Saturday, 20 July 2013

Poetry Mongrels

As I've said many times before - to the extent where I'm sure it gets boring - at heart, I'm a spoken word/ performance poetry purist.  I'm never happier than when I'm watching one poet live on stage delivering a brace of strong and topically varied material to an audience - one spotlight, one mic, one voice, lots of ideas.

A lot has changed in the last few years as people try to market poetry in new ways to a larger audience, and tight themes and concepts for shows are beginning to become more prominent than they once were.  When Luke Wright and his cohorts launched "Aisle 16" many years ago and delivered a live poetry show mocked up to look like a business motivational workshop, it seemed like a peculiar but brilliantly staged anomaly, a gimmick which would never be expanded upon by anyone else.  And indeed, for a time conceptual poetry shows remained unusual occurrences, but for the last two or three years it's become impossible to head up towards any festival with spoken word content without coming across shows based on Big Themes.  Or small themes.  Everything from left-leaning politics to video games has played a role (and I was recently treated to two shows catering for each of those topics courtesy of  scratch performances from both Niall O'Sullivan and Dan Simpson at the Poetry Cafe some months ago).

It has to be said that a few of these shows have been excellent.  Some, on the other hand, have felt like mediocre stand-up routines with bits of poetry uncomfortably stapled on.  The shows that don't work for me are the ones with long confessional shaggy-dog stories weaving their way around what is essentially a very short poetry set, which under ordinary circumstances might be done and dusted in fifteen minutes.  Where is the meat, I find myself asking?  Where's the poetry I actually paid my ticket money for?  I can see that they do a lot to pull in the poetry-curious and the floating voters, but for a traditional, hardcore poetry punter like me (and indeed comedy lover) they often feel a bit insubstantial, neither fish nor fowl.  On top of that, there are few things more embarrassing than poets who suddenly decide overnight they can have a crack at comedy, just, y'know, because it seems straightforward enough.  After all, it's a lower artform, isn't it?  (No it's not).

So then, take note. A recent example of amazing content came courtesy of Richard Tyrone Jones's "Big Heart" radio show. I've already written about his stage show here, and it came as little surprise to me that BBC Radio 4 have snapped it up and turned it into a poetry sit-com.  It's an absolute treat, taking all the best elements of the theatre experience and sharpening them into something which is immediately both more amusing and moving.  Richard also has comedy experience to spare having spent time in Footlights and the stand-up circuit long before his stint on the poetry circuit took off, so has a more keenly tuned sense of comic delivery, character writing and absurdism than most poets.

The show is obviously necessarily dark due to the topic of his heart failure being the central theme, but like some warped, introspective, ambient soundtracked version of long-forgotten eighties sit-com "Only When I Laugh" crossed with "Seinfeld", it uses the tragedy to pull in a cast of self-obsessed eccentrics and oddballs.  Paul Birtill stars as himself, dropping in to dourly read poems about death and smoke cigarettes ("It could be worse - imagine a world where the only way to die is to be kicked to death").  Jacob, his publisher and lawyer, sniffs the rare opportunity for poetry money out of his sudden demise.  And between all this are some genuinely moving, well-written poems, representing the quiet introspective moments behind the natural comedy chaos that always occurs during moments of tragedy.  If the first episode had any flaws at all, it was that (like most sit-coms of any ilk) the show took a little while to establish itself.  Once there, however, it became a peculiar piece of work with an atmosphere not much like anything else on air at the moment, either on television or radio.  It's on every Sunday evening, and you should listen.

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Also gaining ground in the last year or so has been Poetronica, a combination of poetry and electronic dance music.  Scroobius Pip set the ball rolling here when "Thou Shalt Always Kill" was released many moons ago, and other ambitious poets have followed his lead and begun to set their words to music to varied results.

Spoken word stalwart Joshua Idehan leads Benin City lyrically and vocally, but what their debut album "Fires in the Park" isn't is Poetronica.  In fact, it's pretty difficult to decide what it is.  Brassy reggae sounds cut through bleak, wounded observations on failed relationships and urban scenes, while dubstep beats and jazzy riffs also emerge to join the party.  The album sounds like wandering through a backstreet in East London late on a summer night, listening to the sounds emerging from open windows - it sounds more genuinely cross-fertilised and truly urban than most music that dares to give itself that title.

What's staggering (and against all the odds) is the way it hangs together as a whole, and the atmosphere it evokes.  Frequently tugging in two directions emotionally, sounding simultaneously triumphant, defiant and despondent, Joshua's introspective lyrics combine with sunshine riffs to create something which creates mixed moods in the listener closer to Northern Soul than anything I've heard in years.  The downbeat "Baby" is, in particular, a masterpiece of both subtlety and bold strokes, pulling out of the gentle observations about a cracked relationship and morphing into something epic-sounding.  On occasion the end results echo Bristol trip-hop (and even early pioneers Bark Psychosis) but for the most part the album sounds like nothing so much as itself, yet still somehow accessible and wonderful.  If it ends up on any lists of the best albums of 2013, don't be remotely surprised.

Both these projects dropped in the last month, and have gone a long way towards proving that despite my initial doubts about poets trying to combine their art with other forms, sometimes the end results can be a lot better than a compromise and actually become wonderful mongrels, and may genuinely be our best hope at maintaining the growing interest in poetry.  If further results of this quality emerge, I'll be incredibly happy and may have to tear up my poetry purist membership card.  Despite having very little in common otherwise, both of these efforts, in very different respects, hint at possible ways forward and manage to be unique in a way that other new challengers in both broadcasting and music are usually failing to do. 

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