We’re trickling out some more summaries of Glastonbury Poetry&Words, in a kind of slow drip, water torture sort of way. What can we say? I still have a rucksack full of glitter on my sitting room floor. Let’s get to some more bits of that magic festival.
Andy Craven-Griffiths brings out the big guns right off the bat, a strategy that works for him in a real way: he doesn’t shy away from family, and love, and kindness, and those things that sit in the back of the throat, unsaid. Except, as you’re swept up in it, he goes ahead and says them. He talks about his family, unique (like all families, in their ways), on a trip to Spain, drinking with his older brother for the first time, in the sun: “Our pupils shrink in sync….huddling over the table practically cuddling – first time on the lash.” On his family, his dad, a gesture of affection, hiding behind a curtain, ‘reveling in rebellion.’ He puts the family poems into a certain smaller set then moves to other themes, but the focus on kindness, on those most authentic and genuine interactions, remains a thread through all of it: “We know kindness like a horse knows running…” “Our frozen breaths speech bubbles for the unsayable..” ” Utopia is not a low fat yogurt.” (I’m remixing these lines here). He tells the story of a childhood friend he envied until he realized the jagged facets of his life behind the public face. He says of a girl he loved: “Her skin sings to me. I can’t believe how warm she is/how warm she keeps me.” And in a way that first seems unassuming and then builds until it hums into something profound, he does the same to the audience.
Koko comes on stage and steps into her presence, unapologetic, self-possessed. She’s another poet who seems utterly at ease in front of an audience, a performer who reflects the light from a crowd and makes her own back at them. Poets who have a knack for blending music and poetry bring a special level of energy and complexity to the stage — it brings a kind of multiplying alchemy. Koko is a master at the loops and layers of sound which expand to fill the the space she makes for the audience. In a searing piece on sexism and systems of oppression she leads through lists of #notallmen, asking people to look at themselves and their own roles with honesty, for once. The women in the audience are the choir she’s preaching to – it’s the men she asks for a true reckoning. She intersperses spoken pieces with those layered with sung choruses, tones and percussion, describing ‘A wound that exists even if you don’t believe it.” In a stunner on race and all the societal shaming around colour and darkness in a skin she asks, ‘Why did I feel the need to hide from the sun all those times? Searching for shade is not fun.” And to end, and to blow the faces off the assembled crowd, she lets the loops soar as she ends in a whirlwind: “I thought I was a tree: I was the whole fucking garden.” Damn.
Maddie, Australian via London, doesn’t need to shout to compel a crowd to silence. She has a manner on stage that seems both endearingly calm, a tiny bit shy, and and the same time, completely unfazed. She meets the audience’s eye. “If my body was a poem,’ she begins as a refrain, “My body is an express train…”If my body was a poem it would not have any point…” and as though she’s commanding the crowd in real time she continues, ‘If my body was a poem the audience would not be still, it would writhe and jive and shake…” She has a way about her. She talks about planes, and fear of flying, drawing a laugh with the very useful advice of, ‘If you close the lid before flushing less of your soul gets sucked out.” She’s fearless in her choice of topic and the frank approach: she walks towards them with her words unadorned. “How hard it is to forget a language when your mouth knows the shape of the words.” As though it was a theme for her fearsome set altogether she says ‘I am sorry for refusing to exist quietly.’
Debris does nothing less than storm the stage. A prophetess of grime, she brings a mixture of song, beats, and spoken pieces in a heated seat that pulls in a whopper crowd. A dancer and professional raver she dances even in her spoken pieces – it’s as though she’s pushing the words from her mouth with her muscles, like an engine. The charisma in it: it takes balls to sing a song acapella on stage, particularly on a poetry stage, but she sits into it. She sings a song to those who with different intelligences: “A creative breach learn how you lear, test score low, educate high. Learn how you learn. Ask why.” Her work is a continuing call for better – within the broken structures of society, on the dance floor, within ourselves and the perceptions which rule us: “My hair is big but my brain is bigger.” And in a scorcher of a piece set to a layered beat she has a kind of opposite call to arms, inspired by her love of solo raving and the men who hound her on the dance floor. It’s a cry for space and respect, and it sticks in the head for days, and she pulls the audience into it full-fleshed: “Nah, don’t question question question me.” Brilliant.
Anna Freeman mixes deeply personal, genuine moments with a perfectly timed sense of humour that makes a mix which always surprises the crowd. She pulls in small details of everyday life and somehow, like a sorcerer with an undercut, makes them profound. She describes her progressive childhood with the knock-off My Little Ponies, hauls a mighty laugh from the crowd with her mother’s plan to throw a party with beetroot hummus to celebrate her period.” She creates a rare and compelling intimacy with a crowd. Everyone in the tent feels as though they know her — or more importantly, that she knows them. In a breakup poem she calls a partner her right hand, then says ‘how hard it is to cut off a right hand.” She offers her hopes for gone partners, mixing the heartbreaking and the hilarious: ‘I hope your poo slides out of you like butter.” She offers a love letter to a friend’s baby, who ‘smells like ham,’ and their future relationship ‘for all of my life.’ In a cutting and fierce retort to a sexist comment, a howl against mansplaining, she describes the true ‘conversations worth having.” In another cry for (and against) love she asks, “Where is this going? A binding verbal contract – isn’t that romantic?”
Toria hates being called a ‘punk poet,’ so we won’t, but there is an element of the underground rock star about her. It’s the same kind of fearlessness and poetic upheaval. Her poems are half-songs, she uses repetition to bring the audience into some kind of new space. She talks about heartbreak, of a mosaic of broken dreams in the towns she knows: “I dumped you, liked you.” “Smack my ass so I know we’re all right.” She delves into those difficult topics without flinching, without looking away, without allowing the audience to look away — the things you can’t talk about, when ‘The only thing you’ve got is to look forward to some smoke.’ In her piece on Scotch Maggie she reaped death threats, saying, ‘the moral of the story is, don’t out drug dealers on YouTube.” Her voice has a lilt that builds almost like a tune until the audience is trance-like- crying, compelled, refusing to believe her when she says ‘Nothing matters now.”
A blues singer from the forties has a baby with a modern spoken word poet and that baby grew up to have a baby with campfire druid in an 80s windsuit with the confidence of a lead singer, that baby would be Jemima Foxtrot. She has an oldness about her, and a freshness, and she knows her way around a loop pedal. She sings and her voice seems to come from another era – some of her poems are set to melody, and it sends them to some other level, as the fine language itself rides on top of the tunes: of a day in the forest, ‘We deck its dumb trees with our laughter….muzzled by sickly tradition….In this sweet smudge of wood I love you again.” Over and over the audience is struck by her skill with language, quietly virtuosic : “My soul is dragging audibly..I hope the next man I ramble with is a habit that’s cleaner to kick.” In the title poem to her book All Damn Day, she leaves the audience in tears with a love letter to the small humming of every day ordinary interaction, singing with strangers at a bus stop and when it arrives, ‘we poured onto it like sugar….a heavy bottomed joy…’ ending with the soaring line: “I am too grateful for it. It’s too good.” Us too.
Our headliner, and a legend, John Hegley packs the tent to close out the day. Though he reads from his pieces they have the compelling pull which keeps the audience rapt. His poems are songs too, backed by a multi-instrumentalist for a kind of two-man variety show. He has the kind of attitude of another rocker who has hung up his vinyl pants for a calmer raging. He describes a Luton bungalow, coyly reads the political scene, the ‘assist in the managing of their genius.” He takes aim at past politicos, singing an almost medieval court song about Henry 8th: ‘Can I have a divorce?’ said Henry the 8th, ‘Of course you can’t, said the Pope.’ He whips the audience into a gesticulating frenzy, enlisting them as actors in his piece with hand motions and divers and animals, ‘I am a gillimot, I am a diver, an ocean arriver.” He was called for an encore – -the first of the Poetry&Words stage, ending on a piece on George Best, his ‘twinkle twinkle little toes….I can see George best’s feet dribbling with my scribbling” and the au