Performance poet Jem Rolls exists only in the moment

The chief difference between stand-up comedy and performance poetry, according to noted performance poet Jem Rolls, is that “I don’t have to be funny all the time.”

So it’s more relaxing for the audience if they don’t expect a punch-line every single time, he adds, and even better, “It’s more relaxing for me.”

Appearing Friday as part of the annual Edmonton Poetry Festival, Mr. Rolls appears to lead a very relaxing life. The British performer works like mad for three or four months of Fringe festivals every summer, which affords him the freedom of taking the rest of the year off, wherever the wind takes him, in part to develop new material that may or may not be funny.

“Wandering around does keep your mind going,” he says. “In a sense, a lot of what I write about is taking the piss out of myself for the stupid things I do and then frequently universalize them so they apply to everyone. I do have plenty of time to sit around and examine my own mistakes.”

On the glacial pace of his writing, he jokes that it “takes six months to get an ad lib into my show,” and that fans expecting rich Edmonton material – from the last two winters of living here – might be disappointed. “It takes a couple of years for things to come out,” he says, and on top of that, “It can take 15 years to realize something is funny.”

Like Edmonton winters when you’re safely in Mexico.

An attempt to get this stand-up comic trapped inside the body of a poet (or vice versa) to answer our usual Q&A comedy questions failed miserably. He went off on tangents. He talked so quickly it was hard to get a word in edgewise. There were accent-related misunderstandings. He said he needed more time to think about his answers – and we just don’t have that kind of time. This guy simply does not fit into that particular square hole.

It turns out there are some big differences between performance poets and the non-performing variety – at least in this case. Many spoken word artists, comics included, commit their work to the printed page, or sell CDs, DVDs, videos, do TV, radio, feature films, you name it. Jem Rolls will have none of that.

“I don’t sell anything,” he says, “because I do this for the immediacy of the moment. I like the fact that there’s only one version of the show that exists, and it’s the version that’s happening right now, in front of a live audience. If I don’t do shows, the stuff doesn’t exist.”

What can be complete fiction on the page requires more honesty and realism on stage, he adds, “but there’s a fair amount of exaggeration going on. Everything is caked in irony. I am English, after all. We have an acutely, overly developed sense of irony.”

Also history – “so much history sitting on England, weighing it down, it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a new country or an old country” – whose relative lack of same he admires in Canada. Canadians might find it boring, but this temporarily transplanted Brit says, “There’s more freedom” to be an artist unhindered by the artists of past ages.

On the art of performance poetry, he says it’s nothing new. In fact, this may be the oldest human form of entertainment.

“Ten thousand years ago, your choice of entertainment was probably poetry, poetry and more poetry, maybe some singing,” he says, “and then someone mucked it up by inventing a one-stringed instrument.”

Jem Rolls performs Friday at 7 p.m. at Latitude 53, and at 9 p.m. at the Artery. The Edmonton Poetry Festival continues through April 29 at venues around Edmonton. Click link for schedule.