Tribute to Razz

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Survivors’ Poetry is a project that draws connections between mental distress and creativity and hosts a night of live performance once a month at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden, London. For many decades poet, musician, artist and survivor Razz (aka. Grahame Robert Feasey) 1952 – 2018 was at the heart of London’s Survivors’ Poetry group. He threw himself into performing and producing poetry gigs, workshops and groups and gained an estimable reputation for what he did for others through music and poetry. Debbie McNamara of Survivors’ Poetry posts a tribute to Razz following an event celebrating his life and work at the National Poetry Library on Wednesday 4 September 2019

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Razz and Debbie McNamara

Razz worked and reworked his material like a patient and perfectionist sculptor. An original free thinker, with a constantly busy mind, he left innumerable notebooks full of scrawled poems, with feverish crossings out, sketches and line drawings to help him focus his ideas. He didn’t just have the mental image of himself as a poet, he really lived the life, full time. He was also a brilliant painter, and in his poetry as in his art his canvas was always the human condition in all its frailties, yearnings, foibles and unmet desires. He was brilliantly relatable, his perspective was that of ‘everyman’, and yet fabulously personal and confessional. His work should be on degree courses in poetry and taught in schools. His favourite phrase was “It’s only through broken glass that rainbows are formed”.

His forays into political poetry were always full of foresight and vision, and through it all like the marbling in a good steak was that rich vein of humour that ranged from the absurdly hair-raisingly comical to the anarchic and self-deprecating, to the most gentle and affectionate of smiles. There was nothing he enjoyed more than a good new joke, and I hear the rusty iron gate of his chuckle to this day.

I first met him when he and Patience Agbabi were running a performance skills workshop for Survivors’ Poetry at MIND in Camden in 1991. I was struck that evening by his originality and gentle, cherishing manner, his esteem for everybody there, his sensitivity and connection with Survivors of mental distress and trauma. Also his bright red henna-dyed long hair!

Then again a couple of months later in my first week working in the new office for Survivors’, we were sent to the Arts Council to tout for funding. He performed ‘Be Good to Yourself’ to a room full of awed people in suits and I knew immediately what an important talent he was. On the way back to the office he insisted that we stop to buy an ice cream on the street and while we shared the first of many moments of gastronomic pleasure – he was always the generous host and a great cook – I offered to be his agent. He laughed ruefully and said “I don’t think I’m together enough for an agent!” which was a pity because he should undoubtedly have been up there with the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah and John Hegley and Adrian Mitchell.

I could speak for many hours about Razz and already have in painful co-counselling sessions, trying to deal with the untimely loss of this great and humble man. I treasure the memory of countless trips with my son Richie and him to his favourite sacred places in Wiltshire and Hampshire – Kennets Barrow, Silbury Hill, Stonehenge for his birthday in December on winter solstice a couple of times, Avebury, crop circle spotting before the harvest, Earth Spirit festivals, also nights out at karaoke pubs, visits to must-see arty stuff, middle of the night insomniac dinner parties at Sherringham Avenue, Halleys Comet-watching, countless tarot card readings, board games, Kevin Coyne gigs with Frank Bangay, video nights, cinema, John Otway gigs (his favourite live performer, who over the years became a friend) and so on and so on. But before I tear up and grieve my attachment to him all over again I’ll just cut to his poetry. To throw in a curved ball here, he recorded little snippets of ideas and thoughts as he went along as well as more fully formed pieces – I couldn’t resist these two – the first is ‘Kettle’.

The kettle used to whistle
Everytime that you walked by
Now it boils away in silence
And won’t look me in the eye.

And this one,

Dressed.
I dressed my venom
Up in denim
And sent it to the cleaners

For crimes against humanity
And other misdemeanours.

Although I had been writing poetry from an early age and gained an English degree at university in the late 80’s, I began to identify my themes more fully with Razz’s encouragement and started performing poetry myself. He was great at using his charisma to help other people gain in confidence as performers. Even though he was also running the World Oyster Club on Saturday nights at the famous club Bungies, near Leicester Square, Survivor poets truly touched him and held his heart. In my writing I started to pare down my wordiness, concentrate more on form, and silences, and look within as clearly as I could. This is one of mine that came out of that time, published in the Survivors’ Poetry anthology ‘Under the Asylum Tree’ in 1995.

The Healing Stream
That coiled snake inside my belly
Resonates vicious fear
I touch it with my strong left hand:
Lurching, it retreats further up inside my body

I try to get rid of it
It’s heavy when I walk
I can’t. I sit, I cry:
It smiles.

I go to the healing stream
With a woman close to my mother
In a cotton shift I lie in the waters
She puts stones on my belly

I am rocked by the water
I am a pool, an eddy
I am the rhythm of falling water
A million drops in an entity

The stones are washed away from me
Leaves are in my hair
Mara’s hand is helping me
I am crying and laughing there

When the time is ready
I come back from the stream to the land
I shake a million drops from my shining form
I take the woman’s hand.

Above all, Razz was a teacher and a storyteller. His poems never fail to lead you somewhere new and to understand something fresh of humanity from a voice of great learning and erudition and solidity, expressed with utter modesty. An avid reader, at home he was never without a book in his hand, and later guzzled on YouTube documentaries about all his favourite writers, bands, musicians and artists, considering them light entertainment. He was an avid lifetime scholar of Megalithic structures and ancient history / civilisation. And he loved romcoms and humour.

Razz was always two steps ahead of everybody else in his original use of metaphor and imagery, much of which was expressed in a new and accessible kind of street lingo formed from a distillation of his scholastic learning and many hours of contemplation of the ideas he encountered, ideas which fostered much musing both intellectual and personal, distilled into something relatable and real, forging innovative ideas fusing personal recovery and life experience and storytelling with poetry, always a realist and ultimately a pragmatist. Most of of his work was written for live performance, which was what he concentrated on and really excited him, and much of it adhered to a verse – refrain – verse structure, with a fairly closed rhyming pattern and varying but deliberate use of metre, influenced by his also prolific songwriting style. Poems such as ‘ Be Good to Yourself’ and ‘People in Pain Do Painful Things’ have been requested at conferences, therapy residentials and such and at many many performances and have become stand-alone anthems in their own right. From the outset he had created a unique and musical, lilting voice as a performance poet, like the gingerbread man he leapt from the oven into performance poetry fully formed and delicious to boot.

He made notes constantly and over 4 decades honed this style, never losing his original and authentic voice. His home was also home to thousands of books, found in academic bookstores, second hand bookshops, charity stores, everywhere – all lovingly stored and annotated – many for decades – in overstuffed bookshelves and tottering piles which occupied most of the space in his flat. His respect for the life of the mind and those who produced decent creative literature and non-fiction was one of his driving forces. When he was dying in hospital I had the pleasure of reading to him for many hours at his request as he tried to sleep, although in terrible pain he still needed mental stimulation and comfort from words and ideas, from books that he kept at his bedside.

And he loved to laugh. He would be the first to admit that beneath all the difficulty of allowing himself pleasure was an epicurean, a bon viveur, a celebrant of all that is rich and rewarding about life. He dealt with his demons – and there were many – with a finesse and skill and openness that instead of driving others away, only attracted them all the more. He was a role model of emotional honesty and courage as well as technical poetic mastery to many hundreds of aspiring poets, and he loved to converse at length and spend time and organise ways of being together with them all. He always answered his phone for chats and organised countless group outings to lovely places in London like Keats’ house, Kew Gardens, picnics in the park with guitars and singing, and so on.

An anti-capitalist, the last decade of his life was spent working for free for Survivors’ Poetry, an organisation which he supported actively over three decades, organising monthly gigs at the Poetry Café and the Tottenham Chances, and running weekly writing workshops which were always open to all, newcomers and old hands alike, and which were incredibly popular, producing many more Survivors’ Poetry stars. He chose to keep all the events free or as cheap as possible, never once seeking to make profit for himself. We honour this tradition at the Survivors’ Poetry nights which we continue in his memory.

The following is my favourite of Razz’s poems, I played his live recording of it for the students on the last co-counselling course that I participated in the teaching of in London a couple of months ago – and it blew everybody’s socks off. It’s a very dramatic piece which lifts into a true ride when performed live. We are so fortunate to have some good quality audio recordings of his work that Kath Tait pulled together in 2004, of this magical, ever sympathetic and most amiable of fauns from Narnia, who disappeared back into his magical realms when he left us.

Loosen Up
Let me loose, I can’t get loose, oh let me loosen up
I need a break, my body aches, my feelings are all screwed up
And I’ve lost my soul, too much control
Has left me full of tension
There’s you and me and we both agree
There are things we just can’t mention

So let me loose, I can’t get loose, oh let me loosen up
I need a break, my body aches, my feelings are all screwed up
And there‘s my folks back home
And when I’m on my own
Tears come I have to grieve them
My mum and dad made it all so sad
In the end I had to leave them

So I hit the road set on overload
With a line to keep me going
I staggered on singing ‘I’m long gone!’
But my emptiness kept showing
And secretly I was screaming

Let me loose, I can’t get loose, ah let me loosen up
I need a break, my body aches, my feelings are all screwed up
And with my head in a noose drinking poisoned juice
I watched my life and death keep flirting
I was in the void, I was paranoid
And nothing could stop the hurting
I was out to lunch with a heavy bunch
Who said ‘We’ll show you frightened!’
Now they’re mostly dead but inside my head
They continue unenlightened
So I cut out the juice, I tried to call a truce
But that noose round my head just tightened
And suddenly I was choking

Let me loose, I can’t get loose, ah let me loosen up
I need a break, my body aches, my feelings are all screwed up
And I need to share, can we get stripped bare
Cos out there you can lose your touch
If we just get loose, ah let’s get loose, ah let’s just loosen up
I can’t get loose, ah let me loose, ah let me loosen up!

Thanks to everyone who made it to the National Poetry Library for our ‘Homage to Razz’ on Wednesday 4 September 2019, where 9 Survivors’ Poetry poets performed a medley of Razz’s and their own works inspired by him, or that he liked. It was a very charged, emotional evening, not surprisingly, with so much love in the room and the Survivors’ Poetry tribe out in force. We will honour the legacy of poetry and performance that Razz left us, we will keep creating and sharing our voices as he would have wanted us to, and how he taught us to as ways towards our own survival, we will go on!

To find out more about Survivors’ Poetry events visit us on Facebook

See also the website of some of Razz’s work and videos of performance gathered by his nephew Mark Shipp www.razzpoetry.com. If you have any of Razz’s poems and would like to contribute them to the website please contact Mark at markshipp88@yahoo.co.uk.