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John Cooper Clarke, poet – portrait of the artist


'Johnny Depp owes me – he pinched my whole look in Edward Scissorhands'

How did you get into writing poetry?

At primary school. I had a great enthusiasm for it, as did everybody in my class. We were taught poetry Michael Gove-style– we learned it off by heart. Never did me any harm.

What was your big breakthrough?

Punk rock, I guess: playing those venues [he toured with bands such as the Sex Pistols and the Clash]. Before that, I had a residency at a cabaret club in Manchester called Mr Smiths. I already looked like a punk – short hair, suits with narrow lapels – at a time when even your uncle had shoulder-length hair and flares. So I fit right in.

How has the performance-poetry scene changed since you started out?

The fact there's a scene at all is a pretty big change. There wasn't when I started out – not in Manchester, anyway. I'd just do a couple of area-specific poems, a couple of gags, then introduce the main act.

What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

"Find a poet whose style you like, emulate that style, then deal with things that you know about – don't waste your time looking for your own style." I wish I could remember who told me that, because I'd like to congraulate him. I've emulated all the old guys – Tennyson, Alexander Pope.

Complete this sentence: At heart, I'm just a frustrated …


Do you suffer for your art?

No. Although getting it right is a kind of suffering. Every masterpiece is on top of a pile of crap.

What one song would work as the soundtrack to your life?

That's Heaven to Me by Sam Cooke. It's almost secular, but it has the deep feeling of the finest sacred music. All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock'n'roll.

What's the greatest threat to the arts today?

The greatest threat to any artist is surrounding themselves with people who love everything they do. You need somebody to say, "I wouldn't do that one if I were you, Johnny."

Is there an art form you don't relate to?

I could say opera, ballet and classical music, but really I only ever come across them by accident. Whenever I hear someone from the pop world choose a classical record on Desert Island Discs, I always think: "You lying bastard."

Who would play you in the film of your life?

Johnny Depp. He owes me one after Edward Scissorhands: he pinched my whole look. I looked exactly like that when the film came out – apart from the hands, of course.

Is there anything about your career you regret?

Loads. Anybody my age who doesn't regret anything has had a crap life.

If you could send a message back to your critics, what would it be?

What's not to like?

In short

Born: Salford, 1949.

Career: Came to fame during the punk rock era of the 1970s, when he earned the nickname "the bard of Salford". Has released four albums, and his 1983 poetry collection Ten Years In an Open Necked Shirt was recently reissued by Vintage. Performs at Field Day in Victoria Park, London, on Sunday, then tours; see johncooperclarke.com.

High point: "Now. My stuff's never been better, and it's never been better received."

Low point: "The 80s were a lost decade."

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