By Alex Challies
Photography: Bounty Vegah
Carol Ann Duffy and Friends returned to the Royal Exchange Theatre this week, featuring performances from three emerging poets and culminating with special guest Owen Lowery.
The popular reading event, hosted by the Manchester Writing School, started its 15th season and 10th year with a night of humanist poetry, experimental film and spoken word performance.
As the house doors opened, a diverse and relaxed audience were ushered to its seats while the ambient soothing of a live jazz band filled the room. The uniquely lit venue presented a mock-up lounge as the stage, half encompassed by rows of chairs allowing a familiar, intimate experience of artistic expression.
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy began the evening with an engrossing performance of ‘Gorilla’, a poem from her newest collection Sincerity. This is her last collection as Laureate; Duffy will step down in May 2019 after a decade in the role. Filled with raw, uncensored honesty, the collection serves as a fitting swan song following such an unquestionable impact on UK poetry.
“With a day’s more evolution, it could even be president,” she said. As she finished her introductory piece for the event, the audience welled with laughter at the all too real symbolism Carol Ann Duffy depicted.
The political tone of her newest work continued with a sestina ‘A Formal Complaint’, a poem using six key words at the end of each line in what Duffy described as a “mathematical pattern.” With a calm bluntness she stated her chosen words: “Arsehole, Gatekeepers, Chancers, Tossers, Bullshitters and Patriots.”
After the insightful introduction, Carol Ann Duffy introduced house poet Mark Pajak, who described his own history of attending these events for four consecutive years. With great passion he exclaimed how the sheer variety and quality of the poets invited to perform kept him coming back.
“In this first half, we celebrate and showcase the very best in emerging talent. And I am really excited tonight to be sharing this stage with [MA students] Grace Atkinson, John Paul Burns and Bella Fortune,” said Pajak, before welcoming Grace to the stage.
Grace first began reading her work at a cafe in Hackney in 2016. In 2017, her work was compiled in a Zine titled One Chicken Wing Over Another, which was published by Draft London. Grace’s work has since been published in Dazed magazine, with additional upcoming publications in Poetry Salzburg Review.
Opening her performance with ‘A Sonnet in the words of a boy who is talking about his new air max 97s,’ Grace quickly encapsulated the audience with her realistic and grounded humour; made ever so slightly surreal by her choice of perspective.
“I really like sonnets, for loads of reasons but largely because they are a really traditional form. I like putting them into sort of a modern landscape. I think that’s really interesting,” Grace said.
From her sequence ‘Self portrait with a chicken parmesan’, Grace’s final poem perfectly encapsulated her unique style and talent for comedic content. “Did a hot dog become a tradition from the moment American kids with caps started eating them on TV?”
Her tongue-in-cheek examination served as an unexpected allegory for cultural appropriation. This unusual twist of subtext heightened an already effective piece, as the focus shifted to Grace’s own perceptions of a hot dog.
“To captivate an audience with that shows real skill,” said Mark Pajak.
As the applause quietened down, Mark introduced John Paul Burns to the stage. John Paul’s studies have led him through the world of film production before joining The Manchester Writing School. His work is in numerous publications such as: The North, Poetry Salzburg Review, Brittle Star, 3 am Magazine, Introduction X and The Poetry Business Book of New Young Poets.
Early next year John Paul will see the release of his debut pamphlet The Minute and The Train, published by Poetry Salzburg Press.
The unique distinction with John Paul’s work was immediately evident. He was able to paint such vivid imagery with so few words, focussing on a descriptive style that surprised the audience again and again with unanticipated details.
“I like the idea that a poem can be a kind of sequence of images, I suppose which is one of the ways you can most fundamentally define the cinema. Getting some images and putting them in an order,” John Paul said.
The attention to detail and ability to transport the audience to these different places and visualisations showed John Paul’s ability to combine his mediums of choice. He effectively conveyed sequences which may typically be suited to film or a visual art through description only.
Pajak said, “It spoke to all of us, you could hear the real palpable reactions, it was fantastic.”
To close the first half, Bella Fortune was welcomed to the stage. Bella has written and performed two solo shows: ‘What Else He Knows’, which was selected for Mayfest at the Wardrobe Theatre and ‘Bubble Etiquette’, which was developed as part of a Solo Lab residency. She has worked as writer in residence for Theatre Bristol and has performed at numerous events, including the Bristol Festival of Literature launch party, Wordplay at Square Chapel Arts Centre and the WEP summer party.
“So I’m going to lower the tone a bit,” Bella began as she introduced her work ‘Sneeze’. This poem highlighted Bella’s undeniable talent as a performer as she steadily introduced the audience to a new view on sneezing. “It is my mother’s belief that the way in which a person performs their nasal expunctions reveals how said person has an orgasm.”
Quickly bringing the audience to laughter, Bella kept true on her promise of lowering the tone in the best possible way. Engaging and hilarious from start to finish, ‘Sneeze’ perhaps permanently changed the audience’s perception of sneezing. Self-aware of this, Bella made sure to highlight any possible scenario of seeing someone sneeze, and then thinking about them afterwards at the point of climax.
“The reason we pick these poets is the variety, the fact that no two poets were the same. When you have poets that are doing different things every time it does have a really positive effect and we really got that feedback during the interval and at the end,” explained Pajak.
House Poet John Fennelly spoke after the interval, reading a poem by Laurence Binyon, most famous for his work ‘Ode of Remembrance’. Joined by violinist Dave King on stage, there was an illuminating contrast between words and music as Fennelly read ‘The Burning of the Leaves’. The haunting performance was punctuated beautifully by King’s violin, creating an ominous and suspenseful atmosphere as the words rang out.
“It’s no surprise, to us anyway, how much people reach out to poetry at times of deep emotion, or political change and times of remembrance,” said Fennelly. He poignantly connected the thematics of the evening, occurring a day after the centennial anniversary of WW1 armistice.
“Empty nest syndrome, when our children leave home and set out on their own lives. We tend to be very stiff upper lipped about it. When in fact it is a very difficult experience that might get quieter but does continue,” Duffy described as she took to the stage once again.
Another impactful poem from Sincerity, Duffy’s performance of ‘Empty Nest’ kept the room in stunned silence as she illustrated the gaping hole left behind when a child leaves home. Talking through mundane day to day tasks which now hold less value behind them, the theme of emotional loss was evident and continually heightened as the poem progressed.
This theme continued as Duffy’s performance was followed by a short film based on the writings of special guest Owen Lowery. Former British Judo champion Lowery suffered a spinal injury while competing and is now a tetraplegic. His poetry has appeared in Stand, PN Review, The Independent, The Times and The Guardian. He has two major collections published, Otherwise Unchanged (2012) and Rego Retold (2015).
Slow, heavy breathing accompanied the opening frames of the film, setting a restful pace as the audience was presented with numerous sequences of abstract imagery. The steady movement of the ocean, of waves. Butterflies and fractal collages, intercut with documentary-style moments of Lowery going about his day transfixed the audience into a near meditative state. His words struck sharply, with each syllable purposefully impactful.
Multiple sequences split the film into perceivable chapters, each with either a guest speaker or music to distinguish it from the last whilst maintaining a visual consistency. Spoken performers among Lowery included: Sam Holland, Sue Johnston, Hattie Briggs, Bernard Wrigley, Sally Carman, Barbara Dickson and Ricky Tomlinson.
Immediately following the film, Fennelly introduced Owen Lowery. Reading newly finished works based on a series of poems from the 1940s, Lowery started, “Shell fools, and with it swipes the breath from lungs, accustomed more, to gentle burn of exercise. The subtle turn away from winter into spring, or else a bullet, smashing through the niceties of shell.”
Each word and the pacing between hit flawlessly, inviting the audience to experience another world much like the film, but elsewhere. Not even a breath could be heard as only Lowery’s speech pierced the silence.
Ending in fantastic applause, every performer returned to share the stage with Lowery. An aura of optimism shared with creative satisfaction permeated the room while the applause faded into the familiar soothing of ambient jazz to bookend the evening.