Review: Hammer & Tongue Oxford 13/11/12

– reviewed by James Webster


Hammer & Tongue’s new season continues …

Have I mentioned that I really like Hammer & Tongue? I’m sure I have. I must’ve done. Anyway, if I haven’t (or you haven’t seen my previous effusive reviews of Hammer & Tongue events) then I really do. One of the things I like most about H&T’s events is the quality of feature poets they tour round the country; indeed, I’ve found some of my favourite Spoken Word performers at their events, such as Kate Tempest, Disraeli and November’s feature Bohdan Piasecki.

Bohdan Piasecki – a man of poetical magnetism

The room hushes into silence. You can feel a tension in the air as every ear strains to hear and every eye is riveted to the stage. Bohdan has just taken the mic and immediately wrapped the entire room around his little finger with his heart-rendingly beautiful ‘Almost Certainly Impossible’. The poem was both chilling and hopeful: trying to see the beauty in a bomb’s explosion by describing the dance of atoms or calling it a ‘fiery flower you only see bloom once’; or imagining that someone somewhere was chronicling those lost as more than just a statistic, instead monitoring the minutiae of their life.  His imagery and metaphors mixed with and matched his meaning with perfect poignancy.

If the power of his words weren’t enough, his easy manner with the audience drew us into the world of his poetry, while his anecdotes (‘have you ever kicked down a door? I have and it’s the best thing I’ve done. BOOM, fuck you door!’, witticisms and wordplay elicited plenty of laughs. To put it simply, he held the audience rapt from the very first until the very breath of his performance.

He demonstrates a nice variety of styles and tones, too, flexing acrobatically between whimsical and slightly melancholic stories like ‘George and the Fog’, nostalgic and insightful pieces like ‘Of Kings and Wasps and Flowers’ and the sumptuous love poem ‘The Gift’ that wraps the city of Warsaw up in words and presents it to his partner.

I honestly felt a little bit in love with his words after that performance, but I’m fairly sure the rest of the audience were right there with me, so that’s ok.

Of course, Bohdan wasn’t the only feature of the evening, Vanessa Kisuule also gave a stellar set …

Vanessa Kisuule – offensively talented for someone still quite young …

Sabotage have actually reviewed Vanessa before (at the H&T National Finals and also a gig at The Tea Box) and our reviewers have always had lovely things to say, but this is the first time I’d heard her perform.

And … wow.

She’s got a charming way with words, spinning stories with feeling, poignancy and humour.

For example her poem ‘Strawberries’ wove together strands of naive sweetness (‘bizarre novelty of the word boyfriend tingling on my lips’), wistful regrets and amusing anecdote to tell a story of young love. All the while remaining self-aware enough to tease and poke fun of herself and how society teaches us to love.

Or there’s how she delves into her relationship with the work of Michael Jackson (it seems she’s an unrepentant fan) that ranges from teen awkwardness (‘Yeah, but he’s better than McFly, so shut up!’) to social criticism (‘you taught me we were all vultures, all of us’) and always bringing the piece back to a powerful emotional resonance. Particularly clever was how she used the language of his music to build up a poetry of kinship and then loss, while the image of he losing a glove and imagining that she’s channeling MJ is one that’s stuck with me.

While ‘Sex Education Class’ is an encapsulation of all the sexual pressure put on women in modern times and how potentially damaging it is, when you still feel like a ‘tourist in your own body’ because society doesn’t let you feel like you own it. It’s very stirring stuff and a very important message (though at points the piece seem to imply that anyone who does sexualise themselves is giving in, that it can never be their choice).

She mixes the personal and the social-political with equal emotion, intelligence, and equally good jokes.

The Slam

The H&T open slam is always something of an adventure: ably hosted by Tina Sederholm and Lucy Ayrton, it pits all comers against each other in a poetic deathmatch (without the death), and we get all different styles and subjects spilling out of the chaos. At this event, however, it was even more so for me as I was asked to be one of the five judges …

Oh the power, the sweet, corrupting power. Just thinking back to it is enough to illicit a small and evil giggle. Ahem, but seriously it’s a strange task, having to judge someone’s creative endeavours, while the audience try to sway you with cheers and boos, alternately casting you as their heroic spokesperson or as panto villain (depending on how much they agree with your score).

  • I first tried out this new found power on the sacrificial poet (like a sacrificial lamb, but with poetry) whose name sounded like ‘Del Boy‘. Apparently, he’s ‘met a lot of special women in [his] life’, but you wouldn’t guess it from the poem, a prosaic piece that managed to be both overly saccharine and overly objectifying.
  • Kicking off the slam proper was Rob, whose political spitfire rap-rhyming style was impressive, with some nice dirty and violent imagery, but he lost a lot of the words by not varying his delivery and it didn’t fit together as a poem.
  • Bill Frizzell‘s ‘Tip of My Tongue’ was a fun and comic poem in honour of Movember and cancer awareness. It elicited  a bunch of laughs, but could’ve done with some more original expression. 
  • Alex‘s ‘Totem’ was another political piece with a strong central metaphor, railing against show-democracy and social injustice, but it mixed too many metaphors and didn’t fit together coherently.
  • Reigning H&T champ Davey Mac was next with a piece that utilised conspiratorially quiet delivery and subtle rhyme; intelligent and painful in all the right ways.
  • Another H&T regular, Gulliver, was next and his piece on the ‘elephants under our bed’ had a strong surreal comedy running through it, and the elephants were possibly a metaphor for either an abusive relationship or yob culture … maybe? It was hard to tell and I seriously struggled to see any point.
  • Nick Short gave two pieces, first a concise and angry piece about the lies of food marketing. The second … was effective satire, but the over-exaggerated violence got really uncomfortable.
  • Sabotage Editor Claire Trévien was next; her ‘Introduction to My Love’ used academic language well to comically express love. But her performance was stilted and some of the jokes were more clever than funny.
  • Anne Domoney (who we know as part of Lashings of Ginger Beer) piece was a smart and quietly powerful dissection of feminism and the importance of speaking up when something bothers you. The faux-cheerfulness as she debunked the idea of ‘yes, I choose to get upset’ was a joy. But she could have developed the language more creatively.
  • Enrico Petrusso gave a breathily nightmarish poem that was freakily visceral and creepily well-phrased. He over-used the archaic language a bit though …
  • Micah rounded off the slam with a multi-part poem full of clever (if abstract) wordplay. He won over the audience with his warmth, light touch with comedy, and a thoughtful theme that just about came together from several disparate images.

Winner: Micah.

On judging: it’s truly an odd gig. And I’m fairly sure most of the audience and poets hated me for my harsh scores by the end; I found the key was to boo myself louder than the audience did, then it was all ok.


A fun slam that was outshone by two truly marvelous features. A really good night. Oh, and the next one’s coming up next Tuesday at the Old Fire Station. If you’re in Oxford then I definitely recommend it.

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