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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Friday Part 1

And we’re off! pre-show act The Antipoet kick us off with their patented Glastonbury track We Are The Warm-Up to a surprisingly crowded tent for this time of the morning on the first day. People are already signing up for the slam and the open mic. The set collapses and they shrug. They bounce, gyrate, and greet the audience with words and gestures, beckoning grins and nods and cheers drom the assembly. Topics covered include: politics, proper tea, festivals (and their alternatives), an elegy for a friend, and hipster grammar. The tent feels properly warmed now!

Compere Rosy Carrick takes to the stage like a glamorous poetry beacon in shades of flames to introduce the next section, inducing the audience to cheer like they’re watching Bowie in 2000, making a Mexican Wave of sound.

Scott Tyrrell has set up his easel, supported by son Toby, here for the first time. He’ll be live-illustrating proceedings, fighting the high winds that are keeping us all cool in the tent and the stage set unfortunately so mobile!

Courtney Conrad takes to the stage after a rousing introduction, letting us know that she kicked off her poetry writing after a break-up. Her set covers the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, religion, migration, and always being Other. We’re plunged immediately into the intimacy of family and clothes-fitting. I’m sure people have rhapsodised ad nauseam about the liquid, hypnotic mellowness of her voice, but it’s hard not to when it manages to support the intense combination of gentle yet frustrated, determined, emotional, yet almost academic words with its constant ripple, an incredibly articulate storyteller in English and Jamaican dialect. She chooses to redo early piece One Love with a better rendition (and breaks my heart with smiles and sadness combined), and honestly I wish more poets had that confidence and commitment to quality. Call me a fan!

Rosy and Vanessa Kisuule exchange happy banter about matching shorts (“I hate to objectify, but mate, you look banging!”) Rosy manages to squeeze in a poem from her latest collection about trainspotting (Ferroequinology). It is a species of frankly uncomfortably erotic, difficult and unusual and textured with the kind of words that trigger my synaesthesia.

Toby Campion takes to the stage in fantastic dungarees to a rock ’n’ roll track and kicks off with what he describes as a poem written the last time he was here, after seeing Adele, describing it as his own Adele Moment. He captures the audience immediately, then exchanges Midlands banter with an enthusiastic section of the crowd before going on to read from his book about his childhood, dropping us into the middle of a series of intimate word portraits of growing up queer in Leicester. His skill has only grown in the time I’ve known him – both words and stagecraft, and the audience are enraptured as the sequence of sketches slots into place. After this more family intimacy, grief, and humour. It takes and keeps everyone who listens. After the poem about his father’s terminal illness, he gives the audience a moment to take them through some studied breaths. If more artists took the time to practise radical care of their audiences, thw world would be a better place. And then his drunken, unedited poem, breaking the fourth wall with wrist-bitingly hysterical images. Clever, heartfelt poetry competing with a brass band and some ground-vibrating bass beats? He wins.

Rosy borrows my £5 flannel shirt against the chill of the wind. I don’t blame her – it’s an excellent shirt.

Desree takes to the stage like an explosion, with a series of pugilistic poems about #MeToo, gentrification, relationships, gender, toxic/ fragile masculinity, body image, race, privilege, abuse of power (and complicity), and all the important things to get angry about. Anyone who can make a list poem (an overused and all-too-often rubbish form) sing and dance, with quick feet and lightning punches deserves as much love and admiration as we can give them! Her poetry manages rapid-fire rage, clever allusion, and a glorious use of language and compassion and observation. She also uses trigger warnings to bring us into her piece about R. Kelly – well-needed and reminds me why I’ve bought into TW and CW – it gives people the option to leave or stay (literally or metaphorically), and allows us to protect our bruises.

Rosy gives us an ode to Arnold Schwarzenegger, letting us know that she’s hoping to build her body in a similar fashion… More double-entendre and angry eroticism, this time combined with the frustration of PhD writing.

Demi Anter takes to the stage in a teeshirt made by her father of her at the age of two. She warns the audience that they may hear things that upset them, but that the teeshirt will hopefully make them happy. She has a very specific stage presence I associate with American spoken word poets – crafted and confessional, borrowing from theatre and standup – but without that staleness and fake intimacy that I also preemptively associate with it (like a massive snob? probably), if that makes sense. She tackles love (self- and others), mental health, eating disorders, confidence, art-making, and family, and has longer intros than any of the other poets so far. The explicitness of the language sneaks up on you, broadsides of orgasms and trebuchets of sweary rage among the gentle intimacy. Her final piece lampoons Californian artist culture and DIY culture and Valley Girl speech, while at the same time being deeply personal and factual like a terrifying dating profile.

Liv Torc takes to the stage and we’re straight into family intimacy, and immediately afterwards the graphic, terrifying realities of childbirth, name-checking fictional, kick-arse heroines and bombarding us with visceral imagery and glorious wordplay, followed up by the lubricous romance of the damp patch. The ugly-beautiful realities of family life continue with a Kennings-laden piece about sharing a family bed that you can frankly smell! Family is the theme overall – connection and love and the physical texture of it. (She further wins my heart with a piece about hair and hands and genetic and cultural heritage, even though, for me, I’m the end of that particular line of curl and strength and stubbornness.) She ends, of course, with That Poem – the one about three generations and the legacy of a cluttered Earth – which still has the power to bring tears to the eye and throat (including her own). The arrival at the far entrance of people who are litter-picking is one of those Festival Magic moment.

Scott is still battling the wind, sketching Demi while Liv performs.

Somehow, despite this being a) a Festival, b) a stage of poets, we’re running under time. So Rosy yanks Luke Wright up to the stage. This is the most dressed-down I’ve ever seen the dandy wordsmith, but he grabs the opportunity to strut out an excessively impressive univocalism about North-South cultural differences.

Ana Paz takes to the stage with an abundance of energy, plunging into the intimacy of the audience with mic in hand, demanding that we exchange passion with a refrain of “I continue to fight”. After Luke and The Antipoet, she’s the most physically dynamic of the performers so far, combining lyricism and wild, wide, high imagery with the pace and punchiness of hip-hop. The performance is like dance – and, unlike many poets, especially those who use fast-paced urban rhythms, she lets the flow breathe. She isn’t afraid of pauses, floating silences louder than the (utterly unremitting) clamour outside the tent. She repeatedly thanks the audience for their energy and attention. It’s the quietest part of the day so far for the stage – an unfortunate period for someone who’s so very dynamic. But she switches pace down to one about grief and despair, the kind of helplessness that can lead to an end. She tells us that performance (and all art?) is about finding a mirror in each other. I’m totally stealing that phrase. Random people hug each other to her words, overwhelmed as she finishes talking about why she writes (and much of that appears to be to fill the gaps and inequities in our current cultural models of “truth”). Fabulous stuff, and I’m hoping she has a larger audience (and at least as equally enthused!) for her next performance with us.

Thunderclap Murphy takes to the stage, bringing looping equipment with a maze of cables, instruments, and buttons. I take the opportunity (while Rosy conducts a quiz and Liv covers my gear – thanks, Liv!) to grab a quick dash to the toilet and my packed lunch and return exactly in time to see him start his loop of musical layers to underlay a farewell poem by war poet Alun Lewis (Goodbye, published in 1944) – guitar, flute, song, handclaps and vocal percussion. He decides to go with a hip-hop, drum ’n’ bass vibe for the next one (after teaching us a beatboxing shortcut – “born to be clever, too clever to be too clever”, if you’re interested), Match of the Day, the persistent ice cream van theme in Dublin. The guitar is dark and the flute sounds like that place where Middle-Eastern/ Spanish music meet in liquid ripples and curves. He ends with an a cappella blessing, having us all chorus Sláinte!

Introducing: Toby Campion

Toby Campion
Back to perform with us is Toby Campion, 12:35-13:00 Friday; 17:40-18:05 Sunday. If he’s new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In his own words:

“Toby Campion is a UK Poetry Slam Champion and a World Poetry Slam finalist. His debut short collection, Through your Blood, was longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize and his poetry was Highly Commended in the Forward Poetry Prizes 2019. Having toured the UK extensively, Toby has performed around the world, from South Korea and Albania, and his work has been featured on the BBC Radio 2 Arts Show with Jonathan Ross, BBC iPlayer, Channel 4 and more. Artistic Director of UniSlam and founder of the National Youth Poetry Showcase, Toby was one of the first resident poets of the River Thames.”

Fay’s words:

The first time I saw Toby perform was at Other Voices Spoken Word Cabaret, Edinburgh Fringe 2013. He’d stepped up to our accidentally extended open mic, a seemingly very nervous, slightly fragile young man with ice-blonde hair, a student in Edinburgh who looked incredibly young to my eyes (especially in the uncertain light of our murky venue). He then proceeded to blow everyone’s minds with the sheer power and beauty of his words (including the ThreeWeeks reviewer, who gave us five stars – I can’t imagine that was a coincidence!). Since then I’ve seen him repeatedly wow audiences in slams and features, mostly at Edinburgh Fringe, but also – happily for me – as a recent feature touring at Hammer & Tongue Cambridge. His stagecraft is immaculate, and he’s a generous and powerful performer who touches on a wide range of topics – only growing stronger in writing and performance over the past six years. I’m really looking forward to seeing him, and watching new audiences enjoy his work at the Festival!

Sneak preview: