Well Versed – Stoke Newington Literary Festival, June 7th and 8th 2014

naillemmajodyrowenareviewed by Lucy Parsons

The poetry of the people – an extravaganza of radical verse from the Morning Star.

The Morning Star’s poetry column has become a popular feature of the growing Stoke Newington Literary Festival. What they both have going for them is engaging, contemporary writing for real people that has both meaning as well as fun. This year was no exception.

Held at Stamford Hill’s finest, the Mascara Bar, the weekend was boozy, bookish and ebullient. Well Versed’s editor Jody Porter ensured a superb range of contemporary poets were present, whose diversity said as much as the writing regularly does in the column.

The most poignant moment of the festival for me was when Helen Mort hushed the bar with her poem Scab that links the ’84 Miner’s Strike, the 2001 battle of Orgreave re-enactment and her experiences as a working-class student at Cambridge. I looked over to see all-round good bloke and Members singer Nicky Tesco so moved there was a tear to his eye.

Hannah Lowe, as always, had a sparkling and heartfelt set (largely from her excellent book Chick). Hers is a voice that carries the struggle of several generations, but with a smile that knows that a smile is a victory. Steve Pottinger related how his letter to Caffè Nero about their tax avoidance went viral; both amusing and inspiring. If there’s a place to feel the power of words leading to positive action, surely it’s a Well Versed gig.

Simon Munnery was on blistering form, his poem London is always a grimy, ebullient joy. Phill Jupitus and Tim Wells did an early gig as well as making Well Versed appearances. Porky the Poet (Jupitus‘s poetry alter-ego) is funny and makes use of the range of emotions that comedians are frequently crime-scene taped away from. Tim Wells was a drunken swearfest, and as pleasant a conversationalist as he was, he still took the time to lambast gentrification. Stamford Hill obviously knows and feels what he’s saying.

The Captain of the Rant brought a punk tinge to the weekend and Sam Berkson brought an edge too. Emma Jones was a delight; theatrical a kind of Joan Littlewood sense. I also enjoyed Chimene Suleyman’s work; she’s a writer who likes hate–mail so much she said she was a feminist on Twitter. There were turns from many young writers; Bobby Parker, Amy Acre and Kayo Chingonyi amongst them. I’d have seen more but it was a hot day and I needed a beer now and then too.

The hosts, Friday’s Michelle Madsen and Saturday’s Niall O’Sullivan deserve special mention for keeping the night flowing upbeat and alive. The poetry ended with a quite rightly filthy turn from Salena Godden who’d sprinted up from hosting the Linton Kwesi Johnson reading at the Town Hall. She not only opened up, she let the devil in.

All in all a great weekend of inspiring, entertaining and enthusing poetry from a selection of poets who know that working class poetry is never a grimace and is a kiss as much as a punch. The only down turn was Gary Budden’s bloody Subhumans’ records.

If you missed Well Versed this year, it’ll be back at Stoke Newington in 2015. In the mean time, you can catch up with their superb selection of poetry here.