Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Feature: Jem Rolls - Fragments (Fringe: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg)


Jem Rolls has been stunning audiences all around the world and, especially, on the Canadian Fringe Circuit. He presents a kind of performance poetry where the artist is both part of and apart from his words. Those who have experienced his work have called it "intense", "inspired rants" and "powerful". You will see, from the three works below from his current show, that he also has a wicked sense of humour. Among the shows he has toured are JEM ROLLS IS PISSED OFF, Ten Starts and and an End, and the current JEM ROLLS ATTACKS THE SILENCE. 

*  *  *  *  *

Now I intended for years to do two comic poems which were true stories about my childhood
I’ve never done pieces about my childhood
Which I’ve always thought of as very normal

So one would be called
My schoolmates were the children of future mass murderers.
And that ain’t normal

And the other one would be called
My childhood games were based on the paranoias of the British military intelligence political complex
And that ain’t normal either

But sometimes folks
The thing you got 
Is not
You’d’ve thought 

You’d’ve got
So I’m not going to do the second one
Because the first one got a bit big and serious on me Because I got this
Which is now called


I always liked it
when I was told it was cool
there were kids of eighteen different nationalities
at my infant school
like Zambian, Pakistani, Kenyan and Dutch
Peruvian, Ugandan, and so on and such

Now that school was on a council estate and completely unmilitary

but why should it seem strange to five year old Jeremy?
that this ordinary school is where the army kids went

when their officer fathers got promoted and sent
to get the world famous military knowledge
at the world famous Sandhurst Military College

and only much later did I come to see
those fathers were high-flying to the top of their army 
for only an officer groomed for high rank would be
at this top flight international military academy
just down the road from our nice house in Camberley 
and the red brick and chalets of Lorraine County Primary

Yet many of those distant armies
were later horrific in their violence and cruelties 
the Pakistani and Peruvians certainly
went on to routinely, with infamy 
commit sustained campaigns of hideous brutality

For it was much later, one less innocent day at twenty
when it suddenly reared up and slapped and struck me 
Sandhurst-trained officers
could in all possibility
be the ones in charge of the future atrocity

and it abruptly jolted me

changed the world around me

for it was like something out of weird psychological thrillers 
maybe my mates’ Dads were future mass killers
back then getting toughened and steeled
in the stately rooms just over the playing fields 
where the seeds were sown for blood to yield

For I then read
there were over a million and a half dead
at the hands of the Pakistanis
in the Bengal atrocities
of the Early Seventies
one of the five worst mass killings
of the whole Twentieth Century
so if I think of the date
its striking to think that when I was eight
in nineteen seventy
that little Mohammed sat next me
at my right side
his Dad might next year commit

And me
like many
I grew up with the entire

Glorious Mythology of 
Glorious Empire
unconscious and oblivious
of what now seems obvious
that I grew up right next to one of history’s major exporters
of the techniques of brute power, of major mass slaughter

Which led me to take myself to task
and ask
those English army kids playing around me 
what their father did next
in Belfast and Derry
just about to explode in terror and misery 
in the dark days of sixty-nine seventy...

And its another story for another day
how I found the clues to see a way

to begin to doubt to make the suggestions
to do the thinking to ask the questions
the what the which the where the when and the why 
how I slowly saw the old English lie
and began to scorn
the myths of great empire into which I was born 
for I went to school with the sons and the daughters 
of a brutal history of brutal mass slaughter

Yes it brought it all home to me
to think of my old back ways into Sandhurst and Camberley 
my old playgrounds
those army woods and their surrounds
the ferns the straw the heather the gorse
the trenches the ranges the old assault course
and at the end of those trails and streams I still know so well 
find the flames were tempered long the very blades of hell
 the motherlode of gore
from the war-ravaged days of glory and yore

O If only more would
look back in time to then look forward
for it was telling to follow what has been
all the way back to eighteen thirteen
when the academy was begun
[being conveniently located between the Navy at Portsmouth and the Government at London]
and find the clues to make the suggestions
to do the thinking to ask the questions
how much innocence was lost on those old parade grounds?
how much suffering began in my home town?
and, still the real chiller...
how many boys walked in those doors who walked out men killers

Yes each of those years
the first trickle of a later flood of blood and tears
the men and boys marching through the centuries
out of and into blood death and savagery
for I went to school with the sons and the daughters
of a brutal history of brutal mass slaughter

And so
I would so
like to know
what of Mohammed from the military family 
the quiet little boy who sat right next to me
a long time ago at Lorraine County Primary 
well today in Pakistan
there are state-backed death squads in Baluchistan
so what of Mohammed and what now of his sons?
what cycles have ended and what cycles still run?

President Yahya Khan of Pakistan
to the journalist Robert Payne
on 22 February 1971


"Kill three million of them,

and the rest will eat out of our hands."

This next piece is pretty edgy folks
so I think it requires the authority of the script
impressive use of Technology...?

Because folks
I’m really not sure about this piecs
especially about the start
because it begins


Which is a bit unsophisticated really so
I reckon what we need most right now is a
sophisticated yet innovative literary device
so I’d like to take this opportunity to turn into
The World’s First Backstage Poem

You know, like you get a backstage musical
a musical about the staging, the creation, of a musical

Then this is maybe the world’s first ever
poem about how it came to be a poem
or not

Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day
can be regarded as being about itself

But if this is a first
I believe it possesses that quality essential to many a first
complete bleedin' failure shambles balls-up and never to be tried again
sometimes you have to try something out to find out what a bad idea it is...

without giving the plot away
its rumoured this poem didn’t close after the first performance
or even the first verse
no its rumoured this poem collapsed during rehearsal
and it was tentatively entitled


when its hard to find a word you can trust
they fray at the edges
they blur

they arrive with all manner of baggage 
and then they change their costume

And if one word alone is a bit of a handful
then when there’s a few of them
it quickly gets to be a nightmare
they gang up against you and start to
do their own thing
its like The Lord Of The Flies in there
and I’m hiding in the jungle from my own poem

Or they sashay into the
far reaches of
high pretension like an
existential French movie...
and come back to haunt you like
the Bastard Sons of the Mongol Bleedin’ Horde
and it’s like all the bits they’ll cut from the
next Tarantino because theyll be
too violent

Or you think you’ve got the balance just right and then the
line tips up at the end
and all the words fall off into the sea

And what you wanted to write was an
hour-long piece about traffic jams
... maybe next year
but instead
one moment it’s the entire cast of The Wizard Of Oz
in the retreat from Moscow
that’s every retreat from Moscow there’s ever been, simultaneously
and the next it’s a cartoon dictionary jumping in the paper shredder
and firing out words like bullets

words can be mean
they say nasty things
they ruin the party
you throw ‘em out the door
they come back in the window
you shore up the leaks against them
and the next thing you know
they’re on the inside, the possibilities have started multiplying by the second
and before you can say Umberto bloody Eco the place is
bursting at every seam like the pilot of
The Walking Dead

Or they get an overly high opinion of themselves
and start claiming descent from the Latin or the Greek
and start adding extra syllables just to be poncy
Luck stands up one day and pronounces
from now on you can call me Serendipity
Complicated gets all Social Realist and says from now on its TOUGH

Then you come in one awful day to find they’ve got all
purist and earnest and Hemingway
and they’ve thrown out all the adjectives
who picket me
on the way in
all aggressive
malevolent and

Or, or
they exercise their own freewill and have
suddenly all decided to vote republican
but first
they all want to use the bathroom
except a couple of them take me aside and talk about
William Carlos Williams
and Lacan
and the current developments in Modern Poetic Theory and
why isn’t their poem like this?
and the word coy starts flirting with me just to get his-her own line
then two weeks later I come in after a lovely weekend in Reykjavik to find
theyve all had a vote
and have decided to reject the tyranny of the author
in favour of the great democracy of the reader, the audience
where they the words are the conduits, the vanguard, of said great
syndicalist revolution
and I find myself
talking like a bitter tory and saying
if I’m out of a job
everyone is out of a job

And you know that in German the nouns are capitalized?
well my nouns suddenly do
because I was just saying
Go out there and do your best nouning...
When they say
German nouns are capitalized
why aren’t we?
We demand capitalization
But the verbs
are the verbs having it?
they say
We are the words of action
We are the workers
Down with the capitalist nouns
Verbs of the world unite and march to the front of the sentence

So I’m stuck standing there between them saying
Oi, it’s me
I’m trying to write a bloody poem here

So then,
just to spite them
I decide to write an orrible
Boney M meets Soft Rock version of

Bloody hell
this backstage poem is a farce

Even worse, it’s the kind of backstage musical
where everything falls apart in
severest acrimony
before the first performance
and most of the words go out and get jobs in
banks and arts centres and
sometimes wonder about what might have been
so all the best words have gone out and got jobs in “proper” poems
meanwhile all I’m left with is the odd
and fin de siècle
white noise and grunting

And even
by catamaran
from madagascar
to galapagos
which cannot get work anywhere
no matter what it does to itself

Well none of that’s happening in my backstage poem
Yes it is
No its not
Yes it is
No its not
In my backstage poem
which isn’t really a poem
Yes it is
No its not
Yes it is
No its not
In my backstage poem
the writer is going to have an old-fashioned artsy-fartsy fit of pique
join the writer’s bloc
and go on strike

And here the script says
Ten seconds of defiance
Followed by ten seconds of hopelessness

Well I’m glad that’s over
aren’t you?
The End


I've honestly done my best not to be
or homophobic
or racist
bu I can't say I haven't been ageist

Which is a bit of a shame
seeing how
I'll always be white
I'll very likely always be male
I'll even more likely always be straight
yet unfortunately
I will undoubtedly
get old

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