Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘James Webster’

Review: Landscape II by Melanie Wilson

In Performance Poetry on October 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

– reviewed by James Webster

The thrum of deep base sound ebbs away, leaving only a ring of tinnitus. The lights retreat to a dim glimmer, the shivers stop running down my spine, and the audience audibly exhale. We’re about two thirds of the way through Melanie Wilson‘s haunting multimedia poem, and she’s holding us on a knife edge.

When we reach the end, spines thoroughly chilled and edges of our seats somewhat worn, the silence is palpable. There’s a distinct feeling that we’ve just been taken on a journey, carried away by the tides of Wilson’s story, submerged in her words and soundscapes. This mesmeric story merges together three different strands of narrative (a photographer, her great-great-grandmother and the woman she photographed in Afghanistan) that flow in and out of one another, all layered over a rich and discordant soundscapes and vividly absorbing video.

It’s a stunner of a show, overwhelmingly immersive, fascinatingly reflective and frightfully tense.

A variety of tools to shape a show …

Wilson uses some incredible technology to shape the show. Evocative images, in beautifully rendered video, are projected onto the massive screen that makes up the venue’s entire back wall, and they draw your gaze, showing you some key imagery, while also dancing round the edge of the story (we see feet, hands, the back of a neck, a cloaked figure, close-up of a spider’s web and the Devon landscape in first person). The electric cacophony of Wilson’s soundscape surrounds us, pulses under our skin and vibrates through our bones, as it plays with contrasting harmony and discord, noise and silence, thickening into an almost physical atmosphere around us. And the sounds of the story (a fox’s yelps, the click of a camera shutter, the bumps and groans of an old cottage, the sound of steps behind us) leap out at us at unexpected moments, provoking repeated shocks of static up the spine and surprised gasps of fear. The set, too, plays its part, with a hardwood floor, table full of letters, photos and technical equipment; it gives proceedings an intimate feel, as if you begin the show sitting in someone’s living room, with Melanie Wilson seated behind the desk, whispering to you through the microphone …

There’s an element of the puppet-master around Wilson’s performance …

As she sits behind the desk almost spider-like, visibly operating the sound and video, shooting out strands of story to ensnare us. All the aspects, the video, sounds and Wilson’s own voice, come together into one powerfully moving tale, each element blending with the others to enrich the sensory experience that presses in on us. It’s consummately done, Wilson’s carefully controlled voice always informing, but never overpowering the visuals and audio, instead it seems to drift out, directly into our brains, falling to a taut whisper and rising to fraught emotion.

It all streams very nicely around the narrative – and around us too – with moments of quiet reverie contrasting against the sudden bursts and threat that reaches into your gut and tugs at you. Together, the visuals and sounds merge with her voice, getting under our skin and leaving it tingling as we’re immersed in the story and the character.

It’s a story that you can lose yourself in …

The writing is clever and thoughtful, constructing a stirring and sparse language with a fragile kind of poetry to it. It’s kind of haunting and kind of gorgeous, leaving a lot of feeling unsaid behind the words, feelings that are fleshed out by the show’s multimedia elements. To use her own words, her turns of phrase “radiate their secrets like old gold”, trickling into our ears and then later building to a rushing surge for the piece’s finale.

The pacing and structure of the show is just right, each stream of the story has just enough meat on its bones to keep you involved. Wilson fills in the blanks of the three women’s backgrounds gradually, like a puzzle, letting them gradually build, before the different strands come together in a crashing crescendo.

And as they all come crashing over us, the sound builds into a rhythmic thump that comes up from the floor and vibrates through your bones into your chest, while the words wash over you and the video flashes with its interconnected imagery and it feels like we’re caught. As if we’re held in this intense moment and suspended in Landscape II’s narrative. But it passes, and the show ends on a quiet, contemplative note that leaves us with plenty to mull over.

Overall, this is an always involving and often scarily intense show …

It tells an intricate, otherworldly and profoundly moving story. While its high concept may not be to everyone’s taste, everyone will agree that the tech is phenomenally done, and it is definitely a hugely enjoyable and interesting way to spend an evening.

Landscape II is on at the Burton Taylor Studio tonight as part of its ongoing tour (presented by Fuel) that also takes in Exeter, Crewe, Brighton, Coventry and more. I strongly advise you to catch it if you can.


Review: My Robot Heart by Molly Naylor

In Performance Poetry on June 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm

– reviewed by James Webster


Written and perform by Molly Naylor, with musical backing from folk-duo The Middle Ones, this slice of musical storytelling was tightly written, warmly performed and full of thoughtful fun.

The story’s meta-narrative was cleverly constructed, presenting both an intricately interwoven fictional story of three interconnected characters, and giving us the true story behind the story, a kind of origin, the tale of heartbreak and robots that Naylor wrote this show to explain. We thus got some fascinating facts about Japanese experiments into creating a robot called ‘Kenji’ who could imitate the behaviour of love (an idea very similar to a fantastic manga and tv show called Absolute Boyfriend that I heartily recommend), coupled with Naylor’s own sense of emotional frustration at wanting more than a partner who “ticks as many boxes as possible”. It’s both an intriguing backdrop to the show and an overarching metaphor for her story and it works fabulously well.

Her performance style was warm and engaging, always quick with a joke and an amusing turn of phrase. She was especially good when crafting analogies that are equal parts absurdly funny, poetic and appropriate, or when capturing life’s little ridiculosities in relatable and inventive turns of phrase. Indeed, in each of her three characters’ stories there was something intensely recognisable; those little moments that are incredibly simple, but oh-so-powerful and very human, spine-tinglingly distilled by Naylor’s evocative storytelling. Whether it’s the emotional significance of what kind of wardrobe you own, the paralysing fear of public speaking, or the caustic politics of school popularity, each strand of the story gave intelligent and amusing insights into the stages and minutiae of life.

As well as these myriad little moments, the show also throws up some big and emotional movie-style moments. A manic late-night drive to nowhere and subsequent return, a sudden, unexpected public food fight, or late-night epiphanies, but these moments often confound expectations, never giving the characters what they think they want. As such, those big moments serve as a great contrast to the little ones, as the characters who search for big emotional breakthroughs find them in quietly heartbreaking moments of emotional stillness, while the character who simply wants to fit in finds himself in a charmingly warm and cinematic climax. All of which is supported by the great music of the Middles Ones, whose songs surge up warmly behind the narrative at some points, while stuttering into a fragile silence at others.

It’s not perfect, the music at times isn’t fully integrated into the performances, and it occasionally distracts from the story instead of supplementing it. The stories, too, could be more completely woven together, with the narrative sometimes becoming a tad disjointed (with one story coming to an especially early end, which was unfortunate given how lovably absorbing it was). Still, these minor quibbles don’t detract from the show’s warm and tear-teasing heart.

It seems at the heart of the story is the conflict between societal pressure and individual desire, between the way people think they’re supposed to act and what they actually want. Naylor is very astute in summoning the spirit of those insidious pressures that make her characters feel their desires are abnormal, dubbing the kind of social plan where you meet someone you don’t actively hate and settle down to marry them “the protocol”, while the wish to follow your own desires is oddly personified in the pleasantly polyamorous figures of Tilda Swinton (who knew?). This is all mixed together with a playful performance, some fun theatricality and nice internal references (repeated mentions of wardrobes and Take That creating effective recurring motifs).

This wonderful show creates a patchwork map of lovely little life anecdotes; a collage made of myriad moments that are intensely recognisable, often hilarious, and utterly insightful. Naylor answers her own questions about love and fear in entertaining and super-lovely fashion, celebrating both fear and choice, and allowing for both love’s messiness and its erratic wonders.

Molly Naylor’s ‘My Robot Heart’ is in Oxford for one more performances tonight at the Burton Taylor Studio, before moving on to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in July. It’s well worth seeing.

Saboteur Awards 2013: Performance

In Performance Poetry, Saboteur Awards on June 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

-in which James Webster sums up the categories he presented at the awards –

saboteur awards - performer

Best Performer

When it came down to the final day, Best Spoken Word Performer was the most closely contested of all the categories, with first place going back and forth several times and only three votes separating the winner and runner-up. That runner-up was Dan Cockrill, who deserves real credit for pushing the winner all the way to the wire, receiving many enthused comments from voters along the way. One such person said they voted for him “Because he is funny, engaging and full of bags of energy. And you never get bored of him however many times you see him!”

The other nominees also deserve a lot of kudos, Raymond Antrobus (who is one of the co-hosts of Chill Pill and whose pamphlet The Shapes and Disfigurements of Raymond Antrobus was published this year) reportedly “has a way with words, is unique in delivery and is spinetingly inspirational.” While Emma Jones (regular at Bang! Said the Gun and virtuoso performer) has “A tongue so sharp they call it a mouth knife. FACT!!” and an “Uncanny ability to absorb a character and present a perspective rarely seen.” Fay Roberts (host of Hammer & Tongue Cambridge and founder of Allographic) was said by one voter to have “a range and depth that I envy. Her poems combine beautiful word-smithery, wisdom and wry humour and her highly original delivery is a delight.”

The winner, however, was Vanessa Kisuule. A phenomenal poet whose performances are often heartfelt, often funny, and always excellent, and have delighted audiences all over the UK.

Winner of a multitude of slams and a regular at festivals, she “combines warm humour with beautifully measured emotion and a sprinkling of bite, Vanessa Kisuule is simply one of the best performing poets around.” Another voter said “Vanessa’s poems actually steal me and take me on an adventure”, while another commented “Vanessa has a depth and maturity to her work I’ve never seen matched in spoken word”. The most prevalent commendation, however, was her uncanny knack of expressing the inexpressible, she has “the ability to articulate feelings previously considered ineffable; a skill as rare as it is wonderful” and “has the most relevant poetry to so many people, she finds the perfect words to express what so many people think but can’t vocalise because they don’t have her words. She is a total boss.”

Best One-Off

Another close category, with the intriguing events that were Penning Perfumes (exploring scents through poetry and vice-versa) and Poetry Parnassus (an almost unprecedented conglomeration of poets from around the globe) coming in joint second. Penning perfumes was called “innovative, bold, mixing genres and going outside poetry audiences to engage through use of the senses with a wider audience” while Poetry Parnassus was praised for being “a once in a life time gathering of poetry and poets and community and sharing and wisdom.”

Also in the running was Poetry Polaroid (mapping Edinburgh through poetry) that was “a beautiful concept that drew a lot of people into exploring the city and thinking about it in different ways”, while Binders Full of Women (beautifully hand-made binder celebrating poetry of writers who identify as female, trans, intersex or gender-neutral) that was “urgent, organised and awesome: a combination of creative publication and lively gatheration, with a side order of campaigning poetics”.

But the winner was the massive nationwide platform that was Shake the Dust. A mixture of performances, workshops and other events, it gave a platform to young people across the UK to explore poetry in a way that “visibly changed young lives, connecting the poetry and spoken word scenes around the globe with new rising stars. Total brilliance.”  In fact, several people commented on the power of the event that was “really changing young people’s lives through poetry”, that “provided so many opportunities for so many young people who were able to come together for a unique and special event on such a large open scale. it changed many lives” and that was “bringing together the disparate youth in art and spoken word; an undervalued gift”

Overall: “An amazing celebration of the voice of youth”

saboteur awards - one-off

Best Spoken Word Show

Some truly wonderful shows of different kinds were celebrated in this category, from the Wandering Word Stage that brings poets to new crowds at various festivals and provides “a marvellous sanctuary in the daytime and a hubbub of insanity at night”, to Dirty Great Love Story‘s fusion of verse and theatre, winning a Fringe First, touring to New York and according to one voter being “truly awesome inventive ninjas and made me cry”. And Emergency Poet (Deborah Alma) who provides rhymes in a crisis from a real ambulance: “The world’s first and only emergency poetry service, in a genuine 1960s ambulance, do you really need to ask why it should win?”

Runner up, Lucy Ayrton: Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry (a selection of feminist fairytales and dissection of the power of children’s stories) got a lot of love, one memorable remark saying she “not only harnesses the seductive power of fairytales to make powerfully incisive and beautifully made points about gender and society, but also she has lovely hair”

But the winner was Whistle by Martin Figura, a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, tale drawn from his own childhood that has toured throughout the UK and abroad. “It made me want to cry and I never want to cry except in the bank” said one fan, while others commented that this “Immensely personal tale of tragic upbringing yet hugely enjoyable” and that it “Invaded my dreams and will stay with me forever”. It’s a show that truly seems to have matched content to performance, with audiences saying: “Whistle is a bravura performance and a valuable text that makes no concessions to simple delivery but is delivered with great dramatic conviction.”

Finally, the comment that perhaps most sums it up is this one: “The most heartening true story of human resilience told in stunning poems I’ve ever seen in such an intense, understated show.”

 saboteur awards - spoken word show

Best Regular Spoken Word Night

It was a running joke on the night that we would repeatedly refer to categories as having been ‘an incredibly close race’ or having gone ‘right down to the wire’. This was not one of those categories, the winner of Best Regular Spoken Word Night was clear and deserved.

That is not to say the other nominees didn’t put up a fight, Come Rhyme with Me (blend of food and poetry) earned plaudits because “the poetry is consistently amazing both from the headliners and the open-mic-ers. Plus it’s worth going simply for the food!” While Hammer & Tongue Oxford (founding branch of the national network of slam poetry events) was praised for its “friendly and funny organizers, great community, and excellent performers”. Inky Fingers (inventive and inviting Edinburgh based collective) “provides a welcoming and open space for new spoken word artists whilst also showcasing some top spoken word talent to inspire”.

The runner up, Jibba Jabba (multi-disciplinary and superbly supportive open mic in Newcastle) really looked like giving the winners a run for their money (read: rosette) for a while with their “great performers, great venue, great audience & words that sear into your chest & stay with you for days”.

But in the end there was only ever going to be one winner: Bang! Said the Gun, whose anarchically fun and involving events have consistently raised the bar for poetry events. As the voters said “BSTG show us all how it should be done – fun and eclectic and challenging and loud and quiet and generous. They’ve also mastered the fact that poetry nights should be engaging to look at as well as listen to!”.

It’s an event that voters pointed out isn’t just good, but is also always colossal fun: “Rock and roll poetry, why shouldn’t it win?!” Plus, it always gets the audience going: “Let’s shake, rattle and roll with poetry. Need I say more. Absoposifrigginlutely BANGTASTIC!!! The best show for miles.”

Finally, Bang! Is such a unique night because it opens poetry up to new audiences: “Weekly and sometimes on the telly too. Poetry’s best chance of a tv breakthrough.” and because it “makes poetry electric and sexy”.

saboteur awards - regular spoken word night

All very deserved winners and nominees, plus a fantastic night. Can’t wait for next year to do it all again!

Interview: Come Rhyme With Me

In Interview, Saboteur Awards on May 16, 2013 at 9:30 am

interviewed by James Webster 

come rhyme

With the Saboteur Awards results to be announced at the Awards Party in just two weeks, we interview Best Regular Spoken Word Night nominees Come Rhyme With Me about their event and its unique food-themed format.

Let’s start with the basics: how long has Come Rhyme with Me been running and when/where does it take place?

Come Rhyme With Me will have been running for 3 years in July. Come Rhyme With Me takes place twice a month.

On the 3rd Friday of each month we travel to The Writers Place (9-10 Jew St) in Brighton and on the last Friday of each month we are based at Cottons Islington (70 Exmouth Market) in London.

How did Come Rhyme with Me come into being? Was it done with a particular ethos or mission statement in mind?

In 2010, Naomi Woddis put out a call for an event to take place at Cottons Islington. Dean and Deanna had previously curated events together at Lyric Hammersmith and were keen to establish their own independent event, one that promoted quality spoken word and poetry. They wanted to create an event they would pay to go to.

Come Rhyme With Me has a really unique spin on it with its “set menu of performers” and focus on food. What led to that decision?

Upon seeing the space and the restaurant the idea for a food and poetry night was formed. They pitched the idea to the owners (Beverley and Andrew) and Come Rhyme With Me was conceived!

You run nights in London and Brighton, do you find there’s difference in style/flavour between the events in different areas?

In 2011 Dean was invited to curate an event for New Writing South, an organisation that promotes writing and writers of all types in the South East of the country. Dean decided to bring Come Rhyme With Me, the event was a part of Brighton Fringe Festival and was a success. New Writing South invited Dean and Deanna to launch a regular Come Rhyme With Me at The Writers Place and so Come Rhyme With Me Brighton was launched!

Who have been your favourite performers that you’ve had at Come Rhyme with Us? What have been the other highlights?

There have been so many amazing performers at Come Rhyme With Me not to mention the performers that come through the appetiser (open mic) section. The Christmas party where we had an array of performers has been a highlight. Not to mention the successful collaborations between Come Rhyme With Me and Oval House Theatre and London Liming at Rich Mix.

What do you look for when you book performers for your “set menu?

The menu is chosen with flavours in mind. What style the performer is and how they would fit in a holistic sense. Very few acts are rebooked though Starters are brought back as Mains or Desserts.

What have been the challenges of running a regular spoken word event?

Not so much challenges as standards. Come Rhyme With Me is all about quality of experience.

What is your opinion of the state of spoken word and performance poetry in London and the UK?

It’s strong and getting stronger each year. Events such as Come Rhyme With Me, Bang Said The Gun and Chill Pill are constantly bringing in new audiences and showcasing emerging talent.

If you’re trying to convince someone who’s never heard of Come Rhyme with Me to come to your events then what do you say?

The food element is a massive draw as are the unique line ups and open mic aspect. Dean and Deanna have also been praised for their ability to create a warm and welcoming environment for all audiences. Why don’t you Come and Rhyme With Us!?

And finally, have you heard of Sabotage before (if so, what?) and are you pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur award?

Come Rhyme With Me is very pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur award. It’s a first of hopefully many. Massive thanks to all those who nominated and have voted.

Come Rhyme With Me is run by Dean Atta and Deanna Rodger. They’re cool, check them out.

Interview: JibbaJabba

In Performance Poetry, Saboteur Awards on May 1, 2013 at 11:18 pm

– interviewed by James Webster


JibbaJabba has been nominated for the Best Regular Spoken Word Night category in this year’s Saboteur Awards. Here, I chat with Jenni Pascoe about what makes the event unique.

Let’s start with the basics: how long has JibbaJabba been running and when/where does it take place?

JibbaJabba started at The Trent House in Newcastle in 2010 and has just celebrated its 3rd birthday.

We relocated in January this year, moving into the space left by the much loved ‘Take Ten’ (formerly Ten by Ten) night, at The Cumberland Arms in Newcastle on the 4th Thursday of every month. 

How did JibbaJabba come into being and what’s its ethos/mission statement?

I had just started performing poetry and noticed that though there were many fantastic events happening in the city, at that time there wasn’t a regular open mic available where less established performers could take to the stage without having a fully polished set prepared. 

The ethos is to have an open platform where complete beginners and experienced professionals can all have an opportunity to perform, and any form of spoken word is welcome.

Who have been your favourite performers you’ve had at JibbaJabba and why?

One of my favourite performers was Dominic Berry, who created an amazing atmosphere of electricity in the room with his wonderfully energetic delivery of brilliantly written poems. 

Obviously, it’s great to have a fantastic headline act, but I also love to see anyone getting up for the first time, or people who usually perform in a different medium trying out something new to them. 

What do you look for when you’re booking your feature performers?

It’s usually someone I have seen elsewhere, and instantly decided ‘I have got to have them at Jibba!

I like finding a performer who is a little bit different, someone who has something new to say, or an original way of saying things… 

I want performers who can take an audience by the hand, (or in some cases grabthem by the throat!), and hold their attention through every word, pause and movement. 

You make a point of opening up the open mic to any performance so long as it’s ‘word-based and entertaining’. What led to that decision rather than just focusing on one medium?

From the start, I didn’t want Jibba to exclusively be a ‘poetry night’. The term ‘spoken word’ covers such a wide range of performance styles, and I wanted to create a place where they could all stand side by side with equal merit. 

I have always tried to make the night as accessible and entertaining as possible, and think having a more diverse range of performers achieves this. 

What have been the challenges of running a regular spoken word event?

That’s hard to answer, I suppose there are the usual stresses about timings, wondering whether people will turn up etc, which you would encounter when running any event, but I enjoy it too much to think of any of it as a challenge. 

More generally, what is the spoken word scene like in the Newcastle area?

Newcastle has a superb spoken word scene! New events (such as Hot Words at the Chilli), are popping up all the time, and it feels like spoken word is being accepted much more as part of mixed media events. 

Newcastle has a great mix of cabaret style events (like JibbaJabba), literary based events (such as Trashed Organ), and prose based nights (like Fiction Burn). Apples and Snakes provide great opportunities for performance poets in the area with monthly scratch nights, and there are also lots of regular events in nearby County Durham (like Poetry Jam), and Teesside, (such as Black Light Engine Room). 

There is a wonderful community of poets and performers in the North East of England, who are all incredibly supportive of one another and it is an absolute pleasure to be part of that. 

Everything I’ve heard and read about JibbaJabba has praised it for its lively atmosphere and the quick-fire and fun nature of the open mic. How have you fostered that atmosphere?

I suppose if you’re having fun then the audience do too! 

JibbaJabba doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s all about everyone having a good night out.

I love the way the audience instinctively follows the mood of the show. The way they can be almost in tears at a beautifully moving, softly spoken poem then be launched into hysterical laughter at a stand-up performance merely minutes later.

If you’re trying to convince someone who’s never heard of JibbaJabba to come to your events then what do you say?

Recently, a stand-up comedian asked, ‘Having never been to a spoken word gig, is it just stand up without the need for laughs? 

If so, what is the appeal?’

I replied ‘Sometimes it’s not about being funny at all. Sometimes it’s about making it moving, thought provoking, beautiful, sad, angry, making a point, using word play, or just generally saying something interesting, as well as the funny stuff. It means you can use poetic form if you want, just talk, rap, do a character piece / monologue, tell a story, or do stand-up, because stand-up itself IS spoken word. A spoken word night gives you a mix of everything, covering all styles of verbal performance. Come to JibbaJabba sometime and see what I mean.’

He said, ‘Oh, I might give it a try then’. 

And finally, have you heard of Sabotage before (if so, what?) and are you pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur Award?

I honestly hadn’t, but I have checked out the site since being nominated and will certainly keep an eye on it from now on. 

I am completely over the moon to have been nominated for a Saboteur Award. It means at least one person must like what Jibba’s doing!

Interview: The Inky Fingers Open Mic

In Interview, Performance Poetry, Saboteur Awards on April 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm

interviewed by James Webster

inky banner

The Inky Fingers Open Mic has been nominated for the Best Regular Spoken Word Night category in this year’s Saboteur Awards. Here, I chat with the Inky Fingers collective about what makes their event unique.

Let’s start with the basics: how long has Inky Fingers Open Mic been running and when/where does it take place?

 We kicked off in October 2010, and we’ve run an open mic on the last Tuesday of every month ever since. Our much-loved home, the Forest Café, has had to move in that time, so the open mic’s moved three times since, but we’re now ensconced at the Forest on 141 Lauriston Place. Keep track of us at!


Who are the Inky Fingers collective and how did the group come into being?

The core collective currently comprises a shifting, non hierarchical, boundlessly energetic group of the following people, found in varying combinations in time and space at any one time: Freddie Alexander (Soapbox), Alec Beattie (Blind Poetics), Mairi Campbell-Jack, Harry Giles (Anatomy), Ioannis Kalkounnis (Fledgling Press), Rachel McCrum (Rally & Broad, Stewed Rhubarb Press), Katherine McMahon (Outspoken), Rose Ritchie (Craigmillar Writers Group), Tracey S. Rosenberg and Agnes Török (Soapbox). And of the group are also involved organising various spoken word and performance events in Edinburgh (specifics in the brackets).


I set up the open mic back in 2010 with another writer named Alice Tarbuck, and when we realised we were onto a good thing we decided to open up the organisation to whoever had the energy and inclination! So it keeps changing and growing with whoever wants to make things happen.

We’ve answered this interview collectively as well, so you can track us by our initials.


The way you describe your open mic seems to make a point of being inclusive, inviting all different kinds of work, genres and types of performance. Why did you decide on that particular focus/ethos?

Open mics grow us, not just through giving us places to practise, but also because they feed us a wonderful diversity of words. We can find out not what one editor or host thinks we want to hear, but what a scrappy, diverse collective wants to say. Open mics are also the fertiliser of a scene, because they create new performers, and that creates new organisers and events. Without them, we wouldn’t have everything else.

When I have new work in new forms I want to try out, open mics are the first place I go to. A well-hosted open mic is warm and welcoming, and the audience is there not to judge you but to enjoy being with you. An open mic gives me the license to not be that good, to get it wrong, to make a mistake and for that to be OK. Without open mics, I’d just perform the same style of thing over and over, because I’d feel too scared to try something I didn’t know worked. And every open mic I go to – literally every one – has at least one person doing something new with words I never expected.

More than that, people do words, do art, for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them want a career. Some of them find it therapeutic. Some of them want to get their anger out. Some of them want you to fall in love with them. Some of them are desperate for a place to speak out in a world that prevents them from speaking. Some of them are in love with beauty, with many different kinds of beauty. Some of them find that only doing art makes them feel good. Some of them don’t even know why they’re doing this. All of this needs a space. All of this should have a space. That’s what an open mic is. Open, and free, always.


And what have the highlights of this inclusivity been? What kinds of really surprising or different performances have emerged from the open mic?

OK, so for me the best moments aren’t always the most surprising or outré. What I really live for is when a writer performs their words into a microphone for the first time. There’s this look they get, this total joy of connection with the audience, that I’m just so grateful for. That makes me keep hosting open mics more than anything else! Supporting people in finding a voice.

That said. Someone once read the instructions on a loudhailer box, that was good. Someone once performed the poems of Marilyn Monroe. There was a great flash-fiction about toothless zombies last month that made me smile. You know, words!


And what do you look for when you book your feature performers and what have some of the highlights been of their sets?

Availability, variety, experimentation. We want to be a stopping point for international poets on tour, as well as a platform for up and coming local talent. Kristiana Rae Colon was a recent pleasure and privilege to put on; last year a big set from Jon Sands and Ken Arkind was joyous.


What have the challenges been in running Inky Fingers in general and the Open Mic in particular?

As we’re all volunteers, sometimes we get tired…the advantage of working as a collective means that there are (usually) just enough of us to cover everything, should one or two people take a(n entirely reasonable) sabbatical.

We run an open platform and you really never know what you’re going to get. We have had, on occasion, difficult performers – drunk, offensive or over running – and it’s the host-of-the-evening’s job to manage that, and the audience… it can get interesting.


What’s the spoken word scene like in Edinburgh in general?

 It’s as dynamic as a circus held inside a dance club within range of an exploding supernova.

Scheduling spoken word events in Edinburgh is notoriously difficult because no matter what night you choose, something else is always happening. A classic example of this was one Tuesday night when Ian Rankin was speaking at the Central Library, Janice Galloway was talking across the street at the National Library of Scotland, and the City of Literature folks were having their monthly salon about five minutes away. But here’s the beauty of it – all three had a good audience.


You also have a focus on open mic performances being entertaining and engaging, encouraging people to ‘bring their words to life’. Has this been a challenge for some open mic performers?

 It just takes practise and passion, really. As long as you feel it, the more you practise, and the more different kinds of audience you practise with, the better you get. Some people are more nervous, or more over-confident, or have frailer voices, or aren’t used to speaking, but everyone can live their words in time.


If you’re trying to convince someone who’s never heard of the Inky Fingers Open Mic to come to your events then what do you say?

 When I first performed, I remember thinking I would need a whisky or two to get up and do this if I was prepared to be criticised for my offerings. It was not like that at all, in fact the audience couldn’t have been more encouraging. When I finally got to run away from the scene of my first ever slam poetry event my heart still beating fast with nerves and excitement. At one time I still preferred the 5 minute spots. My nerves couldn’t stand it! I stuck with it because I didn’t want to be unstuck from this amazing feeling of performing your own words.

I have been inspired so much over the last two years by so many people. The person that I nervously was changed and became more dramatic. That is because the words that I am expressing are mine. I edit them in my head, I own them. I listen and believe people when they tell me that they enjoy my poetry.


Try it. What do you have to lose? Also, you look lovely today.


And finally, have you heard of Sabotage before and are you pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur award?

 Sabotage provides a platform for some of the most insightful, original reviews out there. Long live Sabotage. And Yes! We’ve been squealing with delight!


Review: Sadcore Dadwave (Not the Oxford Literary Festival) 20/03/13

In Performance Poetry on April 23, 2013 at 9:30 am


-reviewed by James Webster

The Event

Sadcore Dadwave is a night I was hugely intrigued by; with a really cool line-up, a bafflingly unspecific name and mission statement, and a spot in the always impressive Not the Oxford Literary Festival. Spawned from the minds of Sian S. Rathore and Paul Askew, this night was part of the performance facet of Sadcore Dadwave, an organisation that also encompasses an e-zine and seems to have a strong focus on transgressive and alternative literature. These genres both seem to have a focus on pushing at the barriers of genre, crossing lines of convention and style, and it was perhaps appropriate then that my reaction to the night was split. Indeed, looking back at it in different ways gives an impression of two different events, one hugely enjoyable and the other … not so much.

The Positive View

An immense evening with a series of thoughtful, funny and frankly fascinating performers, all ably spliced together by our two hosting ‘dads’, Sian and Paul, who used the device of being our theoretical parents to clever comic effect.

Sian opened with ‘We Are All Anagrams of Something Else Entirely’, which won me over with its fun overarching anarchic imagery tied together by the poet’s playful way with words. Her twin pieces ‘I’m So Miserable’ and ‘I’m So Jacked’ were both hilarious in their exaggerated misery/cheerful mania, listing with a whimsical joy the ways in which she’s so miserable/jacked (“I’m so jacked I fucked Lord Byron to death!”).

Paul brought his usual blend of thoughtfully amusing absurdity with the damaged, darkly sweet and beautiful ‘Battlefields’, while his ‘Holiday’ began as basic comic satire of holiday-makers (“let’s get refused service in pubs and bars”), but evolved into an insightful and laugh-rousing piece on the idea of holiday itself (“let’s declare war on our home towns”).

Emily Harrison gave a set with a clarity of expression that many other poets would be envious of, while also offering up some really powerful imagery and imaginative ideas. Particular highlights were her raw and visceral piece on Mark Quinn’s ‘Self’, her ‘Making John Lennon Cum’ with its playful visuals and the way it interacted with a public entity on an intimate and personal level, and the brief and adorably bittersweet ‘Taxidermy’.

Diane Marie‘s extracts from her e-book ‘I Wrote a Poem Dedicated to God that I Considered to be Extremely Disrespectful’ were way cool. I really loved the way she painted scenes with her words, layering them part by part, building meaning through repetition and gradual change. It seemed she was giving us fragmentary extracts from a whole that also appears to be made up of interlocking fragments, a kind of study/deconstruction of words, jokes and typeset.

Luke Kennard‘s feature set was a phenomenon of super-clever satire, blended with his own uniquely creative way with words to create an ice-cool set. Old favourite ‘The Murderer’ is a nice take on how the rehabilitation process can be subverted by constant reminders and cultural demonisation (presented with amped up amusement). ‘Leatherbound Road’ was a sweet and unique twist on a love poem, viewing emotion only through reference and analogy. And his big set piece ‘Insufferably Upbeat Spies’ deconstructed the various clichés, tropes and annoying cocky-cheerfulness of spy shows with great aplomb and a surprisingly tight plot. He made superb use of comic exaggeration with spies chirping things like “being a spy is just so wonderful I could burst into animated stars” and a villain known as “the Heart-fucker” who pretty much does what it says on the tin …

And in the open mic Lucy Ayrton‘s ‘Bonfire Juice’ was at its usual nostalgic and heartbreaking best, Joe Briggs‘s lecture-cum-anecdote-cum-poem on punk music painted a rich and spiky smorgasboard of anarchic ridiculosity, Lysander fit some big words and ideas into a rapid-fire political rap, Molly Arenberg gave an extremely affecting piece addressed to her girlfriend’s parents that had some very powerful things to say on gay acceptance, and George Chopping gave his social-awkwardness-as-comic-performance turn that always works well for him.

All in all, a night of intelligent, thoughtful and often gut-bustingly funny poetry, which walked the fine line between clever confidence and arrogance with the poise of a tightrope walker.

The Negative View

A clumsily organised event (the hosts were 20 minutes late) that always felt just a bit too pleased with how clever it was being, this night had the feeling of an in-joke that I was being judged for not getting. The somewhat exclusory atmosphere of the evening was not helped by the specious nature of what ‘Sadcore Dadwave‘ actually is, or what it’s mission statement and intent are as regards the kind of poetry they’re trying to promote, which didn’t stop them from policing the open mic and forbidding some poets to perform, because they didn’t fit the ‘feel’.

Sian‘s ‘We Are All Anagrams of Something Else Entirely’ had some fun and anarchic overarching imagery, but it didn’t do enough for me to tie together the otherwise massively disparate nature of the poem. While her two list-style pieces ‘I’m So Jacked’ and ‘I’m So Miserable’ seemed lazy in their formats and, while funny and original, effectively repeated the same joke over and over again, as if hammering you over the head with how good said joke was.

While ‘Battlefields’ and ‘Holiday’ were solid pieces, the latter started off as disappointingly 1-dimensional and Paul sacrificed his usually thoughtful and nuanced performance of ‘The Life and History of Paul Askew in 5 Dream Sequences’ in order to emphasise the comedy, which robbed the poem of some of its depth.

Emily Harrison‘s poems, while occasionally powerful and imaginative, tended towards over-explaining, which made her overall style seem clunky and could lead to some poems coming across as forced and obvious. I can’t help but feel her genuinely interesting ideas and engaging imagery may have been better served by suggesting more and explaining less, giving the audience more to sink their imaginative teeth into.

The fragmented nature of Diane Marie‘s work, by contrast, could be seen as having the opposite problem, as it could be said to have lacked focus and drive. While the individual images were gorgeous, they did not always succeed in suggesting a connecting theme or narrative and perhaps her work did not lend itself perfectly to performance.

Luke Kennard‘s performance, for all its wit and mammoth intelligence (or perhaps because of it), seemed smug in the extreme. His piece on tabloid journalism was expertly constructed, but seemed too pleased with itself in its almost vindictive humour. ‘Insufferably Upbeat Spies’ suffered from the same problem, its hilarious deconstruction of the spy genre becoming increasingly repetitive and seeming to revel in its own cleverness. “The Heart-fucker” was possible the best example of this, for in his exaggeration/satire of the negative stereotypes that spy/crime shows indulge in with their villains, Kennard seemed to indulge his cleverness to the point of obnoxiousness, which undermined the satire.

And in the open mic Lysander‘s delivery was monotonous, his politics undeveloped and obvious, and his lyrics unimaginative. Molly Arenberg‘s poem, for all her clear emotion and moving subject matter, was over-long and perhaps needed more artful language and expression, while it could have done without the artificial-seeming actions. Joe Briggs‘s punk elegy was more of a list than poem and lacked any more coherent message than ‘punk is pretty cool’. While George Chopping‘s absurdly long intro was embarrassingly awkward and rambling, while his poetry was amusing, but somewhat trite.

Overall this event was smug, exclusive and pretentious. While a lot of the material was very good and very funny, there was too much of sense that people were only trying to entertain themselves which came across as masturbatory. Not that I have a problem with masturbation (literary or otherwise), but often these things are more fun when they’re a more collaborative effort …

Review: Penning Perfumes – Oxford 21/02/13

In Pamphlets, Performance Poetry on March 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

– reviewed by Paul Fitchett


I had heard Good Things and exciting rumours about Penning Perfumes – the poetry and perfume mash up organised by Sabotage’s own Claire Trévien and perfume aficionado Odette Toilette – so it’s fair to say that I was looking forward to the event. 

And, with one “cheesy” exception (more of which later), I was not disappointed.

The Oxford leg of Penning Perfumes was in the Albion Beatnik bookshop, a suitably literary venue for an event that was to make poets and writers of all the attendees, because almost from the start it became clear that this wasn’t just an ordinary spoken word event.  No, in fact the event turned out to be akin to a workshop, as perfume samples were passed around the audience and people were encouraged to describe the smells.

Odette gives us the background

Odette was on hosting duties first and set out the background to the night – samples of perfume had been sent out to various poets to create works based on that scent.  She explained that the poets had been given a pretty much free range on how to develop their poems, and that came through in the different forms that the poems on the night took.

The format for the night was first half, poems based on perfumes, second half, scents based on poetry and then a haiku competition to win a bottle of perfume.  Interactivity and feedback were also to be key with question and answer sessions with the poets after their performances.

First Half – Poetry from Perfume

Claire introduced the poets in the first half with some humorous introductions and good patter.

  • The first poet of the night was James Webster, with a poem called “Flatpack Lover” based on the perfume Reverie au Jardin by Andy Tauer. It was a tale of creating a wooden man with the “still pulsing root of a sandal wood tree” and eventually a sentient army that led itself to emancipation.  He made full use of the depths of the perfume, mint and wood and flowers, resulting in a poem with a good mix of humour, politics and philosophy and excellent delivery. James’ poem was also the only one of the evening (by someone present) not to use the perfume as a leaping off point for reminiscence and so as the night went on his piece became all the more unique.
  • Next up was Valerie Laws. Her perfume was Smell of Weather Turning and is by Gorilla perfumes, who  supply Lush. The scents in the perfume to her suggested the colours green, white and violet (which were the colours of the suffragette movement) and memories of her childhood and grandmother. This inspired her poem: “Scent for a Suffragette”.
  • It had a structure to it that accented synesthesia throughout with repeated accent on the three colours and was a good example of the nature of this evening with smells translated to word.

After the first two poets with their “classic” pieces, we had the three new poems created especially for the Oxford event and it was revealed that they had all been secretly sent the same perfume (Hasu no Hana by Grosssmith).

  • First up, Lucy Ayrton with an untitled piece about memories of childhood, her mother and feelings of ‘having to be a grown up’.  A very sweet poem, well delivered and with lovely phrasing “slicked lipstick” and her mother’s make up not being “war paint” but rather “watercolour”.
  • Next, Dan Holloway who added another stimulus to the night by passing around photos of a street in Gdansk lit by cabinets full of amber.  I particularly liked Dan’s performance here:  rhythmic and subdued, he excellently reflected the themes of the piece – time, our connection to the past and repetition.  I would like to read through this piece as it sounded like it had a lot of depth to it.
  • The final poet in this half was Eloise Stonborough who had also been inspired to think of her mother by this perfume….but in a very different light to Lucy’s piece.  Eloise’s “All things nice” was an exploration of gender and how we know ourselves (in a more formal poetic style than the previous poets). There were parts of the poem that were almost post-apocalyptic in their imagery and this sense of loss was maximised in the final line which shall stick in my mind for a while – how the inside of her mouth is “still as pink as the girl my mother mourns”.

Odette then asked the three poets what they thought of each others pieces, and  I thought this was a bit awkward for the poets as they didn’t really seem very comfortable trying to read into each others’ pieces.  However, they all seemed more comfortable when talking about their own pieces and it was good to get an insight into their thought processes, the development of the poems and how they’d used the perfume.

  • The final fragrance of the first half was one created by perfumer Kate Williams in collaboration with Lindsey Holland, and her poem based on the scent was well read by Claire Trévien.  It was with some trepidation that I took a sniff of this perfume after Odette said that it wasn’t for sale….for a reason!  Actually, it wasn’t that bad, I thought it was sweet and sherbety.  Lindsay’s poem “Plantation” was a verbal recreation of a fairground on the frozen river where “wine and cider make petals on the ice”.  As it turns out, the perfume was apparently created to smell like the indolence of pre-raphaelite women surrounded by sweets but never happy.

Second Half – Perfume from Poetry

  • After the break we were told we’d get some very unusual fragrances and the first one certainly split opinions – I thought it was quite pleasant, with a smell something like new shoes or an unused sponge but others visibly recoiled from it.  The perfume was created based on a poem by John Clegg, called “Mermaids”.  I enjoyed this poem and the way it explored the crossover between taste and smell with mermaids “singing to each other in pheremones”.
  • Valerie was called to the stage again to introduce a perfume based on her “Remembering Love”, which had some lovely images of summer rain and the earth drinking its full, but I was distracted by smelling the scent and trying to figure it out – at times on this night there was a bit of sensory overload. 
  • The perfume: imagine vicks rub mixed with rosemary.  Valerie told us that the scent was designed to invoke memories of love, but it mainly invoked memories of having a blocked nose for me, but I suppose perfumery isn’t an exact science. 
  • The penultimate fragrance, created in response to a poem by Claire Trévien by Shropshire based perfumer called Chris Bartlett.  Claire admitted to trying to manipulate the outcome by giving him a poem that mentioned her favourite smell -leather.   The poem itself, “Listening to Charles Ives” was a self-described breakup poem, which I thought was great.  With a nod to pathetic fallacy, the poem talked of a crowd gathering and storming and delicately dealt with a relationship that was going nowhere that had ‘the promise of a tomorrow’.
  • And now it was the time we’d all been waiting for – John the Perfumer was to create some kind of scent live tonight based on a poem by Lucy Ayrton, which he’d been sent in advance.
  • But first, the aforementioned “cheesy moment”.  John split us in two groups, gave us both the same scent (but with a different description) and instructed us to rate how pleasant it smelt. It was like someone had eaten a whole parmesan and vomited it back up.  Bleuch.  Sadly, this smell lingered throughout the rest of the night and I had to forage for discarded scent sticks from earlier in the night to rescue my poor nose.
  • He then passed round a much more pleasant scent and there was much discussion among the audience about what it was – nutella or caramel.  It turned out to be prunes.
  • After this perfuming interlude we were back to the poetry with Lucy Ayrton performing “Bonfire Juice” – a lovely rendering of a happy summer that has been discussed before on Sabotage.
  • John Stephens, the Perfumer, discussed his choice of scent based on the smell and I must admit being slightly disappointed. We had been told that John would create something live onstage for the poem, but he just chose an extract that he felt matched it.  Admittedly, the choice mate (used as a tea itself in South America) was excellent – the woodiness really evoked the images in Lucy’s poem and he also passed around a “phonolic odour” that really did smell like the lapsang souchong mentioned in Bonfire Juice.  I combined the two smells to make something I thought was very pleasant!

The Haiku Challenge

The audience was given one last perfume to smell and then 2 minutes to devise a haiku based on it.  Some of the haiku were excellent and came from such different places and with great stories.  While I couldn’t quite hear them all, I did hear the winning poem as…. it was by me!  Which was a nice surprise and definitely not a bribe.

Overall, it was a very interesting event, very different from your average poetry night.  I really did enjoy the interaction between the audience, poets and hosts.

Review: Sage & Time’s 2nd Birthday 18/07/12

In Performance Poetry, Seasonal/End of year on February 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

– reviewed by James Webster, Dana Bubulj and Koel Mukherjee –


The Birthday Boy, um, Girl, um, Evening.

Regular readers will know I’ve hardly been restrained in my love of Sage & Time. The brainchild of Anna Le and home of the Dirty Hands collective, it has been a welcome mainstay of my spoken word experience and that’s why it was so lovely to attend its 2nd birthday party back in July. The evening had an uplifting celebratory feel that was reinforced by the various poems from both the regular and newer performers and it was all totally lovely.

No party’s complete without an excellent host …

The evening was hosted by the confident and fiercely warm Kat Francois, who was always quick to quip and jest with the audience. She focused us into rapt silence before the performances, and provoked rapturous applause after them; you can really see how her experience as a stand-up comic has honed her crowd-handling skills. Francois kicked things off with a machine-gun rata-tat of words explaining why she performs. It was a storm of a poem, stressing the importance of poetry, claiming her place on the stage and asserting her ownership of words. And ‘I Love Being a Woman’ was amazing fun, full of sing-song joy, sensual language, silly orgasm noises, and a perceptive take on the give-and-take of relationships (though it was a bit odd that a poem with that title was all about her relationship with a man). Top stuff.

The party’s welcome guests – highlights of the Open Mic

  • Mark ‘Mr T’ Thompson, S&T regular, kicked off the open mic with a quick and powerful flash of a poem on Usain Bolt, before giving us an incredibly sweet take on his youthful gawkish self’s inability to dance.
  • Elaine O’Neil then showed off her way with words with ‘Light Rail’. I really enjoyed how she penciled in the potential of the places railways can take you to, and she took us on a witty and intelligent journey from hope to capitalism.
  • The Wizard of Skill gave his usual madcap performance, full of amusing repetition and imaginative phrasing. Though, some might say that the repetition and disparate references that characterise his offbeat style sacrifices structure and progression.
  • Jazz Man John’s ‘Advice to Young Poets’ was a short piece on classic poets that was nicely witty (if a bit off-kilter).
  • Anna Em’s ‘Chain Letter’ was impressively haunting, had some good natural and supernatural imagery and some killer lines like “he counts his lost days on a calendar of broken dreams”.
  • Errol McGlashen’s ‘One Drop’ (inspired by Stephen Lawrence) was full of powerful rhythm, ranging across civil rights history to a brutal depiction of Lawrence’s death. It was powerful and chilling (and occasionally very funny).
  • Jill Abram performed ‘I have Forgotten my Father’, an endearingly nostalgic piece that was full of touchingly tiny remembered details that captured the miracle-magic that parents can make for their children.
  • Achilles read ‘My Finger’, an amusing take on technology making fingers obsolete that elicited ripples of laughter from the audience.
  • Richard Watkins had some wonderfully tinkly sing-song language in his piece that was a celebration of the mineral world and send-up of the material world. The point was a bit hackneyed, but it worked.
  • Tim Wells gave two poems, the first a witty ‘love poem to anger’, while the second was dedicated to girls his daughter’s age who date hipsters with “tight trousers, a weak moustache and pox” and was super-bleak, but much fun.
  • Koel Mukherjee’s ‘Love Poem to the Universe’ was a stunning mix of pure beauty and ultimate whimsy. Having started performing at S&T only recently, she had clearly grown massively in confidence to reinforce her heady talent with words.
  • Edward Unique’s piece ‘The Rainforests’ came together really well, mixing images together into a cohesive whole he sometimes struggles to achieve with his plurality of ideas.

The guests of honour – Features

  • Anna Le performed two pieces herself, the first ‘What is it?’ was an evocative and endearing description of walking into an open mic for the first time and segueing on to sum up some of the lovely things about Sage & Time (“S&T loves the jokes, but doesn’t need the happy every after”). And her ‘All the While’ was especially heartfelt on the night, its verse reaching out to you, the cadences rising and dropping just as you think it’s going to peak.
  • Lettie McKie: Lettie’s first poem was a humorous take on getting groped on the tube, which hilariously summed up a familiar feeling, but didn’t seem to offer any new/interesting perspective. That said, her performance (complete with amped-up middle class voice) was top notch.
  • While her second was a poem of two halves, the first essentially a very well constructed list of minor annoyances and first world problems that combined to blow each other out of all proportion. While the over the top hatred of life was fun, it didn’t really speak to me and felt a bit trite. The second half, however, was a lovely, soft and tender piece on the joy of words, friends and people’s differences and segued charmingly into congratulations for Sage & Time’s 2nd Birthday.
  • Keith Jarrett is a charming performer. Coupling intense and lush poetry with a winning stage presence, he started with an awesome piece made entirely of references to the previous performer’s poems that was a lovely and inclusive way to start his set. He also performed a fun, lyrical and accessible poem that was great on how the young construct their sense of selves and sense of ‘cool’ and also turned into a surprisingly good sing-a-long. It was rich with nostalgia and warmth and it really invited the audience into his reminisces.
  • Amy Acre continued the trend of poems celebrating Sage & Time with an immensely fun rap to introduce herself to the stage. She followed up with ‘Run’, a poem apparently inspired by a woman she met travelling in Nepal. Now … I’m usually wary of this kind of introduction, as far too often it leads solely to a vacuous poem that either reduces the locations talked of to mere exoticism or exposes nothing but the poet’s own privilege. However, this piece was a beautifully simple and incredibly powerful poem on gender disparity and the dangers of tradition for tradition’s sake that actually acknowledged the speaker’s own privilege along the way. Gorgeous stuff.
  • James Webster performed “Flat-Pack Lover”, his contribution to the Penning Perfumes collection of poetry inspired by different scents. The imagery was a rich, sensual, slightly quirky jumble, describing a personified piece of furniture, a warm, inviting, pinewood-and-brass lover. This was followed by a lovely tribute rooted in the there-and-then – “The House of Sage and Time” imagined Sage & Time as a home, the walls made of words that you could spend a hundred years reading, the spice cupboard full of sage, and the doors only open to those with “words in their hearts and fire on their tongues” – an electrifying statement of welcome and intent for anybody who loves poetry.
  • Peter Hayhoe … how do I even describe the ridiculous genius of his poem? He performed a poem that was pretty much his entire life in poetry form (all the way up to that very moment) and it was spellbinding. It was filled with geeky nostalgia, teenage doubts and plenty of jokes; a disarmingly honest and adorable performance.
  • Maddy Carty finished the night off with an ice-cool set of songs that we both perceptive and entertaining; a real treat for the ears.

Overall this was a warm embrace of an event. An inclusive welcome for the new, a celebration for the regulars, and a damn good party for all involved. While there were some poets I enjoyed more than others, the joy of Sage & Time is how inclusive and supportive it is of everyone and that tells in the ever-improving and enjoyable poetry its regulars perform. And this was such a fun night I’m already excited about the 3rd birthday!

Oxford Poetry XIV.2 (Winter 2012)

In Magazine on February 13, 2013 at 12:46 am

photo (19)

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

It’s a compliment to say that Oxford Poetry, one of the oldest poetry magazines of its kind (113 years old to be precise), does not look its age. The cover may be quietly unassuming, in a vintage picnic basket kind of way, but the list of contributors reads like a who’s who of the Next Big Thing (with some exceptions, such as Fiona Sampson who, we can agree, is no longer emerging). Just like a previous generation of poets centred around the workshops of Michael Donaghy, many of these are regulars at Roddy Lumsden’s Poetry School workshop.

This leads naturally to another compliment, that in spite of there being a sense that this grouping of poets are all part of the same ‘pack’, there is no uniformity of voice. No one could accuse Sophie Mayer and Matthew Hollis’ poems of being too similar in tone, form, or subject. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, reflecting the tastes of editors Lavinia Singer and Aime Williams, for storytelling and still lives. Still lives here is meant as freeze-framing of a particular time, as epitomized by Daniel W.K. Lee’s ‘The Way we Wore Young’ whose snapshot of 1995 America erects cultural and time barriers, pelting information like a Windows screensaver from which a killer last line emerges. On the storytelling side, Emily Hasler’s poem ‘What Gretel Knows’ is a stand-out, a delightfully dark take on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, set out in long barbed lines:

‘Gretel knows, put a girl in water and she’ll drown; boil it;
and she’ll cook. Gretel knows there’s no salvation; only storage,’

Each line powers forward scattering on the way clashing registers: part dark incantation, part childish glee, part sweary delicious humour. It’s an exhilarating trip, relying on our pre-knowledge of the tale to transform it into a larger meditation on these archetypal characters all ‘obsessed with our stomachs’.

Not all poems are exceptional, a number try to deal with historical or fictitious events but struggle to bring added interest to the table. For instance, Ben Parker and Alex Niven’s reports from unknown places feel insubstantial, though the latter has turns of phrase that add colour to the depictions: ‘Warriors were / expunged from the phonebook’ and ‘Friends withered and sank’, he writes. Parker’s ‘From the Histories I’ would have perhaps benefited from being partnered with his more intriguing poem ‘From the Histories II’ (also from his pamphlet, reviewed here by James Webster), which reveals the limitations of Oxford Poetry‘s current one poem format. As a standalone, however, there is little of interest in the language though the premise shows promise:

‘Conflicting reports were delivered daily
from the city of high walls and no gates.
The crops were flourishing even
as the wells came up dry.’

Also disappointing is Fiona Sampson’s ‘The Night-Drive’, a poem which doesn’t add anything to its title save for the blossom which hangs ‘hallucinatory / in darkness, beside the road’. Perhaps most frustrating with these poems is that there is no active ‘flaw’ within them, but they are unsatisfyingly straightforward descriptive poems lacking in intent or purpose.

Thankfully, there is no lack of exciting poetry elsewhere in this journal which more than makes up for this. Indeed, there are more standout poems than can fit in this review, such as Sophie Mayer’s intoxicating flight of fancy ‘The Mayer’, or Dai George’s ‘My Peace, the Ornament’, which begins with a delightfully playful description of the invasion of noise into his flat from ‘the witless bus and incontinent van /unloading on the kerb’ before ziplining the reader, along with the narrator ‘to days when childhood’s brain / was a rammed junction.’ Other favourites include a creative translation by Sophie Collins of Astrid Lampe, and Caleb Klaces’ ‘An Agreement’, whose elastic mixture of theatrics, birds and claustrophobia is set playfully on the page making the eyes leap from line to line.

Meanwhile Phillip Crymble shows what it means to take a risk; his poem ‘Brogue’ flirts with disaster with its bordering-on-cliché definitions. Taken individually its sentences feel frustratingly predictable, but they build up into an intriguing exploration of language and identity for today’s third culture kid:

‘All over. Meaning lost or gone. A local idiom that speaks
of disappointment. When asked it’s here I say I’m from.

All over. Meaning don’t belong. An orphan with no mother
tongue. The aspirated consonants of Ulster. Low-mouthed

vowel sounds. A confederacy of opposites.’

Where Crymble plays on simple expressions to create a complex tableau, John Canfield’s ‘Amortisation’ prefers to borrow from the ‘”Jargon Buster’ of a commercial property developer’ to create a humourously obscure take on a relationship:

‘Real trust exempts participants both
from growth and service. The exchange is total
return earned over a specific period
and often expressed at the beginning of the year.
Turnover. Yield.’

By turns conservative and experimental, modern and old-fashioned, this issue of Oxford Poetry is designed to please everyone, which won’t be to the taste of everyone, but who are we to point fingers at an institution for having democratic tastes?