Category Archives: Spoken Word
Writers’ Bloc hosted a multi-team inter-university poetry slam against Pembroke College, Cambridge, and an array of poets from Birmingham (non-university affiliated), who were charmingly dubbed ‘COW’ (Coalition Of Wordsmiths) by Chazz Redhead, the compere for the evening. COW saved the day after Cardiff University pulled out of the competition.
For those who are not familiar with slam etiquette, the format of the evening was as follows: we began with the ‘Sacrificial Poet’ round, in which a poet from each team performed, in order to display how the voting system would work (audience members held up a red ‘C’ for COW, a blue ‘P’ for Pembroke or a yellow ‘B’ for Birmingham, depending on who they thought performed the best poem). The votes from the Sacrificial Poet round did not contribute to the final scores. This round was then followed by four rounds in which a poet from each team would perform one poem, with a strict time limit of three minutes; this process would be repeated in the second half. The audience voted after every round; the poet with the most votes would win a point for their team.
By pulling slips of paper from his shoe, Chazz announced the running order of the first half: COW, Pembroke, Birmingham.
COW’s Sacrificial Poet was Bohdan Piasecki, who is a renowned Birmingham-based poet from Poland, and also runs popular poetry night Hit the Ode. Bohdan quipped that he was going to perform something that was ‘really about the performance, rather than the meaning’ and launched into a fast-paced poem written entirely in Polish. While most of the audience had no idea what Bohdan was saying, his poem showed that slam poets need to concentrate on their performance, as well as their writing.
He was followed by Phoebe Power (for Pembroke), winner of a 2012 Eric Gregory Award and the 2009 Foyle Young Poet of the Year. She gave a very confident delivery of a poem in the voice of Dido (not the singer, the one from the Aeneid). The last Sacrificial Poet was Ben Jackson, who read a beautiful poem called Write Me in Your Diary. He took his performance to another level by interacting with the audience, which was evidently popular, as he was named winner of the round.
Now that the audience was clued in on how to vote, it was time for the main two rounds. James Walpole was up first for COW. It was quite evident that James was not used to slam poetry, as he read from the page (typically, slam poets are meant to have memorised their work) and also ran out of time. At times it was difficult to hear James, but considering the short notice he was given to be involved in the slam, he did well and the poem was very funny. A poet called Tristam was up next for Pembroke. He had a charming stage presence, and had the audience in stitches with his poem about not being able to ride a bike until the age of nineteen. Writers’ Bloc’s Lily Blacksell concluded (and won) the round with a poem about unrequited love. It’s a topic that is frequently written about, but Lily brought something new and personal to it. Her performance was also first-class, as she used her experience in acting to make her poem completely relatable and humorous. There were also moments of beautiful poignancy, however, especially created by a line about an ‘undeniably single bed’.
It would be impossible to give you a play-by-play of the evening, so instead I shall focus on the remaining highlights. Tiffany Kang from Pembroke College quite simply stole the show. Her soothing, hypnotic voice was used fantastically in her poems. As an American poet, she brought something completely different to the competition, showing that British and American styles of poetry are completely different, but equally entertaining.
Elisha Owen’s (UoB) poem about her relationship with her father was a personal favourite. It was touching without being too sentimental, and captured the difficulties of how growing up can affect such an important relationship.
Ben Norris (UoB) performed two great poems: Disaster Sex and Dismembered Voices. He had clearly focused on the delivery on his poems, which was infallible and energetic, but his poems were also great in their own right. All of this is even much more impressive when one remembers that Ben was also organising the entire evening, and was actually responsible for the formation of COW.
Lorna Meehan (COW) dealt with comic and serious subjects in her poems, but really shone with her poem about Michael Bublé. She was engaging, entertaining and truly likeable. All the women in the audience could relate to her, but her poetry was so well written that everyone was won over.
Finally, James Grady showed that you don’t need three minutes to impress an audience, you just need a little over one. His poem Crossword was full of hilarious innuendo and was undeniably catchy. It was a short but sweet way to win the support of the audience.
Mention must also be given to the wonderful compere, Chazz. He was funny, irreverent, sarcastic and very self-aware, which helped to move the already entertaining evening to new heights. Some poetry nights can be a little slow-moving, but this slam was filled with boundless energy, and left the audience wanting more.
At the end of the evening, the University of Birmingham was announced as the winner of the slam, with only one point between them
and the runners-up. However, as Chazz reminded us, the night wasn’t about winning; it was a celebration of poetry and talent.
By Jenna Clake
Tell me on a Sunday is a series of storytelling events held at the Ikon Gallery, where selected tellers go up on stage and tell their anecdotes relating to a set theme. Before the event commenced there was a chance to socialise with other audience members, in the gallery’s cafe that serves tea, coffee and soft drinks and even muffins.This week’s Tell Me on a Sunday was based around the theme of ‘Strange Encounters’.
The dim-lit, small and social audience make the sharing of stories an intimate event. It is hosted by Cat Weatherill, one of Europe’s leading performance storytellers who set the theme after being inspired by Valentine’s Day. She responded well to each seven-minute performance, drawing us in and out of each teller’s life. Some of the storytellers told their story in a very conversational way, using hand movements to express themselves, which further added to their performance. The comedienne Naomi Paul, however, crafted her story with a performance perfect structure instead of a conversational anecdote. Her story provided a neat beginning, middle and end.
The stories range from humorous to tragic and ‘all with truth at their heart’. This just goes to show how far the theme can be interpreted. One story, by a retired teacher-turned-writer touched us all as he told us how his failed attempt at resuscitating a person has had a lasting effect on his life. Furthermore, the idea of not knowing the young man’s name still stays with him today.
Journalist William Gallagher enticed us to his story with his love of Sci-fi; he made us believe that he had actually witnessed, in his own words, a ‘shiny glowing disc’. Not only a shiny glowing disc, but that a woman was abducted by aliens. This ended with the humorous realisation that the woman possessed the car keys.
Through the variety of funny and emotional stories, we were able to relate to some aspect of the tellers’ experience. What I really loved about the event is that it goes back to the oral tradition of storytelling, where the teller is not restricted by the barrier of pen and paper, allowing the teller’s story to flow and touch us in an authentic way.
By Malia Choudhury
The next Tell Me On A Sunday is at the Ikon Gallery Cafe on Sunday 17th March. To reserve call the Ikon Gallery (0121 248 0708). The facebook event is:
On Tuesday 29th of January, renowned poet Simon Armitage appeared in the Bramall Music Building as part of the ‘Birmingham Visiting Writers Programme.’ It was the first event that the English Department had held in the new building and the turnout was remarkable. Every seat on the lower tiers was filled, and the balconies were even opened for surplus spectators. It was clear that this visitor was popular, and a huge number of people were eager to see him.
After a short introduction, Armitage took to the stage with welcoming applause. To many, this literary figure will be remembered as a favourite from GCSE English Literature, as a number of his poems featured in the Anthology course book. He has had 10 volumes of his poetry published, and has been awarded a CBE for his contribution to poetry. But he is a humble man in every attribute; from afar, with his faded jeans and a baggy suit-jacket, he looks like your best friend’s Dad. But peer a little closer and his brothel-creeper shoes and gold pirate earring give away his eccentricity.
From the start of his lecture, it was clear that Simon Armitage’s well-known stage presence and charm were still very much intact as he regaled us with amusing anecdotes from his childhood and his home-county of Yorkshire before getting to the serious stuff. His first poem ‘The Shout’ recalled a science project from his school days. After this, a reading of ‘Zoom’ – one of his first published poems about a cartoon show’s credits – left everyone in the room a little bemused but completely hooked. Following this, Armitage read some of his translated pieces, including ‘The Green Knight’ (which, incidentally, Disney approached him about to use for a new animation). Next, we were treated to one of his ‘Flash Fiction’ pieces titled ‘The Net’ – a slightly longer poem with a prose-like structure.
Forty-five minutes flew by, and soon it was time for some discussion. With some great questions from the audience, we were delighted with a number of quick-witted one-liners and amusing stories – in particular, a hilarious recollection of an embarrassing misunderstanding about ‘cashback’ in Huddersfield Sainsbury’s that left everyone laughing out loud.
However, Simon Armitage isn’t just an entertainer – he proved that beneath his showman exterior lays an extremely passionate and pensive mind, and his ponderings were both informative and thoughtful. Upon being asked whether his consideration of his readers affected his writing he profoundly responded: ‘There are only 26 letters in the English Language. But if you put them in the right order, you can explode something in someone’s mind, thousands of miles away, hundreds of years apart, in complete silence.’ And after just an hour in the same room as him, it would be safe to say that he had enthralled and impressed every member of his captivated audience.
By Megan Evans @mkevans92
The event is held downstairs in the Six Eight Kafé, Temple Row, Birmingham. There are small tables with small chairs and small candles. Cosy and kooky; your perfect location for a gathering of new musicians and poets.
Joseph Sale is hosting. Humble as ever, he recites just two of his marvellous poems tonight and only picks up a guitar during the interval. His warmth and buoyancy creates an atmosphere of genuine intimacy and unity between performers and audience.
Max Merrick-Wren is my new favourite musician. He wields guitar and harmonica as if they’re extra limbs, for the most part with his eyes closed. His voice is soothing; his passion consistent throughout. I prefer his own songs to the Dylan cover, especially the gently powerful ‘High Horse’, with its climactic ending. The only constructive point I have is for him to inhale more quietly. I can’t wait to get hold of an album.
Joseph Sale performs ‘The Necromancer’, a haunting piece about raising the figures of history, listening to the ‘silence that became their voice’. Like the mysterious woman I am ‘wonder-morphed’, both by the ideas Joe evokes and the words with which he (appropriately) brings them to life.
Carl Sealeaf gives us two-and-a-half poems, due to an endearing bout of memory loss. The first half of ‘Growth’ is wonderful, expressing his fear of ‘acting out someone else’s definition of growing older, broader at the shoulders but still shrivelled at the heart’. His last piece about macaroni, festivities, ‘stale air’ and ‘oil-smeared hands’ culminates beautifully with a sad and simple point about family. I am left uplifted by his art but saddened by the things it says.
Next is the Italiano Duo, playing for the first time together in this country. Their covers include ‘New Shoes’ by Paolo Nutini, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse, and ‘Warning Sign’ and ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay. Their nerves show a little but their gift is undeniable; Winehouse is obviously their favourite since their attitude and the volume are cranked right up. They shouldn’t be shy; their talent deserves confidence.
Elisha Owen offers us six poems in a voice perfectly suited to recital. She carries us with a quiet pensive joy through the vivid Spanish landscape of ‘Handprints’ where ‘the water creates a rhythm that foreigners dance to’. She reads ‘Prostrate Shadows’ where Muslim men are ‘sentinels beckoning the sunrise’, ‘Racing’, ‘Long Jump’, ‘Origami’, in which a seven year old boy tries to sell her his art, and finally, ‘In the Days Before They Made Them Biodegradable’, where one plastic bag is transformed into a family treasure.
Sean Neil performs three songs; solemn, honest and touching. His strumming could flow better and he needs to use his diaphragm more, but bearing in mind that I can’t sing and play to save my life, that he wrote all of his own songs and that they’re very good ones, I hardly have a right to comment. His work is reminiscent of Damien Rice without the Irish accent, which suits me fine.
Next is Giles Longley-Cook. We flit through dreary rooms in ‘Reflections in Jordan’ and the joys of alcohol in ‘The Budweiser Gita’, while he drinks pointedly from a bottle. After a disturbing piece on the politics of the Holy Land, Giles pauses to let us listen to the whirring of a fan and the sounds of the café above before stating, hauntingly, that ‘I have never fully known silence’. This poem strikes me in a fresh and thought-provoking way before he thunders on into a mock Christmas carol for his finale.
Aliena and Peter follow up with a few covers as well as some of their own compositions (lyrics by Chris who sits bashfully in the audience). The guitar is a bit too loud but Aliena uses this to her advantage and blows us all away with her vocal power; Peter is both talented and utterly unassuming. My favourite song is ‘Avenue of Cosmonauts’, sullen and gripping and very bass-y.
Ben Norris reads a delightful poem derived from his lecture notes on the European Novel. It is sharp and witty, diving from humour to seriousness and back again. The wonderful twist is that although lecture notes in poetry is an innovative idea, the piece insists that nothing is ever truly original. ‘Meaning is contingent’, he claims, ‘his name is Echo’. Ben proceeds with a touching poem ‘Southern Hemisphere’, and then reads ‘After Babel, After Pisa’ concerning theories of the University Library’s reconstruction, and a lovely piece about keeping hold of somebody by collecting physical memories.
Joe rounds the night off with ‘Circles’, a farewell poem that reminds me of Bilbo’s ‘The Road Goes Ever On’. Profound and heart-warming, it weaves in circles of thought about this little gathering of artists and the common desires that brought us together.
‘We must not shake,’ he encourages us, ‘we must not fear, to seek the dream that brought us to this place’.
A special thanks to The Gentlemen Press for running this event. We hope to see more from you soon.
For more information, visit www.gentlemenpress.com
By Danielle Bentley
Writers’ Bloc, University of Birmingham’s Creative Writing Society, has managed to make a name for itself off campus. The society’s previously low-key open-mic night has been transformed into a dynamic and varied night called Grizzly Pear, set in the upstairs room of the Bristol Pear in Selly Oak. The night is the brainchild of Ben Norris, the society’s Literary Events Officer, who knows a thing or two about the open-mic scene in Birmingham – having started his foray into spoken word at this very kind of night. To complement Grizzly Pear’s new identity, the night has been given an entirely new format. There are now ten open-mic slots available to anyone; these are free of theme. The open-mic performers are then followed by five Writers’ Bloc members, who have to perform or read a piece that has been influenced by a subject. Finally, the night is concluded by one top-class headliner.
The theme of the night was ‘Loot’, which was introduced by Ben, who was also the evening’s compere. In a form true to his energetic style, Ben performed a middle-class parody of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ (with Joe Sale on guitar) to a delighted crowd, who responded with roars of laughter.
Grizzly Pear showed that it has the potential to become something much bigger than just a University-based open-mic night, as several poets from the Birmingham spoken word scene attended and performed. There were performances from Lorna Meehan, Jaden Larker and Carl Sealeaf, all of whom have performed at other well known spoken word nights. Lorna stuck to the theme by giving a brilliant performance of a poem based on lyrics from Florence + The Machine, Jaden performed a humorous poem about greetings cards, and Carl Sealeaf left the audience in awe with a beautifully honest poem. There were also several other highlights from the open-mic section. Joe Sale returned to the stage to perform ‘Ulysses Returns’, a powerful poem based on his father’s return from a life-threatening illness, in which Joe’s evident admiration was touching. Ben Jackson, who has previously performed at Hit The Ode, performed an inventive poem in which he experimented with sound and voice leaving the audience wanting more.
However, Grizzly Pear doesn’t simply cater to typical spoken word. Jess Hanson read a hilarious poem about surviving awkward family parties in a witty and confident style. She was followed by two special guests. Founder of the society and former Writers’ Bloc President, Sean Colletti, returned to impress once more. He read a touching poem about a good friend, in which he effortlessly captured the banter of friendship. He took the audience on an emotional journey which left the room devastated, and some audience members in tears. The final open-mic slot went to Luke Kennard, who is a lecturer of Creative Writing at the university and a renowned poet. His hilarious introduction to his sentimental poem, which will be appearing in his forthcoming collection, summed up the dynamic sense of the night perfectly.
The focus of the night then shifted onto Writers’ Bloc members. The standard of performances and readings was consistently high, showcasing the talent that the society has to offer. Among many highlights was Elisha Owen’s reading of ‘Radio Voices’. Elisha shifted her focus from spoken word (in which she has had many successes, including representing the university in a poetry slam against University of Edinburgh) to a more literary poem, which contained some strikingly beautiful images. She was followed by James Dolton, who first delivered a poem in rap-battle style, flawlessly integrating references to literature in every line. His second poem, ‘To’, was extremely honest and very well written, showing that his style has continued to mature. The final Writers’ Bloc member to perform was current President Alana Tomlin, who shared some of the poems she has written for her dissertation. Taking a witty yet simultaneously thought-provoking look at the failure of communities, Alana successfully looted parts of political speeches and was encouraged to continue by a riveted audience.
What is most original about Grizzly Pear is that it welcomes all disciplines of writing with open arms; page poets, spoken word performers and prose writers are all equally encouraged to share their work, providing the audience with a varied and thoroughly entertaining evening.
Grizzly Pear’s major success, however, was headliner Clayton Blizzard, who performed at Shambala Festival this summer. The highly talented folk singer and rapper travelled from Bristol to share a set for the first time in Birmingham. He initially captured the audience by singing a capella and wandering through the crowd, whispering in unsuspecting people’s ears. With witty rhymes, a strong vocal performance and some excellent guitar-playing, Clayton played a set which was full of black comedy. Highlights included ‘Sleep Tight’, in which a relaxing guitar piece was juxtaposed with sharp satire, and the infectious ‘Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m Dead(I’ll Never Be on Top of the Pops Now)’. His varied set was a perfect end to the evening.
Thanks to its creator, Ben Norris, Grizzly Pear has firmly placed itself in line with some of the other open-mic nights that Birmingham has to offer, far exceeding previous events the society has held. Undoubtedly, everyone cannot wait until January when Grizzly Pear will return.
Follow @uobwritersbloc for more information on future events.
Words by Jenna Clake @jennaclake
Pictures by Anita Baumgärtner
As you walk into the upstairs room of the Hare & Hounds, you are captured by the ambience: the room is filled with beanbags and chairs (mostly taken already), there’s a table covered in homemade cupcakes and the room is lit with fairy lights. Sitting in the centre of the stage is a large leather chair, and in that chair sits compere and creator of ‘Speak Up’, Jodi Ann Bickley. She is renowned in the spoken-word scene and performed on the festival circuit this summer. Jodi Ann suffers from non-epileptic seizures, and she talks very bravely and candidly to the audience about her condition, trying to make them feel completely at ease; she even makes a game out of it, ‘Fits and Giggles’. Jodi Ann will sit in the chair for the entirety of the night (even during performances), unless she decides to take herself upstairs to another room, where she will Skype us and continue to host. The running-order of poets is chosen completely at random. On stage there is a screen (the one we’ll see Jodi-Ann appear on via Skype) and this is used to display a programme that selects the poet’s name at random.
There were a few highlights to the evening. The first poet of the evening was Ben Norris, a second-year English with Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham, who has made a name for himself in the city’s poetry scene and is now receiving recognition for his work in other parts of the country, having recently represented the West Midlands in a national poetry slam. Ben performed ‘Disaster Sex’, a clever, humorous and heartfelt poem about the end of a relationship, complete with The Simpsons references and his recognisably energetic style. Ben set the bar for the evening, showing us all why his career is getting off to a fantastic start.
Carl Sealeaf followed shortly after. He nervously told that he was performing a new poem, and hetherefore was not sure if he had made the right decision. Carl’s choice of poem was exactly right: it revealed a sense of maturity that far exceeds his age. However, one must feel slightly sorry for Carl. Just before his performance, Jodi Ann decided to move upstairs and Skype. She was evidently in a playful mood and pulled faces and made jokes behind Carl as he performed, which made him lose his train of thought on two occasions, and also distracted the audience.
Lorna Meehan also gave a fantastic performance. She is popular in the Birmingham poetry scene, having supported Richard Tyrone Jones at his recent Hit The Ode special. She performed ‘Swing’, a self-affirming poem about the friendships that define us.
Joseph Sale, another second-year English with Creative Writing student, who has performed at Word Up and Hit The Ode, provided something completely different with a poem accompanied by the guitar. His inspiration was the picture of the falling man from 9/11. Joe’s ‘Thunderbolt 9/11’contains the religious and classical undertones we have come expect and enjoy from his work. His performance was chilling and hypnotic.
The first headliner of the evening was Toby de Angeli, a friend of the host and part of The Elephant Collective, which also contains the likes of Harry Baker. Toby is a storyteller. The audience listened, fascinated, as they were told about his friends and his favourite films (which were referenced frequently throughout his poems). In a touching story about the birth of his sister, Toby broke into a rap by his octopus alter-ego, which simply just added to the somewhat surreal quality of the night. The second headliner was Nichol Keene, also part of The Elephant Collective. She is Toby’s girlfriend, and it is quite evident that they have influenced each other’s style, although both are equally good in their own right. They finished the night with a poly-vocal piece in which Nichol also played the harmonica, which perfectly accompanied their storytelling prowess.
Despite the high calibre of talent, there were also some performances that required a little improvement. Frank Thomas performed a poem about an ex-girlfriend that was wrought with emotion, but clichéd at times. It was also in need of an edit, as it ran on for almost thirteen minutes. While it is evident that Frank was deeply passionate, thirteen minutes is over four-times the length of slam poetry. (However, he must receive credit for being able to remember all of it off-by-heart.)
Timing was also generally an issue for Speak Up as a whole. After nearly three hours, a poet called Archy took to the stage. The surreal atmosphere was amplified by his blatant improvisation, which at first was humorous, but then grew tiresome as he performed a third poem. Archy’s performance highlights Speak Up’s flaw: Jodi Ann doesn’t know when to say ‘no’. Throughout the night, people who had finally mustered up the courage had been asking to perform and Jodi Ann, admirably wanting to encourage them, said ‘yes’ to every single one. Speak Up is lacking the structure that other Birmingham-based spoken-word events have mastered, thus making the audience grow impatient and inattentive by the end. Jodi Ann, despite being quite welcoming in some circumstances, seemed far more comfortable when introducing her friends. Being at Speak Up was comparable to attending a typical American film house party (we literally could have been sitting in her lounge) in which Jodi Ann would have been the Queen Bee and her friends would have been the ‘popular’ group. This left others often out of the loop and feeling a little uncomfortable, especially as the host (ostensibly in good humour) attempted to pick on newcomers and people she had heard of, but never met. In this, Jodi Ann seemed to fulfil the role of a comedienne, not a compere of an open-mic evening. This, coupled with the duration of the night, left one feeling rather drained.
If you have plenty of time to spare and a thick skin, then Speak Up will be perfect for you. It is definitely home to some extremely talented poets, especially as Jodi Ann is celebrated in the scene. However, if you have an early start or prefer your poetry to last a maximum of forty-five minutes, then there may be other Spoken Word events that will tend to your needs.
Look out for two more Birmingham-based spoken word events this week. ‘Grizzly Pear’ is at The Bristol Pear, Selly Oak at 7:30pm on Wednesday 24th October. Hit the Ode is at The Victoria at 7:30pm on Thursday 25th.
The party took place in the Old Library – one of the many buildings which make up the eclectic mix of venues in the Custard Factory. Built in 1866, its Victorian gothic features prove its status as a precious piece of Birmingham’s history. The venue was also particularly appropriate having been one of Birmingham’s first free libraries. Although it has now been emptied of books, the evening brought back a literary atmosphere.
The two featured poets were, strangely, both called Liz. The first Liz was Liz Berry, a Black Country ‘lass’ who now lives in London. Her poetry was terrifically influenced by the West Midlands. One piece called ‘Birmingham Roller’ was written in a Black Country dialect and it felt like a perfect piece to emphasize an important purpose of the book festival, which is to celebrate and raise awareness for local talent. She also read a great piece called ‘The Fishwife’, which was inspired by the old tradition of inviting a fishwife to a wedding. She was a great performer, and definitely a poet to look out for.
The second Liz was Liz Lockhead, a renowned Scottish poet and playwright. She was appointed as a Makar (national poet of Scotland) in 2011 . When Liz took centre stage she commanded her environment. As several people walked in late, she ushered them to their seats asking them to sit down and enjoy the poetry. She read a selection of poems, including some from her latest collection A Choosing: The Selected Poetry of Liz Lochhead.
Later, Liz was joined by the very talented LiTTLe MACHiNe – a three man group who specialise in setting famous poetry to music. They collaborated by taking her poem ‘Trouble is not my middle name’ and putting to music. They had only prepared the piece a few hours prior to the performance, so it felt fresh and spontaneous.
LiTTLe MACHiNe then took the audience on a historical tour through British poetry. They interspersed personal and contextual tales amongst the music and poetry, giving the concert an intimate and cosy atmosphere. Their set included a vast range of poetry from Shakespeare to Carol Ann Duffy. Their renditions of ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron’s ‘We’ll Go No More a Roving’ were highlights of the set.
They certainly added a new dimension to well-known poetry. If the crowd had been slightly bigger, and a few more people had been willing to get on their feet and sing along, then the Old Library would have truly come alive on the final night of the book festival.
Jackie Kay graced Birmingham Cathedral last Thursday, for the second annual ‘address from the pulpit’. The renowned poet, writer and broadcaster came to give a ‘secular sermon’, as she mischievously dubbed it, to promote her new book Reality, Reality. The seats were filled with fans, young and old, who were obviously excited about seeing the woman whose observations of life have captured the hearts of many.
Despite being a huge literary figure, the Jackie Kay who giggled like a child at the irony of her surroundings, was both gracious and unassuming. She began by reading The Friday Poem, from her 2011 poetry collection Fiere. In Scots dialect fiere means ‘companion’ and the poem was a fitting reflection of Kay’s heritage. Although the audience mostly consisted of women, and the prevalent voice in her works is female, there was a unified appreciation for this tribute to friendship.
Kay then read an extract from her best-selling memoir Red Dust Road. A chronicle of the author’s search for her birth mother and father – a journey which eventually takes her to Nigeria – Kay explores a form of loneliness. One particular quote stood out: ‘I am only alone in the way that everybody is alone. And yet it seems that the bundle of child that is wrapped up in the ghostly shawl of adoption does have another layer of aloneness wrapped up in there.’ In the Q&A session Kay talked of the exposure one feels when writing as oneself, rather than vicariously through a character. This only seemed to enhance her work; her account of meeting her biological Father for the first time was as funny as it was poignant. Each anecdote was tinged with the heartbreaking disappointment that came with deconstructing the images she had held of her birth parents. She told the audience how it would later strike her that both parents had become extremely religious – and both came to meet her holding carrier bags.
Kay frequently flitted back and forth between her own life and her collection of fifteen short stories, Reality, Reality; at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Her oration, however, maintained a buoyancy throughout, regardless of her self-recognised inability to do the myriad accents she captures in her stories. As any Jackie Kay fan will tell you, alternative cultures and perspectives are conveyed in her work through ‘voice’ more than image. With this comes an emphasis on the authority of personal experience.
Indeed, it is hard to separate Jackie Kay from her writing and she voiced her worries about this in the Q&A session. She stated that not everything is autobiographical but also hinted that all inspiration has its source. One impertinent audience member stated, ‘You are a black, outspoken Lesbian writer’, as if she was unaware of this fact, and demanded to know her thoughts on being placed in the ‘Gay Fiction’ aisle of a book-store. Kay diplomatically replied that she did not feel pigeon-holed by this factor and if it helps people in the gay community, especially younger people, understand themselves then the pleasure is hers.
Jackie Kay’s work, although a celebration of companionship, was never over-sentimental. Her matter-of-fact tone allowed her work to speak for itself. A highlight of the evening was one of her collective short stories, These Are Not My Clothes. Kay read the story of Margaret, an elderly woman who is stripped of dignity by the abusive staff at the old people’s home she resides in. Placing middle-aged and older women at the centre of Reality, Reality, it felt like eavesdropping on the private thoughts of a host of disparate women. Memory, loss and self-delusion were just a few of the many topics she explored in the extracts she read aloud.
Jackie Kay is as famous for her fascinating life as she is for the excellent work she produces. Infusing her discussion with warmth and humour, it was clear that there is a through-narrative in everything she shares with her readers. Reality, Reality continues this tale of amity and stresses the importance of appreciating those around you.
Sadly, Birmingham Book Festival 2012 is now over. Visit their website for more information about the festival as a whole: http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/
When it comes to public speaking Simon Armitage has always been renowned as a writer with a sense of humour. His talk at the Birmingham Book Festival proved no different. His allotted time wasn’t just about how many funny anecdotes he could tell before the end of the night, however. The evening’s discussion focused mainly on his new novel Walking Home, a book about his backwards and penniless journey of the Pennine Way.
The evening began with Armitage’s explanation for walking the arduous 256 miles. He described growing up in Marsden, part of the Pennine Way trail, and watching the shadows of walkers descend upon his town in the summer. The most vivid image was that of two travellers who had pitched a tent near his house and decided to stay in Marsden, opening up their tent to let wafts of smoke out every now and again.
Having seen so many others do it the author felt he should give it a go but with the twist of using no money. He wanted to test the value of poetry, and his worth as a poet, trading lodging for poetry readings. His choice to do the walk in reverse meant ending the walk in Marsden; a physical challenge, as well as a test of his personal value.
Continuing to reflect on his childhood, Armitage reminisced of slide-shows his town would display every year – ‘sometimes the Priest’s holiday pictures would end up in there’ – and used this as a cue for his own slide-show. The comments that complemented the presentation were minimal but effective; ‘this is a door’ was met with a roar of laughter. With every picture the audience anticipated his next witty remark.
By the end of the talk, the listeners knew everything they needed to know about the making of Walking Home. The time came to hear the result of Armitage’s endeavour to write prose rather than poetry. Before this, he admitted the intention of the walk was to provide inspiration for new poems but unfortunately the part of his brain, which he used for walking, was the part he also used for creating verse too. Yet this wasn’t evident in the extracts heard by the audience. While it certainly read like prose the attention to detail and descriptions of various parts of the journey felt like they had been taken out of lines of poetry. The charm of the novel was that the change in form hadn’t resulted in a change in style. There was a nice balance of insightful observations, alongside smirk-prescribing stories to make the novel worth its merit.
Before the Q&A Armitage indulged the audience in one last anecdote from his walk titled ‘The Doughnut Man’. It involved an incident, during a reading, where the audience’s laughter and attention was diverted to a man in a doughnut costume stood just behind him. The bizarreness of the situation was a great way to end a relaxing evening, which never had a dull moment.
If you missed him at the Birmingham Book Festival, Simon Armitage will next be reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester on Tuesday 16th October 2012.
The beloved storytelling event Tell Me on a Sunday returned for one special evening, as part of the fourteenth annual Birmingham Book Festival. Relocating from its usual abode, Café Ikon, the event catered for a larger audience on the second floor gallery, currently host to the Arefin & Arefin exhibition. Presented by the enigmatic Cat Weatherill – story-telling extraordinaire and Tell Me on a Sunday facilitator – the dimly-lit, cabaret-esque room captured the audience’s imagination before the seven storytellers even took to the stage.
The night kicked off with a performance from the national storytelling laureate, Katrice Horsley. A feisty and engaging performer, Horsley told the story of her relationship with her Uncle, maintaining a gentle balance of humour and sentiment throughout. Exploring a variety of issues, from the speech impediment she suffered as a child, to her belief in magic and fairies, Horsley created a believable and surprisingly relatable world for her adult listeners.
The next storyteller was the lovely, and slightly gawky, Tom Philips. He presented a narrative of ‘firsts’ – first time on an aeroplane, first time in America – as he went to work at Camp America, aged eighteen. The tale began fairly light-hearted, as he recalled the funny incident where he rescued a young child who was sitting on the front porch, happily sharing his sweets with a black bear. Reminiscent of a coming-of-age film, Tom told us about how his plan to travel across the USA, ending in New York, was thwarted when his friend opted for a female companion instead. Visiting New York at a different time and returning to England earlier than he had planned, Tom recounted sitting watching television with his Dad when news of the 9/11 tragedy appeared on screen. If Tom had kept to his original plans, he would have been in Manhattan that day.
South-African born, Tell Me on a Sunday regular, Gavin Jones graced the stage next. He took the audience back sixteen years, as he told a story of family rejection and what it was like when he first moved to England and, eventually, Birmingham. Funny and tragic in one breath, the audience were visibly moved. Jones was succeeded by three more storytellers, Gorg Chand, Jane Campion and Natalie Cooke, who continued to enchant the listeners. Each story was different in tone and content but the high quality never faltered.
Although storytelling is an art form, and therefore a rehearsed and crafted genre, the performances were effortless and held the illusion of spontaneity. In each seven minute segment, the audience were transported to a small part of the teller’s life – to laugh, cry and share in lessons learnt. It was a humbling occasion that, though riddled with the potential for cliché, avoided it entirely.
Tell me on a Sunday: Season Two will return to Café Ikon on January 27th.
For a full list of Bham Book Fest events: