Culture, Manchester, News

Carol Ann Duffy & Friends Presents: The Laureate’s Choice

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By Grace Atkinson


Carol Ann Duffy was joined by her daughter Ella Duffy and three esteemed poets for a night of performance and poetry at the latest Carol Ann Duffy and Friends event.

Taking place at the Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, the event presented the Laureate’s Choice Special, celebrating three new pamphlets of poetry from Natalie Burdett, John Fennelly and Keith Hutson. These poets, along with Hera Lindsay Bird, make up the new publication of four new Laureate’s Choice pamphlets from The Poetry Business, working in collaboration with the Poet Laureate.

As a band played soft jazz behind him, House Poet Mark Pajak explained what to expect of the evening: “Tonight we’re going to see a version of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends we’ve never seen before, a real special event showcasing talent in theatre but also exciting new voices, and also launching three incredible pamphlets. It’s going to be fantastic. I think you’re really going to enjoy it.”

The event kicked off with Ella Duffy, and her arresting performance of Wife, an adaption of her mother’s collection, The World’s Wife, directed by Robbie Taylor Hunt.

This was a one-woman show, yet, as Duffy embodied each wife of famous men, some from classic literature, others from mythology, or history, it was as if the stage was filled by many, all independently real, twisted and sharp. Each character overlapped one another, intertwined as if one shared experience of what it is to be a woman overshadowed by the narratives of men.

Some depictions were funny, the brazen, unapologetic greed of ‘Mrs Faust’, for example, who shrugged as her husband was dragged through the terracotta tiles to hell. Others were violent, ‘Mrs Quasimodo’ using the pots and pans that dotted among the stage as faces to pluck tongues from. ‘The Kray Sisters’ re-imagined a mob run instead by women.

Among the monologues were silent performances of what the director called three ‘archetypes of womanhood’. ‘The Widow’, involved a haunting dance-like repetition, as Duffy depicts a woman desperately living with her husband’s corpse. in ‘The Single Woman’ a Bridget-Jones-esque cliché of a sobbing woman eats ice-cream, and in ‘The Husband’, Duffy grasps a puppet-man, in a mesmerising depiction of the side effects of ‘manhood’.

Permeating these snippets, was the dark and eerie depiction of ‘The Devil’s Wife’, whose physicality and disturbing retelling of her marriage sent goose bumps across the audience.

This performance made for an incredible first-half, and it was a pleasure to see some of Carol Ann Duffy’s most beloved poems fleshed onto the stage with such power.

Carol Ann Duffy took the stage to begin the second half, reading her poem ‘Foreign’, from her 1987 collection Selling Manhattan (Anvil). Written while Thatcher was in parliament, Duffy’s poem places the reader into the shoes of an immigrant, asking them to imagine living under hostility, violence and homesickness.

“It’s a very special night for several of the poets behind me”, said Duffy. “I’m very fortunate to have a collaboration with The Poetry Business, who are about to publish 20 new poets that I have been fortunate to work with or come across, and in many cases become friends with. As you know, you need a lot of luck in this business, so as Poet Laureate, it felt like a lovely duty to try and sprinkle some luck on good new poets.”

Next to speak was Natalie Burdett, a poet from the West Midlands. Burdett’s poetry has been in anthologies such as A New Manchester Alphabet, and has been shortlisted for the London Magazine and the Bridport Prize. She is currently studying a PhD in creative writing at Manchester Writing School, where she is researching urban place.

“Natalie has that enviable gift of an excellent writer”, said Pajak as he introduced Burdett. “She is able to communicate powerful ideas seemingly effortlessly. But I know for a fact she is an utter grafter, and every word, line and stanza has been really worked hard on. As you listen to them, that’s the reason why the hairs are standing up on the back of your neck.”

Burdett went on to read from her pamphlet Urban Drift, her words folding around notions of human love, pain and experience. Love poems to Birmingham, the violence of a train roaring through a tunnel, set within the structural landscapes of the city.

‘Bridges’, a three-part poem, listed bridges in Manchester while touching on the bridges built in relationships: “Bridge building requires work. Draw plans, consider risks, then take a first leap into air”. ‘The Soy Sauce Fish’ is a beautiful poem that breaths life into an overlooked household artefact: “Doomed to be chucked once emptied, squeezed for five seconds, crushed, and dropped to gutter drift.”

Next to speak was John Fennelly, a poet, teacher and workshop facilitator. Born in London, Fennelly’s poetry has been commended in the Bare Fiction, Prize Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and Long listed for the National Poetry Competition.

From his pamphlet Another Hunger, Fennelly gave a powerful reading on childhood love, toxic masculinity, and the guilt of western privilege. In ‘The Present’, death was told from the touching perspective of a child, while another read of a child’s understanding of love: “She slipped her hand in my pocket to pinch my last flying saucer full of sherbet”.

One particularly touching poem catalogued the memory of his father through the poignancy of his glass eye: “His spare would stare form the mantelpiece so we would always catch it, his eye of providence, or later, down the Irish club, head place his Sunday best next to his stout ‘I’m keeping my eye on you.”

Having previously written for Coronation Street, Hutson’s poetry appears in Journals such as The North, The Rialto, and Magma. His first pamphlet, Routines (2016) was published by Poetry Salzburg, where he is now on the editorial board.

“I’ve lost a tooth, but you should see the other poet,” laughed Hutson, as he read from Troopers, transfixing the audience with a snappy humour and broad smile. Hutson began with his startlingly witty ‘The Man with the Xylophone Skull’, a story about a man who toured the world with his musical head.

Hutson’s poetry guided us through the obscure and fascinating characters of the past, from the man who killed Houdini, “his tombs impressive, but my pauper’s grave attracts the masses,” to one of the first panto horses.

The evening ended with a rapturous applause. James Draper, Manager of the Manchester Writing School, concluded, “After the drama in the first half, everyone is thinking, ‘Goodness me, how is a spoken word reading going to follow this spectacular performance?’ But then, an absolutely perfectly co-ordinated performance of three outstanding poets, and three very different poets, putting on a show like that, 100 ticket-paying people from the public gripped from beginning to end, unprecedented and marvellous. And let us not forget, among all of this, that those are our students and graduates from the Manchester Writing School”.


For details of future Manchester Writing School events visit www.manchesterwritingschool.co.uk/events

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Grace Atkinson

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