Saturday, 31 March 2012

City of Leeds Poetry Slam

Vivian Lister writes:
WOW!- the Wonder Of Words!
 -Wham–Bam- City of Leeds SLAM

City of Leeds School students hit the ground dancing with this their first ever Litfest slam. Supported by the excellent Leeds Silver Steel Sparrows, these talented young people dazzled us with an evening pulsating with drive, energy and full-on pizazz.

Strong political poems confronted world issues - of women’s oppression, of the futility and pain of war -  in language that was both reflective and heartfelt. There were flamboyant assertions of identity, of the pride of race and gender and the determination to be, to live and to grow.

The great comedy duo, Pinky and Za ("Don’t call me babe!" "Yeh babe!") delighted their fellow students with an energetic, fast moving dispute about language use and dignity - at least we older audience members think that’s what it was about as we were swept along in the slip-steam of this fast flowing dialogue. There were also plenty of poignant moments, personal experiences described in accurate, truthful language and performed simply and conversationally.

Faced with this wealth of exuberant talent, the judges retired to make their decisions whilst we were entertained by Michelle Scally Clarke, the event’s brilliant facilitator and Stella Petris, her wonderful collaborator who gave us their tribute to Nina Simone. There  was also  spirited playing by the Silver Steel Sparrows.

The judges - Amanda Stevenson, Head of English at Lawnswood School, poet Becky Cherriman and song writer Bob Green, expressed their delight at the flair, skill and also courage of all the performers. They were also impressed by how well the young people had worked together and looked after each other.

The judges awarded the prize for best poem to Farzad Ahmadi for the poem, ‘Shattered Dreams’, praising both its wonderful imagery and Farzad’s strong performance.

They gave special mention to Maryam Dodo’s poem, ‘Happy Day’, to Pinky Sibande for the beautiful, ‘Silence in the Room’,  to Antonio Bessa’s poems which dealt with serious world issues with power and clarity and to Natasha Gogwe’s ‘Climbing’ in which the energy of the rhythm emphasised high aspiration. 

The winner of the best personal achievement award was Neelam Chohan who impressed the judges by the  direct , conversational tone  of her poetry describing the trials of her life and also her reflections upon what writing has meant to her.

The judges also praised Luke Edgar for the courage and honesty of his writing.

The award for best overall performance was given to Za Nyamande who combined lyrical word play with commanding stage presence and style. Special mention went to Elijah Phillip for the beautifully performed, ‘Getting Older’.

Bob Green addressed the slammers: ‘Each of you has written your own truth- and that is poetry!’

City of Leeds Slammers! You are poets. We salute you!

The Slammers – Winners all!
All these young people attended the slam workshops and/or performed at the slam:

Farzad Ahmadi; Ikra Ahmed; Jeffrey Antwi; Antonio Bessa;Neelam Chohan; Maryam Dodo; Luke Edgar; Natasha Gogwe; Shirquilla Grant; Za Nyamande; Elijah Phillip; Unique Ruddock; Pinky Sibande 

Calligraphy at Left Bank

Simon Hall writes:
What is the relationship between the spoken and the written word? What is the relationship between the written word and the way we write it? These questions were bubbling under the surface as I picked up a piece of wood shaped into a primitive nib and tried to make a shape approximating to an Arabic letter. I was sharing a table with a very diverse group of punters - all complete novices - as we tried to get our minds and hands round the ancient practice of drawing words.

What made this particular session remarkable - in addition to the beautiful surroundings of Left Bank - was that the art was being done with a unique purpose. Gillian Holding is Jewish and local and Iman Meghraoua is an Eastern European Muslim, but they came together not just to teach calligraphy, but to demonstrate the common origins of Hebrew and Arabic script. If we share a script, can we not share our lives, they asked wordlessly as they gave unceasing encouragement to our group of faltering amateurs. As we hamfistedly tried to make beauty from the most basic of instruments we were being shown how much the romantic, flowing Arabic script has in the common with its precise - almost digitally precise - Hebrew sibling.

Just a few hours earlier, Gillian and Iman had welcomed young people from their own communities to share together and create huge collages of script to be taken to Israel/Palestine as a sign of peace and reconciliation. We, too, were able to make our own tiny contribution to the work. It felt hopelessly inept, tiny and insignificant, and yet here were two people from communities who are supposed to be at war with each other asking us to play our part. How could we refuse?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

On your marks! Get set!

(Free House Event- Sunday 25 March)
Doug Sandle writes:
When I was a teenager I had pictures from an illustrated sports magazine on my bedroom wall alongside pictures of work by the likes of Paul Klee, Mondrian, Picasso and Magritte. While sport and the arts are often seen to occupy different and oppositional realms, as  portrayed in the popular stereotypes of the super fit  sports ‘jock and the arty ‘aesthete’, for me the arts and sport are twin passions. As an adolescent I wrote poetry and also ran cross country, played rugby and was a middle distance runner.  

So as a 'Beck Arts' contribution to the Headingley LifFest, following on from our 2011 Food for Thought, for this Olympic year it had to be the literature (and some songs) of sport as the subject of our presentation. As luck would have it, LitFest guest Anthony Clavane in his Sunday afternoon session talked about the often perceived divide between mind and body and the stereotypical assumptions that arts and sport necessarily inhabited different worlds. He argued that arts and sport had much in common and as an example cited author David Storey, who had been a Rugby League player for Leeds.  As I research the relationships between the arts and sport it is surprising how many artists, writers, dramatists, film makers, composers, dancers and poets have used sport not only as a subject  to be celebrated (and sometimes critiqued) but as a rich expressive and symbolic narrative of human experience. For Anthony Clavane, sport is theatre and a dramatic spectacle. For conceptual artist Martin Creed, whose piece entitled Work No. 850 in which every 30 seconds a runner ran through the galleries of Tate Britain, there is the implication that our experience of, and engagement with, art and sport may  have much in common. 

So in our sporty clothes and entering slow motioned to strains of Chariots of Fire we entered our arena (the welcoming front room of Richard Wilcocks's abode) to perform On Your Marks! Get Set!  to a full house. The performers who joined me were Sheila Chapman (who stood in generously for Lis Bertolla, who was unable to attend as advertised), Richard Wilcocks, John Milburn and Maria Sandle. The programme included poems on tennis, running, football, cricket and golf and readings of prose works on football and cricket featuring both well known and perhaps not so well known poets and authors. 

Richard also revealed in suitable dramatic style (in his piece The Führer's First XI) that Hitler had once had an interest in cricket and that he attempted to rewrite the rules and characteristics of the game. Following some particularly lyrical poems on cricket, John performed the poetic Roy Harper song When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease. Maria concluded a section on football with an example of a song that had had become ‘appropriated’ and associated with sport by singing The Fields of Athenry. This has become a feature of several sporting events and is performed by fans, notably for Celtic and Liverpool football clubs and also for Irish Rugby games. 

Some works, such as Lis Bertolla’s own poem Team Spirit (especially written for this event), reminded us that school experience of sport was not a comfortable experience for some, while nonetheless recognising its metaphorical import later in life. Other readings playfully poked fun at being too obsessed with sporting prowess and physicality or critiqued the celebrity culture of commodified sport. The performance concluded with a song and a poem about boxing, and we then moved on to indulge in the refreshments provided by Anna. It was a very enjoyable event for the last day of the main LitFest programme.

The Lingo of Sport in New Headingley Club

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Sunday Mirror sports writer Anthony Clavane spoke about his best-selling Promised Land: A Northern Love Story which is about the city, its football club and its communities, and about what it means to be a writer who wants to celebrate Leeds. We need to relish our ‘Leedsness’!

His heroes were not all taken from the sporting world: Mick McCann’s How Leeds Changed The World was mentioned, and David Storey was flagged up, even though he came from Wakefield, which according to Clavane is “almost Leeds, well all right, it’s West Yorkshire... well anyway he’s been a big influence and he wrote This Sporting Life on the train to London... every time I go down to Kings Cross on the train, which is often, I am reminded of how he wrote the novel sitting in a seat just like mine, on the train. He played Rugby League at weekends and was a student at the Slade School of Art during the week.

“The worlds of sport and art can be brought together. There are so many connections and so many false dichotomies.” He went on to illustrate his point.

There was Brian Clough, the manager who did not actually burn Don Revie’s desk, even though David Peace had him do it in The Damned United (look up David Peace in the search box above to find his contribution to the 2010 LitFest), and there was mention of Matt Busby, who once managed a certain bunch of footballers on the other side of the Pennines, and who described football as theatre: “ which case Elland Road is the Theatre of the Absurd.”

“The Kop at Elland Road – remember? A Greek chorus!” We shared our memories of chants. He did not mention all of them because he considered that we were “a family audience”, which provoked one or two surprised looks.

Clavane aired personal anecdotes, of which he has a great archive, drawn upon extensively for the book. He once sold lollies and ice creams in the old Leeds Playhouse, one half of a sports centre. Quiet, significant moments in plays were often less than tense when the audience could hear the clink-clink of weights being hoisted and dropped by those training at the other side of breeze-block walls. “I saw Comedians by Trevor Griffiths and Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist when I worked there. Fo’s play changed every night because the actors had to react to contemporary events. You never knew exactly what was going to happen. As in a match.”

Questions and Answers was interesting, given equal time with the talk. He tackled a lengthy one about all sport being too male-orientated with professional skill and declared that he had given adequate space in Promised Land to the violent and racist elements who once gave Leeds United such a bad reputation, back in the seventies. “It’s changed such a lot. It’s more family orientated now,” he said. Someone pointed out that rugby had been like that for decades.

Promised Land is about to be adapted for the stage this summer by Clavane and co-writer Nick Stimpson. The adaptation will tell the same story through the eyes of Nathan and Caitlin, two young idealists growing up in mid-1970s Leeds, living in the same city but on opposite sides of a cultural and religious divide. Nathan is a third generation Russian-Jewish immigrant and a Leeds United obsessive who dreams of making it as a writer, and Caitlin is a political campaigner and a third-generation Irish Catholic immigrant. Against all the odds, they fall in love, united by their hopes and dreams – the kind of aspiration that drew their grandparents to the industrial city in the first place.

The play, which is going to be full of music and dancing, with a large community cast and a band, is a co-production between Red Ladder Theatre Company, Leeds Civic Arts Guild and The Carriageworks. It will be performed at The Carriageworks between 22 and 30 June 2012.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Endymion launch at the Flux Gallery

Sheila Chapman writes:
The Flux was its usual self on Saturday night: skewiff, tilted, slanted and full of poets. We greeted each other with immortal lines like, ‘nice to see you’ and ‘god it’s been a long time’, sipped/glugged our drinks, nibbled nuts and partook of divine cheese and pickle sandwiches.

The poetry and readings were divine too with ten artists taking to the floor to celebrate the launch of Endymion by Flux Gallery Press. Endymion is an Arts and Poetry magazine which is packed with poems, reflections, critique and illustrations. This first edition focuses on romance, not just the romance of love but romance in its broadest sense.

As the Foreword to the magazine says:
‘In its original historical context the word romantic encapsulated a richly nuanced set of meanings ranging from the revolutionary to the notion of the sublime. Above all, it stood for the complex of emotional and psychological responses that defined a new conception of humanity characterised by a heightened sense of individualism'.

Each of the people who read last night had contributed to the magazine and they brought it to life before us. Their readings reflected its wonderful variety taking us through a range of emotions as well as perceptive observations, inspired language, evocative imagery and great good humour.

Iakovus Brown, Dave Cooke, Cathy Galvin, Lisa Geddes, Tony F Griffin, Dougla Houston, Linda  Marshall, Ian Parks, Ian Pople, Pam Scorbie,  and Angela Topping were the readers.

Des the Miner played their hearts out and we talked, laughed and listened our way through the evening. As an audience member said:
‘Superb. Convivial, intelligent, wonderful atmosphere’.

Endymion can be bought on Amazon, and Kindle is coming soon, subject to the resolution of some software problems!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Ross Raisin in the New Headingley Club

Poetry Under Occupation

Richard Wilcocks writes:
I discovered the poetry of Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski during the eighties, when I was working for the British Council at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan. The discovery led to another one – the remarkably powerful interpretations of his work by the charismatic Polish singer Ewa Demarczyk. She is known as a leading practitioner of sung poetry, and has given her attention to a number of other poets, not all from the Polish canon, for example Goethe.

This poem could be illustrated with many image-collections from Second World War Poland. I chose the heroic but doomed Warsaw Uprising of 1944 for my slide show, because that is where Baczynski died. I considered that the pictures projected on to the wall in the Shire Oak Room of the Heart Centre were necessary because the romantic and ‘catastrophist’ poems are best understood in a specific context: many people have just a vague knowledge of what happened in Poland between 1939 and 1945, when it was first of all carved up between Germany and the Soviet Union, each of which became responsible for appalling atrocities, then when it came under the complete control of the Nazis, with all the mass-murder which they brought with them. People outside Poland seem to know more about the equally heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, but little about the events of the following year, organised by the Polish Home Army (Armija Krajowa), which prompted Heinrich Himmler, SS and Gestapo chief, to order that all the city’s Polish inhabitants should be killed and all the buildings flattened. Poles were regarded by the Nazis as Untermenschen, subhuman. Slavs were next on the extermination list after the Jews.

I read poems by one or two other Polish poets who have written about the War, leaving out quite a few which had been on my original list for reasons of time, for example the great Tadeusz Różewicz. As I told the audience at the time, my Polish is not strong, and much of the hard work on Baczynski was done in collaboration by Anna Żukowska-Wilcocks. When we translated our selection of poems a couple of decades ago, we could not find any English versions, but there are now several websites which feature them, and we have our preferences and criticisms in relation to these. I did not want to make the English versions too mellifluous, but to retain stark, staccato qualities, which is difficult when it is necessary to use definite and indefinite articles in English - not in Polish.  The reading included some of our translations (like Deszcze) which have been anthologized (the excellent Poetry of the Second World War edited by Desmond Graham) and some (like Miserere) which have not. Others could have been included, for example more of his love poems.

Many of Baczynski’s highly emotive poems cry out for dramatic performance, and it was a privilege to be able to do that.

Síle Moriarty writes:
I thought the Shire Oak Room at HEART looked lovely for this event. It had already been used for three community events during the day and now, through the efforts of Centre Manager, Mark and his staff, (ably assisted by LitFest volunteers), it had been transformed into a beautiful performance space complete with piano, stage lighting, microphones etc. plus table decorations (daffodils) and tea lights. It glimmered with light and was a pleasure to perform in.

Poetry under occupation is often considered to be war poetry but I am very aware of another type of occupation – the occupation of a country by an alien language. This has never been more true than of Ireland where the occupation by English has been so complete that some of the greatest writers in the English language are in fact Irish: Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland to name but a few.

But the Irish language is not completely dead; it clings on in the Gaelteacht areas, predominantly on the west coast, and as a subject taught in schools. It also has its own great writers and the poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is one of them.

Nuala is passionate about the language; she considers that the loss of the Irish language is ‘... a psychic fault line, a personality cleavage along the different language lines (which) will return to haunt us’. She also says that Irish is ‘... the corpse that sits up and talks back.’

She wanted to write about the loss of the language but as a poet, not a historian or socio-linguist. She dug into the pre-Christian roots of Ireland, into is myth and folklore and came up with a metaphor for the language in the form of merpeople – mermaids and mermen. She wondered what would happen if they were forced to leave the sea and live on dry land. How would that affect their collective psyche? Would it warp their society, block access to their history and lead to strange beliefs and superstitions? Nuala wrote a collection based on this metaphor called The Fifty Minute Mermaid and it is from this book that my readings last night were, in the main, selected. When I was translating her poems (with the invaluable help of Maire Ní Ghrifín, my Irish language teacher) I became more and more aware of the power of poetry to express the human condition. As Adrian Phillips writes when reviewing the collection for the Guardian in 2008 the fifty minutes of the title refers to:

’… the so-called 50-minute hour of psychoanalysis, a modern therapy that is about our immersion in the past and our distortions of time’.

But the poetry is so much more than that; Adrian Philips again:

 ‘The naff banality of psychology, 'a real difficulty of boundaries', is played off against the extraordinary vision of what this may mean in practice, at its best. If everything in the language runs into everything else, it both crashes and blends. What the mermaid has learnt are the hollows of insulation. There is no romanticising of the past, no obsessive elegising in Ni Dhomhnaill's work. It is something far more disturbing than innocence or order she wants to recover.’

To be able to read from this extraordinary collection and in such a great setting was a real pleasure for me. Treasa Ní Drisceól read Ceist Na Teangan ‘as Gaeilge’ and sang a beautiful version of Fear a Bháta (despite suffering from the flu) for which I am extremely grateful.

It was an extraordinary night (the poetry of Krzystof Kamil Baczynski, plus the wonderful performance of Reem Kelani) and I am really pleased that I was able to contribute to it.  But what pleases me even more is that I heard Gaeigle spoken again (it has happened in the LitFest before) in Headingley.

Sally Bavage writes:
And so to the final part of the evening.  Reem Kelani came to Headingley LitFest hotfoot from a rapturous packed performance at the Howard Assembly Rooms sponsored by Opera North; she gathered her thoughts, soothed her voice and gave us a tour-de-force performance on our theme of Poetry under Occupation.  Manchester-born Reem was brought up in Kuwait and in fact qualified and worked as a research marine biologist before turning to music and poetry.  She now spends her time translating and performing literature, poetry and songs that promote some of the most significant Arabic works.

She dedicated her set of songs and poems to Abu Bakr Rauf, the young Respect party founder member who had so unexpectedly collapsed and died on Tuesday 20 March whilst out campaigning in the Bradford West by-election. Visibly moved, Reem praised the work of the young father who was Chair of the Bradford Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel once said "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people... It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn't exist."  But as Reem pointed out, she sings songs and poems developed over centuries by the Palestinian people so how could they not exist? She works tirelessly to promote Palestinian identity and culture.
Around half of her songs and poems were Palestinian in origin, pre-1948 versions, from her first album Sprinting Gazelle ( and half from work by Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923).  Her project researching his work has taken the best part of a decade and, whilst working on what will be an album hopefully released by the end of 2012, she was in Cairo in January 2011.  She was there in Tahrir Square, saw the explosion of popular feeling against the oppression by a repressive regime and heard the songs of Darwish dominating the singing by the crowds.  The same songs sung in 1919 against the occupying regime of the British.  Same poet, different century, same hopes for freedom of expression.  The power of words again!

What a night we had! Accompanied by Bruno Heinem on the piano, they moved us to laughter and tears by turns with her poetry, her passion and his playing.  You couldn’t put it better than ‘The Observer’: “Kelani has a voice of amazing power and intensity, but it’s always controlled, and there’s a moving vulnerability there too.”  Here was another observer who was privileged to be part of such a special event.

Reem will be appearing again in Leeds on Friday 27 April at Seven Arts - do not miss the opportunity! 

Below, Richard Wilcocks, Síle Moriarty, Reem Kelani

I'm Waiting and Come Gather Round

Theatre of the Dales - I'm Waiting - Review

John Zubrisky writes:
A pause in Pinter is as important as a line. They are all there for a reason.  Sir Peter Hall

These damn silences and pauses are all to do with what’s going on… and if they don’t make any sense, then I always say cut them. I think they’ve been taken much too far these silences and pauses in my plays.  Harold Pinter

Local thespians Theatre of the Dales followed the advice of Hall while bearing Pinter’s comment in mind. The importance of pauses and silences can be exaggerated. Nothing was overdone in the first half of this brilliantly entertaining evening in the performance hall of the New Headingley Club, which was played for laughs at first. Pinter tended to dominate the first half of the programme – an extract from The Dumb Waiter introduced a heavier and more sinister tone after the merry banter which was part of a counterpoint strategy to balance what had come earlier. We saw an aspect of London’s underworld which Pinter knew about from his childhood in the East End.

The evening began with a series of short double-act scenes from movies, old vaudeville exchanges and a chunk of Sam Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which many would describe as comic, involving David Robertson and Will Tristram in battered derby hats as Vladimir and Estragon. The bulk of the tragedy was not there, because Pozzo and his slave Lucky were not there – that would have been too much for this compilation, which was apparently put together specially for the Headingley LitFest. How wonderful that an enterprising local literary outfit can commission items like this.

In the second half, the comedy drained away, because Albee’s The Zoo Story is pretty scary for me. David Robertson was Peter, and his New York accent was convincing even for me. I’m from California and I know they speak like that over there. Guillaume Blanchard was a Jerry (the guy that dies at the end) with a French accent – you do get those in New York. The acting was top-notch, and would have warmed the heart of any Method teacher if he or she had been there.

Now I am waiting for another shot of this stuff. Do I have to wait until next year or will the LitFest provide us with more quality drama before then?

Come Gather Round

Doug Sandle writes:
On Wednesday 21 March, Come Gather Round attracted a full house of thirty plus in an upstairs room at HEART, which was a more appropriate environment than the larger advertised Shire Oak Room. In a cosy and folk club atmosphere (although the café would have been an even better setting) poet, comedian and musician Richard Raftery and his folk group Powder Keg entertained and engaged a very appreciative audience. The programme was introduced with the title Small Towns, Hard Times and Big Dreams, and the songs, stories and one liners drew upon that theme.

The songs and music, generally of Irish and American provenance, were very enjoyable and surprise guest, Irish folk singer Seamus Markey, was a very good contribution to the evening. I was particular pleased that songs by some of my favourite folk artists were featured in a very well chosen and balanced programme that included songs by Iris DeMent, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Christy Moore and Pete Seeger. The story and song of the Australian Bridal Train was however new to me and I suspect to most of the audience. The background story of the American Government’s sponsored train that collected GI brides from around Australia for a one-way free passage to the United States to join their husbands was an interesting and moving tale well told.

While a couple of his target subjects might well have raised an eyebrow or two, the poems and humour of Richard Raftery generally entertained us with his Liverpudlian tones and local stories that spanned both sides of the Pennines and which were delivered in a congenial and a sometimes gently self-deprecating manner.  I was impressed when he recounted that he had worked for a time in the Big Apple – but which turned out to be more locally in Bramley!  All in all this was a pleasant night's entertainment and a success for Leeds Combined Arts and their partnership-contribution to the LitFest. 

Friday, 23 March 2012

Lawnswood Poetry Slam

Vivian Lister writes:
For this, Lawnswood school's fifth slam, students took the 2012 Litfest theme Lingo in order to explore what writing and performing their own words meant to them.

And, as always from these brilliant young people, there was a breathtaking range of responses, from  intensely  personal and poignant confessions of youthful sorrows to agitprop political calls for change and justice. Along the way, there were cool musings about the clarity of thought that writing can bring and the recognition of writing as a balm for personal confusion and sorrow. There was also quirky humour and sheer delight in verbal play plus strong, powerful music, sung and played with great style and fervour.

After this altogether impressive display of talent, the three judges, Richard Wilcocks from Headingley Litfest, Raftery the Poet and sixth former Toni Busby (star of last year’s Slam) had the almost impossible task of selecting three winners.
They gave the award for greatest personal achievement to Kane Francis for his poem celebrating the lives and achievements of strong black women like Rosa Parks.

The award for best overall performance was given to Imogen Chillington whom the judges praised for her versatility - her ‘cornucopia of talents' according to Raftery the Poet.

The best poem award  was given for More than just a story - Uganda by Kizzy Jones, described by the judges as ‘a powerful, sophisticated and engaged work’. The poem is a reaction to video footage on the warlord Kony.

The judges also gave special mention to Ingi Hughes, praising her beautiful lyrics and melodic voice and guitar, and to Fatima el Jack for the passion and powerful rhythmic intensity of her poem, Motherland.

Amanda Stevenson, the Head of English, emphasised how by taking part in the slam, each student was indeed a winner. She highlighted the importance of the personal journey for each slammer and how each had gained self awareness and self esteem during the weeks of workshops and rehearsal. She congratulated the slammers not only for their sustained effort and enthusiasm but on their constant support and encouragement of each other. It was certainly inspiring to see these young people from such a range of ages and backgrounds expressing full hearted delight for each performer. And it was not only the performers who impressed but the posses of friends who turned out to cheer, stomp and clap.

Parents also clapped, whooped and stomped along with their children and variously found the slam "uplifting!", "inspirational!" and  "fantastic- it gave me as a parent a pride in the school!"

Perhaps the last word about this Slam should go to Michelle Scally-Clarke, our brilliant slam facilitator: "What we’ve given these young people is poetry and that is now theirs for the rest of their lives".

The Slammers – Winners all
All these young people attended the slam workshops and/or performed at the slam. Jervai Buchanan; Toni Busby; Nathan Chadwick; Imogen Chillington; Fatima El-Jack; Kane Francis; Keiran Gateley; Kacey Ann Hibbert; Ingi Hughes; Kizzy Jones; Jasmine Joseph; Josie Lee; Harry Loulie; Alpha Masiyiwa; Eva Moran; Joel O’Mara; Michael Quean; Gloria Sibanda; Vimbai Sibanda; Jordan Stanislavski; Inigo Webber;
Jasmine Williams; Keiran Andor Wilson; The Year 9 Class Band

Kane, Imogen and Kizzy, with Michelle Scally Clark:
Photo by Richard Wilcocks

Sounding Out in the HEART Café

Word play at its very best: Sally Bavage writes:

“I didn’t know what to expect – what a wacky, amazing, fantastic time!”  No, not me, but a member of the packed audience at the ‘experimental writing and sound works’ at the Heart Café on Thursday evening.  Wednesday evening (see blog entry) saw us considering experimental languages created by authors and Thursday saw a natural parallel in the experimental music created by words. 

Headingley LitFest was delighted to welcome, for the first time, the LeedsMet ensemble of ten students and two staff, along with their able technical support, as they performed for us just before most of them left for an international drama performance event in Croatia at 4am on Friday.  Dedication to LitFest indeed!  We wished them ‘Bog’ or 'Bok' (hello in Croatian – but see the blog from the experimental languages event on Wednesday for what Anthony Burgess made of it!) and we wished them ‘sretno’ (good luck).  The luck was ours.

The first half was a series of pieces, voices only, playing on the way we normally interpret speech and voice patterns and challenging us to listen more carefully to the sounds we hear.  A simple introduction but spoken like early computer-speak in monotonous tones was rather disturbing until your ear adjusted to the rhythm.  Would an experimental author describe it as ‘droidian’?  A two-handed piece started in what sounded like a foreign language – Croatian?  Or was it voice exercises?  Or is it the sounds a young child makes as they struggle to speak.  Or bird calls in spring?  A duet between creatures unknown? Well, it’s in the ear of the listener.  Changes in tone, rhythm, sound keep you changing your mind. Just how much of what we hear every day fits in with expectations and experience?  Is that what a baby hears before they have made the links between sound and meaning?

Other pieces conveyed simple but strong lyrics, rap rhythms, the whispered poetry of pleasure and a table used to emulate percussion – drums, marching feet, slamming doors.  Sometimes better to listen than to look so you interpret with your ears. We are so used to the cadences of everyday speech where we know what to expect.  This presentation is a delightful challenge to expectations.

After the interval we were treated to more music made by words and sounds.  A few words repeated become what - a mantra? a new language? – and the many changes in repetition and tone, discordant to flowing by turns, lead the audience to create the familiar whoops and hollers of true appreciation for the technical difficulty and skill involved. But the whoops too are sounds that make a language we understand!

Unaccompanied song, ensemble pieces and short poetry pieces culminate in a tour-de-force finale by Teresa Brayshaw, the performance leader.  Four pages from the story Not I by Samuel Beckett, learned by heart, are delivered at breakneck speed. They pull the heartstrings and puzzle by turns as the fragmented phrases and commentary unfold.  The elderly woman telling Becket’s story is seventy and mute: the very antithesis of our performers who have used their voices to such entertaining effect.  We have been challenged to rethink how we interpret what we hear and what meaning we make of the noises that we turn into sound into language.  Whoops and hollers indeed!

Pieces were performed by Steve Atkinson, Hannah Butterfield, Corina Cristea, Emma Fawcus, Lisa Fallon, Joely Fielding, Louise Hill, Rochnee Mehta, Tom Quinn, Adam Sas-Skowronski, Jess Sweet and Noel Witts, led by Teresa Brayshaw.  Technical support was provided by Matt Sykes Hooban, Mark Flisher and Debbie Newton.  

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Experimental Languages - Elvish and Newspeak

Richard Wilcocks writes:
Perhaps some scholars are still attempting to discover the divine language, the ultimate language. It is difficult nowadays to snatch new-borns from their mothers and lock them up in dungeons with mute nurses to find which language they will develop, or to muster much credibility for a new project to recreate the language of the angels in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, but not that difficult to write a thesis or give a lecture on James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which has been pored over by great linguists, extensively annotated, shortened and been the subject of innumerable lengthy articles in slim journals. It still sells steadily. Not bad for a work of comic fiction published just before the War.

A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake, edited by Anthony Burgess and published in 1966, sold more than the original though. More people had time for that. Dr Richard Brown began with Burgess in Headingley Library yesterday evening. He arrived with student Julia Tanner, who read an extract from A Clockwork Orange beautifully. In fact she went on to read from Orwell, Tolkien and Joyce equally impressively. Burgess’s use of transliterated Russian words was explored (Bog for God, moloko for milk) and his admiration for Joyce was mentioned. Dr Brown pointed out that Russian was a fresh and fashionable language for many in the fifties and sixties. The story of the disaffected, ultra-violent Alex and his murderous droogs, fictional predecessors of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group perhaps, sold well and was made into a film which was banned. It brought to my mind Ross Raisin’s God’s Own Country (meet the author on Saturday afternoon) in which the disaffected Sam uses words which are taken from Yorkshire dialect, some of them made-up.

Orwell’s Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four was scrutinised next. Predictably (this is a literature festival after all) we did not see the beauty of this ultimate language. I thought of North Korea’s version, the special trick there being to insert the name of the dear leader (Kim Jong-Il or a member of his dynasty) into every other sentence, but someone else pointed out that Newspeak was often used by our own politicians. Those present apparently preferred an elaborate, extensive lexicon.  Wordsworth’s views on poetic language were not mentioned. No time. Charles Kay  Ogden was mentioned though. He was the designer of ‘Basic English’ (BASIC = British American Scientific International Commercial) in which complex thoughts could be conveyed using just 850 words.

Then it was Tolkien and Elvish. On a handout, we saw the great man in a group photo taken in 1921 – members of the University of Leeds School of English standing and sitting on chairs, the women in white blouses and ankle-length skirts, hands clasped on knees. It was difficult to spot a blurred Tolkien. We looked at a photograph of one of the houses in which he had a flat (in Darnley Road) and thought about him travelling down the Otley Road every day to the university, an academic philologist on the tram, ninety years ago, with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on his mind. A blue plaque is needed.

Elvish, Dr Brown made clear, is a far more scholarly linguistic experiment, not really intended to be a speakable language outside the community of the readership. It contains vocabulary from Old and Middle English, and from Welsh and Finnish. The fact that the language has a definite script adds depth. The diacritic marks on the script indicate the vowels: influences from Arabic calligraphy as well. The language has been extended by various Tolkien societies, so that it is now speakable, and interest in it has burgeoned since the success of Peter Jackson’s film version of Lord of the Rings. I am waiting for the simplified version before I learn it.

We finished with Joyce, who never lived in Headingley, as far as we know... and whose only reference to Leeds was punning (as different as York from Leeds/as different as chalk from cheese) and whose Ulysses will be unsolemnly read on Sunday in Muir Court. Bring your own copy. Julia Tanner proved that she can read Esperanto as well as Joycean, another cause for our admiration:

Gothgorod father godown followay tomollow the lucky load to Lublin for make his thoroughbass grossman’s bigness. Take that two piece big slap slap bold honty bottomsside pap pap pappa.
-       Li ne dormis?
-       S! Malbone dormas.
-       Kia li krias nikte?
-       Parolas infanetes. S!
Sonly all in your imagination, dim.

Dr Brown talked about Joyce’s Italian-speaking household in Trieste (Trst) between the wars, Italian being (only just) the dominant language at the time in the city, closely followed by Slovene. He nearly became an Italian author. He certainly thought that it was possible to translate (recreate) some passages of Finnegan’s Wake into Italian.

We were also shown an extract from Jacques Derrida’s famous Two Words for Joyce.

We could have continued for another hour, but it was not possible. No time. This academic contribution to the LitFest was most welcome. We appear to be establishing a tradition here. Let’s hope Dr Richard Brown returns in 2013, if not before.

Dr Richard Brown with English Department student Julia Tanner:

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Not the Booker Winner - Michael Stewart

Alison Millar writes:
When publisher Kevin Duffy was asked how he decides what to publish he replied, “I pick a good story” and if King Crow by Michael Stewart is anything to go by he is an excellent judge of a good story.

Michael spoke about his debut novel, which is a mixture of bird book, thriller and romance. He read extracts from different sections and talked about what inspired him to write it. The book has received a number of accolades including winning the ‘Not the Booker prize’ from The Guardian as well as being the only new novelist nominated by one of the authors on the World Book Night Giveaway books. It is also described by novelist David Peace as "brilliant".

The audience enjoyed interacting with Michael and there was a lively Q and A session after the talk. He gave us a teasing description of his next book, which will be published next year, and shared with us the news (received by text while he was on the way to Leeds) that he had just been commissioned by the BBC to write another play for Radio 4. 

Kevin Duffy from Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge also answered questions on the publishing business and why he re-mortgaged his house to pursue the business. He gave a very interesting insight to the big publishing houses and also the big literary awards.

The event was very enjoyable and both Michael and Kevin spoke passionately about books and writing. I wish them further success with King Crow, it certainly deserves it.

The Lingo of Food at the Heart Centre

June Diamond writes:
This joint event between two creative-writing  groups, both tutored by poet Becky Cherriman, marks the third year of collaboration between the Osmondthorpe Resource  Centre and the WEA.
And it was quite an event. Around me the audience agreed that this was a deeply moving celebration of creativity and cooperation. As Carl put it, getting off to a rousing start, it was, “a chance to try”. We shared Carl’s dream, to live by the sea and eat fish and chips, with freedom and with choice. What more could anyone want?

Siobhan entertained us with an account of the food she was given as a child when she was poorly - butterscotch Angel Delight - and Suzanne evoked real suffering, and the nectar of the first food taken after a blinding migraine. Their group piece on starvation was a searing critique  of the modern world.

In the second group David Newton entertained us with a clever piece on the ironies of food and  the rules set down by religious groups. Fabian  moved us with the story of how he had got to be here, and the deliciousness of green bananas, and Michael gave us a great account of a meal in Dubai that was intensely memorable in many ways, including economically. Jane described  graphically to us a  stomach-curdling meal in Hell. 

Howard took a different line with a poem entitled Soul Food. If music is the food of the soul, then happiness for Cliff Richard is performing to a room full of look-alikes.  Again, the group talked about starvation with compassion and empathy.

In the next group Adrian read Jenny Jones’ very funny piece on the aspiration towards vegetarianism.....if it weren’t for the temptation of bacon butties, sausage sarnies and corn beef hash. Robert gave us a lovely description of eating fish and chips with his brother, and Richard and Elaine eulogised chips together. Julie F led us to imagine the bliss of ice-cream at any time of the day. 

A couple of clever poems in this group reminded us that food has feelings too. Linda represented the cappuccino as a gorgeous Italian lady (arch-enemy, tea). In Metamorphosis Adrian cleverly drew us into the experience of the pear becoming pudding, and the pleasure and pain of transformation. This session ended with an ode to greed by Richard and Linda.

Chris reminded us of the transformation wrought on ordinary food stuff as it becomes stew. Howard gave a clever wordplay on seasonal food. Vivian reminded us, unforgettably, that food does not come from supermarkets, and that every bit of it is valued in the rural economy, using time-honoured skills. Chris and Howard produced a graphic metaphor in  Full Sky.

The final group began with a deeply-felt reflection on starvation. Julie B reminded us vividly of the deliciousness of pie. David Maccoby  related a memory of a meal – all wanted, all delicious, and reminded us of where it goes. Angela gave the amateur cook’s point of view with an ode  to Delia, and a cry of anguish when somehow it never comes out like it does in book or on telly.

The presentation ended with a final piece by Jane and with fervent thanks, and of course applause.

Il Postino at Cottage Road Cinema

Richard Wilcocks writes:
For me, this charming, funny and touching study of the effect of the exiled Pablo Neruda on a poor, near-illiterate island where fishermen vote communist and also dress up to take part in a procession with a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is about naivety and fundamentalism as well as about the use of metaphors and the wooing of women with poetry.

The story (based on a novel) is strongly rooted in facts: the great poet was forced to get out of Chile in 1948 after the Communist Party was made illegal there and tried to settle in a number of places in Europe before he landed (in this film that is) on the small island in the south of Italy in 1952. That part of Italy was much poorer than the north of the country, and still is. He wrote political manifestos and historical epics as well as beautiful, erotic love poems and was a recipient of the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace Among Peoples, which puts him in the company of Pablo Picasso and Paul Robeson. He was not only a fervent admirer of Lenin and Stalin, but also (in the nineteen thirties) of Vyshinsky, the chief prosecutor during the Moscow Show Trials, in public at least.

At the time of the film, Stalin was just about to die, there was no thaw in the communist world and the revolts in 1956 against Stalinism and Soviet dominance in Hungary and Poland had yet to take place. There is no mention of any critical insights amongst the local communists in the action: their political feelings are largely gut reactions, of the sort which go with being dirt poor. The secondary plot is about a political campaign by an elegant, smart-talking Christian Democrat politician by the name of di Cosimo (he promises to bring running water to the island) who criticizes Mario, the love-stricken postman, for being in love with Beatrice after he admits that he is going to vote communist. He tells him that his preferred poet is d’Annunzio, who also had a muse named Beatrice. Gabriele D’Annunzio was a twentieth century nationalist poet who was very influential amongst the early Fascists, including Mussolini. In fact, the choice of the name Beatrice for Mario’s loved one and muse is highly significant, because that is also the name of the ideal woman of Italy’s national poet Dante Alighieri, the one who guides him through Heaven in The Divine Comedy. I think that Massimo Troisi, the actor playing Mario, actually looks a little like Dante Alighieri.

The island’s grim priest, the one with no feeling for poetry, has the fundamentalist right-wing views of the time, which were common amongst Catholics at the time of the Cold War. It’s all part of the film’s appealing 'retro' feel, with old black cars, early Vespas, the traditional wedding, the peculiarities of an Italy long before Berlusconi, all there for the savouring. But the main story is about the bored fisherman’s son Mario Ruppolo, who is fascinated, naively fascinated perhaps, with the famous visitor and the number of letters he receives from female admirers, in the pre-email days when people wrote them. The scene in which he asks Neruda “What is a metaphor?” brings to my mind many memories of teaching English, along with Neruda’s stock response – “the sky weeps” - but Mario gets it, and later makes attempts to do better than that.

The film is full of metaphors, not just the ones in Neruda's sublime poems, of which there are plenty: students of cinema would be able to spot dozens, for example the pinball which Beatrice pops into her mouth and which Mario carries around as a love token, and the statue of the Virgin in a fishing boat. Mario's personification of the fishing nets, using the adjective 'sad' recurs several times.

For me, a side-effect of the film is to bring to mind the terrible events of the seventies: Neruda died just after General Pinochet took over Chile in a violent military coup in 1973. He was already terminally ill in hospital with prostate cancer, and it was probably shock which finished him. Pinochet soldiers apparently wasted no time in diverting a stream through his house on the Pacific coast after ransacking it.

The acting throughout is superb, and Phillippe Noiret bears a startling resemblance to the real Neruda. He is absolutely credible in the role. Maria Grazia Cucinotta is just right as the innkeeper’s beautiful niece and Massimo Troisi is the ultimate in charm, for his lover on the screen and for his audience in front of it. His portrayal of the timid yet passionate postman must be the result of very careful Stanislavskian preparation, because it is just brilliant.

It was a great tragedy when he died shortly before the film came out, in 1994. He was a poet himself, as well as a great actor.

At the 68th Academy Awards in 1995, Il Postino received five nominations and one Academy Award. It also won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language.