John Cooper Clarke interview: ‘I hated school but teachers like me – I get their pupils interested in poetry’

John Cooper Clarke. Picture: Paul Wolfgang Webster
John Cooper Clarke. Picture: Paul Wolfgang Webster

When Arctic Monkeys played a series of sell-out homecoming shows at Sheffield's FlyDSA Arena, there was one man they dearly wanted to introduce them on stage, even if only for a single night.

John Cooper Clarke - the punk pioneer who came to the fore in the 1970s, emerging from Salford to deliver classic verses like Evidently Chickentown in an instantly recognisable, nasal voice - had been a hero of the High Green band's singer and lyricist Alex Turner since his teenage years, when he'd studied the poet's work on the GCSE syllabus at school.

So, in September, Clarke found himself in front of thousands of fans, returning a favour after the Arctics put his poem I Wanna Be Yours to music on their hit album AM in 2013.

"It was obviously a privilege to MC for them," he says, remembering the occasion. "A great show, they get better and better. Smashing. The night before I was in Skipton doing a show so it was easy for me."

Clarke - or Dr Clarke as he styles himself, referring to his honorary doctorate from Salford University - will be back in Sheffield in March, on tour with his new book, The Luckiest Guy Alive, which remarkably is his first new poetry collection in 35 years. It's a handsome volume, containing 40 poems and six haikus with a cover illustration by Sgt Pepper artist Sir Peter Blake. Topics covered range from a hymn to the seductive properties of the pie - a piece called, simply, Pies - to sober commentary on the state of his health ('Bed Blocker Blues') and a satire on the police ('Pleb Squad').

He is, he says, thrilled to see it in print, despite having consistently prioritised performance over the page, appearing in clubs and on TV shows like the Old Grey Whistle Test.

"I've always considered poetry to be a phonetic medium, rather than something you read to yourself," he says, on the phone from his home in Colchester, Essex, where he lives with his wife Evie. "I always advise that even if you're reading someone's poetry in a book, read it aloud - if it doesn't sound any good, it isn't any good. Essentially, I think, poetry pre-dates mass literacy by a long way. It lives in songs and things like that. I've always given priority to live renditions of my work. It's always been my favourite part of what I do anyway."

The new book is filled with Clarke's 'personal favourites' - he writes every day and could easily fill a further anthology with unpublished material. "There's another book of the same size at least."

The title poem – a portrait of a man for whom life is ‘one big happy skive’ – opens the collection and expresses how Clarke feels today. "I've never inhabited anybody else's life, it's just a guess, but I feel lucky, of course I do. I feel lucky as a poet to have the English language at my disposal, and for all kinds of things. My life turned out great."

He is grateful, he says, to make a living out of something he has a gift for. "Enjoy isn't the right word, as soon as it becomes your profession, enjoyment doesn't really come into it, in a way."

The book jacket is adorned with approving quotes from the likes of Turner - "Nothing short of dazzling," he says of Clarke - and The Scotsman, which portrayed the poet as 'a man who has stayed exactly the same for 30 years but never grown stale', no doubt in reference to his unchanging look: a 'beatnik mod' uniform of drainpipe trousers, crisp shirt, winkle-picker shoes, pencil-thin tie, jet-black hair and sharp blazer, topped off with shades.

"It's like the way John Peel used to describe The Fall as being 'always different, always the same'," he says.

Clarke was a perennial support act for The Fall, the abrasive post-punk group fronted by Mark E Smith, another unique versifier who came from Prestwich, three miles north of Salford. Smith died of lung and kidney cancer aged 60 in January, and Clarke remains saddened.

"I do miss him," he sighs. "He had a gift which he sharpened into a skill which became a one-man art form. It dies with him, really. It's impossible to describe what Smithy did. A very special guy. It seems like the world got a little bit more compliant. He was a unique voice, always, you never knew which way he was going to jump."

Clarke has lived in Essex longer than anywhere else, and Salford doesn't feel like home anymore, he says.

"Everywhere I might have recognised has been demolished, it's changed architecturally and I've got very few relatives there - my brother still lives there, that's a connection, and a couple of cousins. When I determined to become a professional poet, I envisaged I would have to drag it into the world of showbusiness or rock 'n' roll. You had to move to London."

Opportunities might be different now, he accepts, but in his early days - spurred on by Pam Ayres winning Opportunity Knocks and encouraged by a literature-loving schoolteacher, John Malone - he faced a stark choice. "'I could either stay in Manchester and become a local eccentric, or set my sights a little further. You had to run it up the flagpole in London and see if anybody salutes it. I've never been rootsy."

Life in the capital turned unpleasant, though - he lost years to heroin addiction in the 1980s, living with former Velvet Underground singer Nico in a Brixton flat when both were hooked on the drug. Nico was the subject of a biopic earlier this year – director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Nico, 1988 - but Clarke hasn't watched it, and doesn't know if he is depicted on screen.

"If I'm not in it, it's not accurate and I'd like to know the reason why. Because she lived at my house in 1988. Obviously I was a massive fan before I ever got to know her - I knew about Nico pre-Velvet Underground, when she brought out records on Immediate, the label run by Andrew Loog Oldham. I always found her very noteworthy, her unusual voice always made an impression on me. It was really quite something to be around her."

It was a dark period too, I remind him. "I wouldn't revisit that time in my life for all the opium in China," he cackles, not elaborating further. "I'm glad I'm out of that."

Perhaps he will reveal more in his autobiography, expected in 2019. "I've got a lot to talk about and very little time left to deal with it.  I've got a pretty good memory for stuff, for details, and hopefully I can do a good job. Maybe I might be able to sell the film rights."

Clarke, 70 in January, says his life is mellower these days - he is a father to grown-up daughter Stella, for one thing. "But then I never went out much, I've always been a bit of a stay-at-home by nature. I work in licensed premises - a night in is a night out."

His real comeback came in the early 2000s, when his poems began to be studied by GCSE students. "That did me a lot of good. I hated school, every minute of it. But that one guy, John Malone, he was an inspiration."

He doesn't believe children are getting the same help now. "I know a lot of teachers, they like me because I'm the one that gets their pupils interested in poetry."

Nevertheless, he was intrigued by 'the outrage with which they greeted Michael Gove's suggestion that people learn poetry off by heart at school'. "I think they teach it wrongly. They encourage children to try to understand what the poem is about, which seems to me wrong. Say you're learning Alfred, Lord Tennyson - as a 12-year-old, you're not going to understand the poetry of a 32-year-old. So I think it's better if you just learn the words. And then years later a line might become clear to you. That's the way poetry works. Ernest Hemingway used to say 'All sport aspires to boxing'. I think all art aspires to poetry."

To that end, Clarke has written a Sheffield-inspired song which he intends to 'unleash' here in March. Can he give us a flavour now?

"Well, it's.... no, I can't," he decides. "It's an all or nothing number. I'm not going to jinx it. You'll have to show up. It's a great town, Sheffield."

The Luckiest Guy Alive is out now, published by Picador, priced £14.99 in hardback. John Cooper Clarke appears at the Octagon Centre, Sheffield University, on March 7. Tickets £22, see johncooperclarke.com/gigs to book.