Meet Barbara Brownskirt, the Worst Poet in South London

Francisco Garcia

Karen McLeod's alter-ego spends her days sitting at a bus stop in Penge, reciting terrible poetry to whoever will listen.

Barbara in residence at her bus stop. All photos by Karen McLeod

At first glance, Penge is just like any other slab of suburban south London. There's the usual array of chicken and charity shops on the high street, while rows of solid Victorian houses coexist next to equally solid 1960s tower blocks. It is archetypal commuterland, a place that exists mostly to be passed through.

Yet one thing sets Penge apart from other nowhere towns in Zone 4. Venture down Croydon Road, the main road running through Penge, and you've got a reasonably good chance of finding Penge's poet laureate, Barbara Brownskirt, in residence at the 197 bus stop. Indefatigable, prolific and utterly unpublishable, Barbara is the comedic alter-ego of writer Karen McLeod and, according to McLeod, a "manifestation of bitterness, anger, lesbian cliché, railing against her lot through poetry. She might be rubbish but she doesn't know it."

Having published her acclaimed debut novel In Search of the Missing Eyelash in 2007, McLeod – who has a background in performance art and a lifetime connection to Penge – began to develop the character as both a homage to suburban sadness and a slightly mocking antidote to the pretensions of literary performance.

By the time Brownskirt was fully formed, McLeod had started to feel uncomfortable with some of her other work. "I'd written an act where I was to appear as an escaped patient from the Maudsley Hospital, deluded enough to believe she was Virginia Woolf," she says. "She wrote odd poetry and barked 'Woolf' a lot. I realised I wasn't comfortable portraying someone with mental health problems for comedic purposes, so I started thinking about what kind of character could evoke both pathos in an audience and yet be comedic."

So McLeod set her eye to observing the lonely, wandering souls in the street, stumbling "in their out-of-time cagoules and sensible shoes" and thinking, 'Who are you? Who do you go home to at night? What does your day consist of?'

McLeod also drew on colourful elements of her own youth to construct the personality of her new performative alter-ego. She'd performed in her twenties as a "Victor/Victoria", a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman. This fascination with appearance and the multi-layered consequences of dressing up led McLeod to create Barbara.

"I decided in a queer world of performance, where drag and elements of it are used all the time, I would do their opposite. Go drab rather than drag, lonely rather than fabulous," she explains.

Barbara's hair is hidden under the hood of cagoule – hair being, as McLeod outlines, a major feminine signifier: "Take away a woman's hair and make-up and you are immediately stripped of any obvious gender." She found an A-line brown skirt in the charity shop, bought some small lace up canvas shoes and flesh coloured pop socks and got started writing the worst poetry she could.

Barbara was to be a tribute to everyone McLeod had seen in years studying performance art at college and attending scores of spoken word poetry nights: all the dreadful pieces, stop-motion films and chronically self-indulgent poets ("The worst poets always seemed to be the ones who would always have ten more poems to read"). She became fascinated by the way audiences get stuck, unable to leave when someone truly awful is on stage – the writers who have their 15 minutes and plan to relentlessly milk every second.

That feeling of being a captive in the relationship between performer and audience was a significant element in developing Barbara's persona, with her 21 volumes of unpublished poetry and absolutely unshakeable belief in her own brilliance. I wonder if there isn't a worry that it must have pissed off a few of the more over-earnest elements of the amateur performance crew, who might think it's a bit of a dig?

"I'm not so sure if anyone who's seen her has taken offence in that way," says McLeod. "I think she is understood as a fringe performer where art, politics, poetry and theatre coincide. I've mostly performed alongside other cabaret/literary performers who are really established and so not of the same ilk as the kind of performer who Barbara is sending up."

She admits, though, that some writers hate the idea of Barbara Brownskirt, though they haven't watched her perform, "as they think she is ridiculing poetry, when really she is a send up of a certain type of over-confident, narcissistic performer who thinks the world needs their poetry above all else".

You get the impression that's not a delusion that would last long in Penge. It's a chunk of suburban sprawl that's difficult to explain to outsiders, an unclassifiable smush of London and village. "I honestly love Penge. I grew up here in the 70s and moved back after living abroad in the late-90s," says McLeod. "My family are just around the corner and I can walk down the street and say hello to people who have lived here for years. I like the fact it's working class and a bit rough in the centre, but up the hill is the arty world of Crystal Palace. It's still vibrant, gobby and not too homogenised, yet."

Barbara has recently played shows at the Royal Albert Hall and is booked for Latitude Festival. Does it ever feel at times that Barbara has slightly overtaken McLeod's own life?

"She's been more in-demand that me," she says. "I think as an alter-ego she's somehow saved me from feeling unheard. Maybe that's where she came from, a place of ultimate frustration that I wasn't producing the art I wanted. But I'll always have one eye on proving that Karen McLeod is the lead writer of this dual existence. In the end, we'll see who's the most popular."

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @BBrownskirt

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