Wild Poetry Mashup, Passing Clouds, Dalston, London, 22/03/16, £4 entry
Reviewed by Tim Kiely
[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]
Originality is overrated. Most of the bad poetry I’ve come across tends to be fatally unaware of its own place within the evolving traditions of poetry. Which particular tradition is not important – whether contemporary spoken word, Medieval French romances or ancient Indian lesbian love-poetry – bad poets are unaware of their poetic habitat; they crash through into cliché and self-importance, thinking as they do that nobody has ever said anything like this before.
Good poetry, or good artistic work of any kind, flourishes in a community. Artists need other artists to riff on, respond to, critique and challenge and illuminate their own craft. It’s one of the reasons why I am fascinated by the idea of poets reading, and responding to, one another’s work.
You can therefore understand that I was really quite excited to be given a chance to see how something like this would look, as promised by the main event of the March meeting of the Fine Lines Society, ‘The Wild Poetry Mashup’, a night dedicated to poets swapping work with, and then performing the work of, their fellows.
I don’t intend to dwell for too long on the other open mic and feature slots for both poets and musicians, as fun as those were: special praise in particular is due to Hannah Gordon and Shadé Joseph for their arresting, poised performances. But in the event, these two poets also stand out to me because, with their intensely individual personae, dwelling as they did, often beautifully, on subjects which were clearly rooted in their own experiences, everything from losing touch with old friends to being on the edges of a community mourning a death by shooting, they provided an excellent launching-point into the Mashup itself. The London spoken word scene is full of voices just as particular as those of Shadé or Hannah. What would happen to them in someone else’s mouth?
Firstly, an event like this seems to cement the status of spoken word poetry as a modern form of folk-art, intimately involved in the life of its community to the point where members of the audience can call out lines to particular well-known numbers. When Jake Wild Hall performed the work of The Repeat Beat Poet, you believed that crowd when they told you “I don’t believe in –isms, I just believe in me!”. The tone was as exalted and, in places, as political as you would hope for.
But while it is undeniably a lot of fun to take part in a bit of the angry leftish call-and-response that I imagine forms the stuff of the Daily Express’s fevered nightmares – “When I say ‘Fuck’, you say ‘George Osborne’!” – I also couldn’t help but feel that this only gestured towards the real potential of a night like this. What would happen, I wondered, if the act of placing the poem in the hands of another poet, with a profoundly different voice and approach to performance, managed to bring out a whole new side to it?
Alexander Woodward, for example, with his basso profundo pitch and studied gravity of tone, managed to bring a whole new surgical examination of the self-serving sexism which forms the target of Rachel Nwokoro’s ‘How Much?’. Dean McKee took a homoerotic hymn of Natasha Gilbert’s, playing with Wordsworth’s vision of a Westminster sunrise even as it delved into the ‘underground passages’ of the persona’s dedicatee, and pull an even greater joy out of it through his grinning subversion of heteronormative, gender-binary societal norms. Some poets even made explicit acknowledgements of their indebtedness to other forms of verbal art, particularly rap and hip-hop, with the Repeat Beat himself performing Spike Zepheniah Stephenson’s ‘Down to a Tea’ (itself replete with cheeky references to the work of Doc Brown) to an audience-accompaniment of the beat from Cypress Hill’s ‘Insane in the Membrane’. But beyond simply referencing their influences in other media, a few poets actually managed to pull off a bona fide adaptation, a re-modelling and re-imagining, of what had gone before.
Such was the case with Natasha Gilbert’s rendition of Iris Colomb’s ‘Let’s Play’, in an arrangement she had composed on the guitar to be, at least partially, sung. It was a testament to the care she had taken over the original work, as well as to Iris’ own poetic voice, that the echo of the original’s delivery could be discerned even for those, like me, who had never previously heard this poem. What emerged in the ‘lyrics’ was the shape of what sounded, to me, like a poem which read simply with the unaccompanied voice could have been much pacier, almost breathless, taking advantage of both the hard-following rhythm and the exuberant activity alluded to in the language:
You be the river,
and I’ll be the bridge….
You be Time
and I’ll be Space…
In Natasha’s hands, the flexibility offered by the guitar chords, together with her own powerful delivery, stretched and expanded these lines into room-filling reverberations which seemed to want the game never to end. Both music and poetry were fully utilised in a way which underscored the strength and uniqueness of each. It was this kind of muscular, imaginative response to the work which made Natasha, in my view, one of the strongest performers of the night, and an exciting sign of what we might expect from such events in the future.
I dearly hope both that Spike and the Fine Lines Society continue to host events of this kind, and that other nights begin to try out something like the ‘mashup’ experiments which they began on that night. Amid all the usual larks one has come to expect from a night of high-energy poetry performance, there was something extra about it which I want to see develop further. It hinted at the possibility of a new bend in the river, a new current of the T.S. Eliot’s capital-T ‘Tradition’, a poetry confident and comingling with the wider universe of art and society. This, if you happen to think like me, is incredibly exciting.