I recently re-read Nigel Roberts’ Steps for Astaire for the umpteenth time.

IMG_0018Ten years ago, I picked it up at a used bookstore. I hadn’t written a poem in years, dumping Poetry for its hot cousin Songwriting. As a teenager, I wrote a lot of them – so many that I won my high school’s Creative Writer Award for my “body of work”. Like most teen poets, I took my craft seriously – poetry was for revealing how deeply you felt and thought about things, especially the kinds of things ordinary people ignore. I actually had a poem called Confessions Of A Wooden Chair. I didn’t feel that deeply about much of anything (let alone chairs), but since that’s what I thought poetry was about, that’s what I tried to do. That, and making pretty words rhyme. Rimbaud, I was not.

Steps for Astaire got me excited about poetry again. It was a light-bulb moment – here was poetry that had depth, but was also funny, conversational, clever, relatable and real. Poems about pineapple douche and hash, about oddballs and dogshit, about free jazz and gallery sandwiches. Bukowski is a similar revelation for many, but I was yet to come across his stuff.  It didn’t matter anyway – from that point on, Nigel Roberts was my man.

His poems are longer than haikus but have the same laser-beam focus – a moment or feeling captured in as few words as possible. Zero padding – they get in, say what they need to, and get out. Some of them aren’t more than, “hey I was sitting with a friend and they said this funny thing”. Anecdotes as poems. Reader and poet as co-conspirators, as friends. He’d be brilliant on Twitter.

IMG_0020His sly humour got me where I live – it’s adult and juvenile at the same time. Most of his poems are properly funny, with actual punchlines. He builds to them like a classic stand-up would – setting the scene, luring you in, and then whacking you over the head. They’re also frequently self-referential, postmodern in how they constantly remind you that you’re reading a poem.

All these qualities had a profound impact on me. Over the next couple of years, I wrote a book of poetry (or a bunch of poems I thought held together as a book), adhering closely to the School of Nigel Roberts. Very closely. Maybe even closer than I realised at the time. Compare the following examples (Roberts’ is second).


Diane was fired

for stealing twenties out the till;

a charge she ardently



She’s now studying

Animal Technology

& hopes to gain her

PhD in time

to save a few tigers


She’s still dating

He was pure_warrior she was


when they met 


He’s six six while she’s

Pushing five neat


On weekends they train together

She’s a black belt in tae kwon do

He does

Jujitsu & is a health freak


Defeated she’s moving

back home

until she gets another

job or

Youth Allowance whichever

comes first



Jo deals,

& works part time

in Noe Valley Books


The Prophet

The Pritikin Diet

Est, &

Winning through intimidation



is from back east

where she had

objective conversations

& read

E.M. Forster.



7 years now

she has acquired some

Californian solipsisms


she’s getting

into herself –



can recommend

a suitable programme

or a great



She says

she has

No art / No form

for her life

other than a concern

for its content 

Everyone starts by imitating someone else. I stopped writing poems shortly afterwards, so my ‘poet voice’ is suspended forever echoing Nigel Roberts. I can live with that; a lot of what I learnt – economy of words, pacing, a well-placed gag – filtered into my songs and other writing.

I like a few other poets, the same ones as everyone else – Larkin, Dickinson, Ginsberg – but I don’t actively seek them out. The exception is Roberts – I check for his works in every bookstore I enter. I’ve never seen another copy of Steps for Astaire. His first book Casablanca / for the Waters is my Holy Grail. It got so bad, my need so dire, that years ago I went to the National Library and photocopied it in its entirety. This had one advantage over actually finding the book – I could blu-tac my favourites to the walls.

IMG_0022A cult movie, or album, or poet, is fun. It’s cool to have that thing that marks you out as clued-in, but also bonds you with others. I don’t need Nigel Roberts to be the biggest poet in the world, but I’ve never met anyone that’s heard of him. There’s a little about him online these days, but information is scarce.  If you’re a fan, reach out.

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