We’re in the middle of Mayfest and the Bristol Old Vic is still beautifully decorated with an archway of cascading flowers and other Ophelia-friendly accents. The monthly spoken word night, BlahBlahBlah has been moved from its usual tiny home in the Basement to the bigger Studio, the same space recently used for their phenomenal Blah’s Big Weekend events which included, amongst other treats, a stripped back and intimate Kate Tempest set.
Tonight BlahBlahBlah has gone for two women poets, Shagufta Iqbal and Indigo Williams, along with Chris Redmond, the host of Tongue Fu at this same venue a few weeks back.
First up is Iqbal, whose work focuses on her own experiences as a Pakistani Muslim woman in Britain and the parallel lives of others similar to her. Her voice is rhythmic, smooth like spooned syllabub, and it is all too easy to drift into listening only to the sounds and not the semantics of her words. But listening is important as her voice – and others like it – are still embarrassingly rarely heard, despite the subject of Muslim women (hijab or no hijab) being discussed so frequently in the media by pretty much anyone else but an actual real-life female Muslim – as if they were rare specimens no one could track down to interview.
A case in point would be her poem which addresses one such recent news story – British schoolgirls running away to join ISIS. Iqbal’s set also includes material from her future poetry play ‘Jam is for Girls’, the title idea of which relates to the way her mother’s generation of Pakistani girls were fed jam in the mornings, with the meat and eggs reserved for the males who went out to do hard labour whilst the women stayed at home. Iqbal is confrontational, direct and thorough in her responses to hypocrisy and inequality, whilst also creating a world of hypnotic sound. Her poetry may be particularly confined to subjects of race, religion and gender but they are vital subjects far – perhaps irrevocably – from being resolved.
Sandwiched in the middle is Redmond, who takes to the stage joking about suspicions of him being booked as ‘the pantomime’ act between these two strong women poets. Redmond is as affable ever and it is interesting to hear some of his poems without the backing of the Tongue Fu band. In some ways he does himself a dis-service in his jokes at the beginning as many of his poems have a genuinely interesting side – especially those exploring no longer being young, single and selfish – that transcends them from mere silliness. However, one of the things Redmond does do well is comedy and lightness of spirit – poems about bicycle-racing foxes and a remix of the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff’s Summertime are included in the set – and ultimately it does seem like a slightly funny mix of performers on stage. It also makes it seem as if white males do comedy, because life is nothing but a blast for them, whilst women of colour do ‘serious’ stuff, both because life is neither fun nor funny for them and because women who study gender politics aren’t really the laughing types. The obvious warmth and humour of Iqbal and Williams disproved this point, but the bill remained a bit incongruous.
The evening concluded with Williams’s set which whilst ostensibly dealing with the same issues as Iqbal – race and gender are frequently visited – the poems also touched on wider humanness, a few words exchanged between teacher and pupil regarding hair being an example. And whilst Iqbal instantly emits stage presence in all her self-possessed gorgeousness, Williams enters the stage appearing quietly unassuming and encased in a comfort blanket cardigan of grey wool. It is only when she speaks that the act of performing her work lights her up into a radiating hum of energy and beauty. There is a calmness to Williams which undoubtedly serves her well when she goes into schools to run workshops and makes her views on body image seem accessible and welcoming, there is none of the hysteria or shrieking a lot of women rely on when forming their responses to sexism.
Although without the same level of energy as Tongue Fu, this quieter version of BlahBlahBlah is a confident indication that this spoken word event is worth more than one weekend’s attention.