Unmade Bed/Braindead Poetry Party, The Betsey Trotwood, Clerkenwell, Friday 15th August, £5 entry
Reviewed by Lizzy Palmer [Originally published in LP2, September 2014]
Writing a review of a spoken word event and providing a comprehensive, balanced and relatively impartial assessment of an inevitably subjective and potentially chaotic culmination of creative offerings can be difficult at the best of times. The transformation of the concluding instalment of Unmade Bed into a ‘poetry party’ to mark the imminent departure from London of usual co-host Sean Wai Keung rendered the task of reviewing almost impossible.
Dispensing with its original venue (and name, but we’ll stick to the original here) in favour of the basement of the Betsey Trotwood, the night, hosted solely this time by Tom Bland, saw this evocatively musty, sparsely-lit and just plain snug space become filled to overflowing with personal tributes whimsical and heartfelt to Sean, a well-known talent and linchpin of the London poetry scene.
To the tune of old brick being rumbled and shaken by passing tube trains we commenced the open section with Alain English who, in an underlining of the unusual tone of the evening, stepped aside from his familiar deeply considered and grandly performed self-searching poetic speeches with the performance of a song, whose refrain – the oddly catchy repetition of Sean’s full name – will probably stay on loop in many an attending mind for the next five years.
Following this opening the initial section saw most poets perform single poems, in various styles, directly to Sean, whose continued presence at the side of the stage lent an air of eulogistic surrealism, with the likelihood of the appearance of a large red book filled with acknowledgements of an extensive and shining career seeming to grow by the minute. With the only real interruption to the theme of the party / strange funeral arriving in the form of an audience participation piece on zombies (“at the end of each section hold your arms out and say BRAAAINS”), poems ranged in form and style from sestinas and sonnets to mock surveys and build-your-own internet-generated speeches, though certain images and motifs were touched on repeatedly; Elliot Codling’s poem, read in the emphatic staccato delivery of Sean himself, held references to “moon dust” and things lunar, while John Paul O’Neill’s affirmation that “stardust is all around you” (emphasised by his struggle to read from the page in a dark space dotted with fairy lights), continued to personalise the night with reminders of motifs found often in Sean’s own work.
Before a boozy interval, and one of many whimsical anecdote-based speeches from Tom Bland, we heard from Mishi, a poet relatively new to the spoken word scene but already a recognised character. Mishi’s frank, lucid and devastatingly honest commentary, almost always based on observations of the real life around him and how he and others fit into it, added still more weight to the emotional and personal pitch of the event, due mainly to its packaging in the simple, rhyming, almost innocent style of a pure and yet uncorrupted poetic voice.
As the first of the feature section came Sean Wai Keung himself. Sean’s ranging and perceptive imagery, read in his paced and deliberate, yet somehow still urgent, trademark delivery proved at this point that every expression of appreciation directed his way from a poet is deserved. His story of purchasing and later tasting the bones of T S Eliot echoed the overarching set-up – a tiny room full of poets writing about and praising each other in an extremely indulgent yet irresistible fashion. This echo was only repeated by Amy Neilson Smith and Irina Jauhiainen reading pieces written in direct response to Sean’s poems.
Before the night began to look more like the aforementioned shindig (and the notes for this review, admittedly, become a little scatty), we were served a reminder of professionalism by seasoned circuit pro Niall O’Sullivan, whose advice to forget about the politics and administration surrounding the teaching and writing of poetry and to “just write” comprises a statement which would probably not be made in vain at any given poetry night. This thread ran smoothly into a Paxman-on-poetry piece, though perhaps the stand-out phrase of the set, in ‘London bloke’ elocution complete with every possible glottal stop, was, “butterflies flit about the buddleia.”
The night was concluded with three sets of music which, although poetic in many places, should perhaps, be left unreviewed here.
Before the music were Tom Bland and Sean reading their own, and each other’s, poems. Tom’s brilliant relaying of a tale in which he discovers, stalks and later attacks another Tom Bland leading the better life that he himself dreamt of adds an obviously amusing layer to the subject of identity and indulgence in this context. But Sean’s graffiti confession from a toilet cubicle, “My name is Sean, I have a broken heart, I am angry, I am sad,” in its beautifully stark and candid sincerity, may represent, in terms of identity, exactly why so many poets found no difficulty in gathering together in a tiny dank basement to speak mostly about one poet in particular, and put the subject of their own selves on hold for the night.
So, in the face of a difficult task, it is perhaps forgivable to dispense with impartiality and seek to underline the basic question of ‘what it’s all about’, maybe getting a bit sentimental in the process. In a scene which sees slams, standout performance and competition hold the forefront of attention, a night of pure honest tributes, in the form of a ‘coming together’ of poets (well, friends), serves as a reminder that, really, we are all just part of an exchange with each other, a simple exchange of expression and support. The correct way in which to review an event like this might remain uncertain, but what is clear is this: Mr Sean Wai Keung, you will be missed.