Jawdance, Wednesday, 23rd July, Rich Mix, Shoreditch, Free Entry
Reviewed by Paul McMenemy [Originally published in LP1, August 2014]
A problem with open mics is that, like trying to tape songs off the radio back in the day, it’s quite easy to miss or misspell the names of performers, so apologies for any mistakes or omissions which follow. If you can email in and correct any, please do so, and we will print these in the next issue. [This was the review where I learned to try and get a hold of the sign-up list before writing about an open-mic.
It was also the point at which I wondered where exactly criticism in spoken word should start. Looking back, this review seems pretty harsh, considering that most of the poets I mention here were open micers, not features. Now I would probably only mention the good ones and spend more time discussing the commissioned poets. The thing is, though, that all the poets I discuss here had extremely good performance skills, which made the disparity in some cases between the presentation and the content more noticeable – it didn’t feel like I was knocking people who were getting up for the first time, but that I was critiquing performers. Jawdance, like many of the regular nights in London with open spots, attracts a lot of very good people, but, while they may be featuring at other nights around the same time, as open mic acts in this context perhaps they should be held to different standards – open spots are a chance to try things out without having to worry about expectations, after all.
On the other hand, the longer we treat poetry like a hobby, the longer it will be seen as one. I’d be interested to hear views about the criticism of live poetry if anyone fancies sending them in.]
Jawdance is one of London’s longest running live poetry nights, run by Apples and Snakes, who have been promoting spoken word in the UK for even longer. Hosted this month by the generous and funny Kat Francois, the night is split into two halves of open mic, each headlined by a featured act. Each half is further bisected by a short film, one of the most effective innovations of the event.
Francois began with an apropos poem on the discomforts of a midsummer tube ride, which cleverly moved from the observational to the political, beginning as a description of what it’s like to be a traveller on a hot, crowded train, to what it’s like to be a woman on a hot, crowded train, to what it’s like to be a black woman on a hot crowded train. We then started in with the open slots.
Open mics, by their nature, are hit and miss affairs: you may see something which will change your life, but you are going to see some awful shite as well. The advantage of going to a well-established night like Jawdance is that you are likely to see more of the former than the latter. That is not to say everything was brilliant.
The first performer was Jamie H. Scrutton, whose bizarre performance style gave some idea of how Alan Bennett might have sounded had he ever taken up female impersonation whilst having occasional electrical shocks applied to his genitals. The poem, about an elderly woman getting home for a lovely “cup of PG Tips” after a hard day at the supermarket, was not bad, but it wasn’t anything else really either: Scrutton’s peculiar delivery did elevate it to something out of the ordinary, but it was the only thing that did so. Michael Dennis, “The Black Cab Poet” (yes, most poets have real jobs – I’m not sure it’s worth building an identity around), performed a ballad about his grandfather, ‘Jackanory Jim’, which was clunkily constructed, but touching and funny. He was followed by a couple of poets with political messages.
A quick word about political poetry, because we believe in it a great deal at Lunar Poetry. Political poetry is as hard to write as true love poetry, for the simple reason that most poets, no matter how good, go all to pieces as soon as they have to say something they really mean. And you may say, well, we don’t want “poetic”, allusive poetry here, anyway, we want straightforward poetry that tells the audience exactly what it thinks. The problem with that is that you end up with a list of everything that’s wrong with the world which everyone agrees with and which everyone immediately forgets: the power of poetry in this case, as in others, is to make something new – to produce the phrase or image which lodges in the back of the throat and cannot be spat out. If you want to write a political poem which affects the way anyone sees the world for longer than the milliseconds it takes to fall out of your mouth and into their ear, you have to do more than merely mean it – you have to make it undeniable as a stone in the shoe.
So, did any of the political poetry tonight do that for me? Not really. One poet appeared to have incompletely digested ‘Howl’ and brought it back up as a ‘Poem for our Generation’. There was the odd good line – “the best minds of our generation are working out how to make people click ads” – but the poet will become more interesting once she finds her way past the Beat section of the library. There is also a difficulty in presuming to speak on behalf of your auditory: Lewis Norton’s poem, with its “We burn […] we turn […] we yearn”, made me want to stand up and yell “I fucking don’t!” Asur Hassan (almost certainly not the correct spelling, sorry) gave a slyly funny “Farage homage” (“You turn if you want to […] You kip if you wish”); Dave Jarmain gave a poem which contrasted the news coverage given to the World Cup and the Israeli-Palestinian War, which was right on enough, but didn’t seem to do much more than point out that this disparity existed – it may as well have been a man saying “Cuh!” for three minutes. Ryan Taylor-Herz and Jake Emlyn rapped fluently about vaguely defined injustices – poverty, drugs, misogyny – but neither of them said much that stuck in the mind. Sass Herbert, the first headliner, had a similar effect – her phrases rolled along beautifully, and sounded important as she was saying them, but I can’t remember a single one.
The most successful purely social/political poem of the night was by Sabina Silva. Someone had told her that she should model – because dark skin was fashionable just now. This is a tricky subject to deal with, and occasionally it veered towards Black is Beautiful territory (those painful pieces where American activists from the seventies argued for racial equality at the expense of sexual equality), but overall it was deftly handled, discussing the pressure black women feel under to lighten their skin, as well as the wider assumptions made about them by society.
The first film of the night was also political in intent, Mike Galsworthy’s environmental piece, ‘On a White Horse’, illustrated by Korinne Weidmann. The lengthy introduction could have been saved for the special edition DVD, but the poem itself, taking the image of a spectral rider from Revelation, and using it as a metaphor for greed, fecklessness and environmental disaster was an example of how ballad form can be used effectively without feeling like every end-rhyme is being dropped on your toe, and Weidmann’s half-medieval, half-futurist woodcut style illustrations perfectly complemented the apocalyptic tone.
The second film, ‘So Dry, He Thought’, by Todd Murphy, directed by Stevan Mijailovic, was an understatedly off-kilter narration of drab lives in drab towns over soporific music and wobbly film of parks and supermarkets: “This is my living room and this is my telephone / Sometimes it rings and sometimes I answer it.”
It was after the second film that the night really took off. There had been highlights before – Dan Simpson’s ‘Stripping Poem’, ending in a prosaic nakedness, contrasting a heartfelt cliché with the poetic extravagances leading up to it, and by doing so making us see the sentiment behind the platitude afresh; Scott Temple’s ‘When it Finally Came’, conjuring an adolescent suburban summer of “sweaty cement”; Stephen Lightbown’s poem in praise of beards (people dream of “orienteering on your chin”); and Brian Baker’s ‘Accelerating through Life’, a very simply constructed but really effective poem, where each line consisted of an age and how the speaker felt about it at the time – but the last quarter of the night was the strongest, possibly helped by the one-poem limit the host was forced to set to get everyone on in time, or possibly just because, after Murphy’s somnolent video, some good bracing violence was much appreciated.
This was provided first by Jason Pilley and Sean Wai Keung, who got up reading different interrelated poems simultaneously, starting out at first warily circling each other while doing so, before beginning to shove and then wrestle each other while verbally doing the same, shouting over each other, trying to cover each other’s mics. The downside of this was that neither poem was audible all the way through, but various phrases were tossed out of the melee like arms and legs in a Beano strip, and whatever else it was, it was energetic, exciting, the perfect antidote to a stifling summer night. This energy was continued by David Turner, who prowled up and down the central aisle of the auditorium, micless, forcing the audience to pay attention to his funny, touching, tragic tale of love among the beer kegs – the observation of a man’s determination to lift slightly more than he is comfortably capable of as proof of love was a clever touch, and the poem was full of these.
Finally we had the night’s headliner, Bo. His poems were a young man’s poems, half in love with not particularly easeful death, containing references to pain, self-harm, and cigarettes, so many cigarettes. One of his poems was a love poem to a cigarette. I recently picked up a young writers’ short story magazine and nearly every story seemed to revolve around tabs. As a smoker all my adult life, I can say that you don’t write like that once you pass 25 – you may need cigarettes, but you don’t love them – as the idea that they might kill you becomes more real, the idea of the idea becomes less appealing. It’s possible I was prejudiced against Bo as soon as he introduced his first poem as “based on a Nirvana song, ‘Where did you sleep last night?’” (Leadbelly! Kids today!) The poem itself again suffered from the feeling that it was written the way ‘a poet’ ought to write about a subject, rather than how Bo wanted to write about it. But I do think he might produce interesting work in the future, once he stops worrying so much about being a poet.
To conclude: if you are going to go to open mic nights (and you should), and you live in London, then this is one of the ones you should be going to.