Ray A-J reviews the Poetry Competition and Festival 2017 featuring The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy at the Old Market in Hove on Saturday, November 18.
Electric – The atmosphere alive with the buzz and hum of a festival. Undeniably, contagious. If all the literary gigs of the world were a pool, this would be the deep end.
“Where am i?” You ask. Well, I’m a fan in the sea of enthusiasts currently drowning the Old Market in our passion for the first poetry festival.
Lights down. Pitch black. Immediately the packed sardine can, complete with wriggling audience roared. Each of my nerves shooting through me, hairs standing to attention, pumped with anticipation.
Breaking the sudden silence that fell, a deep voice boomed with charm “we have an amazing show!”. Coming out of the shadows the face of a business man, complete with suit and tie, took to the stage. This face belonged to the host of tonight’s event – the Dermot Oleary as it were, Mr Michael Parker. An eruption of whoops and cheers from the eager sardines met Parker’s statement – this was going to be an amazing show. In true Glastonbury fashion, the host called upon the audience; he sounded a round of what he called “pass the clap”. “You’ve got the clap!” he joked as the audience laughed back, engaging in his unusual idea of a Mexican wave – except with clapping.
Positively filling the room right to the brim with anticipation and beaming faces, Parker jumped into his own poem: “trickle down”. Humorous at the very least, the politically charged performance piece swam round the room in waves of laughter and cheers. It was very funny. He himself was crazily charismatic, channeling the likes of Jack Dee in his dry humour. With room successfully warmed, the Jack Dee of slam poetry surrendered the stage to a different kind of poetry performer…
… The next in the so-called “strange pantomime of poetry” (in Parker’s own words) was the supporting act: Hammer and Tongue, a crew of slam poets. Slam, the perfect name for the odd mismatch patched crew of budding poets. Each were a hand slammed onto a table – some with great impact. Others swung too quickly, completely avoiding the table altogether – a hit or miss. First, the Sam Smith of the group, young Connor Byrne took to the stage like a mouse to a cat – terrified. Undeniably the young lad of the slam crew had beautiful words, but like Sam Smith in his early days, was frail and written off. Poor lad. Although it shows the range of performers on show that night. Deemed the “sacrificial poet”, Bryne left the stage, urging the next hopeful to take to the stand.
One by one fresh faces, young and older, flocked to the stage to perform their art. Liverpudlian Liam Gallagher of poets AP Staunton, as one of the latter, took to the mic like a fish to water. Described as a “champion” by the host, the brit rock poet approached the stage to a round of applause. Through lines of his piece he built up an image of himself as a salt of the earth Liverpool lad; it felt like more of a conversation between him and a close friend then a poem. He was undoubtedly engaging and warm.
The larger than life bloke disappeared into the audience as a small thin lad took his place. The miniature incarnation of rap god Eminem, wriggled as he spat his bars of rhyme and disgust at politics and the digital age. It was as though the words were fighting their way out of him was passion and fury. He is one to watch.
A few Slam poets later, and a literary singer in the form of Shell Huggett graced the stage with her deep poem. The description so delicate as she painted the picture of addiction and mental health. I was moved. The topic was dark and sharp to the touch. At times it dug out memories of the late Amy Whinehouse, the poor singer – another victim of the world’s poisons. Of course the audience erupted in greatful applause when she finished, quite the contrast from the perfect silence we all sat in when listening intently to her heart wrenching story. To me, that performance in particular was the one to break my heart and pull at its strings. It was gorgeous.
After a few more, the three remaining slam poets to finish this stage (literally and figuratively) of the evening were well worth the wait. These took the form of the dry and old-fashioned Robin Lawley, the fierce feminist Emma Robdale, and the charmingly quirky Daniel Searle. Andy Parsons sprung to mind when Lawley took to the stage. Equally as funny and bold, the poet encapsulated the satirical dryness poetry sometimes lacks. It was a refreshing palette cleanser from the deep, dark or outrageously hilarious pieces before. Following his bold nature, the Katy Perry of poems, Emma Robdale performed her commendable and empowering piece on feminism in 2017. The topic of which was so simple (yes, it was about leg hair), but so evoking. Her descriptions, and sharp similes sliced through social convention. It was funny. Like the previous poets, she was funny. But her bold commanding of the stage and control over her words was so much more powerful. It made me think. And, isn’t that what poetry is meant to do?
Throughout the first acts of the festival, I was flung between being an audience member there to view the work and applause, and being immersed in the words themselves; actually becoming the buzz of energy sparked from the poets. It truly was like being at a rock concert, but twice as powerful.
A short break later, a quick trumpet sounding, and, like nerve-wracked X factor hopefuls, the poetry competition contestants were welcomed to the glowing stage. Despite the first lull of the event being the less charming hosts, this section remains a focal point of the whole extravaganza. After all, we were all eagerly anticipating the results of the poetry competition that has been in play for the whole of summer and autumn this year.
Every one of the deserving hopefuls, complete with their own performances of their pieces, emulated solidarity for one-another. I recall one of the pieces, entitled Starling, even absorbed a bubble of unity to the extent of being centred on the poet’s love of Sussex. The harmony and love felt by the people of Brighton ran that deep. This encouraging exhibition of support leaked into the audience. It was as though each onlooker could feel the passion and fear exuding from the performers. Just like a band performing to their fans, the connection between the audience and poets was sparking camaraderie. We were all silent, awaiting the results. Then… (insert drumroll) the winner was finally announced – Lucy with her piece Brexit blues. And well deserved waves of cheers ensued.
Another short break and none other than the punk poet’s answer to Johnny Rotten appeared, in his chain and black skinny jeans. Donning a lute and on a mission, Atilla the stockbroker grabbed the mic with such gusto and passion the audience couldn’t help but erupt into cheers. Every fibre of his speech screamed anarchy, and the old forgotten punk ethos we all miss in this day and age. Atilla, so aptly named as his pieces were oozing with sarcastic quips and irony, ran out a few politically charged rants of rhyme. Some about his love for labour, likening Jeremy Corbyn to Jesus (which of course struck a nerve with me, being the Christian I am, but nonetheless I enjoyed his set greatly). Other songs of sarcasm he streamed seemed to take on a more solem tone. With poems dedicated to his late stepfather and mother, the boisterous bloke seemed to slowly break into a quieter, saddened state. It was interesting to see – these poems clearly meant alot to him, and he really had poured his heart and soul into each line, each word. Once again the love and camaraderie from the audience shone through, in their greatful applause.
Leg up on the monitor beside him, Atilla took on the role of the mighty Mick Jagger as he tried his hand at some freestyle slam. With digs and quips at himself and other “poison pensioners”, the punk poet received warm howls of laughter and footstompingly passionate applause. Although he hit topics we’re all sick to death of (Brexit, Trump’s election and gentrification), he seemed to breath new freshness and life into them; he was funny and thought-provoking. His poem, from the hyperbolic view of a UKIP member (you can imagine what that sounded like), took on the feelings of those who fought to remain in the Brexit vote in its satirical nature. Poking fun at the Conservatives and right parties, Atilla perfectly encapsulated the fear we all felt when leaving the European union – a topic that often surfaced throughout the night.
The punk veteran clambered off the stage like a true rockstar- unwilling to let go of his young rebellious lifestyle (an inspiring outlook we should all aspire to achieve).
Juxtoposing him in her regal fashion was the poet Laureate, the one and only Nina Simone, Carol King, Aretha Franklin of poets… Carol Ann Duffy. She graced the stage before her like it was the throne she deserved. The fangirl in me buzzed as she entered the stage. Taken aback by our fortune at seeing her in the flesh, the audience let out an applause fit for Kings and Queens. We were happy- no, elated with her presence. Stoic and uncompromising, she returned to her old friend microphone to enlighten us with her knowledge. Accompanying her on his congregation of instruments, a Mr John Sampson (whom Duffy quipped she had “borrowed” from the Queen).
The last post, sounded by Sampson, gave way to Duffy’s commemoration of remembrance. Her poem of the same name, offered a sense of memorial for the war. It carried with it a weight of a thousand solemn goodbyes. It was the perfect poem to pay homage. As she opened her mouth to read, she transformed into the narrator of a great film. Her words as she introduced her work, her stories, were droplets of water falling from a trembling tree; slow, powerful, her voice carrying the gravitas of their meaning. The impact of each word hit the audience like the splash of a waterfall in slow motion.
Duffy seemed to have a hold over the audience. We were frozen, in awe of what she would say next. One by one she guided us through her poems. Every piece – a picture of passion, a treasure trove of riches in rhyme.
She explains how her second poem to be performed is about a previous that was banned by the examination board, on account of it being considered fuel to house the flame of would be teenage violence. The poem in question was about depression, ending with the teenage subject looking favourably at a knife. To this, the examination board took to believe Duffy meant to encourage violence. Of course it was a rushed assumption, based entirely of false accusation. They were wrong. Duffy made clear her humour on the situation, using the anecdote to map out the inspiration for her next poem. Entitled Mrs Scofield GCSE, her perfectly satirical look at the GCSE system laughed at the examination board’s decision. I nodded along with a smirk plastered on my face. Having been a student of the recent GCSE system change, her poem resonated with me. Apparently others in the audience too, as they let out the odd laugh here and there.
Other poems that followed assumed the tone of Mrs Scofield GCSE. One about the post office, another, equally as funny, spoke about the fictional wife of Charles Darwin and her input in his work. Many donned feminist narratives. Her poems are feminism: furious and fierce. Dissected – her words were gold.
However the humour was but one ingredient in her recipe of performance. The poem Liverpool took on a more dangerous topic; the Hillsborough disaster. It sought to carry the message of the clock that chimed a 99 or so times on the anniversary of the disaster. Like the bell her words chimed. They matched the poem perfectly; slow and pushing the audience to think about the severity of the incident.
In between the poems, Sampson would provide well needed light relief, with jokes and introductory performances on his jumble of instruments.
Sampson stepped back, pleased with the audiences positive response. Suddenly Duffy was centre stage once more.
The running theme of the night seemed to be politics, and Duffy didn’t shy away from this. Finger out, saluting the one handed salute, She commended Trump for his perfect running of America. His wonderful work. All of which the audience also commended.
Welling up, slightly cracking the stoic mask from earlier, Duffy introduced her final poem. Premonitions was written after the passing of her mother, and set out to honour her -mission complete. The poem was beautiful, the perfect homage. Chills shot down my spine as she spoke the first line: “we first met when your last breath, cooled in my palm like an egg”. The legato in her voice, soothing.
During all of this, I couldn’t help but think this was much better than sitting at home watching TV. Better yet, way more engaging than any rock gig I’ve attended.
When she left the stage (all too soon in my opinion), the audience clapped our farewells and Parker returned to the mic to thank the arts council and all the poets involved. Slowly we got up, as if saddened by the eventual end of the festival. This sadness swiftly abandoned our heads, as the buzz from the beginning of the night returned – everybody was pumped with inspiration and energy once more.
In true Rock and roll fashion, I left with what felt like a hangover from the high of the poet’s addictive performances. And like the fangirl I am, managed to grab an autograph from Atilla the stockbroker, that I shall cherish in a frame hung on my wall for the rest of my life.
And sure enough I wasn’t the only one to come away feeling inspired; as I left I overhead an eager lady exclaim it was “thoroughly splendid – a good use of the day!”. Lady, you’re spot on.
If you too are a poetry addict, be sure score a fix of the Hammer and tongue crew for yourself at their next gig on January 7 at the Royal Albert Hall.