a mug of tea. He's asked to meet me in the pub, rather than the home he shares with his girlfriend, because he's had a busy weekend gigging in London, and hasn't had time to tidy up the house.

He lives next door to performance poet Martin Newell, who, along with fellow Colchester poetry icon John Cooper Clarke, has proved to be something of a mentor to Luke and his fellow poets, collectively known as Aisle 16.

Aisle 16 is not in itself a poetry boyband. It's a poetry collective, comprising Luke, from Wivenhoe, fellow Essex boy Ross Sutherland, Chris Hicks, Joel Stickley and Tom Sutton, who specialises in writing angry or abstruse letters to major corporations, and getting them to respond.

In the past, Aisle 16 have appeared as spoof businessmen presenting a motivational seminar in a show called Powerpoint. But in their latest guise, they perform as Poetry Boyband with Westlife-style white suits, medallions and fake, stereotyped personas.

“I'm the sexually ambiguous one,” says Luke, “Chris is the muscly one who lives down the gym, Joel's the mysterious one and Ross is the one who attracts the mothers.”

Last year, the five performed Poetry Boyband at the Edinburgh Festival, where it was a sell-out success, and at Glastonbury, where they received rave reviews in national papers. Poetry Boyband was chosen, from about 600 live theatre acts, as Time Out Critics' Choice of the Year in 2005. They're currently on a spring tour which includes Norwich on Tuesday.

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For all their poptastic mock naffness, Aisle 16 is actually seeking to present a serious show about poetry. Their poems, which are acerbic, satirical and often angry pieces attacking big business, the vacuity of pop and celebrity culture, and the shallowness of contemporary life, are interspersed with 'micro lectures' on aspects of poetry such as pretentiousness, identity, self, love and death. Boyzone, it ain't.

“The pretence of the show is that we're a boyband who are trying to win over Key Stage Three kids to the delights of poetry,” says Luke.

“We're satirising the whole idea of 'edutainment', of making learning fun. We say things like, 'Hey, all right kids, this is really cool, edgy, of the now'. We're sending that up, but what we're mainly doing is speaking about language and poetry, I hope quite passionately. It's all very stupid, but we do try to explain what poetry's about.”

Luke formed Aisle 16 five years ago, when he, Ross, Joel and Tom were students at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The name came from Ross, who had spent the previous summer working at Sainsbury's supermarket at Tollgate in Colchester.

“Ross had this idea for a website called Aisle 16, where we could have an online poetry archive, and I liked the name,” says Luke. “Aisle 16 was a private joke among all the kids who worked at the supermarket. If anyone asked where anything was, they would send them to Aisle 16, which had a random selection of objects. It became a term for miscellaneousness - a place for things that don't fit in anywhere else.”

Luke, 24, was born in London, and moved to Coggeshall, Essex, aged three. Even then, he was keen on writing. He had the imagination and creativity to be a writer, but at school, he was hampered by mild dyslexia and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

In his early teens, he started writing song lyrics. “I wanted to be a journalist, writer or rock star when I was at school. I always wanted to be in a band, but I knew deep down it wasn't going to happen. I did play bass guitar in a school band, but it was fairly rudimentary stuff. I survived by writing songs. I look back at some of the stuff I wrote and think it really wasn't too bad. Had I given it to a good band, I'm sure it could have gone somewhere. I was good at writing lyrical hooks.”

Bob Dylan, John Lennon and singer/songwriter John Martin were some of his key lyrical influences. But he was never going to be a great musician and, increasingly, he turned to writing poetry. At 14, he discovered local poet Martin Newell, and joined his song-writing course for teenagers at Colchester Sixth Form College.

It was two years later, when he was a student at the sixth-form college, that Luke met Ross. Ironically, Ross too had grown up in Coggeshall, but, being two years older than Luke, their paths had never crossed.

Soon afterwards, Ross, who was by now in the first year of the creative writing course at the UEA, came back to the college to give a talk to sixth-formers. The two got talking, and soon afterwards, Ross arranged Luke's first performance poetry gig, supporting their mentor John Cooper Clarke in Norwich. “That's when it really started for me, I suppose,” says Luke. “I didn't know anyone else of our age doing poetry, and we became really good friends. We started gigging in Colchester and Norwich, but we were still working separately.”

Luke was still only 17 when he first started performing poetry. He followed Ross to the UEA, where he studied English literature and creative writing, and rubbed shoulders with poet laureate Andrew Motion. He went on to become a very active president of the Creative Writing Society, boosting membership hugely.

He, Ross and a handful of other performance poets formed Aisle 16 in 2000, holding monthly poetry nights above communist theme bar Kafe Da which used to be in Bedford Street, Norwich. “I set it up. Ross was a resident poet, and I compered the show,” says Ross. “We'd invite someone up from London to perform, the residents would do a turn, and then there'd be an open mike. After about a year and a half, we won an award for the most refreshing act at the Norwich Fringe Festival. We won an all-expenses trip to the Edinburgh Festival to perform the show. We were expecting it to be several thousand pounds. In fact it was £250 - but we went anyway.”

They have performed regularly at both the Edinburgh Fringe and Glastonbury since 2002. It was at Edinburgh they met Chris, a law student who joined the collective, and the line-up eventually settled at the current five performers - four poets and a letter writer.

Until 2004, they performed separately, taking it in turns to deliver quick-fire, hard-hitting poetry. Then they had the idea of theming their act, creating mock personas for themselves, dressing up in costumes and using a multi-media presentation to illustrate their poetry.

They came up with was Powerpoint - a spoof motivational business seminar, complete with 700 slides of ridiculous graphics - graphs, tables, flowcharts and the like.

They dressed up in business suits to deliver the seminar, urging the audience to join their pyramid-selling venture with messianic zeal. The presentation parodied the type of meaningless corporate dogma so beloved of modern business - and was dotted with spoof jargon such as “motivational motorways”, “transnational winnerdom”, “individualised hyper-excellence” and “global achieverdomisation”. Audiences were urged to “Optimise your actualisation!”, and “Applaud now for maximum enjoyment”.

The idea was born in part from the five's varying experience of having to hold down temporary jobs while struggling to make their name in the precarious world of performance poetry. Luke has worked as a marketing executive for a major publisher (“I was looking after the religious and text books. Not the most exciting department, but we did have the Bible - the Number One bestseller!”) He was also lured into working as a director on a late-night pornography station - a job he got out of as quickly as possible.

Powerpoint was the perfect vehicle for Tom to read his convoluted correspondence with major companies. “Tom writes these letters of complaint, and drags companies into this hilarious correspondence,” says Luke. “He plays it very well. He writes to them, and they reply, and he gets this big correspondence going, which he then reads out. People always think he's making the letters up, but every word is real.”

Tom's work includes a protracted correspondence with McDonald's, complaining about why they failed to employ him (he was too gregarious, apparently), letters to WH Smith, professing outrage that a video featuring train crashes was on sale at a railway station branch, and hoards of letters to Virgin Trains, demanding compensation for a delayed journey.

Powerpoint won the poets national recognition.

The idea for Poetry Boyband came after a reviewer hailed them as the world's only boyband of poetry.

Despite their savage satirising of marketing speak and product branding, they acknowledge they are pretty adept at marketing themselves.

So Poetry Boyband was born. The five bought themselves white suits, donned some tasteless medallions and gelled their hair. They call themselves Luke16, Chris16, and so on, in the style of Posh Spice, Sporty Spice, etc, and not only perform the show in character, but even do interviews too.

“Luke16 really cares about the world,” says Luke, “He's into charity and making lots of money. He's very arrogant and very stupid.”

Ross plays the deeply paranoid one, “eternally trying to break free of the boyband and do something more grown-up. He wants to be taken seriously, but he's a bit weird. Chris16 is basically quite violent, and Joel16 is having a nervous breakdown. And I'm trying to hold the group together and be, like, really positive. But we could split up at any moment.”

The band are constantly being manipulated by their record company, and ripped off by their manager, but they're too dumb to see it.

As well as the concept of fun-learning 'edutainment', Poetry Boyband is also satirising the emptiness of today's celebrity culture, the cynicism of pop marketing and media culture.

Both Powerpoint and Poetry Boyband aim not only to make poetry accessible, by presenting it in a completely new way, but also to draw in new audiences, who would not normally dream of attending an evening of performance poetry.

Beyond the comedy, politics and satire, Aisle 16's raison d'etre remains their poetry.

“We're not trying to stand on a soapbox and get our message across to people,” says Luke. “What brings us together is that all of us do think performance poetry is great, and shouldn't be ignored. Yeah, we're hoping we can build ourselves a career, and get to do what we love, but we're really hoping we can get more people interested in poetry. Poetry is pure thought; words and emotion caught on a page in a very concentrated way. It's an incredibly powerful thing.”

t Aisle 16's tour includes dates at Norwich Arts Centre on Tuesday, March 7 (01603 660352, www.norwichartscentre.co.uk) and The Junction, Cambridge, on Wednesday, March 15 (01223 511511, www.junction.co.uk).