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Rowan McCabe on what's good about the North East

Rowan McCabe is on a mission to banish clichés about the North East. He tells Jemma Crew about the curse of Geordie Shore and the time he dressed as Cheryl Cole

Poet Rowan McCabe
Poet Rowan McCabe

We meet at Quilliam Brothers, an artsy tearoom opposite Newcastle Civic Centre. Across the table from me is Rowan McCabe, a performance poet from Newcastle whose show North East Rising is touring around the region.

Relaxed and calm, McCabe is easy company and seems quietly confident about his debut show.

The young poet studied English Literature at Newcastle University though it was only after he had graduated in 2011 that he fell in love with performance poetry.

He started working with national performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes and over the last few years has supported poets such as John Hegley, Dizraeli and Tim Turnbull.

 But it was while he was on holiday in Berlin last May that the 24-year-old was inspired to write his own show.

He says: “The city’s get up and go had a big influence. I got this impression of people who really didn’t have much money but who just got up and did stuff instead of sitting around and thinking about it.

 “At the same time I was talking to people and they would ask ‘Where are you from?’ and when I replied they’d say, ‘Oh I don’t know anything about Newcastle except for Geordie Shore’,”

 The young poet wanted to challenge this sort of perception. Armed with funding from Arts Council England and bags of enthusiasm, he decided to write a show that would get to the heart of what it means to be a northerner.

Poet Rowan McCabe in North East Rising
Poet Rowan McCabe in North East Rising

“I think that Newcastle has definitely been unfairly represented in culture,” he says. “There are two stories – the older, ‘grim up North’ story where everyone’s really poor and spends all day weeping into their coal-stained hands.

 “Then there’s the new Geordie Shore one, where the North East is less of an industrial slum and instead is full of people being idiots.”

 Frustrated at these empty caricatures, McCabe, who lives in Heaton, decided to produce an alternative narrative to celebrate the North East.

He says: “It’s fair game to make fun of the North East because no-one else is attempting to say otherwise.

 “But we all know this place isn’t like MTV and the Guardian and the BBC say it is, so let’s have a conversation. The show is an invitation to celebrate the good stuff.”

 And it’s true to say that the good stuff is a pretty eclectic mix.

 In McCabe’s words, his show brings together a series of “modern fables and legends that reflect where the North East is at now”.

We will meet Tony the Fridge, the runner who races with a fridge strapped to his back to raise money for mental health charities, and the Northumberland gran who defied cops by insisting on growing dope for medicinal purposes. And, I’m promised, there will even be a rap about stotties.

 Cheryl (Cole as was) is likely to make an appearance, though she might look a little different from her usual self. Will Rowan be putting on make-up along with his impersonation, like he did in one of his poems on YouTube about the star?

Not this time, he says a little ruefully, and I’m not sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved.

 Also thrown into the mix will be supporting performances from Geordie singer-songwriter Alix-Alixandra and the performance poet and actress Jessica Johnson.

 But while North East Rising is a hotchpotch of personal anecdote, story-telling and stand-up comedy in a cabaret-style set, it’s clear McCabe considers himself a poet first and foremost.

 “Poetry is the only thing I’ve ever done where I’ve felt I’m not restricted in any way,” he says.

 “A poem can be a conversation. You don’t have to stick to that rhythm of a song but can pause and give people a minute to think about what you’ve said before moving on.

 “It just feels more open and it’s really flexible – you can do pretty much anything.”

 I suggest that, for a lot of young people, poetry has a bad rap. How does he attempt to reach people who might be put off by the idea of stuffy poetry recitals and impenetrable verse forms?

 “Some of my friends don’t describe themselves as poets because immediately people hear that word they just don’t want to know.

 “In a way the idea of poetry can alienate people, but for me it’s about artistic integrity. I wouldn’t hide the fact that I’m a poet to trick them into coming. I think people must start with an open mind.”

 I can see that McCabe enjoys playfully subverting people’s expectations. The most common feedback he receives, he says, is from surprised audience members who weren’t expecting his words to be so alive and engaging.

 So what is next for the talented writer?  He’s considering taking North East Rising to the Edinburgh Fringe next year. He also has several other ideas brewing and says he would love to write another show in the near future.

But for a man of many words, McCabe is staying deliciously silent about the future.

Rowan McCabe will appear with his show North East Rising at Northern Stage on Tuesday, October 21. To book, call 0191 230 5151 or visit www.northernstage.co.uk


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