Sunday, 31 March 2013

Poetry transvestism?

It's not all that long ago that I was blogging about the possible demise of the York Literature Festival - one more victim of an austerity regime that seems to place little value on the power of the creative arts. Thankfully, the Festival has survived. This year it recorded its most triumphant season yet, with over 2000 tickets sold for a variety of shows ranging from big-name gigs to smaller community arts ventures. There was a veritable buzz about the Festival this year - ample proof that all that energy, enthusiasm and creativity has not been in vain.

One thing that struck me very forcefully about this year's Festival was the capacity for poetry to manifest itself in all kinds of guises that one wouldn't automatically think of as poetry. It crept up on this year's audiences in other guises - wearing the clothes of other artforms, if you will, a sort of literary transvestism.

It manifested itself most clearly in this year's headline act - a double-header, featuring on the one hand a fairly conventional poetry reading by the Poet Laureate herself, Carol Ann Duffy, and on the other a sublime fusion of classic verse with rock 'n' roll in the guise of poetic troubadours Little Machine. Little Machine are a couple of 90s stadium-rock survivors who have teamed up with a performance poet to present several thousand years' worth of poetry - from Sappho through Shakespeare to Philip Larkin's infamous "This Be the Verse" - in a variety of infectious musical arrangements. Some were sublime, some ridiculous, but all were calculated to get right under the skin and leave you humming along. When they handled classic texts, they had the gift of breathing new freshness into words which were otherwise over-familiar, giving them a whole new lease of life. When they set contemporary verse, they created a whole new way of approaching an art form that is all too easily dismissed out of hand as too serious, too difficult, or too intellectual. The great joy of Little Machine is that they showed just how wrong this stereotyping of poetry can be.

Little Machine aren't the first musicians to do this, of course. Last year I had the great pleasure of seeing my personal folk-rock heroes, The Waterboys, electrify the stage with a concert performance of An Appointment with Mr Yeats, an entire album's worth of musical settings of the poetry of WB Yeats. And if Little Machine surprised and delighted, the sheer power of the Waterboys' rendition of The Hosting of the Shee was enough to blow you backwards off your chair.

Poetry and music, of course, go hand in hand as art forms. An even more intelligent form of poetic transvestism took place in the form of Bob Beagrie and Andy Willoughby's show Kids: a poetry cycle ostensibly inspired by the film reel of Charlie Chaplin's silent classic, The Kid, but underpinned fundamentally by the writers' experiences of working with deprived and troubled teenagers in the most recession-hit areas of north-east England. The power of Kids came not just from the words, the mimes that accompanied them, and the excerpts from Chaplin's original movie that played out as the backdrop to the show (to the accompaniment of a brand-new piano score). It came, most of all, from the quiet anger of the social commentary that infused each poem. This was poetry in the form of an art that wasn't afraid to challenge the status quo, and ask the big questions of how and why society has ended up in such a mess, and what are we going to do about it?

I'll even admit to having a go at a bit of poetic transvestism myself. Telling the Fairytale, my first ever show for the Festival, wasn't really my show at all, if I'm honest: it was a collaborative effort between me and my good friend, storyteller Helen M Sant, to recreate some classic pieces of folklore and re-tell them in a 21st century context. In some ways, Telling the Fairytale was the exact opposite of Kids. Instead of contemporary social comment, here we had timeless fairy stories. Instead of a Powerpoint projector and a piano, our backdrop was an icy cold, medieval gothic church. But the reason I love fairy tales lies in the layers of imagery and metaphor behind them. The archetypes of fairy story may hark back to a bygone age, but they represent real concerns. Love, abandonment, social disconnection, mental illness - and the ultimate need we all have, for that happily-ever-after. Being able to wrap these concerns in the cloak of familiar childhood stories provides a way in for an audience, where a direct approach to the subject in a poem might be hollow or trite. Being able to perform these poems, set against some wonderful contemporary storytelling and a haunting flute accompaniment, made an hour of sheer enchantment.

It seems that rumours of the death of literature in York have been very much exaggerated. It's well and truly thriving, and often in the most unexpected guises. All art is richer when it collaborates, when it draws from experience beyond itself. And poetry, perhaps, most of all.

So that's my challenge to poets for 2013. Try on someone else's clothes for size, and see how they feel. An artist's, a musician's, a social campaigner's. You could find a new freedom in your writing. And, perhaps most importantly, you might find new audiences too.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Andy - a Gothic church and fairytales sounds wonderful. An interesting post which I have just read after putting up a link to an ezine for WM/WN readers that combines art/photography with poetry/prose.

    I'm currently experimenting with combining my writing and artwork (not new, but it is for me!) as I just can't choose which to concentrate on. The only problem is that I might end up being a Jack of all trades, master of zilch, but hey ho, at least I'll have tried!

    I'm delighted to hear that York festival was such a success - in fact, I've just been listening to some of Little Machine via your link and they sound great. I heard The Waterboys back in the eighties (here in Ireland I think, or perhaps Finsbury Park?) and would love to hear them performing Yeats' poetry.

    A musician I saw recently and really enjoyed for his combination of music with the spoken word was Duke Special - It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as he told little anecdotes and shared experiences with the audience - made me think of vaudeville and old music hall combined with very contemporary topics. I had my 70+ year old mother and 11 and 14 year old children and all enjoyed it as much the two 40 somethings in between!

    Literary transvestism - I think you've coined an excellent new term! :)