Hit the Ode is a monthly spoken word poetry night at the Victoria, a pub tucked away just around the corner from New Street station. Consistently, this event presented by Apples and Snakes proves to be moving, funny and an all round wonderful night. The performance poetry showcased at Hit the Ode really demands that people drop any school-yard preconceptions of poetry being dry or portentous. The evening’s fast paced series of open mic poets and featured acts is truly electrifying, with hilarious moments followed by startling pathos, contrasting flippantness and sentiment. All this combines to create a genuinely communal atmosphere in the room, as everyone experiences the emotional highs and lows of the poets’ words.
The upstairs bar at the Victoria is a dimly lit, intimate affair. There were perhaps 50 people crammed into the room, some standing or sitting around the walls due to a lack of chairs, whilst others listened in from the hallway. Bohdan Piasecki, a performance poet in his own right, was the compare for the evening, relaxing everybody with his wry humour and Polish accent. There was a great moment when he asked the audience to audibly convey ‘lust,’ and was met by three seconds of absolute silence…then laughter.
The open mic poets mostly read just one or two poems, moving the evening along at a brisk pace. One would expect the constant shifts in tone to be jarring, but the eclectic styles were actually welcome because the subject matter of some poems was particularly weighty – without some light relief the night could have been particularly intense and draining. For example, featured poet and Birmingham’s Poet Laureate Jan Watts read her new holocaust memorial poem Mirrors, a meditation on a passage from Anne Frank’s diary. It was beautiful and poignant, exploring how the mirror ‘holds a memory’ and questioning whether people have learned from history; ‘When did we last look in the mirror?’ Next, it was exciting to have a complete shift in gear to the young open mic poet Jess Green. She crystallised exactly what can be so thrilling about performance poetry with her breakup rant being alternately funny, cynical and sad. It was perhaps more akin to watching an actor’s piece or a soliloquy in a play.
The open mic poets were consistently impressive. Matt Windle, a young boxer, performed a snappy, rhythmic and incisive verse. Qasim Shah had a beautiful lilting delivery which disguised his dark sinister imagery (‘a field of lacerated veils,’) and Chris Hope was hilarious with his countless accents and satirical sonnets on the X-factor, McDonald’s and Argos. Featured poet Sue Brown had a graceful stage presence and her poems If You Were a Word and From Beorma to Birmingham used repetition to hypnotically beautiful effect.
It was another featured poet, Dani Orviz from Spain who closed the first half with an uplifting and visually stunning performance, with most of his poetry written in his native Spanish. In the hands of a lesser performer the language could have alienated most of the room, but Orviz ran animations and subtitles through a projector so the Spanish language became less of a barrier and seemed to be just yet another ingredient drawing us into his eccentric world. Spanish lends itself well to spoken poetry, its rhythmic polysyllables and magnetic rhymes make it a joy to listen to, especially alongside his beautiful animations of flickering cave paintings.
Final featured poet Luke Wright closed the evening with charm and panache. Initially, he had appeared to be a bouncer for the Victoria as he was stood by the door in his three piece suit, looking like Plan B. However, once on stage he had an easy going charisma and some brilliantly funny, affecting performance poetry up his sleeve. The Paunch!, an ode to the pot belly, was typical of his style, wittily irreverent throughout then closing in sharp, angry fashion ‘we line their pockets with our self-disgust.’
What makes Hit the Ode so vital is the genuinely sincere sense of goodwill towards the poets and communal atmosphere amongst the audience, something surprisingly rare to find even at music or comedy gigs. The subtle difference between politeness and empathy amongst strangers is outdone by the pure visceral emotional weight of the excellent poetry, making each of these nights unmissable.
Words by James Grady