By Holly Miller
Image credit: Leeds Lit Fest
I can safely say I have never been welcomed into a spoken word evening with raucous ‘60s and ‘70s ballads and the rattling of stones in empty milk bottles. Yet this was how we were beckoned in the audience for Leeds Lit Fest’s ‘Bang Said the Gun’ performance. At what has been called a ‘vortex of energy and enthusiasm’ by ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, the rambunctious welcome equally settled and unnerved the mixed audience of university students and the over-thirty crowd. Line drawing animations were projected onto the screen overhead and two signs in block capitals told us to “RATTLE” and “SHAKE” in exuberant equal measure. Some members of the audience enthusiastically picked up their milk bottles and joined in, yet those of us under thirty remained more timid and sketchy, looking around with raised eyebrows at our fellow poetry-goers. As the numerous rave reviews proclaim, it certainly is unlike other spoken word events and is a refreshing take on performing spoken word.
Spoken word, in itself as the new mode of poetry, sits comfortably to encapsulate the every day, to elevate the mundane. It is scenarios such as these, those moments that all audiences can relate to, that the milk cartons were rattled and shaken with vigour in order to cheer and applause the poets’ performances. The situations in the poetry are localised in this recognisable plane of the ordinary, tender moments and the personal fragments of their lives were often funnily conveyed or touchingly rendered. This was echoed with the relaxed and inviting participation with the audience that often felt more like a comedy gig because of the humour and the ease from the performers and the ‘break’ in the show where a balloon was battered back and forth along the audience. Whatever performance/audience tension might have been created was dissipated in these moments and helped to maintain the closer atmosphere. Certainly no one could be said to be standing on ceremony which was a pleasant change from the often serious veneration that comes with spoken word events.
This doesn’t mean that the subject matter was entirely frivolous, as both MC Daniel Cockrill and the first act Martin Galton recited poems about parenthood and the love for their children with resonant tenderness. Galton was reading from his black book of ‘hate’ which resonated with the middle-aged crowd, who’d cheered enthusiastically for it over the red book of ‘love.’ It was therefore a surprise when he finished with the tender poem about his son (who was in the audience) who’d recently started university in Leeds. Cockrill’s poems about his twin sons were exceptionally poignant and this tenderness only increased when he ended his set with a poem revealing that they were conceived through IVF. Though it no doubt resonated more with the parents in the room, I was still touched by the lamentations of parent’s love and felt an inescapable urge to phone my own parents.
Alongside the touching there was also the personable, comedic performances from Laurie Bolger and Rob Auton. Bolger had an excellent stage presence and engaged with the audience in a more comedic exchange that some of the other performances, as well as being able to showcase a wide range of her work in the short set. I particularly enjoyed her selection of poems about the important women in her life for International Women’s Day. Auton, the other comedic poet, certainly had a bizarre stand-up comedy kind of routine mainly focused around funny deconstructions of everyday thoughts. His rhythm, rhyming and playing with words was very clever and funny and engaged all swathes of the audience with his witty observations.
The headliner of the show, Mike Garry, swaggered on as the final act, almost as if he’d swaned in from a day of hiking with his teal puffer and sunglasses. He brought a different dimension of performance once again. His history of touring with John Cooper Clark and the soft, almost ambiguous Mancunian lilt and repetition created a kind of hypnotic quality with the stories performed from North West England. In this repetition there was a kind of immersion into the stories shared, with often many voices slipping into the one as the poet paced and sang, sliding his glasses on and off at intervals. This shuttered the intimacy of the performance, on and off, yet his performance was sustained and tight throughout his set.
I headed to this event armed with the many rave reviews clanging in my head and the often sensory overload compared with the often pared down poetry performances was certainly an interesting and enjoyable take on the spoken word event.