Verve Poetry Festival 2018

Well, readers (if you exist, it feels like writing into the abyss), I haven’t written properly her since Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Most of my reviews are written for The Norwich Radical, and I’ve now been writing for them for over three years as a volunteer. I felt the urge to write having recently come back from Verve Poetry Festival (alas, as an audience member, not a participant).

One of my cousins is at university in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to get her a Saturday ticket and visit her whilst attending the festival. We had a lovely time, and I discovered new voices amongst old favourites. It was a bit overwhelming at times being surrounded by so many familiar names and faces, and by the end of the festival my brain kind of stopped working, but it was well worth it. I’ll go through some of my personal highlights.

Dead or Alive Slam

I’d never been to a Dead of Alive Slam, where actors read the work of past poets, and compete against the alive ones. I was very much in team ‘alive’, who were the overall winners, but I discovered poems by both I enjoyed. It featured Genevieve Carver, Isaiah Hull and Caroline Teague – the first two being new to me, and all of them brilliant.  Team Death consisted of poems by Christina Rossetti, Forough Farrokhzad, and Djuna Barnes (read by Tembi Xena, Lorna Nickson Brown, and Zeddie Lawal). Djuna Barnes really stood out to me, which might come in handy for the workshop I’m going to run with Spread the Word – The Femme Canon.

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City Poems

This section featured six commissioned poets, alongside competition winners, and was hosted by the judge Luke Kennard. What I liked about this section was that there were so many poets, and so much variety. It can be difficult to listen to poetry across three days (even for us poets) so this quick succession of poets was welcome for a morning event at the start of a long day. It featured local poets including Roy McFarlane, Bohdan Piasecki, Amerah Saleh, Jenna Clake, Casey Bailey, and Ahlaam Moledina. Having been tutored by Piasecki whilst in the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and having met Saleh on a previous trip to Birmingham, it was particularly good to hear both their poetry. You can buy the book of poems here.

Stablemates: Bobby Parker

Chaired by Jill Abram, creator of Stablemates, there was discussion and poetry from Martha Sprackland, James Brookes, and Bobby Parker in celebration of new work from Offord Road Books. Although I wasn’t expecting it, Bobby Parker was my favourite poet in this section. He was open about the criticism he had received from his poem ‘THANK YOU FOR SWALLOWING MY CUM’, of which I wasn’t previously aware had provoked accusations of misogyny. I read the poem myself and although I think it’s horrible, I think it’s the intention, it being an exploration of this dark side of masculinity and the validation that men may place on such an act. It is simultaneously simple and complex, and I like it and Parker’s other word. I didn’t realise the connection between this poem and Thank You For Swallowing, which publishes incredible feminist writing.

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The Poetry Assembly: Romalyn Ante

Although a celebration of Jane Commane’s Bloodaxe collection, the event was also supported by Roz Goddard, Liz Berry, Romalyn Ante, and Matt Black. My favourite poet was Romalyn Ante, with her slow, rhythmic poetry, with vivid imagery, it was beautiful to hear her recite. My only issue with the programming of Verve Poetry Festival is the division of sections labelled ‘poetry’ and ‘spoken word’, when there were examples such as this where Ante knew her poems by heart and was in the ‘poetry’ section, yet others such as the Out-Spoken Press section were labelled ‘spoken word’ when both feature books.

Out-Spoken Press Showcase

In moving on to this ‘spoken word’ section, I believe one featured poet, Raymond Antrobus, has been quite vocal about claiming the title of ‘poet’ as his own rather than solely a ‘spoken word artist’. This showcase also featured Anthony Anaxagorou, Joelle Taylor, Sabrina Mahfouz, and Bridget Minamore. I’m very well versed on the latter three poets, all three featuring the the She Grrrowls anthology from Burning Eye Books and so it was great to hear them all together at Verve Poetry Festival.

Nymphs & Thugs: Maria Ferguson

The penultimate event I went to featured Salena Godden, Matt Abbott, Maria Ferguson, and Jamie Thrasivoulou. Whilst they were all great poets, Ferguson was my highlight here, and is always completing captivating. After her show ‘Fat Girls Don’t Dance’ (which I have seen and bought a copy of the book of the same title), she is now working on a show called ‘Essex Girls’. As well as her usual fantastic poetry, in the second half of the two hour slot she gave us a sneak peek into some of her writing from the show.

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Luke Wright & Ross Sutherland

Tom Chivers of Penned in the Margins presented the last section I could attend before hopping on my newly booked coach (otherwise I would have been on night buses from arriving by train 1am the next day in London). It think it was actually Tom Chivers who introduced me to the work of Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland just under a decade ago as an awkward undergrad on an internship at PITM whilst studying at UEA. I have since worked with Ross Sutherland during Shake the Dust, and Luke Wright kindly published my small selection of poems with Nasty Little Press and put me on at Latitude Festival, and I have kept following both their work. It was, as always, great to hear their stuff, especially having recently read and loved The Toll by Wright, and listened to some of the Imaginary Advice podcasts by Sutherland.

All in all, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my recommendations (I has taken me a couple of hours of writing after all). Hopefully next year I’ll be writing as a fellow participant! I’ve been officially freelance since October 2017, so stay tuned for when I find time to write about what that has meant for me thus far (clue: I’m still very much settling back into the UK since my return from Spain in July).

 

Review: Paula Varjack – Show Me The Money

Coming out later this week is a review of three feminist picks for Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Today I have an extract focusing on Paula Varjack’s ‘Show Me The Money’. Look out for the full piece this coming Wednesday in The Norwich Radical.

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Show Me The Money

*****

Paula Varjack is a performance artist who keeps going from strength to strength. She is a poet, yet she also has mastered a unique style of show that is a documentary-meets-monologue. She introduces the audience to a world of dreams, before bringing us down to earth to face the reality of being an artist in a capitalist society. Money is a necessary evil, but she shows that it is often viewed that artists don’t need it to eat and put shelter over our heads. I write this from a shared hostel room, where I’ve had three hours sleep due to snoring coming from the top bunk. And at Edinburgh Fringe Festival you’re never more than two metres away from an artist, so it would likely be the case that the audience could relate to this. Though from the audience participation from the beginning, we knew who was earning under £10,000 a year (like me), up to the one man who sat down at around the £80,000 mark. The audience was kept engaged through a series of videos, and experimental music and visuals. This also showed that Varjack is not only a talented story-teller, threading her monologue together with a kind of narrative arc, a journey of some sort, but she’s also technically skilled. Her naturally warm personality shines through on stage, where she welcomed everyone to join her in a vision of hope for the future in times where it can be hard to find.

You can see ‘Show Me The Money’ at Bedlam Theatre at 15:30 today. 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – Book Group

Before leaving my place of work last Friday, I wanted to share a piece on what happened when we had a book group on The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The demographic of the group was mainly British-Bangladeshi students in Year 10 and 12, with maybe one or two white students, and four white members of staff. I feel this added an important dynamic to the group, with a book centred around race. There was no passionate argument asserted with regard to the book, perhaps because, although about race, the students were able to distance themselves from the plight of the African-American characters rather than see white supremacy as an obvious oppressor.

It is also true that the white members of staff, despite wanting to encourage an open discussion on race relations, would have had an influence on the discussion merely by being present as figures of authority. Within that position, I created a Power Point that brought up questions to challenge their initial gushing positive comments. Nobody doubted that Stockett is a talented writer – I read it over the Christmas holiday period (2015), and also agreed that I felt engaged throughout it. Hence it was a best seller at the time of publication, and was made into a film, which I had seen prior to reading the book.  However, when it comes to authenticity, did Stockett have the right to publish such a work of fiction?

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Through the discussion, students reacted at first that the characters were realistic, but were able to consider this thought when asked to think further on which characters were fully developed, who was driving the narrative etc. We didn’t touch on the fact that Stockett had also been in the middle of a lawsuit on just how real her characters were. A tale of a coming together of black maids and one white outcasted woman, I would say that the target audience is white women. That is to whom the feel-good factor appeals. As we went on, we gradually began to touch on deeper issues in terms of Stockett’s benefiting financially from writing of the oppression of a group that is not her own.

The students gave a balanced view and were comfortable with the greyness of enjoying a book, yet being able to critique it.  We connected it with another successful book depicting a similar “white saviour” narrative, written in the 1960s – that is, of course, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. So, overall, yes, we can enjoy reading such books, but we must remain critical of them too. I haven’t read the sequel Lee wrote, though am interested in the perspective that Atticus turned into a racist. Because over 50 years on, surely we should know more about those such as Anne Moody and her autobiography written before and during the Civil Rights Movement, and stories should move beyond the depiction of black people as subservient to white people, and authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie should be the kinds of writers we read when book groups meet to discuss works of fiction (whose Americanah I suggested before my departure).

The Norwich Radical: My One Year Anniversary

The other week I wanted to show Bande de Filles aka Girlhood, to 6th Form students in order to get them to come along to the Feminist Club. They had been keen after having Feminista UK coming in to run a workshop with them. Sadly, my efforts at putting colour-posters up, guying popcorn and even buying the DVD specifically to show the film were wasted at this time. It was rather depressing to hear the music at the start repeat in an empty classroom. I guess they’re overworked. And as an English Mentor, I keep giving them extra reading to do as it is!

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I’ve been writing for The Norwich Radical for a year now, where I look at the arts through a feminist lens. Girlhood was a film I highlighted for its Feminist credentials. So, I thought this would be an opportune time to highlight the articles I’ve written thus far. You can get a whole list by clicking here.

In order of appearance:

I’m Sorry You’re Offended

Sirens at Soho Theatre

Soho Comedy: Women, ‘It’s Like They’re Real People’

Emmy the Great: Oslo, Hackney

The Bechdel Test Fest

Women of the World Festival 2015: Part 1 and Part 2

Three Women Poets

Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice Question

Woman Verses World

The Place for Poetry: Fragment and Process, Visual Culture and Performance

The Last Word

Soon Every House Will Have One

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To Kill a Mockingbird – Is it Just Me?

In Defence of Telling Girls They Can

Let’s Talk About Sex: The Institute of Sexology and Sex in the Afternoon

Feminist Picks: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Homework: Molly Naylor and Katie Bonna

Arts Funding: Young People, Women and Intersectionality

Suffragette: The Fight is Not Over

The Hollow of The Hand

Hannah Silva’s ‘Shlock!’

The World Goes Pop

Warsan Shire’s Her Blue Body

Richard Yates: An Accidental Feminist?

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Review: Amy

I’m in my room, listening to Amy Winehouse, having watched the documentary about her, Amy, last night. The main tragedy highlighted, aside from her obvious addiction, was the way she was treated by both her father and on-off partner, Blake. That said, relationships are not perfect, Blake was clearly vulnerable and damaged like Amy, and they cannot claim responsibility for her death. What was sickeningly apparent was that the media did have an enormous part to play in this tragedy. Amy never wanted the fame she got, even said she would give it back if she could, and before she reached such heights said that she would go mad and wouldn’t be able to handle it. Such is the fate of those who die at the hand of the paparazzi, and those who buy into sensationalist tabloid journalism, as covered in the poetry of Amber Tamblyn in Dark Sparkler.

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Other than her tragic story, what stood out was her music and talent. Seeing her at her best performing at various stages in her career, lyrics picked out on the screen, provoked a feeling that hit you straight in the gut. Although sometimes not always agreeing with some of the content, for the most part I loved her blend of sarcastic wit, sorrowful heart-wrenching pain, and empowering sentiments such as “in this blue shade, my tears dry on their own”. The songs have always had a slick rhythm to them as well, such as in favourite In My Bed. At the heart of Amy’s music was a desire for connection, and that desire to use music to heal the self and heal others was what kept her writing and recording new material despite the chaos of her personal life. That temptation to self-destruct is also relatable to those of us who have traits of hyper-achievement, for they are two sides of the same coin.

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In 2008 I was 19 years old and I wrote a poem called Blanket; as I watched the documentary, I remembered it writing it in response to Amy’s rising success since she moved from Frank to Back to Black, and the pitfalls that were well documented in the media. The poem went as follows:

I want to build myself up to the highest height,
just to look down at the fall and be filled with fright.
I want to be, the best I can be,
prove them wrong about my poetry.
Yeah, I want that pretty face, with the tear stains on show,
mascara up my eyes, just so that they all know.
I want to be perfect, to be a success,
I want to be one of the best.
I want them all to read my lips, read my mind,
then drink myself to destruction at the end of the night.

I want to fall in love again with a good boy,
just so he can break my heart,
because if I’m in a mess, feel my life is destroyed
then it at least provides more material for my art.

And I can just pick up my needle and thread,
scrub with soap, the sheets on my bed,
try stitching my life up to resemble what was,
continue the search for the Wizard of Oz,
pray for a change to a non-existent God,
click my heels together,
come home.

It was about how I could relate to the apparent dichotomy between success and failure, construction and destruction. The only thing I can do is to keep following the path to better myself, and that includes trying not to obsess about what success is and striving for it at the expense of my health. Because it’s a combination of both working and playing hard that can lead to exhaustion. I’ve come a long way since being a teenager and going to university, where getting off-your-face is standard, even on Sundays.

Nowadays, I rarely miss a roast dinner, I make sure to exercise regularly, and although work is always at the front of my mind, I make an effort to carve our significant space for maintaining relationships. I may joke about this being to do with me “getting old”, but actually it’s just finding out more about who I am and what’s important to me. And the fact that I feel it the next day when I’ve only had two pints, probably shows that I can’t take much more. But I often relate to the idea of the “death-wish” as at times there is a flicker of desire, a kind of magnetic pull, to be destructive.

Tony Bennett says in the film that “life teaches you how to live it—if you live long enough.” It is and always will be a tragedy that we don’t get to see Amy prosper, that her bulimia meant she was too weak this last time to fight against the alcohol poisoning she inflicted on herself accidentally. What urged me to write about this was the relatability for young women, and so as this has become self-reflective, I’m sure many others will feel that it could have been anyone, had they not had the time to recover from such a series of events.

The best I can do to take on board Amy’s story is to take inspiration from her creative drive, and keep focused on this. And to not let anyone stop me from doing what I want to do, whether a parent or romantic partner. I’ll never be able to listen to Rehab in a club, but I will listen in my room, or sing along with my mum in the kitchen.

Book Review: Talk you round till dusk by Rebecca Tantony

I received a copy of Rebecca Tantony’s Talk you round till dusk by illustrator Anna Higgie, who I met last year when I performed at BoomTown. You can have a peak inside the book to see the beautiful illustrations here. You can also buy some of her work from the book at her Etsy shop.

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I fell in love with this book after reading the first piece and it’s become one of my favourite books from Burning Eye Books.  The pieces flow between flash fiction, poetry and short stories, each piece with strikingly vivid imagery and captivating stories. Slipping between third and first person, placing a ‘you’ between lines of poetry, leaving you wondering where the stories lie between autobiographical and fiction. This use of the lyrical ‘I’ is something I always find fascinating, and enjoy the element of play this offers.

Much of the work deals with relationships and searching, love and travel. At times it’s heart-breaking: ‘he only liked women who felt safe without colour and peroxide to hide behind.’ At other times it’s liberating:

‘What did you do that for?’

‘I did it for me,’ she said, before the wind set her hair free, spilling it across the sky.

From the statement ‘women don’t normally drink pints,’ I could immediately relate. When the next page spoke of Andalucia, I recalled fond memories of Nerja. Tantony managed to capture the feeling of the place, and its pages fuelled my excitement to carry out the same path and live in Spain: ‘Instead of breaking up we had moved to Spain’ hit me with its poignancy, and yet its humour. With orange blossoms showing the direction for discovery at the end, there is a perfect balance of reality and romance.

Different pieces are intercepted with short poetic descriptions and musings, like notes in a travel journal, such as ‘I found your at sunrise and fell in love with a combination of body parts’. The collection takes the reader across the world, from Spain to India, Cyprus, San Francisco, through a Californian road-trip, to Paris, to Mexico, and ending back in Bristol. Through the turbulence of many characters, of wanderings and wondering whether ‘we might not make it back together in one piece’, at the end of one year and the start of a next, bubbling with excitement with the journeys we might go on, it seems apt to end on the sentiment of We are Braver This Way. In it we find the title quotation: ‘I’ll talk you round till dusk and when the final countdown/comes we’ll be dancing, won’t we?’ Whether we get the happy ending we long for is up to you.

Talk you round till dusk is available from Burning Eye Books (2015) for £9.99.

bell hooks: Outlaw Culture

When reading Feminist texts, it is usually unlikely that you will agree with 100% of what they write. It’s hard to be right about everything, and Feminists are human and it’s natural to disagree. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a pretty impossible feat to solve the world’s problems. But, you know, we try. And when it comes to bell hooks, she gets pretty close to that 100% for me. This notion of a perfect kind of Feminism is also something bell hooks addresses.

In conversation with Caitlin Moran, Bridget Christie and Shazia Mirza at Southbank Centre, they asserted that there’s no such thing as a perfect Feminist, and that they shouldn’t have to face a backlash for saying things others had issues with. Whilst I agree that the vile abuse that can come out of this through such “Twitterstorms” is bad (goodbye sisterhood), I think it’s important to be critical and create a dialogue rather than stick your fingers in your ears and say ‘la la la, I’m not listening’. bell hooks states her books ‘rigorously critique and interrogate aspects of feminist thoughts, they also insist on the primacy of a fierce feminist commitment to ending sexism and sexist oppression.’ She goes on to say that ‘a progressive, revolutionary feminist movement must welcome and create a context for constructive conflict, confrontation, and dissent. Through that dialectical exchange of ideas, thought, and visions, we affirm the transformative power of power politics.’ Maybe a utopian vision, but something we do have the power to achieve.

I have a copy of ‘Feminism is for Everybody’ still on my shelf, and bought my boyfriend a copy of ‘The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love’ after a recommendation from a male colleague, but I started with ‘Outlaw Culture’. It’s a collection of essays and interviews which focuses on pop culture, weaving in perfectly placed profanities within an academic discourse that gives legitimacy to engage critically with the kinds of things that surround a majority of people’s everyday lives.

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I have folded down SO MANY CORNERS. I cannot recommend this book enough, even if it isn’t the one that most people would typically go for. Although bell hooks has been questioned on her academic style, I still think it’s somewhat accessible. Coming from an academic background myself, it may be hard to assess that concern properly, but I was actually gripped when reading it. And to get that from a non-fiction feminist text is pretty impressive.

One of the big things I liked about the book, is the amount of times the ‘white supremacist capitalist, patriarchy’ is referenced, as well as comments on heteronormativity and imperialism. I think it’s so important to see the ways these systems of power intersect and to find strength in that, as well to see what part you have to play in the struggle against these multiple oppressions. Although there are some references to films I’d not seen, it made me want to watch and re-read, and these were just as interesting as those I was familiar with, or the more broad essays, such as the fantastic ‘Gangsta Culture – Sexism and Misogyny: Who will take the rap?’ This was the one that made me rush to my bag in a debate with my Dad to slam the book down at the table, opened at one of the turned-down corners.

Published in 2006, Outlaw Culture is available from Routledge Classics and you can buy it here.