A Night of Poetry, Reviewed by Jake Wildeman
Jake Wildeman Reviewed by Sue Allen
I’ve only performed at the Maze a couple of times, but I find I quite like it. With dimmed lights and a drink in hand (alcohol or otherwise), it’s easy to take a breath and forget the world outside of this room full of poets. There’s also something deliciously intimate about performing in a corner, a certain sweet vulnerability and openness to putting yourself there. Indeed, every poet bore their hearts and thoughts for all to see. After a sound check courtesy of the lovely Lytisha Tunbridge, we were underway… the first of our three halves compered by the eternally-waistcoated Andrew Martin.
Our opening poet was Sue Allen, who joined us all the way from Sutton-in-Ashfield where spoken word apparently still isn’t a thing. Her first piece was one she’d written for a recent mental health awareness night, In Your Head. The poem was titled ‘Monkey Mind’, and focused on Sue’s perceived personality flaws and how she’d wish them away if she could, before finally accepting them, then realising she’d be “left with a fucking monkey shaped hole” were she to cut them out. The whole set was laced with delightfully crude humour and language, particularly her second piece, titled ‘Gagging for It’, which tore apart the style of today’s youth, addressing them directly: “pull your jeans up lad, you look a right twat.” I’d have almost been insulted myself, if I considered myself anything like the youth of today. She ended with an old piece, which I didn’t catch the title of but was decidedly hers, all comical feminist outrage at her man. Here, she wishes for a better one, one who knows that “poking me in the back with his broom handle… does not amount to foreplay.” It was quintessentially Sue and the perfect piece to close her set.
DIY’s answer to Morrissey: Jake Wilderman gave us three “miserable” poems which I found to be moving and thought provoking.
The first “Memento Mori” a reminder of our mortality and the importance of living the life we have with all the fire we can. “Burn with fire enough to scorch the very ground at your feet”.
The second “Obsequies” explored deep emotions and left me breathless.
The third “We’re all we’ve got” spoke of friendship and the shared experience of being outside the crowd.
As always Jake shook the room and rung out our collective hearts with his words. Is it wrong that Jake’s misery gives me so much joy?
Next up was Frank McMahon who, after the short plug of a fundraiser for Mapperly Labour Party, delivered a decidedly political set of rapid-fire poems in his signature concise style. Highlights included ‘Let June Be the End of May’, featuring some wonderful wordplay and ‘Confession Time’, a piece branding Boris Johnson an “infection”… I’m inclined to agree. For me the standout work was ‘Hillsborough’, a look at both the tragedy of and corruption behind the eponymous disaster, with the painfully honest line: “Only one ambulance allowed on the pitch, the ninety-six never stood a chance.” Frank’s brevity always lend his poems a greater impact, whether it’s the hammering home of a political statement or the delivery of a punchline.
Following Frank was our compere, Andrew, who opted to perform a single lengthy piece in contrast to the previous set. After introducing his poem, ‘School Smells’, Andrew walked us through a nostalgia trip back to our days in education. Taking us lesson by lesson, capturing the childish excitement of “Chemicals? Fab!” and “bunsens burning” in science, the disgust of “sweaty youths” in P.E., weaving in happy memories of “making things happen” with the aforementioned chemicals, envisioning the open field as a “springtime universe.” As the work progressed, it grew darker… ending with images of “kids on cloud nine, smoking”, perhaps reflecting how the world can seem evermore grim once we’ve grown up enough to look.
Martin Dean, our timekeeper, closed off the first half with a varied set. Opening with a joke, Martin challenged us to “Imagine a world without hypothetical situations”, before moving into a new poem he described as “nonsensical, but fun to write.” I personally found ‘Crossing Consonants’ just as much fun to hear, an absolutely beautiful description of the writing process. Martin also touched on politics by way of immigration in his third piece, ‘Nothing Dries Sooner Than a Tear’, based on a photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach. This poem contained no small amount of horror and disgust at the happening, but I found myself drawn in by the subtle tragedy that “there are no footprints in the sand.” Closing his set, the final work was ‘Nadir’, a short and sweet romantic piece featured in the most recent issue of DIY Poets magazine.
After a five minute interim, we were into the second half. Our compere from here on would be Hazel Warren, who introduced the evening’s next poet, an infinitely delightful woman: herself. She opened with a small piece, no longer than two or three lines, on her habit of confusing Tracey Thorn and Tracey Emin. Who are these two Traceys, you ask? Well, Emin is one half of a musical duo, and Thorn is that radical artist with the bed… I think. What really grabbed me during this set was the final piece, titled ‘No Physical Trace’. The words were sombre and regretful, and particularly memorable was the line: “I wrote you a letter… but you will never gaze upon my penmark.” It reminded me of a lyric from Jawbreaker’s ‘Do You Still Hate Me?’: “Wrote you a letter, I heard it just upset you.” The whole of Hazel’s poem carried this feeling of things gone irreparably wrong or never having been right in the first place, it’s a familiar sensation that makes for an excellent piece.
Next up, serving as the jam in the three-part DIY sandwich before our open mic, came Martin Grey. He served up a hefty dose of satire, his signature dish, with a poem titled ‘That Theresa May’, tearing apart her oft-moked “strong and stable that’s for everyone.” Mid-way through the performance, he loses his words and later confirms: “I dislike her so much it makes me unable to read my own writing.” Martin’s second piece is a favourite of mine, ‘Steve and Mikey’, introduced as being about when those two UKIP MPs had a punch up and it was really funny. Here, he truly shines as a performer, enjoying the poem as much as the audience. Finishing up with yet more mockery, this time the crosshairs line up to Jeremy Hunt… or as Martin would call him in this closing poem, ‘Cunt’.
The last DIYer to precede the open mic is described as “the crusty-bread side” of that aforementioned sandwich, “the ranting bastard”, but I personally revere him as high-lord of the pre-amble. John Humphreys takes to the stage and plugs his very exclusive and damn-near impossible to find book, ‘The Day I Swallowed the World’. John began reading from the book, which everyone should buy because it is amazing, warning that he’d go over-time. He introduces the piece ‘I Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, word for word, explaining that poets and rockers aren’t so different and that to be a poet would be “a good second best to rock star.” Once he starts the poem proper, he kicks into full performance mode, keeping us all engaged with his powerful voice. One line in particular caught my attention in the first stanza: “Grab the microphone. Scream, not sing.” Yeah… I agree… screaming is so much more fun.
After John finished his piece, we began the open mic segment, which I simply had to include in this review. The first big highlight was our very own Lytisha’s short set, with ‘The Difference Between Poetry and Baking’ poking fun at the idea of instructions for how to create poetry, while providing a very amusing and relatable analysis of writing habits, followed by her duet with John Humphreys, who returned to stage and delivered with her a captivating rendition of his piece ‘Symphony of Sea’. The second highlight came from Kirsty, a first time performer who appeared from nowhere and shared with us an untitled yet beautiful poem on the emotional confusion of youth. She then offered a mesmerising piece on that magical, almost-psychic mutual attraction, when you just know that they feel the same… dare I say she got me feeling romantic again. I adored the whole set, particularly the vulnerability of “eyes connected, opens parts unprotected.” This girl is one to watch, and I am eager to see her again wherever she may turn up.
Another five minutes and much mingling later, our headliner starts his set. What can I say about John Merchant? He’s a font of positive energy, with or without a microphone. When John typically performs a set, he will double up his poems, with one written from the Christian perspective and another from the secular. This alone should show you what sort of a performer he is: as much as he enjoys being up on stage, he’s there to appeal to you, to make you smile. John advocates a maintaining a peaceful and steady pace in life, throughout his twenty minutes, closing his first poem with the sentiment “if we don’t get through it all, it’s like a serial: continue the next day” and highlighting the importance of twin virtues patience and hope in ‘Wait and See’. Standout pieces for me focused on staying lighthearted and opening yourself up to others, welcoming them into your world, as in ‘Getting On’, a poem about “that feeling of backslapping… unity” which calls for us to “kill misery at its source.” This is as close as John ever comes to aggressive imagery, and it’s quickly followed by a return to images of having “a spring in our step.” I wouldn’t call it aggressive so much as actively positive. John performed another favourite of mine, titled ‘Silence Is’, early in the set, and this piece best sums him up as a performer. Here, he tears down the idea that silence is a desirable thing, much preferring the stuff of life to the absence… “there is not silence from the babbling brook, nor is there silence from the rook… let’s not have silence, let’s have the dance!” There were also more overtly religious pieces woven into the set, such as ‘Good News’ and the hymn-like ‘I Am Come’. Perhaps the most thought-provoking poem was ‘Overly Popular’, a wonderful look at social circles that become “like a forest you can’t get out of”, expressing dismay that the way some people are elevated above others “stops us being like a sister, a brother.” This has been the first time I’ve ever reviewed any sort of poetry event, and I’m very glad I got the chance to cover John.
After finishing up his set, John retired back to his seat and the night was closed with music from local folk rock duo Hope Fiends. Frontman and vocalist David Pyper opened with a poem of his own about cigarettes entitled ‘Inexorable Farewell’, before these two left me pleasantly surprised through a set of unique covers, deliciously bluesy guitar work in places and enjoyable original works. Thanks much to them, the crew of the Maze for having us, our audience and every performer to grace the stage.
DIY Poets at the Maze, May 18th 2017