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.