Heading off to watch Laura do a poetry reading, at the Beatknik Bookstore in Jericho, I wasn’t sure what to expect – my image of poetry readings was all duffel coats, long pauses and lots of staring moodily into the distance. I can safely say I have never been so surprised in my life.
Despite the fact that her second book is published under the title ‘Ugly Shy Girl’, Laura Dockrill is neither of these things. It may seem like a slightly sycophantic cliché, but she comes across like a whirlwind of bright colours, pink lipstick, clever wording and spot on impressions. Described by the Independent as a ‘Poet for the iPod generation’, there was certainly no reading involved – Laura stands, brimming with (nervous?) energy and acts her poems; it comes as no surprise that the word ‘performance’ is frequently prefixed on to the word ‘poet’ when describing her job. ‘I have enough respect for the poets who read the poetry quietly, of course, but I just couldn’t do that. It makes me less nervous to be energetic – if stood still my hands would be shaking, I’d be a wreck, and I’d be sweating the life out of me!’
Laura is probably the first of her kind to have graduated from the infamous Brit School. ‘I did Performing Arts – no I didn’t, that’s a complete lie! I did theatre there. It was probably the best experience of my life. Teenagers are difficult aren’t they? I was sixteen and I went to a private school before that, and my parents really had to scrimp for me to go there… we couldn’t help but feel like it was a bit of a waste of time. I felt creatively they were burning me out – I remember one of them saying that if I wanted to be a writer then they’d see me stacking shelves with Mickey Mouse in Sainsbury’s and I just thought ‘Fuck this’.’
It was the creative encouragement that it seems Laura has always craved, and this has helped her flourish into the performer she is today. ‘It’s so creative, they just encourage you – you could just go up to the front desk and say ‘You wanted to put a play on’ and they’d just say ‘Go on then’. Don’t get me wrong, there were prima donnas whimpering ‘I’m like so… fractured’ and you meet all the characters but they’re just inspiration- and you know, at one point I was a dick too. It’s growing up isn’t it?’
‘Poetry comes easy to me. Everything else just makes me feel like an imbecile’
The Brit school is famous for its alumni and has been nicknamed the ‘Fame Academy’ by the media, with ex-students often quite embarrassed about their roots, preferring instead to appear ‘self-made’. Laura doesn’t seem to share these qualms, perhaps because what she does seems so unusual compared to the usual Brit-pack singers and actresses. Why though, did she not take the path more travelled? ‘I did want to be an actress, but I just couldn’t stand the auditions. It’s the most gruelling, stressful, terrifying experience ever. And so I wanted to be a playwright, but that is just boring – watching people perform your work that you know you could have done better. So in the end, it just seemed right to marry my too loves together. It comes easy to me. Everything else just makes me feel like an imbecile.’
‘Saying you want to be a poet is like saying you want to be a tyrannosaurus rex’
And it seems that Laura is trying to ignite the creative passion in people that she felt slipping away in that first secondary school. ‘I want them to go away and think ‘Maybe I could write…’ It’s such a craft, and it’s been forgotten. It frustrates me how it’s being taught in schools. If people don’t engage with poetry and poets – how is anyone ever going to aspire to be something they don’t think is tangible to them? They’ll just think, Oh, I could never be a poet, poets are all dead. Saying you want to be a poet is like saying you want to be a tyrannosaurus rex. So it’s important that people who are twenty-three and could be a singer, or an actress or a receptionist, can still be excited by words.’
For Dockrill, it’s all about making poetry exciting again and reaching a new audience. ‘Why is music and theatre so important? Why do people say ‘Oh, I can’t live without that song’ but they don’t really do that with poetry. I want to make people fall back in love with words. No one listens to stories anymore.’
‘Poetry’s not made for everywhere though, we know that’
And reaching a new audience is just what she is doing- her second ever gig was at Latitude, and since she has played at Glastonbury and Reading. ‘On paper it sounds really exciting but it’s mostly drunk people going ‘What the fuck is this?’ and throwing cider at my head. Tough crowd! Poetry’s not made for everywhere though, we know that. Although, Latitude is always amazing, because it’s about all the arts; you want to go to the comedy tent, or the theatre tent more than you want to go to the music stage.’
If that was her second gig, then her first must have been pretty impressive. It was, in fact, because of her friend Kate Nash – in the year below her at the Brit School – that Laura first performed. ‘She did like a mini launch and she wanted all her friends to read something, but I didn’t have anything that I wanted to do. I’d just come out of university though, and we had had to write a letter to someone telling them something, and I changed it into a letter of obsession – and wrote to Rolf Harris- of course!- and made this whole character up… and I just knocked it together and made it rhyme. I read it all scared and shaking, so nervous. Acting is so different because you’re doing someone else’s work, but once it’s your own work and you’re being judged by everyone, and the clothes your wearing because you haven’t got a costume to wear- it’s scary! But once you get paid for doing something you love- even if it’s just a drink you get bought – it’s like ‘this is it!’
And what’s the dream, where does Laura go from here? As it is, she’s concentrating on her third book and is taking it easy on the gigging side of things – but next year? ‘In 2011 I’m going to make a poem number one in charts- I’m going to do a bit of a Lou Reed’s Perfect Day and get aspirational, inspirational figures in the arts to say a line of the poem a capella and then see where it takes us. And all the money that we raise will go into a massive pot to fund new talent.’ ‘People think poets don’t need to be paid, people think poets are just banjo players or that they’re all like Pete Doherty – they don’t need pens they write in blood…. The amounts of times I’ve sat next to someone and they say ‘So what do you do?’ I feel kind of embarrassed, because people don’t expect it. It’s like saying you’re an astronaut. And then people just say, ‘Are you actually living off that?’ and I say ‘Yes’. I mean of course, it’s a struggle but this is what I want to do. If it doesn’t work I’ll just have a baby…’
It’s said with a wry smile, but there is a sense that Laura battles against such poetry prejudices on a regular basis. ‘I face those kinds of battles all the time. People ask me who my favourite poet is all the time: sometimes I say Eminem, sometimes I say Roald Dahl or whoever. If you say someone like Sylvia Plath, they just think you’ve looked on Wikipedia. That’s so frustrating because people only know a handful of poets, so they think you’re not a real poet. People just love to capture you and I find it really tough because I am so inspired by everything – music, art, people, things- that it’s so hard to say what my favourite anything is.’
There is no bitterness in these words, but a very potent understanding of how people work- something that reads powerfully in her poetry, and a key factor in her quick success. ‘It’s been a whirlwind – well, as far as a poetry whirlwind could whisk you.’ The thing is, I imagine in Laura’s case, the whirlwind might go pretty far.