Freeway Poets, 1/10/14

Freeway Poets, The Winchester, Poole Hill, Bournemouth, Wednesday, 1st October, 7.00pm-1.00am, £5/4

Reviewed by Paul McMenemy [Originally published in LP4, November 2014]

The doors to the sumptuously decorated Winchester opened at 7pm, although the poetry didn’t kick off until 8.30, giving visitors plenty of time to appreciate the effort that had gone into the night. Each month, Freeway Poets, the longest-running spoken word night in Bournemouth’s very healthy scene (one punter I spoke to reckoned he could see poetry about 20 nights a month in the Bournemouth-Poole area), has a theme – this month’s was the circus.

There were big-top swags of red and white cloth hung from the former bank’s high ceiling, ribbons and balloons, hand-painted cut-out clowns looming from the edge of the stage with slightly more menace than I think was intended. There were popcorn and vegan hotdogs for sale (I had a big lunch) while The Greatest Show on Earth was projected on loop onto a screen behind the stage. The one slightly odd note in this inclusive vibe was the sign outside the venue which, in addition to listing the usual nightclub commandments (No Trainers, No Football Colours, No Diving, No Bombing, etc.) included the injunction ‘No Chavs’. Now, I realise that the organisers have no control over this, but I mention it for reasons which will become clear later in the review.

So, eventually the open mic began: an hour and a half of it, uninterrupted. Considering there was so much of it, there is little I can find to say: the subject matter was often politically or socially engaged, albeit in a rather vague, let’s-all-be-nice-to-each-other sort of way, and the general tenor can perhaps be gauged by the fact that two of the first four poets chose to perform pieces about psychedelic experiences (I can’t remember the last time I saw so many white people with dreadlocks in one place). There is nothing in itself wrong with this: it is not unusual to go to a poetry night and feel that most of the people in the room share the same values and attitudes, but there is a difference between feeling one is among friends, and feeling that one is at a support group. Only once in the whole night did I hear the MC, Mark Berry, say, ‘And now someone who has never read here before…’ There is such a thing as being too comfortable.

There were some good performances, though – Chris Coppen’s pun-heavy set was exuberant and amusing, and Justin Selleck’s poem about witnessing, as a child, the death of his uncle began, despite the subject matter, hilariously, before veering off into a very sobering place. It was one of the highlights of the night.

After a five minute break we had feature spots from three local acts. In principal, I think this is a very good idea; however there were a couple of problems, at least on this occasion. Natalie Lara Collins certainly sounded the part, doing a passible Kate Tempest provided you didn’t listen too closely to what she was actually saying. Her first poem was on animal testing, and had ‘no name, because the animals don’t have names.’ There were some good lines in this: people being ‘stuck to screens like tax discs’, for instance. But the tone of that line might tell you a bit about my problems with Collins’s set. There is a ‘left wing’ sensibility which, without its owner even realising it, slides off one side of the screen and reappears on the other. The poem felt less pro-animal than anti-human. When she castigated people for being more concerned with the plight of ‘soldiers in trenches’ than her furry friends, she had pretty much lost me. Once we live in a country where the Donkey Sanctuary doesn’t make more money than any five disabled children’s charities put together, maybe we’ll talk.

Her other pieces were similarly problematic – she seemed to have more rhymes than points to make. Her next poem, including a description of a ‘junkie’ as a ‘jetlagged clown’, is a good example: it is a clever image, but, like the rest of the poem, seems more interested in taking the piss out of its subject than trying in any way to empathise. Her final poem, discussing prostitution through the metaphor of performance, was potentially a good idea, but again seemed to lack any willingness to really explore things from her subject’s point of view. I kept thinking of the ‘No Chavs’ sign and wondering how many people inside the venue would have any problem with it.

The second local feature, Bernadette Pamplin, annoyed me less, but had less to say. Her style was Pam Ayres-ish, landing heavily on her end-rhymes, and her poetry mainly consisted of vague, black-bordered dolphin-poster stuff like ‘beautiful mother earth’ and ‘we need to find our true selves and learn to love again.’ She only really seemed to come to life with her final poem, about an ex-boyfriend or friend who had been a drug dealer. This was much more effective, because she sounded like she actually meant it.

The third local act was Zaq Dixon, a beatboxer, who typified the tone of much of the rest of the night. He was very good, I suppose, but the thing about beatboxing is that it is basically the oral equivalent of juggling: I can appreciate that it is a very difficult thing to do, requiring lots of skill and practice and so on, but ultimately, I can’t really bring myself to care – the only response it provokes is ‘Ooh – that must have taken ages to learn.’ To skip ahead, the last act of the night, Rodney Branigan, was a similar proposition. Have you ever wanted to see a man play a mandolin, a guitar, a standing drum, a tambourine, and sing, all at the same time? You should – it’s bloody impressive. Have you any desire to listen to his CD? Probably not.

Branigan ended the main feature set of the night, curated by Lyrix Organix, a pair of spoken word/hip hop artists, Dan Tsu and Natty Speaks, who have organised a number of shows and albums featuring poets, rappers, musicians and so on. The proceeds of their album sales go to Médecins Sans Frontières, and feature some genuinely good stuff – check them out. A second problem with the local features’ set was simply one of timing – the main features, invited in from outside Bournemouth, didn’t get on until after 10pm; in circumstances like this, one can’t blame the open micers for heading home early, on a weekday evening, when a number of them came from outside Bournemouth and had last buses home to catch around 11pm.

And perhaps it was the attritional nature of the night, but I have to admit that I didn’t really feel Dan Tsu’s set. The poems were well-delivered – there was an odd sort of hip-hop rhythm to them which continually threatened to career into rap, but never did. Thematically, too, they were stronger than what had gone before, addressing political and social themes in a more thoughtful and empathetic way than previous poets. However, for whatever reason, they left me a bit flat – there were still too many abstracts, too many vague pro-good stuff, anti-bad stuff pronouncements. That said, I would certainly watch Tsu again.

At the beginning of Tsu’s set, Natty Speaks handed out a wad of post-it notes to the audience, asking them to write one word on each and hand them back in. He then freestyled over a beat provided by Zaq Dixon, incorporating all these words. It was a good trick, but I would have liked to see him say something he meant.

After them, and before Rodney Branigan ended the show, we had Paul Cree. I will not mince my words here: Paul Cree was fucking brilliant. Unfortunately it was about 11pm by the time he started, and the crowd was starting to look pretty sparse. However his ‘little suburban stories’ were the best thing of the night by a mile. His poem about chatting cars and music with his teenage friends said more about the need to belong, male friendship, small town life, being on the threshold of adulthood, class (the technical college kids listen to garage – the sixth-formers to indie) than anything written with more obviously political intent on the night. The extract from his show, A Tale from the Bedsit, with which he ended his set, narrating a teenage infatuation with a girl he worked with in the supermarket, was an exhilarating exploration of the teenage mind, image and self-image. Any chance you get, go and see him.

Seeing Paul Cree made me glad I had stayed, and had been able to stay, but honestly, it was a long night. On the one hand, Freeway Poets is great value; on the other, I can’t help feeling it would have worked better as two separate nights – an open mic with a couple of local features, and another night with headliners and maybe local support. But the question is: would both of those nights make money? Plenty of people would turn up for the open mic; would enough turn up simply to watch?

So, if you are starting out in poetry in the Bournemouth area, and want to try out a couple of poems in a supportive environment, then Freeway Poets is a good place to start. If you just want to watch some great spoken word acts, you had better not have anything to do on Thursday mornings.

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