I went to the Forest Poets open mic night at Walthamstow Library yesterday. There were two good reasons behind my visit – firstly, Rob Auton performed some of his Edinburgh Show “Yellow” for the benefit of his fellow local residents for the first time, and secondly, it’s very rare for me to get a chance to see the talent in my local area showcased.
With regards to Rob Auton, if you haven’t seen him perform by now, you really should do. Anyone with even a passing interest in how comedy poetry can be inventively and brilliantly performed and delivered should either drop by at “Bang! Said The Gun” to see him read, or make an effort to attend a full-length gig of his. Kate Copstick recently gave him a good review at the Edinburgh Festival which nonetheless frustrated me in that it actually appeared to undersell his abilities, and I made a rather terse comment on Facebook to that effect. Faced with the same challenges, however, I can sympathise with her predicament as a critic. His style is incredibly difficult to put into words without making him sound like another whacky novelty poet with some puns attached. In reality, Auton’s world is innocent, child-like, clownish, surreal and idiotic (with perhaps a dose of idiot-savant attached), and just as it’s difficult to explain to somebody who has never seen Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper or Vic and Bob perform what they do or how it works, his style sets endless challenges for critics.
The “Yellow” show, then, is an entire comedy poetry set based on the colour yellow and the humour, appreciation and oddness that can be derived from that hue. Auton’s riffing and punning around the topic really shouldn’t work across two poems, never mind more, but he’s inventive and imaginative enough to roll with it and succeed, baking up ludicrous scenarios about hiding himself away behind a fortress of Shredded Wheat boxes in a supermarket, or philosophising around the general worth of the grapefruit. His performances are always great room-dividers with audience members either loving what he does or being utterly confounded by it, but in a world of cut-and-paste, slick and fashionable young panel show wannabes, he’s an absolute eccentric gem, a rare example of a comedian (and indeed spoken word artist) who is willing to go out on a limb and managing to succeed whilst doing so.
The open mic session that followed was terrifying in that it suddenly revealed a whole host of talent which obviously hasn’t made it to many of the open mics or poetry shows in Central London yet. Twelve years ago when I first began my journey into live poetry, open mic sessions were predictable and familiar affairs – poets roamed like herds of wildebeest from one event to the next, and you would frequently see the same faces in Earls Court that you saw in Islington the previous week, often honing exactly the same material. It’s a testament to the increased popularity of live poetry events now that localised pockets of talent seem to have developed, meaning scores of different faces are guaranteed at each event. There were very few examples of bad poetry on display last night (apart from perhaps my misguided attempt to introduce my interesting “Princess Diana” poem to the proceedings) and I suspect that the Zone 3 location of Walthamstow also put some of the circuit's most talentless attention-seekers off attending. If a journey is involved and there’s not likely to be any promoters to impress in the audience at the other end, it seems to act as a good deterrent.
I’ve lived in Walthamstow now for twelve years (on and off) and whilst I often want to take pride in my local area, certain aspects – the questionable activities of the local council, the lack of arts or entertainment venues, some of the worst neighbours I’ve ever had in my life, dodgy landlords – have pushed me close to phoning Pickfords to move elsewhere. Events like this open mic reminded me that there is a huge groundswell of talent in the area, as well as some very friendly and engaging people. It’s also useful to remember that areas like Walthamstow are actually where a lot of the least cynical and calculating creativity happens. The new-found competition and careerism in spoken word can sometimes feel burdensome too, even if I acknowledge that it is necessary to an extent. Events like this take live poetry back to its community roots and hopefully do a good job of reminding us all why it felt so good to be involved in the circuit in the first place - a win/win situation.