Mark Niel, Milton Keynes’s very own Poet Laureate
PUBLISHED: 15:47 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 15:47 11 November 2013
Demonstrating his lust for life, Mark Niel tells Sandra Smith how he developed his talent
There isn’t an obvious analogy between an ultra modern hotel in central Milton Keynes and a theatre. And, to be honest, the similarity might never have occurred to me, either. Yet on entering the Holiday Inn on Saxon Gate West the first thing that strikes me is the dramatic potential of the spacious foyer. Guests and visitors may mingle over morning coffee or conduct business meetings, but with rays of sunshine mimicking spotlights, the large atrium portrays the sort of venue more akin to a contemporary theatre in the round.
Of course, it could just be that my mindset is influenced by my interviewee, performance poet, Mark Niel, an artist who thrives on the lure of a stage.
“I was working in financial services when I first started to focus on poetry,” Mark begins, keen to explain the origins of his artistic career. “After writing a few more I read them out at an Open Mic night at the Madcap Theatre in Wolverton. I only had a five minute slot but the owner said I bought the house down.”
This confidence boost encouraged Mark to add to his portfolio before gradually building a reputation at Poetry Slams and Open Mic nights around the country. It was a setting that suited him well. “This is an alternative universe but the one in which I should always have lived,” he confesses with a grin.
Yet it was a rather different career than the one initially planned. “Up in the North East where I was born, Mum and Dad were both Pentecostal Christians and I was expected to be a famous preacher.” In fact, one of Mark’s first public performances, at the age of 13, was delivering a sermon. Throughout his teens he wrote songs and sketches for church dramas, unfazed or even, I suspect, encouraged, by a live audience.
When, aged 18, he first came to Milton Keynes – “still a half building site then” – it was to continue his church training.
“At that point I wrote for friends occasionally,” Mark explains, “but after the death of my mother I was left with voids in many ways; my sense of mission and purpose had been taken. So I joined a local village drama group.”
Before long he was tempted to write comedy plays. Positive reviews increased his self belief and he went on to enrol on an acting course. I can see why. Mark may, at first glance, look like an archetypal middle manager but as soon as he engages with his calling he unleashes a full-on passion for performing.
Just then he presents me with Somewhere South of Normal, a volume of his poetry, and as I flick through the pages he simultaneously launches into Afar. Now I should explain that this poem is an expression of, well, lust. Mixed with a characteristic comic leaning, I should add. And while Mark’s fervent delivery is somewhat quelled as a nod to the public space we’re currently inhabiting, folk nearby clearly appreciate the impromptu entertainment.
Since his initial inspiration when he wrote seven poems in one week, Mark now has over 500 to his credit. And while most of them are humorous, I am temporarily sidetracked by Dual Nationality, created after the tragedies in Norway a couple of years ago and one of the most poignant verses I have ever encountered.
But Mark brings me back to the present day as he continues the journey of his vocation. “In January 2012 I gave up my job. Redundancy gave me a bubble of money and since then I’ve done festivals, Poetry Slams and gigs at comedy clubs.” The financial rewards may be modest, but the fulfilment he absorbs from his art is immense.
And it is a calling he is eager to share. School workshops play an important part in his schedule so Mark will be particularly busy leading up to National Poetry Day on Thursday, October 3. This annual event, which began in 1994, has now ballooned into a nationwide extravaganza.
But this poet reaches his fans in other ways, too. There are poetry sessions on cruises and regular stints on BBC Three Counties Radio. He counts reading his work on Radio 4 as a career highlight and performs at private functions for which he tailors his writing service.
And, of course, there’s his role as Milton Keynes Poet Laureate. “I’ve written poems for Remembrance Sunday, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and anniversaries. I’m also an unofficial ambassador for the city. Milton Keynes is so well constructed. We live on the end of the Grand Union Canal so we’re near the open countryside. I can do a seven mile walk without having to cross a main road. I’m proud of the whole county, actually, it’s so peaceful.”
I marvel at such commitment to his surroundings and work. But, of course, this is a man who is exploiting his natural skills. In fact, warming to our makeshift theatrical space, Mark entertains me once more. As My Half of the Fridge followed by Little Bo Peep Remix are recited from memory, I cannot believe anyone who harbours a negative view of poetry left over from their school days, would not reinvent their opinion of the genre after witnessing one of Mark’s performances. In fact, he admits, “One of the best things people tell me is that they don’t realise they like performance poetry until they see it.”
When finally the show – sorry, I mean interview – over, my jaw aches from hours of laughter. But that hardly matters. After all, I’ve been treated to my own private performance. In public, too. It seems I was right about the theatrical venue after all.
Mark was appointed the Poet Laureate for Milton Keynes in 2011.
Somewhere South of Normal, Mark’s collection of poetry, is available in book (£8.99) or CD (£7.99) form via www.akickinthearts.co.uk
Mark Neil photos courtesy of Will Commercial Photography.