Review: Black on Both Sides Slam Poetry Bergen 11th November 2019

The last poetry slam of the season took place in the House of Literature (Litteraturhuset)  two nights ago. I was thankful to enter for free, which suited my and many others’ pockets, as the venue filled up to something approaching maximum capacity. And this in spite of Pussy Riot playing the same night not too far away. These events, here in culture-hungry Bergen, are usually well-attended, even on week nights. Free events are especially popular and important, because they are accessible to all sections of society. The usual glum sense of haemorrhaging hundreds of kroner because we need some culture is refreshingly absent, making the audience diverse and vibrant.

In short, the season went out with a bang. The performers were all different, as they usually are: a mixture of professionals, old hands, amateurs and complete novices. The two main performers were Guro Sibeko and Afrikane. Other performers included Camilla, Oda-Sofie and curator Michael W Opara aka Doriansgrave.

The two core performers, Sibeko and Afrikane, were typically experienced and good at their craft. Sibeko, an established author and slam poet with many performances under her belt, blew us away with her powerful pieces. Unafraid, she flawlessly took on topics ranging from burnout to sexuality to politics and racism. Her articulate performances were frankly awesome in charge and scope, but still found space for humour. I can’t help think that she takes after her father, who she calls “Warrior Heart” (Krigerhjerte) in her biography about him.

Then there was Afrikane, a musician and poet originally from Uganda. His themes were perhaps less gunpowder-like in nature compared to Sibeko’s, but still impactful. More personal, his performance and stories were equally as tight as Sibeko’s, incorporating rap, hip hop, song and backing tracks. He gave the audience laughs as well as pause for thought in his reflections and confessions about love, growing up and developing as a person and artist. His focus on execution, i.e. how we perform as an important part of the content, was tangible.

Praise given where praise is due, however, I was most inspired by debutant, Oda-Sofie. I was truly surprised that this was the first time she had ever performed. She reminded me somewhat of a healthy, younger version of Amy Winehouse, not so much in looks as in stage presence: undeniably genuine. The real deal. Authentic with a capital ‘A’ and talented with a capital ‘T’.

She started by telling us how nervous she was, how personal the content was and her intention for the performance: that we would feel something. But her performance wasn’t a belligerent self-exposé, it was tender and well-rehearsed. Her nervousness did not trip her up, it made her performance real. She had backing tracks and was well-timed, even singing a little. Her themes were mostly about love and self-development. It was impossible not to be touched by her pieces. I certainly felt something.

I felt I had something to learn from her about live performance. She demonstrated that having the courage to be honest allows people to relate; that when we open up and dare to be a little vulnerable, we let people in. She also showed how important being present is. This is because live performances are one-time only affairs. Sure, you might take a show and repeat it hundreds of times, but each performance is new and different. They are finite and perishable, so you have to really be there to engage with the audience and make it count.

I felt that the strengths Oda-Sofie demonstrated during her performance are ideals I could aspire to, goals that I might stand a chance of achieving during my own performances: presence and honesty. I’ll likely never be as good as Sibeko or Afrikane, their styles, content and temperaments being so very different to mine. I stand very little chance of achieving the Shakespearian levels of recollection and recital of impossibly long texts and thespian occupation of the stage like Sibeko. I’ll never be as relaxed or cool or musical as Afrikane.

I know I can never be like them and I have, of course, got different truths to tell, but the evening gave me something to chew on all the same. I left wanting to experiment, to find my feet and my style. I left with something to aspire to and with new ideas. A short conversation in the corridor afterwards with curator, Michael Opara aka Doriansgrave, confirmed that this had been his intention all along. He has received criticism for giving airtime to amateurs, but had stood his ground and done it anyway. He wants to inspire and give normal folk a chance, a voice at this table of art. How glad I am that he did and I look forward to the new season next year.

Finally, I must review the 14-year-old Camilla’s contribution and debut performance at the event. Being a teacher, I have a special place in my heart for children’s artistic endeavours. But being a teacher, I also lose hope sometimes because teenagers seem steadily less and less interested in poetry. Camilla gave me hope. She reminded me of what a poet is, of what I am. We are the ones who notice and cherish the little things. We perceive the small, otherwise barely noticeable events that most people never give a moment’s thought. We really feel and take the time to articulate the falling of leaves, cats purring and crisp sheets at bedtime. We help people to really live. And yes, there are young and old poets, even now. I was reminded of this in the midst of my default cynicism about life, and left the event glad to be proved wrong: there is a future for poetry.

Rebecca Smith

Bad Days

I woke up too early 
The world is uphill 
And my houseplants are withered  
On the windowsill 
 
I’d like to make dinner 
And wash dirty clothes  
But my mind is picked over 
By quarrelling crows 
  
They peck through the rubbish 
And make a big mess 
Black beaks busy searching 
For morsels of flesh 
 
Today’s long to do list 
Will not lose its length 
And this worn out weakness 
Will not conjure strength  
 
But if I can up 
And race the precious sun 
To the door then perhaps 
I will have won 
 
If I drag this sorry carcass 
Through the gap in the wall 
Perhaps the rest 
Won’t matter at all 
 
If I manage to scratch 
Birds' footprints on a page 
I might stand to stay 
In the brightness of the stage 

And the call of the shade 
That moss covered stone 
Can stay undiscovered 
A while longer, unknown

 

True Story

On All Hallow’s Eve 
I leave the candles to burn 
And embers of fire to glow  
When the house grows still 
I stay up and wait 
Switch off the lights  
And sit until late 
  
The street lamp outside 
Is dark and defunct 
It has been since night 
Grew longer than day  
And although I am tired 
I should go to bed 
I just can’t extinguish 
The last burning flames  
 
I want them to twinkle 
This night with no moon 
And lead the way home 
 
The candy is cleared 
The sweets stowed away 
But I’m half expecting 
A rap at the door 
A knock or a ring 
There’s one last guiser 
I want to welcome in 
 
They say that tonight 
The membrane is thin 
The veil and its wolf disappear 
Now and then 
So when I hear the door 
I will open it wide 
For I know who is there 
I know my lost kin

Dear Katie

Dear Katie,

Can I tell you a story? To begin with, I better make a few things clear. If I were ever forced to categorise myself, I would have to say that I am a non-believer. I don’t believe in a higher power or the supernatural. I know the cruelty of nature. I am a rational being. I am not afraid of the dark. As a child I delighted in telling ghost stories to girls before bedtime. And it was always me who moved the glass on Ouija boards  to spell out esoteric names by candlelight. I enjoyed frightening my friends, my family and even my own mother witless, and see the thrill of terror spread across their faces. I suppose in being rational, I took pleasure in becoming the supernatural forces that I could never quite enjoy myself. Fairies, ghosts, bumps in the night all wash over me, like hogwash in a pig pen. Unless of course, I am the dark force behind them all.

Having said that, rewind the clock five hundred years and my lack of belief would have me burnt as a witch of course. Ha! The strange thing is, I am a rational being, but I am also intuitive. I used to believe in something, but age and sense killed all of that. Not quite though. There are some ethereal things that I still believe in. I understand the power of thought and ideas. And I recognise the potency of turning thought into something material. This, I would argue, is what art is: the material form of ethereal thought. For this reason, I write; because writing is a form of magic.

I don’t claim to have thought up this idea myself. It is borrowed and happily adopted from master magician and writer, Alan Moore. Alan Moore, the author who coincidentally originates from our home town of Northampton.

Which brings me to my next point. Two other non-material things that I believe hold power are symbol and coincidence. Being intuitive, I am highly receptive and susceptible to both. Alan Moore also said that the coincidences we encounter as writers, are the goldmine we must keep returning to.

Now that I have cleared the air on these matters, I will begin. The past year has brought much calamity to my little life. Many people still don’t know about this. My marriage has dissolved and I am going through the grief and practical hardships of separation. I can’t really say why this happened, but what I can say is that I felt it coming. I felt it coming like the brewing of a storm or the boiling of a kettle. I felt it coming our way and, sure enough, it came. Right now I am still navigating the fall-out from the storm.

In the midst of all this, a few months ago, I was clearing out my altar: a table I keep and decorate, and change with the seasons. My daughter was with me. She loves the cupboard underneath, all the strange items I keep in there and the scent of incense as I open it. One of the doors to the cupboard would not open that day. I tried to unlock it, to no avail. My daughter, however, turned the key and unlocked it on her first attempt.

She wanted to see my psycards, a type of Tarot card I suppose, but based on symbols from Jungian psychology. I bought them many years ago purely for their aesthetic appeal, the symbols and illustrations pleasing my eyes as I flicked through them in the shop. I dug out the box and did a reading at her behest. Her future card was Beauty, illustrated by a beautiful damsel. “I told you that you would be beautiful when you grow up, didn’t I?” I said. She smiled and turned away, embarrassed and denying it. Then I did my own reading, for the fun of it.

The first card I drew was The Tower. This, the instruction manual told me, was the problem. Eerie, I thought. How alone I had been. Alone in my thoughts and arrogant in my actions. An island, an austere tower of brick and mortar, unfathomable to outsiders, protected by thick defences and isolated by myself.

The second card was The Body. Strangely fitting as a card to represent my past, I thought. I have always struggled with my body. Gaining and losing weight, and then the traumatic and debilitating effects of my last pregnancy. It took two and a half years before I could run again and three years to lose twenty kilogrammes of excess weight. How my body, during that time, had eroded both my self-confidence and my relationship.

The third card I turned over was to describe the present: Friendship. How painfully accurate these randomly selected cards were, I thought and sighed inwardly. All I had wanted and yearned for, was creative friendship. That is still what I need and want, if the truth be told. Desperately seeking friendship is a fair way to describe the desperate present.

The fourth card proceeded to send chills down my spine: The Liar. This, the manual told me, was in my future. “Why is your reading so bad, Mummy?” my daughter asked. I didn’t know, I answered. Who was the liar, I thought? Myself or someone else? Who was fooling who? Had I been the liar all along?

And then the fifth and final card: the solution. I hesitated as I turned it over. I knew that there was a Death card. Might that be the solution? But I turned it over and the image confused me at first: a crab beneath a full moon. The Moon, round and milky, beauty still. It represents the feminine and the emotional, the instruction manual said. After reflecting upon this, I knew it had something to do with writing. I knew that I had to write my way through all of this.

And then three months later, dearest Katie, you asked to read out “Three Nights” on the radio. A poem I wrote some time ago, about The Moon. Thank you for that. It meant more than you think. Now I am writing my way through the jumble of the present. Rational and intuitive, my feet in both worlds, navigating the oceanic chaos of life. And at last, I have found the courage to be honest in a world full of lies. Keep spinning your magic, Katie. Keep being kind in a world full of cruelty. Keep playing your music to spite the disharmony of reality and for the sheer joy of it. The world needs magicians like us.

The End is Nigh and Other Dark Musings

Back from pre-Brexit Britain. What a trip of mixed emotions and impressions. I am exhausted by it. A jumble of sights, sounds, smells and flavours. Sensations of all varieties. A summary of what leapt out at me the most: tired workers, vacant consumers and delusional protesters.  

Tired workers first, almost exclusively of colour and/or immigrants, worked to the bone, servicing the open-all-hours establishments, shops and stalls everywhere. Their fatigue so prominent, physically and psychologically, that they were unable and unwilling to conceal it. Eyes puffy and blood-shot, blinking a little too slowly, they could not smile and pretend to be happy for the sake of customer service. Zero-hour contracts and degraded working conditions have robbed their joy, even a pretence of joy. Over and over again, I saw the same pattern.  

The tiny McDonalds in Victoria Station: there were no smiles, just a strained taking of orders and difficulty in concentrating so late at night. The stress in having to constantly rush in the Latino woman who served me was tangible. Her colleagues overwhelmed by hungry, hollow-eyed workers of all classes waiting in line, making mistakes in their exhaustion. They shoved burgers in paper bags and shifted them in a haze of weary cognition. 

And then the black guy in the Little Waitrose on Bayswater Road. He served me through the window around midnight. How I felt the worlds between us: me, ordering five large bottles of Evian and a selection of gluten-free snacks for my rich pupils in the middle of the night. He with his shelf-stacking gloves on, reserving friendly banter only for his colleague on his knees on the shop floor, as he selected my items. How embarrassed I felt at the painful gulf of class that separated us, almost as tangible as the fortified glass that contained him, keeping me out; the slotted window opening only for the swift transaction of money at my whim and convenience. 

In the Kingdom of Sweets in Piccadilly, the man of Asian origin, his angst and irritation at the constant stream of customers buying sickly tat with a sub-standard card machine and being subject to the same loop of sickly pop songs played at torturous volumes. He wanted to tell us all to fuck off, to stop buying crap and to turn off the dastardly music. He just wanted to go home and rest. I saw it, I wanted to reach out and tell him that I sensed his pain, that he should just go home. But how could I? He would lose his shitty, but necessary job that also stole so much from him. Visibly anxious, possibly on the verge of breakdown, how I felt for him. 

The black cashier in Primark on Oxford Street at the till. She had been there for many hours. Her purple striped hair and make-up was fabulous, but she could not hide her tiredness. She joked with her colleague about the end of their shift. How uncomfortable they looked perched on their swivel chairs. I wondered if they had family waiting for them at home. 

All the myriad shelf-stackers and cleaners, shop assistants and Tube workers, bus and Uber drivers, never mind the many rough sleepers, modestly just trying to survive; I saw their plight. And I felt the painful gulf between us. I have never felt the sense of “us and them” more keenly before in the UK. 

Now for the vacant consumers, those perpetuating misery without really understanding that they are in any way responsible. Fake eye-lashed and caked with contoured make-up, wandering from retail outlet to retail outlet in search of the hallowed bargain. Apparently concerned only with the shallow pursuit of maintaining their own image through the unforgiving lens of social media, they seem almost intentionally oblivious to the cluster-fuck of calamity about to descend upon them. Disempowered, clad in designer clothing and thick layers of denial, they have chosen to drink champagne and listen to the violins play as the Titanic sinks beneath them. 

They don’t care. Perhaps it is because caring hurts too much? To care is to take responsibility; a tall order for most people. It is also to acknowledge the truth; an exercise in discomfort. Snapping selfies in Selfridges, digital worship of Instagram idols, tutting at Extinction Rebels, distracted and myopic to the point of seeing only as far as the end of their own nose or screens, they totter about in an entitled fog of impatient irritation at minor slights and inconveniences in the private hell of their existences. Their range of experience is pruned to the point of helplessness in a world about to free fall into danger. 

Sheep, zombies, brainwashed flocks, it is easy to sling unkind comparisons their way. And yet, as uncomfortable as it is, I see myself in them. I have, to a large degree, given up. I am neither rebel nor exploited worker. My nihilism matches theirs. I am powerless and weak in the face of the iceberg that will sink us. The temptation to slip into apathetic complacency is most definitely there. 

The Extinction Rebels on the other hand, holding rallies in Trafalgar Square and mounting Tube trains, feel powerful. Protected and misled by their echo chambers of liberal activism, they annoy more than they inspire amongst normal folk. Moralising, privileged and exclusive, the fact that they are right is of little consequence. They are deluded and drunk to think that they can save the sinking ship. Do they not realise that the great movements of history have come about only as a unification of the middle and lower classes?  

Rather than aggravate the very people they need on their side, they need to elevate them. They need to find common ground and abandon hummus and half-shaved hairdos. They need to retract their accusing index fingers and extend a hand of solidarity. They need to offer a kind of hope where there is none. They need to muster courage in a congregation of disempowered cowards.  

I doubt that any of this is possible. How does one conjure the spirit of World War 2 when the war is as good as invisible and the enemy is ourselves? What jumped out to me most prominently is how alienated I am in the complicated confusion of politics now. I do not belong anywhere. The only placard I could justifiably hold up and be true to myself is one that read “The End is Nigh”. And yet, I do not belong to some disaster cult either.  

I am lost and do not have any answers. This crossroads of history is to me, as unfathomable as it is woeful, and I am humbled as I witness and live through it. 

Three Nights

Three nights the moon looks full
Round and milky;
Beauty still

And then she starts to look away
Into the blue
Behind the day

Fading, yet a beauty still
Remembering
A tidal pull

Until the memories of the night
Absorb her gaze
Her orb of light

Moths fly lost in darkened dusk
Batting lamps
With flutter dust

As Earth forgets her satellite
Makes do with stars
And planes in flight

But if the sky is clear of grey
A silver smile
Returns again

Clouds blow in and hang about
But sure enough
The moon comes out

She dares to look into the sun
Once again
When day is done

Until at last she does not hide
Bears her face
And braves the tide

Three nights she glows to light the road
Remembering
Sweet life below

Three nights she shares her poet's art
Beauty's emblem
Light in the dark

Don’t

Don’t be afraid of me 
Or my unintended power 
Don’t turn your back on me 
In my darkest hour 
Don’t pretend there’s nothing wrong 
Don’t shy from sharing pain 
Don’t ignore the warning signs 
Again and again 
 
Don’t miss your chance 
Don’t walk away or close the door 
Don’t keep me guessing 
Don’t make me unsure 
Don’t send me mixed messages 
Or lie to keep the peace 
Don’t shy from the truth 
Or spy on me like the secret police 
 
Don’t put me on a pedestal 
Because you’ll only knock me down 
Don’t build a mighty bonfire 
To burn your witch to the ground 
Don’t withhold your love 
Or lock me out in the cold 
Don’t abandon me because I got old 
 
Don’t hate my mind 
Or my words, razor sharp 
Don’t pretend I’m not wounded 
Don’t break my broken heart 
Don’t take me for a ride 
Don’t dump me in a ditch 
Don’t hit me without permission 
Or pronounce me a bitch 
 
Don’t take advantage of my kindest tender core 
Don’t think I won’t notice when you don’t give any more 
Don’t undervalue me 
Don’t misjudge my worth 
Don’t forget to thank me 
If and when I give birth 
Don’t flake on me 
Don’t let me down 
Don’t hate me 
Don’t stop kissing me on the mouth

September

I am September 
I weep with the leaves 
Each bird that passes  
I am forced to release 
I remember the summer 
Days so long and bright 
But each time I scale the mountain 
I run out of light 
There is beauty in my mourning 
As I bead the spider’s web 
And whisper sombre notes 
Inside the robin’s head 
I splash colours to spread joy 
And surprise the eyes they meet 
Because soon 
Through winter’s window 
We all must surely leap 
 
I am September 
The month of long goodbyes 
The month of mellow fruits 
And misty mournful skies 
When ripened ruby lips 
Open to sing a song 
Of grey light on the hillside 
And blues in midnight storms 
 
I am September 
You’ll look back 
And long for me 
For you I love and nourish 
You I strive to please 
But time and her four steeds 
Gallop onwards, as they do 
Soon they’ll pick me up and sweep me 
Far away from you 
 
I am September 
The month about to pass 
Thirty blissful days 
That were never meant to last 
Thirty days of balance 
Between the light and dark 
Treasure me as I hold you 
And feel my beating heart

 

Hot White Heather

With a bundle of beers in a bag 
I went around the circuit, the path 
And I thought of bottles and cans 
Left long ago by lads 
In barns and root cellar floors 
Traces left by troubled souls 
Created here, homegrown 
And as I stopped halfway around 
To curse the land 
To tell it straight, I knew it’s plan 
That I would of course defy 
I saw a shock of white 
Amongst the purple bells 
Hot white heather 
Like contrary cockle shells 
As though the land knew 
Pre-empted my silly hope 
And laughed through lucky heather 
Pretty flowers in a row 

The Rock and the Sea

Even the rock is worn by the sea 
I control everything 
But what controls me? 
What controls the wind? 
I have no power 
That is the secret of tyrants in their tower 
Doubts and whispers 
Chaos in force 
Mighty shows of calm  
Suppressing remorse 
And sadness, like seabirds 
That fly in hungry flocks 
As the ebb and flow rises 
Up towards the rocks 
Lifting broken bodies 
From boats lost to time 
Ghosts of people drowned 
Fishes on a line 
Revealing castles wrecked 
Ships all run aground 
Fog disperses 
The truth lies all around