Performance poet John Hegley was born in 1953 in Newington Green, Islington.
He grew up in Luton and was educated at Bradford University, where he studied Literature and Sociology. He has worked as a bus conductor in Bristol, and in children's theatre in London.
His collections include Glad to Wear Glasses (1990), Can I Come Down Now Dad (1991) and Dog (2000). He has published a volume of verse for children, My Dog is a Carrot (2002). In 2008 he coedited an anthology of poetry for young people, The Ropes: Poems To Hold On To, with Sophie Hannah. His most recent collections are Peace, Love and Potatoes (2012), New & Selected Potatoes (2013) and I am a Poetato (2013).
John Hegley has also released his own CD of songs and poetry, 'Saint and Blurry', and collaborated with Robyn Hitchcock as John Hegley and The Popticians.
In 2000 he received an honorary Arts Doctorate from Luton University, where he has also let creative writing classes. Hegley launched "Warning: May Contain Nuts", a project using comedy to increase awareness of mental illness. He performed these shows in 2010 with other performers, including comic Mackenzie Taylor, talking about mental illness.
The apparently throwaway ‘A few words about poetry’ which prefaces John Hegley’s book, These Were Your Father’s (1994), tell us something about the imaginative world his poems inhabit:
'Adrian Mitchell has suggested that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people, to which I would add that most porcupines ignore most putty because putty is usually quite high off the ground and porcupines usually aren’t and they tend not to notice things unless they’re of an edible, threatening, or usually attractive nature.'
There is a mix of two things here which I see as characteristic of Hegley’s work. We have, side by side, seriousness and nonsense which startle us and, on reflection, introduce a new kind of meaning to perplex and illuminate in equal measure.
John Hegley is widely recognised as one of the UK's most innovative and popular comic poets and songwriters. He first rose to prominence when his poems began to appear in The Guardian newspaper. His book, Glad to Wear Glasses (1990), brought his name to a wide readership within the poetry reading audience. However, his work has appealed to a broader audience as well and this has helped to extend the audience for poetry generally. Although Hegley is a writer of comic poems, once examined, it becomes apparent that many of his poems have serious undertones. For instance, a poem such as ‘Poem about losing my glasses’ from his first book in fact has a serious point to make on human vulnerability:
'the place is familiar
my face is bare
I’ve mislaid my glasses
I’ve looked in my glasses case
but they’re not there
and I need my glasses
to find my glasses
but I’ll be alright
I’ve got a spare pair
Glasses are presented in Glad to Wear Glasses as a definition of a kind of flawed humanity. Just as the town Luton – where Hegley grew up and which is often viewed in the media negatively - appears in the poems as an underdog of a town for which Hegley is ready to make a case. Most notable, maybe, in ‘My Luton Bungalow’, which celebrates the suburban world as a form of Shangri La.
Glad to Wear Glasses has been followed by many other titles which often contain verse, prose and drawings by the author. There is a crossover in his work between poems apparently written for children and others written for adults; with poems which at first sight appear intended for children also appealing equally to adults and vice versa. We can see this in some of Hegley’s repeated eclectic themes which number (in addition to glasses and Luton): dogs, gods, Egyptians, Roman remains, potatoes. His poems are often most effective when he mixes the serious and the comic. What at first appears funny eventually shows itself as serious too, as in the Hegley song ‘What are we going to do about Grandad’s Glasses?’ which is simultaneously about the disposal of spectacles and bereavement, but which mixes humour with a sense of loss. Or the poem ‘My Dad’s new belt’ from Can I Come Down Now, Dad? (1991) which comically comments on death and punishment:
'when my Dad bought his new belt
the woman who sold it to him
told him that it was very strong
and would probably last longer than he would
and my Dad said that he would give it to one of his children'
His work, which at first sight can appear naïve, is often technically deft and uses rhyme in a surprising way. His poems are sometimes short and one reading often leads to an immediate re-reading out of interest to see how an effect is achieved. There is a wit in the way the words are presented, as in ‘Friendship in the Mendip Hills’ from Five Sugars Please (1993):
'Even though I went
to the trouble of putting up your tent
it was fine
that you spent
all of your time
He has written longer prose pieces as well, such as the prose piece ‘Declaring Martian Law’ in Five Sugars Please (1993) or the poem ‘Beyond Our Kennel’ from the book of the same title (1998).
John Hegley has illustrated many of his books with child-like illustrations which are integral to the poems. As such his work can be seen as within an English tradition of serio-comic or absurdist poetry for adults and children linked to the work of perhaps Stevie Smith or, even more tellingly, Edward Lear, who similarly illustrated his poems. In fact there is an acerbic and harsh edge to many Hegley poems which, in a real way, also relates his work to that of Lear, whose limericks rather more angrily comment on the senselessness of life.
Music has always been integral to John Hegley’s repertoire, as in ‘My Luton Bungalow’ and ‘What are we going to do about Grandad’s Glasses’ referred to above. He began first of all as a musical busker playing songs in the street in the late 1970s. He tells the story of busking outside a shoe shop in Hull and being touched at the way his songs were bringing laughter to two young assistants in a shoe shop. He later performed songs at the Comedy Store in London, known equally as an immensely influential and tough venue to play and where comic performers could be ordered off the stage at a moment’s notice. His work with his group The Popticians was featured on BBC radio on the John Peel sessions from 1983-1984 and he is, accordingly, as well known as a musician as a poet. In public he often performs solo accompanying himself on mandolin or guitar. But Hegley is also a dedicated workshop leader in schools; visiting areas of urban deprivation to instil creativity in pupils through drawing, poetry and gesture.
As must be obvious by now, John Hegley is far from being a poet in an ivory tower. He is a man with a mission to take poetry to new and unfamiliar places and is an experienced Live Literature performer of his work to audiences of adults and children in many venues around the country. Accordingly, he has been an inspiration to a whole generation of performers, bringing music and word together in performance. He can draw large sell-out audiences at Literature Festivals and at the Edinburgh Festival and he has performed in many countries including Canada, the USA and at a women's prison at Medellin, Columbia, for the British Council and other organizations.
Jonathan Barker, 2010