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Poetry Performance

by on 3 November 2020

‘The floor is yours!’

Poetry Performance

Online, 1 November

Review by Matthew Grierson

It might have been Halloween the night before, but the spectral season is still on the minds of participants at the latest online Poetry Performance – and, in one case, on the face.

Before the event has even begun, it’s clear that the spectre of death hangs over proceedings. Until, that is, it reveals itself as Andrew Evzona, who is dressed as the Grim Reaper to read ‘Halloween’. The costume certainly adds something to the poem. Visual aids for his follow-up piece are more personal, in the form of family photos that illustrate this loosely versified autobiography. As does the room around him, part of the titular house in which he has lived all his life.

Other poets opt for a musical effect as much as a visual one, with John Sephton’s ‘Blue Notes’ conjuring the maudlin atmosphere of a woman in jazz club. It shares a shadowy ambience with his next piece, ‘Expecting to Fly’, which he confesses is inspired by Neil Young. Carol Wain’s ‘Familiarity’ also tries for both visual and musical effect: we may have to imagine its pattern on the page as an acrostic, but, helpfully, the end-rhymes give it a sonic structure. The title riffs on another of the themes this evening, family, which she celebrates more directly in her poem ‘Family – it’s All You’ve Got! (A Homily)’. The sentiment that, while you can’t live with ’em you definitely can’t live without ’em, is especially timely as we head into a second lockdown, and Pat also recognises that family for many can also manifest as friends, charity or church.

While Carol’s poem spells things out, Bob Kimmerling, who is up next, rather pointedly remarks that the meaning of a poem should be left to interpretation. Still, Poetry Performance is a broad church. Bob’s spare, enigmatic anecdote about a couple kissing on ‘The Eurostar to Paris’ certainly drops no hints about the tenderness of the pen-portraits that he then reads. In ‘I Watched my Father Dig’, he concentrates a family relationship into the evocative imagery of agricultural labour and makes discreet use of rhyme to honour debts to Heaney and Hardy. ‘One-eyed Terry’ meanwhile reaches into the mind of the titular invalid, empowered by the image of a missing eye to ‘see’ his life from the confines of his hospital bed.

The assured use of form to convey family reminiscence continues with two poems by the late Frances White, read by Heather Montford. ‘Damsons & Dahlias’ is a fond recollection of the speaker’s aunt, uncle and cousin, whose lives seem more exciting and enticing than her immediate family, while another take on ‘Halloween’ includes such riches as ‘This is the time when the hour moves back into the darkness’ and ‘The pumpkin rules the vegetable plot’.

Nostalgia and family can have an edge, though, as Tom McColl’s poems remind us. ‘The Phoney War’ use staccato lines to relate the war games of two brothers in imaginary arms, which are then poignantly contrasted with the image of their grandmother sobbing as she remembers the personal cost of the conflict. It’s a theme Tom pursues in ‘The Usual Address’, with the war recreated in a boy’s comic books in graphic contrast to the feeling that he has been abandoned by his mother.

Lifting our spirits ahead of the interval is Tony Josolyne, with ‘Rambling’ taking us dogwalking not just over Wimbledon Common but down memory lane. The pooch wanders all the way into the next piece, ‘Dog Overboard’. It’s written in the voice of the family pet on a boating holiday, who cannot understand why his owners are so angry at his decision to go for an impromptu swim.

In lieu of having a bar to visit, Heather Moulson leads a discussion of poems and their titles during the interval. Beer there may not be, but this a valuable opportunity for the group – which would normally have been meeting at the Adelaide in Teddington – to have a chat when they can’t do so in person. In the ensuing lively exchange, just as many opinions are expressed as there are styles of writing in evidence over the evening.

Ever the diplomat, our host Clive Rowland chips in to say how intriguing he has found the titles in advance of the poets reading. He is an encouraging MC, finding something positive in each performance, and keeping the business moving along smoothly – no small feat given the technical difficulties that an online event may present.

The only real setback of the night, though, occurs when guest reader Math Jones has problems with his bandwidth, necessitating a jump ahead to next-on-the-bill Pat Camish. Thematically, she picks up on Tom McColl’s poems, based as they are on Pat’s research into her family’s wartime experiences. ‘Love & Violence; or Grandmama’s Tale’ and ‘Our Tom’ go back to the Great War, while ‘Northern Bonfire Night’ is both a warm retrospect and a look ahead to 5 November.

Math Jones returns once his gremlins have been sorted out. But there are more spirits to come, as he explains his writing is informed by pagan ritual and folklore. If we had difficulty hearing him before, there is no such problem as he declaims his first poem, which passes through the ‘gate’ from summer to winter, projecting forward into spring to find hope beyond the darkness. In ‘The Fairy Road’ he addresses the poet’s perennial problem of inspiration striking at inconvenient moments, while fairies themselves figure in a brace based on Scottish folklore, ‘The Blue Jacket’ and ‘The Midwife’, and there is a ghost at the dance in ‘Dust’.

Math’s poems employ an archaic diction and rollicking rhythm that give them an appropriately seasonal tone. It’s no surprise when he reveals in a subsequent Q&A that he once trod the boards, with discussion revolving around how the heightened language and fairy folk of A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been a particular inspiration to him.

He is followed by a series of poems by the Luther Poets; and if one of Math’s presiding spirits is Shakespeare then theirs is the late Bob Sheed, the group’s founder and former host of Poetry Performance itself. After Pat was bumped up the bill, Robin Clarke is the next of the Lutherans to read, with ‘The Family’ taking us through a busy household morning in tight couplets; I savoured the reference to ‘doggy toothmarks’ in the post and a gag about changing the baby, as well as the refrain of the teenager managing to sleep through the chaos. Then there’s another nod to the Bard with ‘Something this way comes’ – a ‘something’ presumably wicked, despite the poem’s jokey conclusion!

Fran Thurling offers a couple of meditative poems next, with ‘“They’re Selling the Old Farm House”’ putting personal experience at arm’s length, and ‘By the Long Water, Home Park July 2020 (with reference to David Hockney)’ lyrically reflecting on perspective, seeking a picturesque calm as she asks ‘Which way to look, how far?’ Connaire Kensit’s ‘Stepping Stones’ successfully integrates memoir into verse to lament the removal of this childhood river crossing, but it’s not long before he falls into speculation about the town planning processes behind the decision, essentially concluding that it’s health and safety gone mad. He’s more to the point in the imagistic and insightful ‘Homecoming note’, which complements the theme of the longer poem. He has translated this from the classical Chinese of He Zhizhang, and he reads it in the original before his English version.

There is a response both to Connaire’s stepping stones and his East Asian imagery in Anne Warrington’s ‘Oh the Joys of Teaching’, which recalls her days in charge of a primary class. On a school visit to a Japanese garden the kids peer into the pond to observe a carp and are held in a moment of lyrical stillness – before, like Tony’s ‘Dog Overboard’, they inevitably fall in the water. Much to the chagrin of the fish.

Heather Moulson is characteristically jaunty in her ‘Happy Families – A Loaded Card Game’, recounting how as a child she strove to collect the beautiful Mr & Mrs Daub, the artists, but ended up with the tradespeople instead. Although the game provokes rows with her sister – not to mention insinuations about how the cards are really pairing up – there’s a warmth to the piece that suggests a happiness underneath the bickering. In ‘Longing’, by contrast, a lost friend from childhood is tenderly remembered.

Last on the bill tonight is Barbara Lee, who first reads a piece based on the traumatic experience of an abused wife. During the interval, Barbara was an advocate for not titling poems, but there’s no doubt she’s capable of a memorable ending, and she concludes with the speaker’s recollection of ‘the day I got strong’. That sense of the individual is carried on into a poem that celebrates the benefits of being single during the pandemic – all that space to oneself.

The evening finishes rather arbitrarily with a video of HMS Pinafore reworked to give it a lockdown spin: I’m not altogether sure it’s a shame the sound drops halfway through. And, as poets and friends bid each other farewell for another month and their faces pop up one by one, it’s clear that Andrew Evzona has been sweating inside a Donald Trump mask for the second half of the event. Surely the most horrific image of all.

Goodnight, readers. And don’t have nightmares.

Matthew Grierson
November 2020

Photos © Taylor Rooney/Unsplash; Steve Tognoli/Unsplash; Heather Moulson

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