Poetry in the Parlour – Oxford International Women’s Festival

@ Blackwell’s


– reviewed by James Webster

So last week it was International Women’s Day, a wonderful day where many celebrate the women who have impacted positively upon their lives and the world in general, and to take a look at womanhood and the ongoing struggle for true equality. I decided to celebrate it a day early by heading over to Poetry in the Parlour, an event featuring several of my favourite feminist poets, at the Oxford International Women’s Festival. Featuring some wonderful poets, book readings and folk music, it was a thought-provoking and entertaining look at feminism, sexuality and equality.

  • Lucy Ayrton, co-host of Oxford Hammer & Tongue (next event tonight in the Old Fire Station), hosted and opened the show.
  • Sabotage have seen Ayrton a few times before, and it’s a credit to her intricate poetry and her engaging style that every time I see her perform I find something new to like about her poems. ‘Fuck You Corporate Land’ remains funny as ever, but in a more contemplative setting the crushing daily depression of having to chisel and change yourself to conform to expectations was much more poignant.
  • ‘Bonfire Juice’ is always good for its sense of fun and nostalgia, but it’s also a complex piece where fond remembrances are tinged by sadness and relationships are difficult and varied. The way it invokes taste and smell (in this case of Lapsang tea) is also very powerful and cleverly done.
  • ‘I Want Never Gets’ has long been one of my favourite of Ayrton’s poems, a smoothly performed piece that uses lightning quick rhymes and ongoing repetition to decry social injustice. Lucy’s blend of comedy, tongue-twisting linguistic acrobatics, complexities and powerful social messages all come across wonderfully here.
  • Dan Holloway’s poetry makes me sad in a good way. ‘Monsters’ was a bereft feeling journey through streets filled with society’s detritus, drawing parallels between different groups society deems monstrous or undesirable, from street violence to men in suits who ‘took the arteries of hope and opened them and let a generation bleed out’. A powerful and pulsing piece on how ‘the only monsters on these streets are the ones we choose to see’.
  • ‘Her Body’ is more heart-breaking each time I hear it. A startlingly gorgeous piece on a person’s death being appropriated as a ‘theme park for ideologues’ and their body being turned into a metaphor. As Holloway points out the real truth is ‘far higher’ and her body is just that.
  • ‘Mentalist’ was probably the poem of Dan’s with the strongest voice, on the people who will be ‘choked beneath society’s conceptual thumb’ by the government’s ‘workfare’ and NHS reforms. It used a great rat-tat-tat machinegun of violent rhyme, pointing out the catch-22 faced by those with mental health conditions: if you’re happy you can work, but if you’re not then you’re dangerous. A chilling and potent treatise on how people will try to go along with the Con-Dem reforms even when it takes ‘an act of heroism to get out of bed’, how even when people are deprived of life-saving support they will still cling to peaceful protest. A poem everyone in this country should hear.
  • He’s also organising Not the Oxford Literary Festival from 27th to the 30th of March.
  • Reading from her dystopian novel ‘The Miracle Inspector’ Helen Smith span us a tale of an underground rebel poet called Jesmond, a kind of ‘informal poet laureate’ bringing social messages to secret poetry events. The way she wove tiny differences between modern society and her dystopia was very effective in crafting a world that’s terrifying by increments.
  • She also successfully evokes the image of a poetry scene that captures the spirit of the scene today, but stresses its importance as a tool of expression and resistance. I think every poet recognises the moment she described when you see another poet’s work that’s ‘like picking up a snow globe only to see there was a real city’ inside.
  • And the ending where she pitched harsh violence against a disconnected internal thought process was chillingly good.
  • Verity Fortis’s ‘Sweet Pea’ had a strong rhythm, but it faltered slightly as she stumbled and rushed a little over the page, making me think she’d be a stronger performer if she performed from memory. The poem used a natural metaphor of a garden to represent self and fluid/pansexuality. It also gave a great description of co-dependency in a relationship.
  • A perceptive piece on asexuality, ‘Imaginary Friend’ created a really good description of relationships as a sharing of minds, quirks and of co-habiting the same intellectual, rather than physical, space. Ace stuff. But presenting asexual relationships as ‘imaginary friends’ is possibly unintentionally problematic?
  • And ‘I Dance from My Hips’ entertainingly discussed the ways we learn gender while young, how its taught from an early age and people can be pressured into conforming to gender stereotypes. It ends with a phenomenal description of androgyny and how we can ‘annex ourselves, our quirks, onto our genders’.
  • Paul Askew started with the amusing line ‘I’m actually a bit disappointed, I thought I’d been booked for an International Ladies’ Night, and this isn’t what I’d been expecting.
  • Lacking any ‘right on’ poems, Paul had decided to created one for the night and so treated us to a set-piece of poems constructed entirely from words out of Vogue magazine. He claimed that he hadn’t succeeded in crafting a message, but in his own absurdist way, he succeeded marvellously and hilariously.
  • What he ended up with was a love story between Snow White and a pinup with a ‘feather-light’ volume of hair, all crafted using the pretentiously skin-deep language of Vogue. A love story of commercialised and vacuous words that commented on the consumer culture of girls’ mags.
  • While his comic aside ‘To Do List’ was taken largely from the credits page, that randomly crossed with absurd sexy-talk and then a bizarre aside on why you shouldn’t ‘wipe your arse with a £50 note’ as it’ll set off a chain of events leading to an inevitable break-up, but it’s ok to use a £20 as you’ve ‘earned a little glamour’. Very amusing and surprisingly critical of advertising as a means of happiness/freedom.
  • If you see Tina Sederholm perform she will ‘probably do poems about knickers’, Lucy tells us in Tina’s intro.
  • She doesn’t start with knickers, but instead goes straight into sex with a poem on how sex education doesn’t prepare you for the reality. The poem is a professionally performed tirade of filth, listing positions and worrying about ‘residue’. Pleasingly foul, but ending on a quietly lovely note.
  • ‘Masterclass’ blended humour with chocolate sweetness, while ‘Rules of the Game’ is another really sweet poem on how you must accept and love a loved one’s flaws such as ‘early morning flatulence’ or ‘CSI: Miami’ (though she’s moved up to Law & Order now, she promises us) and love them ‘over and over and over’. A lovely concept on accepting flaws.
  • Mrs Price’s Parlour finished the night with a charmingly jangly and upbeat set of folk songs focussing on stories about or told by women. From drunken maidens ringing up bar tabs, to sweet love stories and women holding up men at gunpoint to see if they’ve been faithful, they gave a mix of lovely, raucous and insightful snatches of folk from a woman’s perspective.

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