WORD Christchurch: Q&A with Ray Shipley

This week, Paul and I caught up with Ray Shipley – poet, comedian, librarian, and WORD festival guest programmer this 2020. 

A Billy T James award nominee in 2019, and multiple winner of the Christchurch Poetry Slams, Ray is a key performer in Christchurch. If this wasn't impressive enough, Ray can also crochet and recommend terrific reads. This year, they are hosting four WORD festival events- Bedtime Stories for Anxious Adults,  Ray Shipley's Late Night Poetry Hour,  Tell it Slant, and Stand Up Poetry: A Quiz Show.

Here's the Q&A Ray was kind enough to do with us ahead of their busy WORD festival schedule this week. 

-What are some of the highlights of being a guest programmer for WORD this year? 

I've enjoyed challenging myself to create events that are outside of my comfort zone - I've learnt a lot from putting them together. The other highlight will be the festival itself - I love the buzz as people come in and out of sessions, I love discovering new writers to read, and I love being introduced to new ideas. 

-Who are your biggest comic and poetic influences?

In the last year or two, I've been inspired by Hannah Gadsby, Rhys Nicholson, the Snort crew (an improv group in Tāmaki Makaurau who as individuals and as a collective are creating truly wonderful things), Ivan Coyote (who isn't a poet or a comedian but is a phenomenal storyteller)...but really, too many to name! And always changing! These kind of questions always remind me to read more, and more widely.

-What is your favourite joke/routine/poem?

I don’t have one! I use the word favourite entirely too much, which lessens its impact somewhat. Over lockdown, I tried to read a poem a day, and I stumbled across one by Jane Arthur, a Wellington-based poet, called Idiots. I revisit it at least once a week, so I guess it's my favourite! My absolute favourite jokes are probably the silly, reoccurring, in-jokes I have with whānau which I could never do justice to by trying to explain them here!

-Does your work in libraries often inspire your stand up material?

I try to keep it quite separate! But library stories have a way of sneaking in occasionally - public libraries are such a unique community resource and there's a lot that happens in my job that people don't think of or expect when they hear the word 'librarian', so that novelty is too good to pass up. It's fun to challenge people on their stereotypes of who librarians are or can be.

-Is laughter the best medicine? If so why?

It's a good medicine for sure, but it's only the best when shared. My wife is a nurse and we live alone, so during lockdown I spent a lot of time totally by myself while she was at work. I watched lots of good and funny TV, I watched my friends perform in online shows, and participated in a few myself, and what stood out to me about those experiences was however much I laughed, the lack of physical connection, the lack of a warm, full room, meant that that laughter held me for a much shorter time. 

-Your performances and poetry manage to get right to the heart of topics like identity and politics, in a way just as compelling (and far more entertaining!) than a massive essay. How do you manage that balance of comedy and message so well?

Gosh, thank you! I'm not sure that's the effect I'm consciously attempting - I just really, really like telling stories, and I've worked hard to get to a place where I feel comfortable bringing my whole self to those stories. I don't think much of what I say on stage is particularly political at all - it just happens that parts of my identity are marginalised, so when I bring my whole self to the stage, that's perceived as bold or even political. One day that won't be the case anymore! 

-Do you suffer from nerves? If so, how do you overcome them?

I suffer profoundly from nerves! Always have, and always will. I'm not scared of the stage or audience itself - I just put an extraordinary amount of pressure on myself to do a good job, and have some wicked imposter syndrome, and that's where the nerves come from. I've got a bunch of techniques that help - breathing and all that - but mostly I've come to find the physical aspects of nerves (heart pounding etc) a comfort. They tell me that my head is in the game and that I'm fully committed to performing well. Now I get worried if I'm NOT nervous!

-How has Covid affected the performing arts community, here, in NZ and globally?

Performing arts has been affected hugely due to COVID-19, in all the obvious ways - it's hard to put a show on when your audiences have to social distance! Less obviously, I think it's been really interesting to see performers under pressure to produce content for online platforms - lots of performers I know say it felt like people expected that they'd just be able to (and have the equipment to) just slip from live performance into online content during lockdown really easily. That's the case for some, but totally not for others! It’s also been interesting to see discussions about how we fund the arts during a recession - it’s upsetting to me to hear people say that it should be the first thing to be defunded, especially as it was art and artists that got us through lockdown through films, tv, books, and music. 

-Tell us a surprising fact about yourself

I'm a very messy person, which is unsurprising. But I do always always hang my socks in pairs on the washing line, and fold and organise my sock drawer in a bizarrely specific and very tidy way. 

-What is your desert island book (okay – it can be more than one, we know this is a hard call already).

That's an incredibly hard call! Can I just take Libby?? I guess at a push I'd have to choose a childhood favourite for the comfort factor - maybe the BFG?