Winter 2006

Designer poetry [extract]

Ideas Have Legs: Ian McMillan vs Andy Martin

Fuel Publishing, £14.95, USD 25

I recently discovered on a visit to my daughter’s primary school how today’s methods of teaching the alphabet differ radically from the way in which I was taught. In a little pamphlet given to all parents entitled My Sounds Book, each letter of the alphabet is accompanied by a physical action. So, alongside the letter ‘a’ is a drawing of a girl wiggling her fingers above her elbow, as if ants were crawling on her; and the child mimics these action while saying: ‘a, a, ants!’ Or, alongside the letter ‘q’ is a drawing of hands clasped together imitating a duck’s beak; while opening and closing their hands the child says: ‘qu, qu, qu, quack!’ The accompanying physical action prompts in the child an associative link between the letter and the movement, all serving to aid learning. Ultimately, it is a behaviourist technique of creating a physical equivalent to thought: performance as a way of learning.

I was reminded of my daughter’s alphabet booklet when I received a copy of Ian McMillan and Andy Martin’s recent collaboration Ideas Have Legs. Once labelled the ‘Shirley Bassey of performance poetry’, McMillan is a native Yorkshireman who presents The Verb, a weekly arts programme on BBC Radio3, and has appeared on most of the major television networks and radio channels as a guest poet. He has however also remained loyal to his place of birth by working as poet in residence for Barnsley Football Club, Northern Spirit Trains and Humberside Police. Martin was originally an art director for New Musical Express (NME), before going on to establish a career as an image-maker and, more lately, film-maker. It was through a film Martin made of McMillan’s poem ‘Message from a Russian Heatwave’ that the artist and poet first came together. At first glance, it appears to be an incongruous pairing. Yet, it proves to be an inspired partnership that has produced one of the most enjoyable books of the year . . .

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