It was lovely to see the Survivors’ Poetry crowd out in force at the Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre to celebrate the life of Razz last Wednesday 4 September. Razz kept the survivors’ poetry nights going at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden and Tottenham Chances for several decades. Since the early 1990s he ran spoken word nights at lots of venues and community centres across London including the famous Bungies, just off Tottenham Court Road, where a lot of well-known musicians started out. You could say Razz was the glue in the ointment that kept Survivors Poetry running on an energy that evoked compassion and made it a safe space to perform.
For many would-be poets, like myself – who has always shied away from the more competitive poetry nights like Hammer & Tongues – Survivors’ Poetry was always the place to go to for encouragement and understanding. Razz provided that in abundance. His passion and commitment to supporting survivor poets, survivors of the mental health system – was a labour of love – something he did readily, without payment, for a very long time. His modus operandi echoed the anti-capitalist politics of the Survivor Movement, although sadly he paid the price for not asserting himself, in terms of his own career as a poet.
Razz should have been up there with the likes of John Hegley, Patience Agbabi and Billy Childish who all did stints with Survivors’ Poetry at some point in their time before getting paid commissions and performance opportunities. Razz performed on stages with the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Attila the Stockbroker and John Cooper-Clarke, but never found the acclaim that was his due. His poetry is certainly of quality and although he felt more at home on the performance circuit, his work stands up equally when being read from the page.
The night in the Saison Poetry Library was beautifully produced by Debbie McNamara who has followed in Razz’s footsteps to keep the spirit of Survivors’ alive.Debbie asked eight poets to choose one of their favorite poem of Razz’s to perform on the night. It was inspired way of generating memories of Razz and getting a real appreciation of just how good his work is, by hearing it from a variety of voices. I chose ‘Be Good To Yourself’ because for people like he and I – people who habitually put ourselves down and struggle to appreciate our worth, it is a wonderful mantra for self-belief.
Readings from at the Poetry Library, reflected the range and extent of Razz’s skill. He was a poet of the people, whose writing explored topics from the mundane and the everyday to more philosophical subjects – and everything in-between – always with a wry and sometimes cynical sense of humour. He had a habit of turning his fears and neuroses into witty poems. Deteriorating Brain for example is a hilarious take on the inevitability of the deleterious impact of ageing.
I met Razz originally when we both belonged to a housing coop in Tottenham, North London in the early 1980s. He and his partner Sam were both members of the Sannyasin Movement at that time following its practices, valuing the importance of self-expression. I went with them to some intense and wild ‘meditations’ – lots of uninhibited laughing, shouting and dancing. It was never going to get us closer to enlightenment, but it was fun.
Razz was very encouraging of my poetry. I’ve not much recollection of what I shared with him, but some of his poems like People in Pain and Be Good To Yourself followed me as important mantras for trying to understand the human condition. I was a bit too shy and was mostly quite ill during that period and never made it along, but he was always ready to share his poetry at any time. Typically Razz’s poetry followed themes on the search for self and exploration of the epic inner journey and I was impressed and very much in awe of him.
And Razz had a knack for moaning on a theme till he had nowhere to go but to find the funny side. And then you would hear his unmistakeable chuckle followed by further fantastical imaginary scenarios, usually illustrating ridiculous stories of human incompetence.
The last time I saw him was at Loonies Fest in September 2017, produced by Nat Fonessu of feel. He was joking about playing hide and seek with the grim reaper, in a manner that was wholly Razz. He was very ill, but when he took to the stage, some other part of him took over and his performance was as polished as ever.
I’m pleased that Razz’s nephew Mark has taken it upon himself to set up a website in homage to Razz’s work. Razz’s memory will live on in the hearts and minds of a heck of a lot of people for a long time to come. His poetry deserves longevity.
If you have a piece of Razz’s work that you would like to submit to the website, please contact Mark via RazzPoetrysite@gmail.com