So we were at a wedding this weekend, at which my husband delivered a very calm reading of the first half of W. H. Auden’s As I walked Out One Evening. We’d talked before about how exactly it should be read, including rejecting his suggestions of reading it in the style of Tim Key, and the copy he took with him was studiously annotated with pauses for breath and changes of speed. After the ceremony the photographer offered hearty praise for his oration, followed by the question: “So was that a poem?” Assured that it was, she went on to add that she had heard strange rumours that people were not meant to read poems like ‘da duh da duh da duh’ and thought it was good he read it in a style that, well, didn’t make it sound like a poem at all.
And she raises a good point, because poems certainly aren’t always meant to be read to the beat of The Owl and the Pussy Cat. A comment quickly followed by: so how the hell do you read them? I had myself once read this very same poem at another wedding and done so with completely different intonation, leaving me having to supress an urge to gasp in shock when I heard my dearly beloved inhale leisurely just before the second to last word of the first line – what weird wind sent that idea in his head? The truth is, if 15 people read this poem aloud, including Auden himself, all would do so in a different fashion and in doing so somehow change the emphasis and meaning of the poem itself (until hearing someone else read it, the image of the years running like rabbits had never really grasped me).
I suppose this is also part of the fundamental point of seeing spoken word poetry performed, rather than just reading it from a page. With the delivery of the artist, the waves of their voices act like the vapours of lavender or the bitter kick of rum, intoxicating and doping the listener. In answer to the question of how one should read a poem, there is obviously no clear answer, if Tongue Fu’s Saturday night performance as part of Blah’s Big Weekend at the Bristol Old Vic is anything to go by. Compèred by Chris Redmond and featuring Vanessa Kisuule, Salena Godden, Tim Clare and Anna Freeman, this is Tongue Fu’s first performance in Bristol and it is so excellent I am going to have to make sure I go see them again on May 18th, when Redmond is joined by Shagufta Iqbal and Indigo Williams.
The idea behind Tongue Fu is to have a band on stage ready to take requests on the spot from the performing artists to soundtrack their poems. These requests varied from a merging of genres, the more unlikely combination the better, (as in blending glam rock with a waltz and some carnival drums) to abstract descriptions (“the bass line that sounds like the walk home from a house party so bad it has made you question your faith in all humanity” – thanks to Vanessa Kisuule for that one). The concept works well and the humour of both the band and Chris Redmond give the whole event a much more witty and light-hearted edge that has been missing from other spoken word events I had been to in the past which had, at times, felt so ‘raw’ I left feeling like I’d been punched several times in the stomach. There is certainly nothing wrong with art attending to unapologetically ‘serious’ subjects – and indeed in amongst the general pap of a lot of what appears on stage – it can be particularly welcome, but Tongue Fu reminded us that the best writers to truly address solemn subject matters always do so in amongst some of the best comedy. In that respect the tone of the overall night – and in particular Anna Freeman, Tim Clare and Chris Redmond – were reminiscent of the best bits of Kurt Vonnegut, discussing mental health problems, love, education, war and raising children more acutely than anyone, whilst at every second line making the reader howl with laughter.
In short, Tongue Fu was one of the most solidly entertaining, energetic and talented performances to have appeared on the Bristol stage in a while – and I say through the veil of believing that the theatre scene in Bristol is genuinely superb (not just to keep myself in a job). From the response of the audience, it seemed like all the performers were well received, although my personal favourites were Anna Freeman – a lady so lovely I’m considering quitting everything and applying for a Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa just to work with her – and Tim Clare. For those kindred spirits who also grew up with a fridge full of Bio Pot yogurt, re-used tin foil and regular conversations about Marxism and the Labour Party, the urge to fall completely for Anna Freeman’s poetry is pretty strong. But more attractive still is her very human-ness, her ability to do away with all the posturing without resorting to brash over-sharing.
Again with Tim Clare, his first instigations of talking-about-talking-with-my-therapist threaten to introduce a topic that has produced some of the worst of art and writing, yet his take on it puts his poems up there with the very best of it (I haven’t had this much fun since I last watched early episodes of The Sopranos). His final piece – made even better by the luck of having beatbox World Champion Bellatrix in the band – is the highlight of the evening.
With regards to the others, the lovely Vanessa Kisuule seemed somehow more delicate than previously, but in an ethereal, floating-silk-dress way. Her reluctant-sister poem addressed to twin brothers fourteen years her junior, was tenderly and amusingly beautiful. Seeing her perform is always a real joy. I am, however, too much the kind of simpering Englishwoman who reads Auden at weddings, to enjoy Salena Godden repeatedly screaming “TITS!!!” at maximum volume, but her earlier Voodoo poem was very well received (albeit potentially still improved by not being shouted into a microphone like she was trying to address a rally of 50,000 people rather than the small confines of the Old Vic Studio).
Blahblahblah regularly hold events at Bristol Old Vic and if this weekend suggested anything then it was that demand for tickets in the future should – if there is any fairness – be high.