Mid-Term Report

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, Feburary 2018. It depicts me onstage with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides an excellent view of the scuzzy tissue I have stuffed up my bra strap.

Regular readers may know that, in a rather rock’n’roll fashion, I gave up my day job last July to concentrate on poetry and spoken word. As it transpired, I didn’t give it up quite as much as I thought I had, as a few months later they asked me to come back on a very part-time basis (six and a half hours a week) and I accepted, but at the time it was a total leap of faith and even with the hours I eventually agreed to do it’s been a radical lifestyle shift. So how’s it all panning out?

Well, I’ve learned a lot. Performing more regularly to a wide ranges of audiences has made the sheer diversity of those audiences and their very different needs and expectations much clearer to me. My own performance skills have grown exponentially. I have got much better at asking for things and selling myself. On a more practical level, I have discovered Air B’n’B and Megabus. I have rediscovered backpackers’ hostels after a couple of decades’ hiatus. I have eaten more porridge oats and lentils than I have since I was a student.

Amazingly, I have just about been making it work financially, although not in a way that is sustainable in the long term and I am going to have to either come up with viable alternative income streams within poetry/spoken word very soon or go back to full-time (or near full-time) work.

It’s not all been shiny, fabulous and special. There are days when the months since I returned from Edinburgh appear to have constituted just one long list of crushing disappointments, both personal and professional. There has been no massive career move forward so far and I sometimes feel as though I am going to be stuck at Vaguely Promising Local Amateur Level for the rest of my life. I know I’m an exceptionally good writer and a reasonably good performer, but I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be enough and I sometimes wonder if I simply lack the innate charisma, stage presence and/or the content that resonates with audiences that makes the difference between a competent also-ran and a spoken word star.

There have been other downsides. I used to feel bemused when friends said they set two days of the week aside for admin, but now I understand why – it is so much harder to keep track of what you are supposed to send to whom by when when you are doing two or three gigs a week than it was when I only used to do two or three gigs a year, and I really worry I am going to seriously fuck up one day soon and get blacklisted by promoters . Also, for a mixture of financial reasons and the fact that I am often performing elsewhere, I have missed a lot of my friends’ and colleagues’ gigs locally and I feel less a functional part of my local scene than I have done for years. And it’s been way too easy to procrastinate, without a structured timetable to fill my days, as is testified by the fact that I have now reached Level 24 at Duolingo.

But there have been many, many upsides. I have benefited from amazing support and patronage from my incredible friends and colleagues on the scene and have been offered some wonderful performance opportunities for which I am extremely grateful. There have been a few gigs (e.g. my book launch with Raise The Bar Spotlight in Bath in January, Sharp Teeth in February) where I’ve come offstage feeling like a rock star and it’s felt like my moment has nearly come. The sheer buzz of performing on a weekly basis has been worth it. When people ask me what my job is, I can almost truthfully say, “I’m a performance artist”. My first book has been selling steadily and my second one is coming out soon. And I’m enjoying my day job more than I’ve ever done, now that it’s a manageably small part of my life, not something that is always looming over me.

I remember the first spoken word event I nervously attended just over four years ago, where I felt so cowed by the impossibly trendy, confident and glamorous-looking people around me that I could barely speak, and it didn’t seem possible I would ever be one of their circle – now, when I go to spoken word events, normally an army of people come up and hug me and in the last few weeks I’ve had several delightful, unexpected, friendship-deepening social moments with poets I vaguely know after a gig or slam together.

Earlier this week, as I was enjoying a midweek Megabus ride through the spectacular scenery of the Yorkshire Moors in glorious spring sunshine after a gig I’d hugely enjoyed, and where I’d met some amazing poets, I thought, “This is the life I want to be living.”

 

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A Measure of Success

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol in February 2018. It depicts me, with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides a very good view of the scuzzy tissue I have tucked into my bra strap.

I was an indie-loving teenager in the 1980s, so when I’m feeling down about how I’m doing as a poet/spoken word artist compared to friends and colleagues (in terms of number and prestige of gig bookings, how high I am on the bill, how hard the audience seems to clap, number of slam wins, number of poems published in journals and how high-ranking those journals are, number and kindness of reviews, what people are saying about me on Twitter and Facebook etc) it’s always good to remember that The Smiths never had a top 5 single in the UK, whereas Black Lace, Joe Dolce, The Goombay Dance Band…. In fact, most of my favourite records of all time (Secrets of the Beehive by David Sylvian, World Shut Your Mouth by Julian Cope, pretty much everything Furniture ever released apart from “Brilliant Mind”) were considered critical and commercial failures in their year of release. Popularity is not a measure of quality.

Well, it is a bit, obviously. To consistently get good feedback from audiences and/or experts in your field, you have to be doing something right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of grumping that it’s “unfair” that so-and-so is getting so much attention when “their work isn’t good enough to deserve it”, but if you think that, there is almost always something about their work that you’re missing.

But the spotlight of attention can be arbitrary and I know good, even exceptional, poets who have been plodding on for years just below the radar and never get the amount of attention their work deserves, in some cases because they are too self-deprecating, in some cases because their work, though exquisite, is niche and will only ever appeal to a narrow audience (or because they’re simply putting it in front of the wrong audience – I know other poets whose careers took off when they started going to open mics just a few miles down the road), in some cases, just because….who knows? I’m hopeful that in thirty years’ time it’s their work that will be remembered.

But let’s try to give everyone we know in that position more love now, yeah? Because I’ve never met a poet who didn’t need more self-validation.

I don’t mean to be funny, but…

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018

People who’ve read my book or seen me live will know I am fairly eclectic in my approach to poetry. I slalom between funny and serious, between populist and literary, between cerebral and instinctive. This is a reflection of my taste – I read/listen to and enjoy everything from Pam Ayres to T.S. Eliot, so I’m honestly not just an inauthentic weather vane who cynically changes my style to fit the whims of fashion. I write and perform in lots of different styles because I simply can’t choose. And sometimes it’s even less conscious than that – on numerous occasions I have written what I think is a dead serious poem and have been surprised to find that the audience found it hilarious.

There are distinct advantages to being versatile:

1. Variety is pleasing to the ear. I find it very annoying when I watch a twenty-minute set (let alone a one-hour show) and it feels like you’re just hearing the same poem over and over again, because everything the poet writes is so similar in style, subject matter and delivery. I’m hoping that the eclecticism of my style is always going to save me from the worst of that fault (although I imagine I am still frequently guilty of one of my own bete noires – continually falling into the same vocal rhythms, e.g. I’m going to start. By leaving gaps. Between my words. So you think. I’m saying something. Profound.)

2. In a live set or show, it gives me another tool to work the audience. People often approvingly say that my show or set has taken them on an emotional rollercoaster. I quite like starting with light comedy and then without warning switching to a serious poem on a hardhitting topic. I like watching the audience’s faces as they switch from laughing to laughing more nervously as they start to feel a bit wrongfooted and don’t know whether they’re reacting appropriately, to looking deeply uncomfortable and eventually (if all goes well) shocked and moved. I think there’s far too much complacency, far too much virtue-signalling and voyeurism on the part of both audience and performer in spoken word. I hate seeing people settle down to *enjoy* a poem about social injustice or sexual abuse and when you’re dealing with topics like this, it’s often more appropriate, more respectful to the subject matter, to take a risk yourself and to make the audience uncomfortable and appalled.

3. In theory, at least, having a diverse range of material should increase the number and range of bookings I get and, to an extent, it does: I have bookings coming up from rural comedy nights, edgy metropolitan spoken word nights and literary page poetry events. To an extent, I do try to tailor my set to fit the audience and can make my set more or less populist, more or less comic, more or less intellectual to fit the occasion, if asked, which is an option that poets who only do one style don’t have.

4. In a slam context, where judges will often give you extra credit for the range of your skills and it’s good to have an impressive party trick to roll out as your showstopper, having a suite of poems that demonstrates your versatility can sometimes give you the edge. And even if the judges aren’t impressed by versatility, you at least have the option of adapting your choice to suit their taste if it becomes clear that they hate comic poetry or find serious poetry too depressing/edgy, while in those circumstances poets who are purely comic or purely serious or purely populist or purely literary have no option but to do the poems they have prepared and tank.

But there can be disadvantages, too:

I sometimes feel I’m never going to be anybody’s favourite. People who like comic poetry may like my stuff, but they’re always going to like poets who do only comic even more. Meanwhile, people who like edgy, depressing poetry about pressing social issues might enjoy my poems on those subjects, but are always going to favor poets who don’t cut them with rhymey-rhymey poems about my shit lovelife and whimsical tongue twister or pun poems.

Sometimes my “emotional rollercoaster” doesn’t impress them – it just leaves them feeling confused and/or shortchanged.

Sometimes I miscalculate and do the wrong poems for the wrong audience. There’s nothing more depressing than launching into a 4-minute comic poem and realising 20 seconds in that the audience isn’t getting any of the references and you’re not going to get any laughs at all, but it’s too late to stop and you’re going to spend the next 3 minutes 40 seconds dying on your feet, leaving you with an uphill climb to rewin the crowd’s respect in the poems that follow (or, if it’s a slam, bomb out with a shit score). Poets without my range are less likely to disappoint in this way, because they’d never have got the booking in the first place.

Sometimes promoters misunderstand me and what I’m about. There have been a few times when I’ve gone to a gig with a set of mainly serious, literary poems prepared and then the host has introduced me as “The hilarious Melanie Branton, who will leave you aching with laughter” and I’ve had to hurriedly change my set plan. Other times I’ve been sneered at or passed over by chin-stroking “literary” promoters who I suspect have written me off as an unsophisticated grassroots doggerel manufacturer, while they’ve booked artists who actually don’t have as impressive a track record as me in serious page poetry. This matters to me because I am a diva and an egomaniac with an emotional age of about eight and I fucking hate being underrated and looked down on. Although it’s probably often my fault for sending them the wrong sample material. And, in any case, if they’re going to be that snobbish about the other kind of poetry I do, perhaps I wouldn’t want to be booked by them, anyway.

Material Girl

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, February 2018

New material is a bugger. First, you’ve got to memorise it (and, having just gone through the menopause, I swear my memory is about 60% of what it was a year or two back) and then there’s always the dreaded possibility that, after you’ve gone to all that effort, it will go down like a lead balloon with audiences and you’ll have to scrap it. Lurking beyond those reservations is the deep, primeval angst that probably all spoken word performers have – what if nothing else I write ever goes down as well as my old material? What if the success I’ve had so far is a fluke and it’s downhill from now on? What if everything new I try from now on nosedives and it turns out I’m as rubbish at spoken word as I am at everything else? It’s not surprising that many spoken word performers cling on to old material for far too long.

I’ve had two other reasons for endlessly rehashing the old this past year: I have been touring a show and I have had a book to promote, so I’ve had to keep doing a fair amount of the material that’s in the show and/or the book when I’m booked for a 15-30 minute set, which has left me limited time for trying out new stuff. In fact, if I had to give one piece of advice to a poet about to be published for the first time, it would be, “Make sure you really like what’s in the book, because you’re going to be stuck with it for a very long time.”

This is advice I’m trying to heed myself at the moment, as I’m trying to put the final edits to my second collection, one with a more performance emphasis than my last. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, especially at this stage in the process: I’m now at the stage where I read it one day and think it’s going to be the BEST COLLECTION EVER PUBLISHED, and the next day I look at it and it all seems appallingly, embarrassingly bad, and there’s no days in between those two extremes. Logically, I know some of it must be sound (several of the poems are already successful parts of my live set, others have been published by reputable journals), but testing the untried bits of it out onstage is still very daunting. What if it just doesn’t work?

Most of my most successful poems died on their first outing. Some also died on their second, third, fourth and fifth outings and I was on the verge of ditching them when suddenly they clicked with an audience. Sometimes it’s just a case of finding the right audience for them (a poem that references Duran Duran or The Six Million Dollar Man is going to sail right over the heads of the under-50s, no matter how good it is; a parody of slam poetry is going to mean nothing to people who’ve never been to a slam; a rollicking, rhymey-rhymey Pam Ayres-style comedyfest is going to leave lovers of serious art poetry stony-faced). More often, it’s a case of getting to the stage where I feel entirely comfortable with the poem, and I can only make a certain proportion of that journey rehearsing in my bedroom in front of a mirror or down the phone to a friend – I need to be able to discover where the audience is likely to laugh, where they are likely to be surprised or shocked, how they will react if I suddenly drop my voice to a whisper on this line or speed up on that line or pause here or gesture there, how the reaction changes depending on where I place the poem in a set and what other poems it is juxtaposed with, and I can only find that out by repeatedly testing on an actual audience. And that means booking slots at open mics and going for it or throwing a couple of new poems in the middle of a tried-and-tested set, hoping I don’t make a tit of myself.

Last night I tried a poem that wasn’t ready at an open mic and I dried horribly. This was partly because I hadn’t memorised it as well as I thought I had, but not entirely, as I even stumbled on the bits I knew really well – nerves, tiredness, alcohol and the audience not reacting quite as I had expected all combined to throw me off my stride. I feel embarrassed, enormously apologetic to the promoter for wasting one of their slots and wish it had gone less shambolically, or that I had at least had the foresight to take a paper copy onstage with me as a back up (especially as there were a fair number in the audience who had never seen me before and who probably now think I am always that crap), but what would have been worse is if I had never tried it. Because I don’t want to spend the next ten years performing the same five poems in rotation, because I’m too scared to risk something new.

 

What I’m Reading At The Moment 3

Header photograph above by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol

Weston-super-Mare Library has an excellent selection of modern poetry books. I want people to know this, as I am scared that (as with so many other government-funded services) if people don’t appear to be using it, it will give them an excuse to axe it. It’s hard to find – it’s tucked away in a far corner, in the ‘Youth’ section of the library, so you feel a bit like a paedophile when you browse, as you’re hovering next to a bunch of teenagers doing their homework – but it is very comprehensive, seems to be constantly updated, and includes work by contemporary poets including Philip Gross, Selima Hill, Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Alice Oswald, Jacob Polley, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few.

People often mouth off about poetry in general, and page poetry in particular, being “exclusive” and “elitist”, but financial barriers to reading quality modern poetry are few: there are many high quality free online journals and most of the paid journals have sample poems that can be accessed free on their websites; I have blogged before about the Poetry Library’s online database of poetry magazines; and then there is a poetry section in most local libraries, where libraries still exist, even though most of them may not be as good as Weston’s.

Yes, I accept that there are considerable cultural barriers to people from working-class and some minority ethnic backgrounds accessing poetry, and that the current school curriculum seems to have been designed with the express purpose of convincing droves of young people that poetry is boring, not for them, and that they won’t be any good at it. I also accept that there are some financial barriers to those aspiring to write to a professional standard – when I first started submitting to journals, my parents had just died, I had just taken a ten-year career break to care for them and after dozens of rejected job applications I feared I was completely unemployable, I didn’t have a pot to piss in and I was living almost entirely on porridge oats and lentils to save money and someone advised me, “I think your next step is to take an Arvon course” and I nearly hit them. Yes, I know Arvon do offer bursaries, but the competition is fierce.  And speaking of competitions, competition fees can add up and you do wonder if people who can afford to attend readings  and network with other poets are at an advantage.

But you can read a shitload of contemporary poetry and submit to a huge number of journals for free – compared with, say, music or sculpture, it’s a very cheap art form to enjoy and participate in. That stereotype of poets starving in a garret – the reason why we have that is you can still write poetry, even if you’re starving in a garret. It does not require expensive kit.

One of the poetry books I’ve been enjoying from Weston Library this week is Hard Water by Jean Sprackland (2003). Sprackland’s poetry is fabulous – Northern, conversational, grimly amusing, unpretentious, but also thematically and lexically ambitious, with dazzling use of imagery and staggeringly powerful exploitation of ambiguity.

Some of these poems are (presumably autobiographical)coming-of-age poems, capturing the part-tentative, part-swaggering nature of nascent female sexuality, such as ‘Shock’, where “Remember those thrills, the charge/ that went cracking through you?” alludes literally to the electric fence that her childhood friend dared her to touch, the homoerotic excitement of the dangerous friendship and the thrill of testing boundaries and finding your own way in the world, beyond adult rules. ‘Shadow Photograph’ captures the conflicting arousal and awkwardness of an early sexual encounter with a boy, “the first to try to define me with his tongue” (ooh! The double meaning there!) , “who was not the one, it was all wrong”, torn between the impulse to “kick the door open/scramble out into the sunlight” and to give in to bodily need, “suddenly loosed into stillness/by that silvery flickering”. Others convey mature sexuality and motherhood.

Other aspects of female experience are explored in the second or third person. The boy jealously throwing his sister’s doll, with its “dangerous legs”, out of the window in ‘Barbie On The Roof’ is both acutely-observed realism and an apt symbol of how patriarchy acts to subdue women, the girl “stretching till her fingers ached” to get back what she wants, before eventually accepting confinement and defeat: “The girl grooms plastic ponies/and keeps the window shut.” In ‘The Hairdresser’s Across the Street’, the familiar realism of a hair salon becomes a symbolic site where women play a part that’s expected of them and where an older woman is left in discomfort with wet hair while the male stylist attends to something more important, a potent metaphor for ageing:

Do you know how it feels
to be left like that, the water running off your hair?
You don’t like to sit up and call for service.
A few bubbles fizz close to your ear.
You start to shiver. The muscles are tight
in the back of your neck.

But then there are imagined narratives, sometimes touching on magic realism, such as ‘Losing The Dark’, where Sprackland conjures the delight-turned-to-dystopia concept of a world where the sun inexplicably stops setting, ‘An old Friend Comes To Stay’, where a dead friend returns for a 48-hour mini-break, and ‘The Light Collector’, about a man who, er, collects different kinds of light:

The cryptic blue cast by a computer. The smash-and-grab
of camera flash. The blade of light under the door

I’ve also been rereading a book of lyrical poems by  Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) which a Polish friend gave me several years ago. Iwaszkiewicz has fallen out of favour because of his collaboration with the Communist regime and his early work is old-fashioned, formalist poetry, which won’t find many takers, anyway, but what beautiful poetry it is. This poem, which I assume is about his closeted homosexuality, has sublime imagery (apologies for the prosaic and probably wildly inaccurate translation – the original is in a trochaic metre with an elegant a b b a rhyme scheme):

Evening has come to the grey mountains.
Pines stand as if in mourning.
When I thought about you today
Red Mars came out from behind a cloud.

I don’t know what your lips
are bringing me: death or a kiss?
Night falls: a black drink
that chokes me like a scarf.

Everything augurs a curse on us,
threatens our brows with the black shadow of a thorn.
The owl hoots four times.
Is this wisdom or madness?

No On-Specs Please, We’re British

Header image above taken by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol

About six months ago, I finally took the plunge and started approaching spoken word promoters and asking them if they’d consider booking me for a feature slot, instead of waiting for them to approach me. It literally took me until I’d been performing for over three years, been programmed at WOMAD, won the regional finals of two national slams and had a contract with Burning Eye before I felt ready to do this, and I still feel like an absolute dick doing it now, which is odd, because many of my friends were happy asking people for 20-minute slots before they’d even written 20 minutes of material.

I think there’s a class, gender and personality element to this. A promoter friend recently told me that more than 90% of the unsolicited applications for feature slots he receives are from men and a significant proportion of them come across as rude, entitled and deluded if they think they are ready for a paid slot yet. He, and several other of the promoters I know, are frustrated that talented, experienced women just won’t put themselves forward, while many men think they are owed a slot merely for existing. However, coming from a working-class background, I suspect that most working-class men have had it drummed into them that they shouldn’t “blow their own trumpet” as much as women have. And middle-class men who are shy or have social anxiety will also struggle with this.

The response I have had to my on-spec applications is interesting. Locally, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Several South-West nights that I assumed had put me on some kind of blacklist, because they seemed to have been booking everybody on the planet except me for the past three years, leapt at the chance of booking me when I actually got round to asking them. I could kick myself for not having done this before.

With a couple of exceptions, the response from page poetry nights was also very good. It’s easier to build a national (or even international) profile in page poetry, because you can send off submissions to journals from your armchair and once you’ve been published in a few reputable journals, people will know your name.

Spoken word nights outside the South West were much harder, though, and I feel a bit demoralised by the response. When you’ve been working hard for a few years and have built up a very strong reputation locally, it’s a shock to find that that counts for nothing outside the area and that as far as most promoters are concerned you might as well be a rubbish amateur who started writing yesterday. It’s particularly hard to be turned down by nights that have offered slots to people I perceive as being less good and/or less established than me, although I know I’m being a complete baby about this – promoters have a responsibility to book artists that they think will appeal to their audience, not to pander to my ego or respect a pecking order that exists only in my head. There is no league table – there are a number of poets writing in different styles which will appeal to different audiences. I’m probably never going to win the urban, gritty market and I just have to accept this. It doesn’t mean I’m shit- it doesn’t even necessarily mean they think I’m shit – it just means I’m not to their taste.

I know there’s a lot I can do. I think I’d been doing a lot wrong in my approach (cutting to the chase too soon, not tailoring my messages enough to the individual night, putting video links and details of my experience in fussy attachments which they wouldn’t have bothered to open, not the body of the message). I also need to organise some more recent and better video footage, as I’m still relying on videos that friends and promoters took a couple of years ago and which do not reflect how much I have grown as a writer and performer since then. Plus I need to keep doing the festivals and the more prominent slams, because you tend to get a more favourable response from people who have actually seen you in person.

Above all, though, I need to keep sending out the on-spec applications, no matter how much of a dick I feel doing it, no matter how much I hate rejection, because if I send them out, I might not get booked, and that will hurt, but if I don’t send them out, I definitely won’t get booked.

What I’m Reading At The Moment 2

Like everybody else in Britain, I’ve been snowed in the last couple of days, so have been rereading some of the poetry books already in long-term residence on my shelves.

People Who Like Meatballs by Selima Hill (Bloodaxe, 2012) consists of two sequences of short poems – one about a woman who despises her husband, one about a man who despises and fears his mother. Everything I love about Hill is here – her spontaneous-sounding, conversational register, her off-kilter humour, her surreal, dream-like symbolism. Everything important is not quite said., e.g.:

I thought you could play the piano but I was wrong,
I thought that being attractive wasn’t important
as long as you played the piano but I was wrong
(from “Modest Acts of Extreme Slowness”)

where playing the piano is quite self-evidently not playing the piano.

My favourite poem in the book, “Someone in a Bath Towel” expresses more in fifteen words than many poets manage in an entire collection:

Someone in a bath-towel
with meringues

his mother made
is trying not to cry.

The narrator’s sudden need to depersonalise by switching to the third person, the fact that he is “trying not to cry”, the very oddness of the meringues, the multiple possible overlapping connotations of “bath-towel” and “meringues”, all allow the reader to construct their own, highly specific, story. This poem is a lesson to those of us who continually feel the need to say too much.

She Grrrowls, the London-based feminist revue, was one of the highlights of my Edinburgh Fringe and I have since been fortunate enough to perform for them in New Cross. I bought and read their anthology (Burning Eye, 2017) in Edinburgh, but have now come back to it again. Some of the contributors mean more to me than when I first read it – I have seen Joelle Taylor perform twice since returning from the Fringe and I have frequently seen on the Bristol scene, and much admired the poetry of, Rowena Knight, whose poem “Made.com” opens the collection. It saddens me that there is still a need for a women’s only collection, but I know from experience that women’s experience is still considered “niche” and “trivial”, that female poets are still too often booked as support artists to less experienced men, that amongst some male poets who do not think twice about sharing poems about their dick as “universal” subject matter, poems about padded bras and the pressure to diet and female friendships and vaginas need to be defended, and it is good that fora exist where female poets do not have to waste their energy justifying writing about themselves. There is a wide range of poets in this collection. There are a few who were a little too agitprop and slammy for my taste, but the overall quality is superb, with dazzling use of language, from Jasmine Cooray’s lavish description of the vagina as:

self cleaning
pleasure zone, pink walls elastic as a cobra’s throat,
a bay to take in that swimming lottery and deliver

a jackpot of new life

to Sabrina Mahfouz’s grimly precise, “Her fractured body found car-park cold”.

I saw Raymond Antrobus perform twice last year and was left in a state of shock both times, feeling as if I were in some kind of trance for days afterwards, mulling over and over his words in my mind. It is unusual for a poetry performance to have that profound an effect on me – for a spoken word artist, I am surprisingly unmoved by most spoken word. Part of the reason for the extremity of the effect he had on me was the fact that much of his subject matter resonated with me – he performed a number of poems about his father’s death from dementia, something I had also experienced only two years previously and had never properly been able to grieve about, and Antrobus’s poems partially unblocked the dam. Also, his anger at his marginalisation in the education system as a deaf, mixed-race, working-class helped crystallise my own anger about class inequity in education and the arts, which had been building throughout that summer, but I’d never been able to articulate. When I bought his most recent collection To Sweeten Bitter (Outspoken, 2017), I was interested to see whether his poetry would have the same effect on me on the page.

The answer is, well, to an extent. It is exquisitely written, but the quality of writing consists mostly in the power and authenticity of its subject matter and the economy of its exposition – it is the kind of stark, content-driven poetry I don’t normally like. It is mostly the intelligence of the ideas and the concise, focused way in which they are expressed through judicious choice of telling detail that I am responding to, not the kind of elaborate imagery and clever-clever ambiguity I am usually drawn to. It is all very powerful, but my favourite poems in the collection are the ones that have metaphor and multiple meaning at their heart, e.g. the sequence “Bottomless”, where the “black mouthful” of his father’s Guinness he found hard to swallow as a child is a potent symbol of his ambiguous feelings both about his often violent or absent father and his own racial identity. In the second poem of “Bottomless”, “In Mum’s Kitchen”, about his sixth birthday, there is both a superb economy of exposition (“My birthday boy face/glimmers/when the lights/turn off” tells you everything you need to know about his miserable emotional state) and a richness of metaphor (“the burst/rubber balloons” are simultaneously his deflated excitement, his sense of inadequacy, and the faulty condom that led to his unwanted conception).