Tony Walsh ‘Longfella’ | Interview
“Poet for Hire”
By Gerry Walton / Photography: Tobias Alexander
Tony Walsh, also known as ‘Longfella’, is sharing a bill in January with Hollie McNish in the Black Box on Sunday 07 January 2018 as part of the Out To Lunch Festival. However, he propelled himself into the national consciousness this year (May 2017) in the wake of the tragic Manchester Arena bombing. The performance of his own ‘This Is The Place’ in Albert Square provided much-needed solace to a shaken city, and a poem that had long since been commissioned by the charity ‘Forever Manchester’ took on a life of its own.
When asked about his feelings after such an event, it was clear that Tony won’t forget the reception in a hurry:
“It entered the fabric of the community. It wasn’t about poetry. A bomb had just gone off 18 hours ago. I didn’t have time to be nervous. I realised that I had very few worries in comparison to those who had lost loved ones, and I felt very humbled.”
Describing himself as a “poet for hire,” Tony’s work has an evocative quality, and ‘This Is The Place’ acts as a greatest hits of sorts for the history of Manchester, celebrating its achievements, its soul, and he was surprised to be told the widely shared performance was trending fourth on Twitter. While Tony said he didn’t see it as a defiant piece, the reaction showed how Manchester “stood together collectively” and that it “reflected the mood”.
On the poem’s viral performance, Tony said: “I actually took some lines out, but there were some moments of humour in a deadly serious situation. It was a very Mancunian piece. Like Belfast, Manchester has come back from terrorism.”
Tony, in fact, has roots on our island. His father is from Cavan and is “always welcome as an Ulsterman”. Tony himself speaks of Belfast very fondly:
“I love the place. I love the spirit and I love the people. The music scene is great and I think there are parallels between Manchester and Belfast.”
Tony has won plaudits from previous performances in Belfast. His punk-influenced rhymes earnt a standing ovation in the legendary Sunflower bar, something he admits is rare for a poet. One of his poems, ‘Teenage Kicker Conspiracy’ is a tribute to the late, great John Peel. Avid Jo Whiley listeners on Radio 2 may be familiar with it. Good Vibrations founder Terri Hooley, a key part of the Undertones story and Belfast punk legend, certainly is:
“It was great to meet him. I was doing my tribute to John Peel and it ends on a reference to ‘Teenage Kicks’. We burst into a spontaneous rendition.”
As someone with a distinctive style, it was interesting to find out how Tony Walsh developed his voice. He made reference to Ryan Adams as someone whose prolific style inspires him, in particular the Stacks method, where Ryan opens a book at two random pages and stitches together lyrics from them. Tony crafts his work in his own way:
“I start with a repeated phrase or line, a hook or a motif, a repeated refrain. A couple of lines form. It is a skill to be able to fit your message in with your rhythm. Rhyme and rhythm can pull you away from your message. I often get an ending and then work towards that.”
Growing up with an appreciation of punk music, it has often become intertwined in his work and grown alongside his poetry. A “passionate advocate of rhyme,” tunes often come to him. His creative muse is not limited to poetry either. He has written some ten-minute drama shorts. While ruling out a long-form novel, you might see him on screen at some point, with kids films being a possible avenue.
Currently on the agenda is This Is The Place: Choose Love, Manchester. Described by Tony as a “beautiful hardback book”, the distinctive yellow cover houses a collection of his work, including the ubiquitous ‘This Is The Place’ piece read in Manchester. It brings the poems to life in a design-led format, with contributions from, among others, the legendary designers Peter Saville and Kevin Cummins. The proceeds are going to three Manchester charities in response to this year’s terror attacks.
After that will be a spring collection of poetry called Work. Life. Balance. This will be released on 01 March 2018 on Burning Eye Books. For any aspiring poets, Tony had these words: “Take inspiration from others. Read a lot, get out and see live poetry. If you want to be a footballer, watch football. If you want to start a band, see bands. Find your own style. There are a few dominant styles coming to the fore. How do you know where your writing sits if you don’t know where the bar is?”
He also alluded to the old Leonard Cohen quote: “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often.”
Tony Walsh’s debut in the Black Box will likely provide an electrifying experience to rival previous Belfast appearances. Get down for 3pm on Sunday 07 January 2018 for an hour with himself and Hollie McNish. You might get inspired yourself.
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