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.