Fen Speak, Friends’ Meeting House, King’s Lynn

Fen Speak, 28/11/2014, Friends’ Meeting House, King’s Lynn, Free entry though donations are encouraged

Reviewed by David Turner

[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]

Fen Speak is a monthly open-mic evening which alternates between venues in Ely and Wisbech. This latest instalment took place in King’s Lynn as part of ‘Fen Speak on Tour’.

When I spoke to Lunar Poetry’s editor, Paul McMenemy, about possibly travelling up and reviewing this event, he responded with, “I start to get worried when things are described as friendly and supportive.” I have to say I agree with Paul on this one and, probably cynically, believe that “friendly and supportive” means a room full of (mainly older) people clapping politely after 3 or 4 minutes of dull poetry. While the night, as with all other poetry nights, contained elements of this, the standard of poetry was very good – surprisingly so at times.

Around 40 people turned up to watch with 20 of those getting up to read. I’ll try not to patronise here but I was impressed by how many people had come out to support the night. The room was so full, in fact, that the poets seemed compelled to press their backs against the magnolia wall as they faced down the rifles. Due to the large turnout, those that were taking part in the open-mic were limited to one poem. I’m not suggesting that this should become ‘industry standard’ but limiting the poets in this way seemed to keep the audience invested in what they were listening to. Invariably at these events there will be a lot of poetry not to one’s taste, but it’s probably easier to remain positive in the knowledge that they won’t be in front of you for long.

The first feature poet of the evening was our host, and co-founder of Fen Speak, Leanne Moden. Leanne is a former Fenland Poet Laureate; incidentally this is a title I’ll mention a lot, in fact it felt at times as though there weren’t many of us in the room that weren’t or hadn’t been Fenland Poet Laureate. Leanne began with a poem to her daughter, an affectionate, if a little clichéd, feminist number reassuring the child that she could achieve anything she wanted to – “your only limit is the stars.” It ended with the humorous response from the child, “can I be a caterpillar?”

Her second poem addressed the issue of trying to get an anorexic friend to look to the future with hope. One line from this I just loved: “when we were young we used to dream in prime numbers” (even though I’m not completely sure of the context in which it was used). Leanne finished with the hilarious ‘Shaving Grace’, a poem about rejecting social pressure to remove her pubic hair. If it’s possible to see Leanne perform this poem then you have to do it, if only to hear her declare her refusal of any “pubic topiary” of the “crotch blossom” around her “meaty pocket”.

Next to feature was Elaine Ewart, fellow co-founder of Fen Speak and another former Fenland Poet Laureate. Elaine’s set of three poems were all Fen-related. ‘Slippery Customers’ was about a man raising eels in a tank in his shed and the feelings of guilt that lead him to releasing them into a river and hopefully on their way to the Sargasso Sea. Her second poem focused on a horse being sold at market and contained many beautiful images of this old tradition. Her final poem ‘Harriot Yorke Looks Back’ was a dialogue which I’m sorry to say I didn’t quite follow. I think I would have liked to have spent time reading this poem from the page.

Last up was Poppy Kleiser, the current Fenland Poet Laureate (by now, I think we can all consider ourselves Fenland Poet Laureates at heart). Her first poem described the ‘Fen Tigers’ fighting for their land rights against the Duke of Bedford, carrying the refrain, “This land is ours, this land is yours.” She followed up with a poem about her mum, and one about soldiers fighting in the First World War, while in ‘Terraces’ she talked about the many grand houses in her home town of Wisbech that are being allowed to fall into ruin, setting the scene nicely with the line, “the burnt out Rover rots and sways.”

I think Fen Speak is a great initiative and Elaine and Leanne should be applauded for taking poetry to their audience. The idea of alternating between two venues on either side of the district is also a brilliant one. It’s fantastic to see poets so engaged with their audiences, and I’m sure it is actually something that’s happening all over the country.

My name is David and I fucking hate poetry, but I did quite enjoy taking the train into the countryside after work on a Friday evening.

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