Any Resemblance To Actual Persons, Living or Dead…

As a teenager, I used to daydream that one day someone would write a poem about me. This was around the time I got into schmaltzy love songs and Mills and Boon novels. When it actually happened, however, it turned out to be less romantic than I thought.

In the mid-90s, I spent four years teaching at a Polish university, mostly acting as a glorified language assistant, but I did do a little bit of academic teaching, as well. This was a long, long time before I started writing poetry, but some of my colleagues (both Polish and foreign) were published poets. Colleagues who were permanent staff and were studying for, or had completed, a PhD had a tendency to treat those of us who were there on a temporary basis, helping out the students with their English, as if we were a bit thick, especially if we were women. In fairness, many of us didn’t behave like we were proper lecturers, spending more time going drinking with the students than having serious academic discussions with our colleagues, but their patronising dismissal of us still grated and to an extent it became a vicious circle – the more they treated us like airheads and left us out of serious conversations, the more we found other, nonacademic things to do with our time. As a result, they didn’t get to know us very well.

One day, after some kind of conference or event (I don’t even remember what it was), I shared a taxi home with two of the non-Polish academic staff. I asked one of them, who, incidentally, was an up-and-coming poet, if he would mind giving my address to the driver, as “they never understand it when I say it.” The reason for this is that I have problems saying the letter ‘r’, even in English, and Polish is a rhotic language (the kind of language where everyone pronounces their ‘r’s like it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day). This wasn’t usually a problem when I was speaking Polish, as it would normally be clear from the surrounding dialogue which word I was trying to say, but it was a problem in very short exchanges, like saying my address (ulica Czarnieckiego), when there was no context to help. I suppose a rough equivalent in English would be if somebody lived in Charity Street, but pronounced it Chatty Street. He agreed to do this willingly enough, the tax driver dropped me off at my home and I thought no more about it.

Some months later, the colleague with whom I’d shared a taxi published a poem in English about Anglophone people with a superior, colonial attitude who go abroad and make no attempt to integrate. It contained one very cutting line about a woman who “has lived in Poland for three years and still can’t say the name of the street where she lives.” The minute I saw it, I knew he was referring to me and felt angry, hurt and humiliated. Above all, I was struck by the unfairness of it – this man who was making broad, derogatory statements about me didn’t know me, had never made any effort to get to know me. If he had, he would have known that my Polish, while not brilliant and probably far less good than it should have been considering how long I’d lived in Poland, was really not that bad – I could read books and newspapers, I could have extended conversations and I continually worked at improving my grasp of the language. I really wasn’t the lazy, complacent ignoramus he’d painted me as and I had many foreign colleagues who had been there the same amount of time of me or longer whose Polish was far worse. Why had he singled me out?

Every time I saw him after that, no matter how civil he was to my face, I knew that underneath the affable exterior he hated me and was sneering at me in contempt. A little while after this, I was interviewed on local TV about a drama project I was doing with the students. By this point, I was so obsessed with vindicating myself, that all I could think about while the interview was going on was, “I hope and pray Colleague X is watching this. This is proof I speak Polish adequately!”

Looking back on this more than twenty years later, as a poet myself, I realise it probably wasn’t the targetted personal attack on me that I perceived it as at the time. In my head, the whole poem had been about me and how much he hated me, as an individual, but now I realise that he probably picked on me, not because he thought I was uniquely awful or even the most egregious example in his circle, but because that particular instance was a powerful and economical way of illustrating a general point he wanted to make about foreigners in Poland not integrating. What mattered was that it gave a fair and accurate impression of how too many foreigners behave, not whether it gave a fair and accurate impression of me.

It does make me wonder about the ethics of writing poetry about actual people, though. In particular, I have been criticised for my unrequited love poetry in the light of the #MeToo movement. Isn’t it creepy, stalkerish, objectifying, inappropriate, an invasion of their privacy to write intimate poems about people who’ve made it clear they don’t want to be in a relationship with you?, I’ve been asked. That’s a hard question to answer and I’m not sure how you balance the rights of people who are long-term single to express their feelings and sexuality and the rights of the objects of their affection to not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. I try to avoid publishing unrequited love poems that include details which would allow a third party to identify who it’s about, but I have published poems where the object would probably be able to identify themselves if they ever read it. Is this harassment, as continuing to send love letters to someone who’d rebuffed you would be? Is it better or worse that you’re publishing them for multiple strangers to read, not sending them to their house? Is writing poems about intimate moments you shared with an ex and putting them in the public domain dangerously close to revenge porn? Is it OK to publish a love poem about anyone without their written permission? And should the book be pulped if they ever change their mind? Where do you draw the line?

It’s not just romantic poetry, though. Any poem about a living person has the possibility to cause offence. My colleague’s poem upset me at the time for at least three reasons: (1) he’d stolen something I said or did without asking me, (2) he’d taken it out of context and used it to suggest something about me that was not true (3) he had not given me any opportunity to challenge his account or defend myself. But as a poet myself, I know that (1) he was writing about a conversation he was part of, too. Is it appropriating someone else’s experience to write about your own experience of, and feelings about, things they said or did? (2) Poetry is, by its very nature, crafted and edited, not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I have written “true” poems which have taken events that actually occurred several years apart and made them happen in the same week and written love poems that have conflated relationships with two entirely different people. (3) The nature of most published work is monologic, not dialogic. That’s just the way it is. It’s supposed to be a subjective, filtered account, not a police witness statement.

You’re probably safe writing about the dead – I’m publishing poetry about my parents now that I wouldn’t even have written in a private diary when they were still alive – but I live in fear of ending up on non-speakers with many other friends, acquaintances and family members if they ever realise I’ve put them in a poem. Other times, I’ve binned a really good poem because I just didn’t want to risk the upset it might cause.

It is almost impossible to write good poetry without hurting people’s feelings, appropriating their experience without permission, giving a very subjective, one-sided account of events without giving them a chance to put their side, and/or distorting or changing their words and actions or ripping them out of context because it makes a better story or more clearly makes the point you are trying to make. The only way you can avoid the possibility of offence is by sticking to writing poems about bluebells.

Ultimately, I think the onus is on readers/audiences to be aware that any poem, even one where the poet has been at pains to document the truth as far as they can, is a selective account, filtered through the poet’s subjectivity, and that poetic truth is not the same as truth truth. And it’s probably not personal. At least, in this case, I hope it wasn’t. But if it was, it’s just occurred to me that I have unintentionally just got my revenge, as I’ve just done the same thing to him in this blogpost as he did to me in the poem.



Womad 2018 – Final Reflections

Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to digest it all, I just wanted to do a final blog on my Womad experience, charting my overall reflections.

More than anything, I want to thank Liv Torc for giving me this unique opportunity for a second year running, to reach an entirely new audience, to sell a few books and to get a plum thing to put on my cv. As a grassroots poet, on the periphery of spoken word and who is unlikely ever to be booked for a national tour or signed by Faber, I took a childish pleasure in feeling like a rock star every time I had to flash my “Backstage Access” wristband at the security guards. But what I treasure far more than that was the chance to meet,  watch and learn from so many different voices across the spectrum of poetry and spoken word.

The variety was huge, spanning literary heavyweights like Kei Miller, stunning allrounders who can straddle spoken word and page poetry, like Joelle Taylor and Anthony Anaxagorou, household names like Radio 4 whimsical wordsmith Matt Harvey and tartan legend Elvis McGonagall, those whose spoken word flirts with the boundaries between poetry and other art forms, such as Dizraeli, whose set blurred acoustic Anglo-African folk, hiphop, poetry and talk, and Pete the Temp, whose creative use of a loop station, banter and singalonga audience participation was part music, part stand-up, part old-fashioned showmanship.

All of the above are titans of the spoken word scene, experienced, world-class performers at the top of their game, but at the heart of the Hip Yak’s programme was something even more important – nurturing new voices, nurturing underrepresented voices and extolling the benefits of poetry and spoken word to personal wellbeing and community cohesion.

One of the most popular Hip Yak events of the weekend was the Sunday slam, which gave absolutely anyone at the festival who signed up, from total beginners to people who had been writing in their bedrooms for years to people who are old hands at open mics, a chance to have their words heard on the WOMAD stage. As all the best slams do, this gave people the chance to showcase poetic forms that meant a lot to them, whether fashionable with the literati or not (there was everything from rap, through traditionally structured rhythm and rhyme to free verse), and to voice thoughts and ideas that were most pressing to them – there was lots of general ideological comment, about Trump and the Tories, about the shameful necessity for foodbanks, about Me, Too, about Rebecca Watts, but also some exceptionally powerful personal testimonies from poets who had important experiences and truths they clearly absolutely needed to share and we all absolutely needed to hear. The slam also featured an extended set from winners of previous slams – the Frome slam, the Wells slam and last year’s WOMAD slam – all of whom gave assured performances which clearly showed why they deserved to be there. Offering slam winners a concrete career opportunity for their CVs is so important, as there needs to be a ladder up from open mic/slam level to professional level that is accessible and understandable if spoken word is to be truly inclusive.

This focus on showcasing and developing emergent artists continued throughout the rest of the programming, with feature sets by up and coming new voices, like Birdspeed, who was a massive hit with the WOMAD audience, truly one of the most popular performers of the weekend, and multislamwinning Shaun Hill, who has made a massive impact on the South West and Midlands scenes over the last year or so.

But the most visible representation of the unique Hip Yak ethos was the deliberate decision to focus Saturday’s programme on the issue of mental health. Most of the artists programmed have been outspoken in their poetry about their own mental health issues and Dizraeli’s blistering set, which received a spontaneous and total standing ovation from the crowd, was firmly centred on the crisis in men’s mental health and the damage that the patriarchal stigmatisation of speaking about your feelings or seeking help has caused men.

If Saturday’s mental health day was at the heart of the Hip Yak’s programming, then the hour-and-a-half segment presented by the Rainbow Fish Speak Easy, a Yeovil spoken word night which has grown out of a project piloted in GPs’ surgeries in Somerset, using spoken word poetry as a therapeutic activity for mental health service users, was at the heart of Saturday. It was led by Jamie, Jon and Julie, three service users who discovered spoken word through the scheme and who have gone on to run the Yeovil night – their own brutally candid, exquisitely crafted, professional standard poetry about their experience of mental illness, delivered with swagger and skill, was interlaced with poems from more established poets on the bill who have also experienced serious mental health problems. This was no sympathy project – all the poets who took the stage had created work which clearly deserved to be there on merit, the quality and power of the poetry was uniform across the board and moved many of the audience to tears – many, many audience members I spoke to said that it was the most powerful, moving and urgent section of this year’s programme.

There is often debate in spoken word circles, and sometimes ugly, damaging debate, about the competing claims of spoken word as an elite career for the brightest and best poets and as a therapeutic and expressive community activity for everyone. The inspired programme at the Hip Yak tent this year demonstrated that it can be both – that all poets , whether professional or amateur, established or emergent, are driven by the same needs to express their most pressing feelings and inner torments and to reach out to others in the community, and that professional standard work and professional careers are born out of people from the grassroots being given the confidence to just get up there and have a go with the knowledge they will be listened to.

Finally, on a personal note, I saw and heard so much that has inspired me and changed the way I think about spoken word. And, of course, WOMAD isn’t just a poetry festival – there’s a little bit of music, too. Talisk, who took to the Charlie Gillett stage on Saturday night determined to have the time of their life, after first taking Scottish folk music hostage and forcefeeding it five Red Bulls, and ended up upstaging whoever was on the main stage, were my personal musical highlight and have now taken up permanent residence in my CD player.

Womad 2018 – Day 3, Part Two

Sunday at the Hip Yak Poetry Shack was so good, it actually required two separate blog posts!

Matt Harvey’s absolutely stunning set, simultaneously accessible, populist, feelgood and deeply intelligent, drew a large, warm, wildly appreciative crowd. He leapt from ingenious kennings for a slug to reconstructing a Wimbledon tennis match entirely through onomatopoeia, from a story about the challenges involved in buying a pair of curtains that speak of (not “say”) who he is to a love story about two shy people who can only express their feelings through spring bulbs. He’s a technical and linguistic virtuoso, but a warm and engaging performer who knows how to draw a crowd of strangers into his world and the audience went wild for him.

Chris Redmond was also a master entertainer who could combine silly singalonga ukulele songs with superb poetic storytelling and really got the crowd into a good place.

Then Thommie Gillow took to the stage, opening with a very funny anti-slam poem about periods that celebrated the female body as well as being gently self-mocking, before moving onto a varied, but enormously courageous and heartbreaking set that opened up the personal pain of repeated miscarriage and the almost unbearable, cautious, superstitiously repressed joy of pregnancy after miscarriage, before finishing on a defiant, bittersweet poem that made comic capital out of the story of a cheating husband, the pain filtered through the metaphor of a shoe.

Pete the Temp then returned for more glorious mayhem, without the loop station or the beatboxing this time, but with a warm and life-affirming set, involving the audience at every turn, whether inciting them to ban everything on the planet to Darth Vadar’s theme or the tune of the US national anthem (I see what he did there) or exhorting the most crushed and broken to “keep it lit” in poetry that revelled in flouting the boundaries with music and comedy. Brazen, bubbly, bonkers and brilliant.

The penultimate poet, Desree, the runner-up in this year’s Hammer and Tongue National Championships showed she was nobody’s second best in a blistering set that took patriarchal colonialist sexist racist stereotypes of black women by the jugular and gave them a good shaking, but also had subtle, tender moments and fabulous use of language.

Closing the day, and the Hip Yak Poetry Shack’s 2018 Womad programme, was worthy headliner and literary legend, Anthony Anaxagorou. One of those tiny band who can move seamlessly between literary page poetry and spoken word, Anthony read one of his linguistically ambitious poems, packed with virtuoso imagery and dazzling word choices, straight out of Poetry Review, but his intense, angry delivery, his hypnotic rhythms, his socially relevant subject matter of institutional racism, the obscene and casual extinguishing of black lives, the stigmatisation and exclusion of immigrants and refugees, spoke directly to and transfixed a non-poetry specialist audience.

An extraordinary spread of poetic styles and subject matter was laid before the Womad audience on Sunday afternoon, from the quietly reflective to the bold and brassy, from life’s most shocking and tender moments to glorious just-for-the-sake-of-it silliness, and the audience lapped it all up and then came back for more. A truly eclectic and brilliant mix that blew people’s hearts right open, satisfied even the most exacting poetry connoisseurs and made dozens of new converts. Liv Torc has excelled herself in selecting and curating  a truly representative cross-section of the best of contemporary British spoken word.

Womad 2018 Day 3 – The Slam

I’m a bit late with this one – soz. But here’s my part one of my Sunday summary. Another day, another astonishingly varied and fabulous programme from the Hip Yak Poetry Shack at Womad and the slam deserves a blogpost of its very own.

There had been heavy rainfall overnight which didn’t let up until early afternoon. In the backstage campsite, most people were snuggling down into their sleeping bags and sealing themselves inside their tents and for once there was absolutely no queue whatsoever for the showers, so I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a good turnout for the legendary Womad Poetry Slam.

But I needn’t have worried – the tent was packed full of ardent poetry enthusiasts by kick-off at noon and their whooping, cheering and shaking of Liv’s homemade maracas soon attracted enough curious bystanders to fill the entire glade.

The quality and variety of the slammers was amazing, from Miss Merkle’s snappy hip-hop, to Audley’s fab literary poem about composting his father, from slam virgin Willow’s powerful political rhymes to third-time Womad slammer Barry’s witty and deft traditional poetry, and the scores for both the first-round heats and the final were agonisingly close.

There were also stunning feature sets from Frome slam winner, Josie Alford, whose candid, brave  poems about her father’s recent death moved the audience to tears, Wells slam winner, Beth Calverley (who also wrote free poems for festivalgoers all weekend, as she does at festivals all over the country, with her formidable Poetry Machine) and last year’s Womad slam winner, Siobhan McMahon, whose mature, assured poetry with its mythical inspiration, feminist themes and down-to-earth humour was pitch-perfect in both writing and delivery and showed why she is a winner in every sense of the word.

The finalists included Ian, whose use of imagery was absolutely stunning, Kieran, a confident and charismatic performer who knows how to structure a narrative and hit the audience in the soft spot, and Sarah, my personal favourite, whose exquisite writing and still, understated delivery proved you don’t have to be shouty-shouty to be slamtastic.

Hip Yak stage manager Amy entered the slam incognito and came joint 3rd with her straight-talking turbo rhymes – her first-round takedown of Rebecca Watts in defence of grassroots, populist, self-expressive poetry of the heart was something the whole tent could get behind and was greeted with loud cheers. Poetry that comes out of and nurtures the community, that inspires everyone to get involved, is what Hip Yak, in general, and the slam, in particular, is all about, so Amy’s poem could have been our theme song.

Anyra (spelling???), the other joint 3rd-placed poet (who I seem to remember also did well in last year’s Womad slam, too) totally wowed the audience with some powerful feminist poetry, powerfully delivered – a real talent who combines a social conscience with massive charisma.

Runner-up Will, who had never entered a slam before, deservedly scored the highest mark of the whole slam with his first-round poem about being an ex-soldier. His savage, angry, intelligent analysis of the way politicians use men like him as cannon fodder, how the public alternatively sentimentalise and ignore them and fail to understand the unhealable trauma that frontline combat causes to the psyche, silenced and transfixed the whole tent and reduced me to tears (which slam poetry never usually does).

But the very worthy winner was Frances Dormand, a witty, saucy, rhymetastic, hugely engaging performer who got the whole tent behind her with her laugh-out-loud funny and linguistically ingenious poem denouncing Donald Trump in numerous entertaining ways. She was sassy, she was assured, she was deliciously rude and she romped home in style to secure a slot at next year’s festival.

The whole slam was a joyous celebration of poetry that makes meaning of real people’s lives, poetry that everybody can get involved in, poetry that helps them to articulate their greatest fears, joys and sorrows.

Womad 2018 Day 2

It was hard to top yesterday’s Hip Yak Shack, but today’s might just have done it.

It kicked off with a stunning shorts section, including guest spots from last night’s headliner Joelle Taylor, Hammer and Tongue national runner-up Desree and Burning Eye’s own Clive Birnie. The overall vibe was serious and intense and the large crowd in the arboretum lapped it up.

Then it was onto Shaun Hill’s set. Shaun is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge on the spoken word scene in the last couple of years and he gave a passionate rendition of his fabulously written poems on mental illness, domestic abuse, LGBT issues and his working class roots.

Host Liv Torc gave a bravura performance of her poems about motherhood – candid, saucy, funny, moving and immensely poetic, whilst carrying the audience along with her rousing, accessible performance.

Then came Beryl the Feral, who delighted the audience with her rhyme and rhythm in her upbeat poems about anxieties, self doubt and modern life.

Dizraeli got an entirely deserved standing ovation for his fusion of spoken word, hiphop and Anglo-African folk music tackling the topics of men’s mental health, homophobia and the refugee crisis head-on. The audience were totally entranced.

The Rainbow Fish Speak Easy, a Somerset mental health collective,  took over the middle part of the afternoon, with the help of Shaun,  Liv,  Beryl, Birdspeed, Josie Alford and the book shack’s resident star, David Oakwood. Plus a very, very special headline slot from Matt Harvey. Jon, Julie, Jamie and friends moved people to tears with their honesty and art.

Pete the Temp ended the afternoon with a wild party atmosphere, using beatboxing, rap, a loop station and child participation to get the crowd dancing to Star Wars and tomatoes. If that sounds mad, it was actually madder.  In a good way.

Womad 2018 Day 1

The line-up for Day One was an impressive one on paper and it did not disappoint. Hosts Liv Torc and Jonny Fluffypunk kicked off with paeans to the family bed and coffee, respectively, both displaying virtuoso linguistic ingenuity and great humour.

The poets that followed were an eclectic bunch. Some were high energy, populist, feelgood poets like Elvis McGonagall,  with his mix of razor sharp standup, excoriating political commentary and witty rhyme, Jackie Juno, who had the whole audience chanting along with her, and Alexander Rhodes, who drew on hiphop rhythms to give us his rapping nan and took us on a Megabus journey.

Some had powerful political messages, like Birdspeed,  whose urgent pieces about intersectional black feminism were delivered with such a charisma and vivaciousness that the whole audience fell in love with her.

Others were more lyrical – both Malaika Kegode and Shaun Hill gave  quieter, thoughtful, assured sets dealing with issues such as young men’s mental health and Black Lives Matter, but were no less powerful, for their more reflective tempo. Both used language stunningly.

Kei Miller’s set combined intelligent, literary content (his first poem riffed wittily on the etymologies of words, dazzling with multilingual puns) with a hypnotic, rhythmic delivery and evocative use of imagery that transported the audience to Jamaica as he explored the obscenity of colonialism.

Joelle Taylor blew everyone’s minds with her storming headline set, exploring her own working class background and experience of child sex abuse in startlingly potent imagery and a performance shaking with passion. The audience were moved to tears and were brought to their feet at the end.

How can tomorrow and Sunday top this?

WOMAD 2018

Just to say I will be blogging and livetweeting the Hip Yak Poetry Shack at WOMAD over the next few days. Last year was a magnificent parade of the finest spoken word in the UK, from the exquisite literary poems of Forward Prize-shortlisted Hannah Lowe to the in-your-face, crowdpleasing boisterousness of comic poetry legends Elvis McGonagall and John Hegley. I am expecting this year to be even better.

There’s going to be young poets like Shaun Hill and Birdspeed who have exploded onto the spoken word scene with a bang in the last couple of years. Come and see what all the fuss is about.

There’s going to be some of the South West’s established favourites, like Bristol’s most mesmerising wordsmith Malaika Kegode, who weaves magic with her voice and her ukulele, Devon’s comic genius Jackie Juno, who will fill Charlton Park with her big, bold, charismatic performances, North Somerset’s Thommie Gillow, whose poems will make you laugh before they break your heart.

There’s going to be a slew of incredible headliners, from the gutpunching Joelle Taylor, whose poems of abuse and trauma will break you, to the genial and genius wit of Matt Harvey, which will charm your socks off, from literary giants Kei Miller and Anthony Anaxagorou to the urban activism of legend Pete The Temp and the boundary-demolishing Dizraeli, whose fusion of poetry, hip hop and acoustic guitar will explore men’s mental health with a candour and vulnerability and power that will move you to tears. And much, much more!