In the week that Essex-born spoken word artist Tris Vonna-Michell was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Turner Prize, I was at Queer’Say, a new addition to London’s vibrant and thriving spoken word scene. Performance poetry has really exploded in Britain in the last couple of years, and in London in particular; on any night of the week, you can see artists with varied and exciting performance styles and methods of delivery creating art under the spoken word banner.
Devised and hosted by comedian and broadcaster Rosie Wilby, with the support of Arts Council England, performance poetry organisation Apples and Snakes and the LGBT radio show Out In South London, each Queer’Say event features live performances by three acclaimed LGBT poets who are then interviewed by Rosie. The line-up for the inaugural event was Sophia Blackwell, Keith Jarrett and Joelle Taylor.
Blackwell’s poems ranged from amusing, sarcastic observations of those who regularly hang out in a central London square (‘London Prayer’), to a powerful, expertly crafted and literary piece against homophobia and oppression (‘Angels and Men’) – particularly heartfelt and meaningful on the night, given the event – to a beautiful and evocative meditation on true love in ‘When It Finds You’ (it’s like ‘an orange glowing in the dark on the dusty shelf of one in a million street corner stores’).
Keith Jarrett’s ‘Listed Buildings’ was one of the highlights of the evening, his relatively quiet performance style, with minimal movement, lending his words a sense of grace and depth. Incredibly affecting, it included pointed observations about how, despite its iconic skyline and square mile, London can be harsh and oppressive, encouraging the downgrading and burying of dreams and creation of boundaries that divide us. In this ‘opaque city’ it is words that offer a way out (‘I want you to know that things get better . . . that there is a banquet on the end of your tongue’) and will break down the walls between us.
Joelle Taylor provided an interest contrast to Blackwell and Jarrett with her more physical performance style, roaming the stage and punctuating her poems with movement and sound effects. In both ‘Last Poet Standing’ and ‘Crystal Kisses’, Taylor explores the gritty reality of being young today: bullying, gangs, drugs, violence, lack of access to education and opportunities (‘these tracks, these umbilical streets, these arteries of our cities are clogged with discarded dreams and shopping trolleys’). She too, identifies redemption and an escape through words, exhorting these very same youth to ‘exercise linguistic liberty’, though she’s not blind, either, to the power of words to harm (‘their tongues are now whips that scar her unwritten skin’).
As the evening unfolded it was interesting to observe the inspirations and preoccupations common to all three poets. Alongside the power of words and our ability to use them for good or ill, for salvation or damnation, life in contemporary London, love, youth and dreams featured prominently, alongside the more hard-hitting political themes of class, society, austerity and opportunity. Poetry isn’t mean to be easy; it’s a way for us to explore the world as we find it in all its grit and grime and harsh reality, as well as its beauty. The poets taking part in Queer’Say do just that, combining intelligent political and social messages with lyrical talent and honest and compelling performances.
The interviews immediately following each poet’s performance give the event an extra dimension, aided by Rosie Wilby’s perceptive and amusing questions. Mostly focusing on the artists’ methods, inspirations and writing processes, the interviews illuminated what they had in common – particularly the fact that they all came upon spoken word by accident, yet it has now taken over their lives! There was much discussion about the fascination words have held for each of the poets since early childhood, but as well as a desire to write, emphasis was also given to the importance of being listeners and readers with open minds, and that this applies to the audience as well.
The next Queer’Say nights will take place on 4th July and 2nd October at Canada Water Culture Space, London. Full information will be announced shortly on the Out in South London website where a podcast of the first show will soon be available.