Saturday Part 2

Gecko is ushered onto the stage by Rosy Carrick, technicians, and Portishead. He kicks off with I Can’t Know All The Songs (we chorus – in harmony! – until the end), a perfectly formed intro song, followed by the piece that I probably know best of his: Rapunzel. It’s incredibly catchy, and unashamedly feminist, basically doing what fanfic writers call a fix-it of the original tale. More mythology follows as he turns out a rap/ recitative adapting The Tooth Fairy into modern job parlance. I miss the next song (with singing accompaniment by Maya(?)) as I have lost the will to be in the swelter any longer, so stand in the shade outside the tent, catching as much breeze as will make a difference. We’re all glad that there’s no rain, and mud is minimal, but it’s as stuffy and sticky as the third circle of Hell in the tent. He ends with a sweet tribute to the magic of childhood. We’ve seen so many styles in this short span of time, and this is elegiac, joyful paean which fast-forwards to a bleak-looking old age, leavened by mythical memories. The technician gives him the perfect level of reverb – enough to lift it into legend, without drowning us in soft-focus glurge – and he punctuates the different moods with whole-body movement, gleefully bestriding and then slumping at the microphone. And he takes us with him. Bravo! The crowd agrees!

Desree takes to the stage again in a swelter, her first poem lauded by the audience who look to be unconscious with heat, but absolutely there with her. I am distracted with a bunch of admin (people, hydration, and data charges – yeah, no WiFi, mate), sadly, but I love the fragments of these new poems I hear, tackling body image, race, abuse, and toxic relationships (with others and ourselves). She ends with that anthemic piece about privilege with aplomb. It’s from her teeny chapbook, and she takes cards as well as cash – GET ONE. I’m definitely doing so.

Luke Wright takes to the stage to The Fratellis. It’s a perfect young punk, chanty, ranty, loud and clever intro to a striding length of man with deliberately messy hair and a DIY-style “PUTA MADRE” teeshirt (Google it – I’m not telling you). After a typical rhyming rant about Good Morning Britain and all it means (“Piers Morgan says: ’You can’t say anything these days! You can’t say anything these days! You can’t say anything these days! You can’t say anything these days!’ And yet you seem to, Piers!”) which slides into something deliberately quieter and slower, he confirms the fact slipped into Rosy’s introduction that they kissed earlier. He tells us that there’s a sliver of shade behind the Cabaret tent that’s sheltered him through the toxic, omnipresent heat, gives us quiet ode to his children. A pier-end-style marching band outside underlines the outro, a bigger contrast unimaginable, flourishes of music fanfaring Luke’s disquiet (confusing since he’s been performing here for actual decades – he’s been doing this since his teens). His children feature strongly – the love is glowing, palpable, quiet and beautiful (even when he’s voicing his seven-year-old as an East End villain). The other love (apart from Rosy – Tank Girled and cast as a PVC goddess) that gets immortalised is of Bungay, where he lives, in anecdote form, describing how uncool it is in the way that you complain about your favourite ancient anything (cardigan, uncle, cat, car, movie). As well as being the first person to drop the c-word (to my knowledge) on the Poetry stage this year (Mavericks after dark is another story), he dissects British culture – social anxiety, snobbishness, inferiority complexes and all. Embrace The Wank is in defence of pretentiousness, telling the audience that, were he in charge they’d be locked in, unable to wander – “it’s not about entertainment, it’s about bettering yourselves!” and he shouts himself hoarse with a series of epithets, the one that creases me into a spasm of mirth being something like “Let me bathe in a pool of expert jism!” The final track is a slow, sad ode to knowing Britain by its motorways – the life of a touring poet revisited, appropriately. The massed audience are rapturous.

Erin Fornoff takes to the stage to a track I know but have no idea of the name. She frugs and twirls with extraordinary verve, scarlet fabric flitting to the renewed breeze, tells us that we’re entering the Feelings Zone. Home proves her words. Her esprit d’escalier poem about her horrific mentor (see yesterday’s revelation). Her style is more mobile this time. I’m finding it fascinating who moves more or less today, who’s louder, who’s quieter, who has the same set, and who different. I’m losing focus – I’m not designed for the heat (likewise not from the desert, I am all about dim, wet, windy, cool places – thanks, genetics), but, like Eve before her, I’m enjoying different elements from this near-identical set as I continue to brush spiders from my keyboard and bless the breeze that’s finally caressing us. Erin (who got me an ice cream earlier, carried safely across the length of a baking Bella’s Field and beyond, like the bottomlessly kind soul that she is) spots Lemn Sissay standing at the back, who’s turned up early to hang out (and be mobbed in short order by organisers, technicians, artists, and other fans)

Toby Campion takes to the stage, still summery as hell in dungarees and white teeshirt (what is it with me noticing clothes today?!), giving us, as promised, the same set as last night (and, as promised, The Antipoet are doing their best to drown him out from the other stage across the field), and again – despite having seen it yesterday (and a similar set a couple of other times), I enjoy not only the craft and the words, but the warmth he bestows on the audience, friendly and engaged despite the audience being a fraction of yesterdays, holding them seemingly effortlessly. (And I got another nosebleed during this, which somewhat impeded my typing ability.) His finishing, crescendoing rant about a homophobic attack at Glastonbury 2016 is given a beautiful underlay of building bass to add ominousness to the message he’s giving us.

Headliner Lemn Sissay takes to the stage to glorious music and rapturous applause, comments on the music, throws himself off, and asks if he can come on again as he’s put himself off. It’s oddly comforting to see someone so very experienced, so very lauded, wanting to perfect their entrance, their presence. His first piece, Let Go, is advice to be yourself, despite what people tell you. It is preacherly, a story, a parable, a song of mythological proportions. And, in perfect, unchanging rhythm, a wheelchair user with a vocal tic barks a counterpoint to his words (sometimes echoing a word he uses, but mostly “hey!” or single-syllable epithets) that a) oddly enhances his performance, b) does not seem to throw him in any way whatsoever. He then points out that this is an unusual kick-off poem – it’s long, and thinky, and difficult (and uneasy), lambasting slam poetry – you shouldn’t be doing this to get people to like you, say what you really want to say, not what you think the audience want to hear. He then deconstructs his own performance, and his own thought process, with a breakdown of the voices in his head, with in-jokes about arts funding and what the arts means, and how the industry separates artists from community, with a series of terrible insults and jokes, with the person with the tic echoes back. (“Nobcheese!” is my favourite.)

Invisible Kisses is next, which apparently gets used in weddings a lot (“If you used this for your wedding and you didn’t pay me, I just want you to know that you’ve robbed a black man!” – the almost entirely white audience laughs knowingly). At this point he acknowledges the involuntary heckler with a comic stare. The vocal tic doesn’t work with the rhythm of this particular poem, I have to say…

(I don’t have to say, obviously, but I’m trying to place you here. This might also be the point to tell you that I raced outside after his set to track her down, and it turns out that it was none other than Jess Thom, otherwise known as Tourettes Hero, and you can see her at Astrolane, apparently!)

The passion of his delivery, against all the background noises makes it more powerful than any version I’ve so far seen online.

The next poem is old, addressing a social worker who bullied him when he was a child. He is one of the most parenthetical poets I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot of Jonny Fluffypunk), the chaotic, nesting statements of his between-poem anecdotes and explanations are a glorious contrast to the crafted structure of the poems. He tells us he’ll cut out the swearing, at which point Jess Thom shouts a beautifully timed f-word, and Mr. Sissay decides to address her explicitly (“I suppose I’d better talk to you…”). The poem itself turns out to be shorter than the explanation by whole minutes. He slaloms between anecdotes, explanation, lies, and poems, and the distinction between them starts to break down. The crowd loves everything he offers them, and I’m enthralled and all – this is different from the poetry films readily available online, more like a TED Talk or a lecture from the most rock ’n’ roll poetry lecturer EVER. Disfunctional stops a few bars in because he can’t find it in his book. It’s impossible to tell whether this is deliberate craft or a beautiful insight into a very human performer. Poe’s Law in action?

It’s nothing like what I was expecting, including the gaffes, the fourth-wall breaking, the deconstruction, losing his place, forgetting his way. After an exchange about cats with the person with the inadvertent heckler, he forgets what he’s doing next, and someone suggests one he approves of, even though he wasn’t going to do it. So Flock of Sound roars, sings, and stamps unplanned into the space, and the tic is in perfect syncopation with it, and we holler for it, and he follows it up with something similarly rhythmic and anthemic, a powerful ode to Martin Luther King. He bounces with renewed energy in its wake: “Thank you! Sometimes I forget myself!” And now he’s flying, chanting, gathering us with him to rise in his glorious slipstream in his namechecking goddesses and heroines as he calls out praise to womanhood.

His last is Architecture, for his friend Vikas, who’s in the audience. He thanks us for attending, despite the huge number of other things we could be doing in this massive festival. The imagery is deliberately huge, stamping its way into our consciousness. And, of course, we roar for an encore, and he gives us an intro about trust and forgiveness (you can stay angry, but forgiveness helps us to let go – and it’s not about the people you’re forgiving, but for you to put the burden down, and helps you be stronger, change things, and being an activist). Open Up talks about the heritage of migration in industrial Britain, about what “belonging” means, a rallying cry to open all boundaries.

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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: