As soon as the sultry tones of our red-lipped MC for the evening hit the mike, I knew we were in for a ride.
Definitely hanging, still, at 8.30pm on a Saturday after getting out of bed, finally, in a coat in August, having battled rain and nausea to get to the yurt in time for my presspass. And failing (an imperative, by now, in our BookFest endeavours. Fear not, there’s still time …) as a journalist to ascertain why anybody was here, who they were, and perhaps most devastatingly failing to engage the very cool girl with blue hair, blue bag and blue cardigan sitting infront of me in conversation … I had resigned myself to the fact that life was shit and I was particularly shit and now I was going to feel shit about failing to enjoy something very beautiful.
Rant over. I was wrong. It turns out there is nothing poetry and a bit of personality can’t fix. Edinburgh Book Festival, I love you. Ladies and gentlemen: my first experience of spoken word.
Becky Fincham (using her “sexy voice”, as she so she enlightened us some five minutes into the performance) introduced our four young ‘poet-artists’ of the evening, hailing from Wales, Nigeria, Belfast and Glasgow – my, my, was it a feast of accents – and dimmed the lights with an equally sexy “oooOOOOOooo” somewhat ruined in effect by audience participation, namely my own. First in line, Rachel McCrum did very well in the sudden gloom at finding the mike, and against an eery glow of the standby’d screen behind her, began to speak in poetry.
Reasons pertaining to quite how I have fumbled my way two years into an English Literature degree without managing to attend a single spoken word performance, poetry slam or, indeed, any literature event in adult memory, completely fail me. I love poetry, I really do. Way to catch a flicker of a feeling, a fleeting-ness of fuzzy, half-formed thoughts suddenly captured by foreign words outside your own head, in a way that sounds rhythmic, intelligent, important, beautiful, concise. Those things that somehow sound crude or corny when said in prose, yet are a shame not to say at all, and have a habit of worming into your head as if these little articulations of pockets of emotion have always been there, and make you feel as if we all think the same thoughts, really, and feel alone sometimes, and hark back to history…
Excuse me, I seem to have lost myself in a badly-written essay … my point is: poetry rules, yo. But while I for one always acknowledged the urge to whisper out loud particularly poignant passages of Maya Angelou or Auden, I never made the link that maybe poetry is always better spoken out loud and – better still – by the very person who wrote it?
Listening to the dulcet, rolling “rrrrr”s of Rhian Edwards as she cooed about a girl called Petra who tipexed her Doc Martens, and a school report divulging the characteristics of the primitive poet, through the little pffs of the microphone like energy boosters booming softly around the room, and with only a silhouette, a dark outlined presence, for visual company, it was truly a magical experience. An ingenious idea by the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
In more intimate moments – Rachel McCrum’s fabulous whisperings of words on a wall (picture this: “The Glassblower Dances”) and Joshua Idehen’s Nigerian father – it was an interesting and somewhat releasing experience to know that, as we the audience members could not see the facial expressions of the poets, neither could anybody see our own. No eye contact, no emotional vulnerability, and the room melted away and only the words remained.
That – and, call me naïve, but dear god, but I never knew poetry could be so funny. With my eyes already more than a little bloodshot, plus my embarrassing penchant for crying with laughter, it was a relief to know that nobody could see that sight for sore eyes. It was in these comedic poems, more than any it seemed, that the craft, the art of performing poetry, may carve an exclusive niche. I can’t go without mentioning William Letford’s raspy Glaswegian burr; it belonged so symbiotically to his imaginatively-named Sex Poem #1.
‘aye right okay right right okay’
The words on the page do not do homage to the hysterics he had his audience in, and I don’t feel equipped to explain why. Just imagine a cool, calm, ‘weegie inflection and trust that it was pure class. However, I must hand my trophy to Josh Idehen, who also happens to be a talented musician (some people have it all) with a few of his own bands, and whose poetry, when he speaks it, shows it.
All the poets had an arch between serious and light-hearted subject matter, yet Josh’s fluctuation between love, loss and Gandalf – I will come back to this, don’t you worry – somehow retained an astounding tour de force of loud, rhythmic vigour, joie de vivre, just, like, amazing energy, you know? The poor couple to my left jumped out of their skins more than once. He was like a high-speed train, his words came out like bullets, and somehow still sounded like poetry. Fireworks at Edinburgh Castle halfway through the performance sounded through the walls of the theatre, but were nothing on him.
And the highlight of my night, when Idehen performed a poem entirely about Gandalf. It was unlike anything I’ve heard before, and I will never watch Lord of the Rings with the same ardent sincerity again, alas, for having envisioned him trying to gain entry to a club, in bed with Legolas, as a naughty school child … I could not even begin to explain. Instead, bear witness to Idehen’s words about a less eccentric topic, and then go to a spoken word performance some time, yeah? Preferably at the Edinburgh Interantional Book Festival. Plugging …
Hannah Oliver is the Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TELEVISION at PTL. She studies English Literature at the University of Edinburgh and would like to think this an apt excuse for her tendency to be overly florid, pleonastic and long-winded (yeah, we couldn’t find a more pretentious word for long-winded). However, there are two things to effectively shut her up – coffee and/or chocolate. ’Nuff said.
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