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Rhyme spree.

John Hegley's cat currently has its back turned to him as he recites his poetry down the phone. "Very few cats like poetry," he says with the knowledge of a man who has performed for the species. The comedian, musician and sometime BBC broadcaster features animals prominently in his work but where most 'serious' poets would turn cold at the thought of rhyming 'dog' with 'log', Hegley doesn't flinch.

"Animals are very good mirrors, you can tell a lot about people from how they respond to a dog or to a hamster," he says.

"You get a good sense of a person from their hamster orientation."

Hegley's body of work - he published the first of his 13 books in 1984 - varies from throwaway humour to genuine pathos, often in the rhyming couplet, and puts an almost childlike delight into his work.

His style - half-stand-up comedy and half 'beat' poet - has seen him accused of devaluing the form by sniffier contemporaries but his work connects to the mainstream in a way few others poets can.

"I'd like to think I play with poetry but I don't devalue it," he explains. "But I have to say, going back through some of my older books recently I thought to myself a few times 'That seems fairly trivial and I wouldn't want it to go in a collection'.

"I'd like to think I have improved, though.

"I have now put some emotion in there, a wistfulness, so it's emotion with levity.

"We live in the two-for-one age and I'd like to think that's my contribution."

Hegley, 54, is performing in South Wales twice this spring, filming a live DVD of his '90s material in Cardiff this weekend and performing his newest show, Letters To An Earwig, at the Sherman Theatre in March.

His live shows are renowned for their interaction, getting audiences to sing songs, draw and compose mini poems during the interval.

"You just try to keep it accessible," he offers.

"You have to stimulate some sort of emotional response from people which is why there is a lot of participation in the shows."

He is also prone to playing music and dancing in a manner he describes as "angular, spangular, lankular and in need of work."

But with all this happening around the poetry I wonder if he has any kind of artistic identity crisis?

Is he a comedian, a poet, or both, or neither?

"Hmm," he muses.

"There is a straddling going on, but you hope one never moves too far away from the other.

"But why can't you have comedy and tragedy together?

"I wouldn't want to go and see a straight comedy show and, likewise, I don't think the comedy devalues the poetry," he says before being disturbed by his cat.

"Oh, it's turned around now that I'm talking about how I devalue the form. It obviously agrees."

Cats can be hard audiences.

John Hegley performs two sold-out shows at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on Saturday. He performs at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, on March 8. Tickets cost pounds 12-pounds 14 from 029 2064 6900.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 17, 2008
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