Saturday, March 03, 2012

Bath Literary Festival launched its nine-day verbal jamboree on Friday with Voices in the City, a full day and evening of so many free events it was impossible to go to them all - I know, because I tried. My poetry-crawl began with Bath Poetry Cafe at the library, a day-long programme of excellent readings. This isn't pub verse, these are poems that make you go mmm... - deeply thoughtful pieces, inset with occasional phrases that startle you as they catch the light. From Liz Brownlee's true tales of Animal Magic - did you know the Madagascan robber moth sucks from the eyes of rainforest birds while they sleep? - to Sue Boyle's clear-eyed views of Rome, there were many appreciative mmms. Here even the open mic readers have previous publications to be taken into consideration: among them Frome's Rosie Jackson, and Claire Coleman who prefaced her colourful street theatre poem by scarf-juggling. Organiser Nikki Kenna kept timings tight, ensuring varied voices and quick breaks for a coffee or a dash to the sales table. During one of these I popped over the road to St Michaels Without to hear readings from David Copperfield, luckily catching the Barkis-is-Willing episode.
Next on my list was 'sensational spoken word from young performers' promised at the Egg but disappointingly the promised sizzle had fizzled out, so it was on to St Swithins Church where Wendy Cope was reading and talking about her poems. Wendy is renowned for her rotweiller attitude to copyright infringement, even as promotion from adulating fans, so I went predisposed to be annoyed by her and swiftly had to upwardly-adjust my opinion. She's droll, grumpy, sharp, and very funny and I found it impossible not to warm to her. Family Values was one theme, dipping into her latest collection of disconcertingly simple ditties, and Wendy also revisited that famous "Bloody men are like bloody buses" responsible for her 'national treasure' status and now in textbooks with analytic questions like - Wendy swears she didn't make this up - "What adjective would you use to describe the poet and the men she meets?"
Time now to dash to The Raven where ex-Bard of Bath Jenny Walter was opening the first of the night's five pub poetry events: Poems in Pubs also seemed to be going for the Guinness Book of Records for how many audience members can sit, squat, and stand in a bar listening to 15 fresh-faced young poets sharing their lifetime's learnings - mostly about other bars. This is on the other side of the lyrical galaxy from the elegant intoning of the library: self-revelatory, provocative, and loath to settle for any line without a laugh - it's slick and refreshingly entertaining. Laurie Bolger showed how to do it with a tour through Shoreditch (the bars, mostly) and was my highlight of the night.
No time to stay for more than a third of the team, sadly, as we were due at the Assembly Inn for Poetry and a Pint - yet another tribe of poets here, with hippy strumming and druid chanting in the stone-floor cellar bar. Among familiar faces was Kevan Manwaring, and Rosie Finnegan and I added our names to the performance list, just to be part of this day of voices.
So I'd call the whole event a big success and a credit to Bath, upending that common perception of slightly snobby staidness with a Spoken Word marathon that was varied, stimulating, entertaining... and exhausting.

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