Introducing: Helen and Benita Johnson, Organisers of Glastonbury Poetry&Words

The Johnsons, by Scott Tyrrell

The Johnsons, by Scott Tyrrell

Time to tell you something about the history of the stage, and thereby Helen Johnson, who’ll be there with partner Benita every day, barring a natural disaster! If they’re new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In Helen’s own words:

“The Poetry&Words stage was set up in 1992 by Pat V T West. It started off in a yurt and then moved quickly to a small stage in the corner of the Green Fields. Just before her untimely death in 2008 Pat called me to her flat in Clifton to ask me if I would take over the stage. To say I was taken aback would be a massive under-statement. I had absolutely no idea that was coming! At the time, I was in the midst of my PhD, juggling that with a full-time teaching job. I had no idea how I could possibly run a festival stage too, but you just can’t say no to that!

“So I said yes – on condition that the infrastructure was sorted out for me. (No arriving two weeks’ before to a bare patch of grass for me; I needed the tent up already!) So it was that the Poetry&Words stage moved to Theatre and Circus, who had a tent they would house us in for a few hours a day; a tent, as it turned out, that was several times the size of Poetry&Words Mark I.

“That first year, before I headed off to a conference in Saskatoon, Canada, I packed two bags – one for Canada and one for Glastonbury. After the conference, I got back to my house, had a shower, switched bags and caught the train to the festival! I had a skeleton crew that first year and ran much of it myself – compering, performing, organising etc, alongside a few helpers and poets. By the Sunday, I was so exhausted by jet lag and festival fever that I literally fell asleep on my feet (to quite a lively band, as it happens!)

“Anyway, fast forward to 2010. The stage now ran all day and I had a full crew to help me with it (having discovered the wonders of delegation). At the time, I was performing my poetry as part of the duo, Yaffle, with musician, Benita Johnson. I invited Benita along to perform with me at the festival. Two years later we were married (not something, I can assure you, that happens with everyone I book, though we did get engaged at the festival in 2011).

“When we had our son, Jake, in 2015, Benita stood in for me as stage manager, and I had the pleasure of attending as a punter for only the third time ever, along with our 6 week old boy. Benita proved to be so adept at running the stage, that we’ve worked together on it ever since. I suspect that Jake won’t be far behind. He helped me laminate Scott Tyrrell’s bunting this year, talking to each of the poets as they went through the laminator. (Some were told off for being naughty, but most, you’ll be pleased to hear, behaved well and made friends with him on their journey.)”

Reviews:

“Her sparkling witty poetry is continuing to wow audiences on the performance poetry circuit.” ~ Three Tuns Poetry

“…poignant yet sultry and stirring, complex and sweet.” ~ Everton Hartley

“She glides and canters over hills and vales of words leaving a landscape of language hanging on the wall of your mind.” ~ Mal Travers, Acoustic Night

“Like Ani DiFranco on steroids.” ~ Bob (happy audience member at a Yaffle performance)

Fay Other people’s words:

I really wanted to highlight the folk who make this all possible. It turns out we haven’t heard explicitly from Helen since Scott’s interview in 2015, so it felt like time! In a total cop-out, I canvassed those poets who I know who’ve worked with Helen (and Benita) in the past. They have this to say:

“These two create, curate, and nurture one of the most unique stages at Glasto – a true space for listeners to open themselves or take a quiet breath among the chaos. The two of them create life changing experiences for poets – I can genuinely say going to Glasto, my first ever gig in the U.K., was transformative – and it was thanks to them.” – Erin Fornoff

“How hard Helen and Benita work for make P&W happen is indescribable by even a billion villanelles!

“Loadsa folks believe these things ‘just happen’, they don’t consider how much organisation it takes to make it happen. That attitude is the greatest sign the event is well managed, cos most people only notice when stuff goes wrong. P&W is a Glastonbury Festival staple any poet worth their sonnets is proud to shout about being on the team.

“Helen has deeply studied the art of performance poetry, she knows what makes a solid stanza, and her love for our art is evident in all she achieves.

“Long may P&W’s flags triumphantly fly!” – Dominic Berry

“I met Helen around 2003, when we were both part of the Bristol poetry scene, and when Pat West was still the P&W boss. The stage has grown and diversified so dramatically in the years since Helen’s been at the helm and I’m so glad to still be a part of it now, and to see her and her growing family (and amazing thigh-bum-bag thing) pottering gloriously around the site!” – Rosy Carrick

“We met Helen and Benita at Larmer Tree festival in 2011. I had submitted The Antipoet for Glastonbury, along with a couple of thousand other people that year. I had never seen so much negativity on social media before! Many people that realised they hadn’t been chosen were angry and expressed themselves accordingly. I felt I needed to address the balance and simply wrote on line, that even though they hadn’t been selected, that they would happily step in if anyone had a problem at the last minute and thanked them for all their hard work and wished them good luck with it all. A few similar responses appeared after mine and the ‘angries’ petered out. I received a response a couple of days later stating that yes, I was correct in thinking that they hadn’t got Glastonbury but would they be interested in Larmer Tree, another poetry Stage that Helen ran? Yes please! They did it, had a ball and found a great fan base that saw them being asked to play there every year since. I didn’t give up submitting to Glastonbury and the next year when they were given the second opportunity to play Larmer Tree, they were pleased but Ian simply acknowledged my text notifying them with a, ‘lovely, I guess that means no Glastonbury’. I said, ‘never say never’ and a few weeks afterwards we were told they had been successful in applying for Poetry and Words as well that year! I cannot put into words how happy they both were as I’m the manager and they’re the creatives but I can still remember the look on Paul’s face when I read out the email over breakfast. He never did finish that boiled egg.

“Having done that I realise it’s more how they all got together than about Helen and Benita themselves 😮 It just all came flooding back. The fact that they’re lovely people, who have a stupidly hard job sorting through submissions every year and juggling poets that can really handle festivals and create a good mix across the board in all areas whilst looking for performers they know that can trust to turn up and do the job should be forgotten either.” – Donna Ray, Manager of The Antipoet

“Both Helen and Benita have thrown themselves into the gargantuan task of getting a world class lineup together every single year. A lineup that flows and wows seamlessly and effortlessly over 3 days. They’ve worked hard to get a first class backstage team to grease the wheels, and they have an unerring eye for spotting talent and giving them a platform at the world’s greatest outdoor festival. The likes of Luke Wright, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all started out being picked for Poetry&Words when they were bright, young, hungry things. And I personally have huge gratitude for being allowed to have plied both my love of illustration and spoken word at such an amazing place regularly over the years. I am truly in their debt.” – Scott Tyrrell


I’m really looking forward to finally meeting Helen and Benita in person later this month and telling them in person what an amazing job they do! ♥

Sneak preview:

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Introducing: Glastonbury Festival Poetry Slam, hosted by Brian McMahon Gallagher and Thunderclap Murphy


And to finish everything off is the famous Glastonbury Festival Poetry Slam, 17:00-19:00 Sunday. If it’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

Important points the organisers would like you to note:

  • Sign ups are once the tent opens on site. No early sign ups. Nope, not even for you!
  • Booked poets can’t perform in either event, so this is a chance to air/ hear new voices.
  • The slam prizes are: a spot in next year’s programme, and an awesome unique trophy designed by Pete Hunter of Apples & Snakes (see photos above).

When we know more about the rules that the hosts, Brian MacMahon Gallagher and Thunderclap Murphy, are applying, we’ll update you.

Fay’s words:

I love me a slam. My first introduction to performance poetry that wasn’t in Welsh/ someone else’s words/ both was watching my brother, and other competitors, slam in what turned out to be one of the earliest UK slams in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre in the mid-90s. Of course, competitive poetry recitation is something we Welsh had been doing for centuries (see Chairing of the Bard, and the modern Welsh Eisteddfodau tradition for examples – yes, 200 years old is the modern version…), but this was dynamic, and sharp, and immediate and – more importantly – democratic; each event’s bard chosen by the acclaim of the people.

Almost exactly three years after I moved to England to the day, I entered a slam for the first time, mostly as a favour to a friend. It was a bit of a turning point. Say what you like about slams (and I have), but they’re an amazing way into poetry for a lot of people – performers and punters. I’ve been running slams for {checks memory; whoa!} twelve years now, and am showing no signs of stopping. People bring something unique and adrenaline-fuelled to slams, and the audience gets very invested in the outcome. This year’s Glastonbury Poetry&Words Slam will be no exception, with a pretty amazing prize plus epic bragging rights. I’m looking forward more than I can say to the finale of this year’s Glastonbury Poetry&Words!

Introducing: Winston Plowes, Walkabout Poet

Winston Plowes2
Back to perform with us is Winston Plowes, Every day. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In his own words:

“Winston Plowes shares his floating home in Calderdale UK with his 16-year-old cat, Sausage. He teaches creative writing in schools, universities and to local groups while she dreams of Mouseland. His latest collection Tales from the Tachograph was published jointly with Gaia Holmes in 2018 by Calder Valley Poetry.”

Spoke~n~Word

“The world’s first random poetry generating bicycle.”

“Step right up and Spin the wheels! Create the inspiration for your very own be-spoke poetic creation and amaze yourself with hitherto unknown poetic powers with the aid of this new and remarkable invention of Mr Winston H. Plowes B.Eng. MSc. CTC.”

Fay’s words:

I know very little about Winston Plowes, beyond his recurring role as an inspiration installation and interactive attraction at Glastonbury’s Theatre & Circus area. Onward to the video archives!

Wow. Okay, the first thing to say is that encapsulating this artist’s work in a simple paragraph or two is going to be… challenging! Never mind different types of poetry, this is not a man to stick to one artform, or discipline, when he can combine engineering, juggling, music, clowning, and words. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that this would lead to a dilution of talent and, frankly aggravatingly, you’d be terribly wrong. Mr. Plowes performs physical feats that make my wrists and knees creak to watch. As at home with an audience of children as adult literati, he has everyone engaged from the moment he steps into view. And in case you were thinking that all his poetry would be humorous, or filled with easy rhymes, think again, because the man also writes gorgeous, tightly crafted verse, including one of my favourite poetry forms – and one very difficult to pull off well – the Ghazal. (In fact – I’ve just gone and checked, and it turns out that it was his guide to writing them that got me writing them in the first place! Small world, poetry…)

I’m not sure which Winston we’ll get to witness at any given time, but I’m secretly hoping for something of everything he is. What a treat that would be!

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Jackie Juno, 2017 Slam Winner

Jackie Juno
Back to perform with us is Jackie Juno, 16:35-17:00 Sunday. If she’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In her own words:

“Jackie Juno is primarily a comedic poet, known for her dynamic stage presence and outspoken views on matters political, environmental and social, somehow managing to make such subjects hilarious; but her material can also be tender, sensuous and confessional.

“She is the current Glastonbury Festival Poetry Slam champion, and a multiple slam winner, including the Plymouth Literary Festival slam (2017) and the Green Gathering slam (2016). She was a contender in the National Poetry Slam Finals at the Albert Hall, 2018.

“She hosts ‘Outspoken!’ monthly Poetry Open Mic night in Chagford, Devon, and HOOT! Cabarets in various venues in Devon.

“She has performed her poetry at two TEDx Talks.

“She was chaired Bard of Exeter 2011-12 and Grand Bard 2012-19.

“She has been a finalist in many international poetry competitions, including Arvon, Writing Magazine and the Ledbury prize.”

Reviews:

‘Jackie Juno is the arts school, leopard skin wearing rock chick. Her poetry hits you like a slap in the face from a pink handbag. There is plenty to laugh out loud at here but underneath the swagger is a gentler sensibility that gives the performance a soft heart. Her observations of life are witty, poignant and full of social message.’
Lucy English, Performance poet and novelist

‘Jackie Juno’s voice will boogie, shimmy and sashay its way into your head – her words are hellbent and irresistible: listen up!’
Chris Waters, Poet, Through a Glass, Lately, (Mudlark 2014)

‘Jackie is warm and witty, frank and feisty, but above all, very very funny.’
Matt Harvey, Poet (Radio 4)

Fay’s words:

I’ve only seen Jackie perform once, to my memory – at the Hammer & Tongue National Final about 18 months ago. Since I’m usually locked into scoring and timing (and updating the presentation), poetry details tend to slide, but she made an impression that’s stuck with me. I remember properly laughing for possibly the first time that day, and feeling somewhat refreshed by her unique presence. Surfing YouTube serves to remind me why: Jackie occupies a different mould from the standard (London, under 25s) “slam voice”, and she manages that difficult task of hiding important things to say in comedy rhyming verse. (Don’t get me wrong: the London slam scene is vibrant, exciting, and important, and some of my favourite poets – and people – are part of it, but poetry’s a broad church, and it always feels to me like gaining an important nutritional element when I see and hear something different at a slam!) She also has a deceptively light voice that is actually a rich and confident alto. Her stage presence is commanding and assured, and she is very easy to listen to (in the best way!). Looking forward to seeing her make a triumphant return to Glastonbury Poetry&Words as a result of winning the GP&W 2017 slam.

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Vanessa Kisuule, Poet in Residence

Vanessa Kisuule - Credit Ailsa Fineron
Back to perform with us is Vanessa Kisuule, 16:05-16:30 Sunday. If she’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In her own words:

“Vanessa Kisuule is a writer and performer based in Bristol, UK. She has won over ten slam titles including The Roundhouse Slam 2014, Hammer and Tongue National Slam 2014 and the Nuoryican Poetry Slam. She has been featured on BBC iPlayer, Radio 1, and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, The Guardian, Blue Peter, Sky TV, Don’t Flop and TEDx. She has performed up and down the country and internationally in Vienna, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Bangladesh, Barcelona, Oslo, Finland, Romania, New York and Brazil. She has two poetry collections published by Burning Eye Books: Joyriding The Storm (2014) and A Recipe For Sorcery (2017). She was the recipient of The Jerwood Micro Arts Bursary and The Leverhulme Arts Scholarship in 2017 and her one woman show SEXY toured with the support of Arts Council England in 2017/18. She is currently the Bristol City Poet for 2018 – 2020.”

Fay’s words:

I have been watching Vanessa perform in a variety of places since 2012. I’m fairly sure that the first was a feature slot for Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret at Edinburgh Fringe. She was in town, we needed a feature, someone put us in touch, and she was free – very simple, utterly wonderful for us. I like to think we provided a nice – if slightly surreal – experience in our haunted, underground cell, draped with fabrics. Only two years, as far as I can tell, into her poetry career, she was already extraordinary, and I’ve only seen her progress in stagecraft, energy, focus, and talent over the years, counting myself excessively fortunate to see her on stages in Edinburgh, London and Cambridge multiple times.

She won major slams fairly continuously from 2010 to 2014, and – like many major slam winners – isn’t “just” a slam poet: her range is breathtaking. She has a real gift for crafting work across the whole of the spoken word spectrum, from the gorgeously intimate and touching, through the powerfully rallying cry, to the unspeakably hilarious, but always, always important.The last nine years have seen her win the Hammer & Tongue National Slam Championship (2014, joint with Layla Josephine), among other titles; play at a slew of major festivals; have two works published by Burning Eye Books; turn up on the BBC (I squeaked very loudly and dragged my partner to watch it on the TV); tour her solo show, Sexy (which I’m gutted not to have seen yet); become Bristol City Poet; and also trounce various rappers under the stage name Shonda Rhymez.

She’s a powerful force for good – an outspoken, sex-positive, proud feminist who pulls no punches whichever power structure she’s lambasting with an exacting vocabulary. I’m so excited to get to see her later this month, and find out what poetry she’s written as part of her Glastonbury residency.

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Joe Sellman-Leava, Sunday showcase: Monster

Joe Sellman-Leava
Back to perform with us is Joe Sellman-Leava, 15:15-16:00 Sunday. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In his own words:

‘This is a story about a boy. And a girl. Some of it’s true. Some of it isn’t. But I’m not going to tell you which is which.’

“Following the success of the multi award-winning Labels (Winner: Scotsman Fringe First), internationally acclaimed Worklight Theatre present a startling new play about the conflicting masculinities we perform. Writer-performer Joe Sellman-Leava blends together vastly different voices (including Mike Tyson, Patrick Stewart and Shakespeare!) into a one-man epic where heroes clash with villains, men become monsters, and truth and fiction collide.

“Joe Sellman-Leava is an actor and writer from Devon, based in London. His plays Labels and Monster have toured the UK and internationally since 2015. He is currently writing a new play, Mosley & Me, about British Fascism, and recently finished touring with Rain Man (Bill Kenwright). Joe is also Worklight Theatre’s artistic director, with whom he has co-written several plays including How to Start a Riot and Fix.”

Reviews:

★★★★ “Brimming with earnest, intelligent energy and jumping between threads seamlessly, deftly reconstructing scenes, arguments and interviews with nothing but a pair of red steel chairs for a set” The Stage
★★★★★ “Beautifully written… a stellar performance” West End Wilma
★★★★★ “a powerful and timely exploration of masculinity in crisis” Theatre Bubble

Fay’s words:

Setting myself this challenge to write something about each of the artists performing at Glastonbury Poetry&Words from my own perspective has got me questioning a few of my assumptions: 1. That everyone on the stage would be a performance poet/ spoken word artist of some kind. 2. Everyone would have a few videos lying around the internet that I could have a look at – and, more pertinently, listen to – so I could gain a solid impression of them and their work. 3. Okay, audio, then. Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Bandcamp, BBC, podcasts…?

Darn. Well, we live and learn. Or vice versa…

Anyway, most of Joe Sellman-Leava’s videos on YouTube are in relation to his show Labels (well-crafted trailers and crowd-funding updates for the most part), and suddenly all my assumptions fall under the heading: ironically meta. Amused chagrin aside, this is what I’ve learned: JSL has a voice and a directness of presence that had me doing a double-take during the first part of a 20 minute excerpt of Labels when he tells the audience that he’s 25. That seems far too young for the assured performance I’m witnessing (despite the ages of many of the recent Hammer & Tongue finalists, for example, let alone a fair number of our artists this year, it seems that my age is showing… more meta-irony?). It turns out that his voice (in various senses of the word) is also incredibly fluid, switching up accents, tone, and straight-up impersonations with an eerie speed. His main performance is earnest and deceptively straightforward, a well-crafted likeable nervousness slowly revealing well-honed anger, compassion, and determination leading to a meticulous, nuanced interrogation of the underlying factors leading to society’s labelling, compartmentalising, and assumptions, particularly with regard to race. I didn’t finish watching the excerpt of Labels for the slightly complex reason that I was enjoying it far too much and abruptly realised that I didn’t want to find I’d committed to something I was doomed in the ambition to experience in its entirety. As it was, nearly fifteen minutes had passed by and it felt like five at most. He speaks and writes with a regard for the rhythm and texture of language that demonstrates his spoken word influences, which is bound to make this piece of theatre another excellent fit for P&W, and I, for one, am very much looking forward to watching Monster later this month.

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Murray Lachlan Young

Murray Lachlan Young by Poochi Purtill
Back to perform with us is Murray Lachlan Young, 13:10-13:40 Sunday. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In his own words:

“Current regular gig – Poet Laureate of multi-award-winning BBC6 music.

“Murray has also written for Shakespeare’s globe, The CERN institute in
Switzerland, MTV USA. 2015 saw Murray’s co-adaptation of the critically acclaimed Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood Movie Directed by Kevin Allen and starring Rhys Ifans, long-listed for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

“Murray’s 2017 satirical verse collection How Freikin’ Zeitgeist are you? Reached No. 1 in the Amazon poetry charts. His new book is a 6000-word poem The Mystery of the Raddlesham mumps.”

Fay’s words:

If there’s one poet on the bill this year that 19-year-old Fay would be freaking out over the notion of witnessing live (25 years later; sorry, love), it’s this chap. Just as I was expanding past my jazz/ folk/ classical roots with a life-altering Britpop mixtape by my best mate at university (let’s not get into what happened when I was introduced to techno and trance), going clubbing for the first time, and working out that I actually stood a chance of getting off with girls, MLY was turning up on the late-night TV shows my brother and I were watching being all louche and curly-haired and insouciantly foppish, wielding an unrepentant and rhyming wit. My brother grew his curls out and started competing in poetry slams. I started wearing tight velvet trousers and enormous silk shirts with waistcoats. Basically: there’s a legacy (even though it’s me now performing poetry and the last time I saw my brother his hair was razored very short).

Anyway, if you’ve not experienced this dandy highwayman (who’s done pretty much every Glastonbury since 1996 except 2015), you need to imagine a kind of Russell Brand of poetry, only with better hair. I mean this, you understand, in a good way. His voice is the dry side of fruity (barely changed in all this time) and, I’ve discovered, he can do wickedly accurate impersonations (19-year-old me is frankly swooning now). Whimsy barely covers it when it comes to the delivery, words used, topics covered, and occasional musical accompaniment (Casio keyboard/ wurlitzer accompaniment to a poem about being stalked by the Rolling Stones, anyone?), but nothing’s beyond his pen – from the politics of public personality to the public personalities of politics, seagulls, and the gullibility of the public – MLY, as you’d imagine from someone who’s been Poet-in-Residence to various clubs and radio stations (often concurrently) for the last couple of decades or so, can write about pretty much anything, at very short notice. It often rhymes, and/ or follows standard ballad or even limerick format, but you get the strong sense that Young is messing with everyone as he does so – a double-bluff, a knowing nod about the accessibility, predictability and limitations of hard rhyme, which he repeatedly subverts by either breaking out of it, over-pronouncing something into fitting, or reaching out with his extraordinary vocabulary and snagging the exact right word.

19-year-old me may be struggling to fit the person who wrote “Simply Everyone’s Taking Cocaine” with the one doing children’s poetry in drag, but shhh! no-one tell them. In the meantime, 44-year-old me will be drinking it all in, taking photos, and maybe sending one or two to my brother while I’m at it…

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Shama Rahman

Shama Rhaman
Performing for the first time with us is Shama Rahman, 12:35-13:05 Sunday. If she’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In her own words:

“British-Bangladeshi, UAE-born, Londoner and multi-instrumentalist Shama performs her album, ‘Truth BeTold’. The live album showcases Shama’s unique approach to sitar performance and composition, with electro-acoustic tracks seamlessly crossing genres including jazz, beat poetry, live electronica, psychedaelia, pop, hiphop, afro latin worldbeats, and Indian/Western melodies.

“Truth BeTold Official Music Video: https://youtu.be/hNSqymlXtQQ

“As the first artist-in-residence with the the groundbreaking mi.mu gloves, the album features it throughout; cutting-edge, wearable tech that allows the Shama’s movement to trigger sounds and effects as part of the live recording and performance, underlining her status as a ‘futuristic storyteller’. Her stunning immersive performance of the album at London’s Southbank with interactive visuals and dancers was a breath-taking avant-garde show, featured nationally on Channel 4.

“She is the first Sitarist to perform in Antarctica as part of the first Antarctic Biennale, featured in The Times and Radio 4’s Front Row She has performed internationally in Korea, Hungary, Croatia, Germany, Canada and the US, and nationally at Glastonbury, Bestival, BoomTown, Secret Garden Party, Green Man, and the Manchester and London Jazz Festivals.

“In my Line of Sight Official art/music video: https://youtu.be/HUMgBoe1rQo

Reviews:

Her music has been championed by Songlines (4* Review: ‘The triumphant expression of a unique vision and inimitable sound’), Gilles Peterson (“Its Great. ‘In my Line of Sight’ is my fave”), the BBC, Wonderland (“You’re about to get goosebumps…With stunning melodies and a dream-like vibe, Shama switches between English and French vocals throughout the track to always keep us on our toes… absolutely gorgeous, prepare to have it stuck with you long after you’ve finished listening”, Songwriting Mag (‘Imagine DeadCan Dance and Björk getting together in a folk club, to make jazzy trip-hop records…with sitars.’), and Louder (‘An album by a singer-sitarist who’s also a scientist, neuro philosopher and actor, and dons wearable Mi.Mu gloves to trigger sounds by movement, is likely to be acutely cutting-edge. The sonic panorama stretches as far as the listener’s imagination, and then some.’)

Fay’s words:

Considering that one of my real joys in life is discovering new artists, this whole journey of blogging mostly artists who are new to me has been an immense treat. Shama Rahman is a musician whose says that her work starts as poetry and evolves into music, and it really shows. She sings in several languages, intent on exploring and extending her own bilingualism, and that treading of boundaries seems to be the key to her style. Her voice, not to get too hyperbolic, frankly reminds me of something like liquid light – high, preternaturally clear, with the kind of effortless-sounding flexibility that comes from countless hours of practice and training. It is a perfect complement to her sitar playing and – again, not to go overboard – I’ve never heard sitar-playing quite like it. Her music sounds absolutely like a blend of the best of Indian traditional, jazz, funk, latin, and folk music of various nations. It would fit as well in an old-fashioned French cafë as a world music convention as a film score as a modern nightclub. And for a synaesthete like me, it becomes an extra challenge to try to describe the sheer ribbons of colour flying off this music, as well as the incredible textures it draws over my palms and forearms. In other words, her performance is going to be perfect for an Glastonbury-early Sunday experience. And I haven’t even delved into the richness of the lyrics, painting their own pictures, telling stories that weave in and out of the music (or vice versa). She’s frankly a superstar in the making – catch her with us before she’s on much bigger stages in future festivals… It’s going to be glorious!

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Fay Roberts, blogger

Fay Roberts (c) Louise Frohock

Performing for the first time with us is Fay Roberts, 12:05-12:30 Sunday. If ze’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In zir own words:

“Born in 1975, Fay is a classically-trained singer from Cardiff who has been getting on stages since the early ’80s. Ze was finally bitten by the performance poetry bug in Spring 2006 in, of all places, Milton Keynes, after a favour to a friend turned into a place in the final of a poetry slam. These days ze describes zirself as ‘a performance poet and peripatetic percussionist who by day pokes projects and by night projects across a microphone…’

“Ze has been involved with the Cambridge chapter of Hammer & Tongue since 2010, hosting it since January 2012; and frequently performs across Central and South-East England. Ze set up Cambridge arts label Allographic in 2011, hosting live events and producing poetry anthologies, pamphlets, and books. Ze has been the Artistic Director of Spoken Word at The Free Fringe in Edinburgh since 2013, and host of critically-acclaimed Fringe show Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret since 2012. In 2014, ze ‘won’ the Edinburgh Fringe Anti-Slam (where the worst poem and performance with the lowest points wins a terrible prize), as judged by Mark Grist, Rachel McCrum, and Oh Standfast. In 2017, zir first solo show, The Selkie, was shortlisted as best spoken word show of 2016-17.

“Ze still sings – it’s actually practically impossible to stop zir…

“Zir work has been described as: ‘lyrical’, ‘engaging’, ‘scarily good’ and, memorably: ‘too many words… I got lost…’ Zir voice has been described as: ‘musical’, ‘mellifluous’, and ‘mesmerising’.

“Fay has performed poetry in: pubs, clubs, theatres, tents, shopping centres and stately gardens; in open mic, showcases, features, support, collaboration, competition and costume. Sometimes ze bangs a drum, and sometimes ze performs in silence, while the words flutter in front of zir…”

Reviews:

“We need more poetry like this… funny, confident, modest and a really bloody good poet to listen to” Hollie McNish

“Her poetry combines lyrical flair with a solid emotional core… there is no one quite like her” Tim Clare

“Gorgeously sensuous” SabotageReviews.com

“Known to us as ‘The Welsh Whisperer’, Fay Roberts has the ability to bring a room to total silence, her mellifluous tones sending her audience into a dream like trance… cannot recommend her highly enough.” – Paul Eccentric, speaking part of The Antipoet

Fay’s Scott’s words:

As Fay has been exquisitely bigging up the rest of us, I decided as a Poetry Blogging Alum to say a few words about zir.

With the calm of a Summer pond and the voice of an ASMR specialist, Fay is a velvet cushion of a poet, threading words together with the weft and warp of a witch with a PhD in word crochet. We first met many years ago at the now no-more Jibba Jabba spoken word night in Newcastle where ze was headlining and I was main support. I was doing my usual ‘well if I’m not headlining I’m going to be amazing and storm this to make the headliner work for the top slot’ load of bollocks, Prima Donna thing. No one need have worried, not only did ze deliver a beautiful, layered set but ze’d actually written a poem during the course of the night celebrating the best lines and sentiments spoken on stage that evening. I was extremely impressed.

Not only is ze a wonderful, respected poet in zir own right, an hilarious send-up of the archetypal Somerset hippy as zir Anti-Slam alter-ego, Melody Starchild, but ze’s also an amazing Hammer & Tongue Host, an unwavering, stoic advocate for Spoken Word and a voice of calm reason in a sea of artistic temperaments. It’s no wonder ze’s been asked to be Poetry Blogger this year for the world’s most iconic outdoor festival. And I reckon ze’s already doing a better job than I did. And I stormed it. Amazing, I was. People still talk about it 😉

Sneak preview:

Introducing: Lemn Sissay, headliner

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Performing for the first time with us is Lemn Sissay, 18:10-18:55 Saturday. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In his own words:

“Lemn Sissay is an award winning writer. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by The Queen of England. He is chancellor of The University of Manchester and an honorary Doctor from The University of Huddersfield, The University of Manchester and The University of Kent. Amongst other awards are a NESTA new radical award, in 2017, he won a point of light award from The Prime Minister. His poetry and 2019 Memoir My Name Is Why are published by Canongate Books.

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He was the first poet commissioned to write for the London Olympics and wrote the official poem for the FA Cup. He is poet Laureate of Canterbury. If you Google the name “Lemn Sissay” all the returning hits will be about him because there is only one person in the entire world named Lemn Sissay.

Lemn is a poet, playwright, artist performer and broadcaster. He has read on stage throughout the world: from The Library of Congress in The United States to The University of Addis Ababa, from the Botanic Gardens of Singapore to literature festivals in Sri Lanka, from Wembley Football stadium to Maryland Football stadium, from the theatres of Bangalore to the theatres of Dubai, from a literature festival in Bali to a stage in Greenland AND Wigan library. He read poetry at Sir Paul McCartney’s book launch at The Queens Theatre in The West End.

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As an artist his Landmark poems can be found on walls in public spaces around the world from The Royal Festival Hall in London to The British Council Offices in Addis Ababa and throughout his home city of Manchester. His Landmark poem “Gilt of Cain” was unveiled by Bishop Desmond Tutu in The City of London: Sissay’s installation poem ‘what if’ exhibited at The Royal Academy and toured the world in Galleries from from Tokyo to New York.

In Music Lemn is featured on the Left field album, Leftism which sold millions. In 2017 he featured on the album “Traveller” by Baaba maal. A violin concerto performed at The BBC Proms by Viktoria Mullova was inspired by and named after his poem ‘Advice For The Living’. Another poem ‘Spark Catchers’ featured in the 2017 proms as the self-titled inspiration for a concerto written by Hannah Kendal, performed by Chineke! Orchestra. and a Bikila award with the Ethiopian music legend Teddy Afro.

In theatre Lemn has written various plays. ‘Something Dark’ (Battersea Arts Centre and Contact Theatre) is on The National Curriculum as a choice text published by Oberon Books. He adapted Benjamin Zephaniah’s hit Novel, Refugee Boy (West Yorkshire Playhouse) which toured to rave reviews with his play “Why I don’t hate white people” (Lyric Hammersmith). As an actor In 2017 he played Scully in Jim Cartwright’s ROAD directed by John Tiffany at Royal Court Theatre. A reading of his psychologists report was an extraordinary moment in British Theatre. The audience heard his report read by Julie Hesmondhalgh at the same time he did, on stage. “Report at The Royal Court” sold out in 24 hours and became national news.

In radio and TV: A BBC TV documentary, Internal Flight, and radio documentary, Child of the State, were both broadcast about his life. Lemn’s TED talks in The Houses of Parliament have been viewed by over a million people and his Desert Island Discs on BBC radio four was chosen as Pick of the Year. He co-presented BAFTA award-winning Ten Pieces for BBC Television which was described by BBC Director general Tony Hall as “the biggest commitment the BBC has ever made to music education in our country”. He has made BBC radio documentaries on WH Auden, JB Priestley, Bob Marley, The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron to name a few. His 2017 radio two-parter “Lemn Sissay’s Homecoming” was nominated for a Palm D’Or.

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Philanthropy: Lemn started The Christmas Dinners for care leavers in Manchester in 2012. Now they take place throughout England. In December 2017 the prime minister wrote to him “By founding ‘The Christmas Dinner’ project, you have created a successful and sustainable model which is making a real difference for hundreds of young care leavers who would otherwise be alone on Christmas Day. In total seventeen Christmas dinners took place in the UK in 2018. Lemn is Trustee of The Foundling Museum and Patron of Twenty Stories High Theatre Company. In 2017 he launched The Equity and Merit Scholarship scheme in Ethiopia with University of Manchester. University of Huddersfield hold the Lemn Sissay Scholarship for Care Leavers.

His photograph is exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. He has been shot by many photographers including Don Mcullin, Rankin, Greg Williams, Aida Muluneh, and Steve McCurry. His painting was in the National Portrait Gallery as part of The BP Awards.

He has judged many literary competitions including The National Poetry Competition, Forward Prize, The Ted Hughes Poetry Prize, The Golden Man Booker Awards, Cardiff international poetry competition, The Creative Future Literary Awards and the Bridport Prize.

In 2018 he brought a legal case against the government for ‘stealing me and my childhood”. The government settled the case out of court for a six figure sum. Lemn Sissay is a writer and a winner. Lemn lives in London, Manchester and Ethiopia.”

Fay’s words:

To my epic shame, Lemn Sissay is one of those poets whose names have been everywhere, and yet I haven’t seen him live or even looked out his work. It’s a bit of an oversight in my poetry education, to say the least. Luckily for me, there’s no shortage of his poems out there online to help me catch up, and in case some of you are as inexcusably behind as I am, hopefully my précis will help point you in the right direction.

I once had a baffling conversation with a friend, somewhat younger than me, who was studying music, and had only recently, somehow, heard the Beatles for the first time. What did you think? They screwed their face up, indicating a general lack of Being Impressed. I’m not sure what the fuss was all about – they just sounded like Oasis… I still don’t know if they were joking or not (though they had plenty of opportunity to clue me in during the ensuing discussion), but I had the strongest flashback to that when listening to the first video: I dunno, he sounds a bit… familiar… until it dawned on me: Yeah, like the first time you saw Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze perform and you’d no idea who she was then either… (long story, I’ll tell you some other time). Like the first time I read James Joyce or Chaucer. Like the first time I heard Muddy Waters or Janis Joplin. Basically, chances are really good I’ve been hearing Lemn Sissay’s voice in a lot of other poets for, well, pretty much as long as I’ve been listening to British performance poetry.

I’m struggling to describe what he does, because it feels somewhere between drama and music, both in the delivery and the words. There are plenty of recent examples of soaring, elegiac stuff to inspire the students of Manchester University, that – even with the swaying music beneath it – manages the gorgeous balancing act that lands it this side of cheese (I honestly found myself wanting to go back to study science again!), but there’s the close-up-and-personal intimacy of love poems (no, your eyes are damp!), the tricky intricacies of work that makes you think about the world and your place in it, and the genuinely grin-inducing whimsy that flips your feelings once again. I’ve been through an emotional rollercoaster just listening to a handful of stuff! And it’s even better in the recordings of him performing live; he’s charismatic, witty, and dynamic – almost doesn’t seem fair, somehow… 😉

I’m really looking forward to what is bound to be a masterclass headline set next month in a rammed tent.

Sneak preview: