WORD! feat. Kathleen Bell and Penelope Shuttle (The Y Theatre, Leicester, 3 Feb 2015)

-Reviewed by Sally Jack-

It seems fitting somehow that WORD!, the Midlands’ longest running spoken word night – now in its fifteenth year – takes place in Leicester’s oldest surviving theatre, The Y Theatre, now in its one hundred and fifteenth year.

Not so long ago WORD! was the only spoken word night in Leicester but now this monthly celebration of poetry in all its wide-ranging forms has grown into the beating heart in a body of many regular spoken word events around the city.

The Y Theatre had a facelift fairly recently, with the ticket and bar area now shiny glass, pale wood and comfy sofas. But once through the swing doors to the auditorium you have the sense of another time: the claustrophobic shadow cast by the circle, heavy, velvet curtains and plasterwork masks of mournful Melpomene and happy Thalia around the balcony.

WORD! follows a set format of 6 open mics, 1 headline act, a short interval then 10 more open mic slots and another headliner reading for up to 25 minutes to close the evening. Open mics are asked to keep to 3 minutes.

That’s the skeleton, what of the flesh and blood? Lydia Towsey, Chair and compere, is a welcoming and encouraging host, entertaining the eighty plus audience with an irresistible two-pronged approach of enthusiasm backed up with bowls of sweets dotted around the cabaret-style tables. She opened the night with her poem ‘Sonnet Sunday’, an intriguing reflection on domestic chores and, like all good poets, making the ordinary extraordinary (or, in the case of housework, at least bearable).

Kathleen Bell (image Nathan Human)
Kathleen Bell (image Nathan Human)

Mournful Melpomene influenced many of the themes for the evening, some shot through with a streak of defiance: David’s poignant ballad in memory of his parents, Mike’s bittersweet recollection of his childhood, inspired by the line ‘I Came From’ and featuring a Britain still reeling from the Blitz.

WORD! regular (and Sabotage reviewer) Emma Lee’s measured delivery contrasted well with the power of her well-crafted poems, particularly a ‘mirror image’ poem inspired by Martin Figura.

Sharon’s reflection on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was direct, and John Kitchen’s lament on old age plus Ode to Valentine was painfully but amusingly accurate. Pammy and Andrea fused word and drum to create a poem of pulsing sensuality.

Kathleen Bell 

First headliner, Kathleen Bell’s pamphlet At the Memory Exchange (Oystercatcher Press) was shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet in the 2014 Saboteur Awards . With poems also published in Under the Radar, Stare’s Nest, PN Review, Litter and New Walk her work is clearly getting deserved exposure.

Kathleen has a clear, insightful and precise voice as a writer and reader, covering intriguing subjects such as medieval princesses and a magician’s apprentice. ‘Unsundered’ is tense, macabre and a poem that needs several readings to really appreciate its power.

“The saw carves its way. Bows scrape,
drag across catgut, the drum
has yet to roll.”

Kathleen’s final reading, ‘Off Lampedusa’, was introduced as poem fragments. They struck a chilling and defiant note with their stark description of the desperate plight of Eritraen immigrants whose boat sank near Lampedusa in 2013.  Fragments is an apt way to describe these fragmented and broken lives.

Penelope Shuttle (image Nathan Human)
Penelope Shuttle (image Nathan Human)

After the interval, Maria Taylor’s poignant ‘The Floating Woman’, considered the sorry tale of Laura, incarcerated and forgotten due to disability, and half-sister of Virginia Woolf; the line ‘I will startle you with my linen wings’ was arresting.

Anna performed an experimental work relating to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, aided by her giant pencil prop and re-claiming the pen as mightier than the sword. We heard of meerkats and trees, Peter’s ‘An Alabama Song’ contained several robust images: “strangleholds to the moon”. “harking angels of every step”.

The open mic was certainly varied in style and subject matter but also performance level. It does not always instil me with confidence to hear in an intro that the poem was just written that afternoon.

Penelope Shuttle

And then there was Penelope Shuttle. WORD! has long courted Penelope to travel the long distance from her home in Cornwall to Leicester, and a glance at her Poetry Archive biography indicates why a visit would be such a coup: eleven collections, three novels and her collection Redgrove’s Wife shortlisted for the TS Eliot and Forward Prizes. In addition, Penelope is a poetry tutor and mentor with The Poetry School and Arvon amongst many others.

Penelope Shuttle (image Nathan Human)

Beginning with readings from her recent pamphlet In the Snowy Air, taking inspiration from a guided walk through London in February 2013, tracking the course of the lost Walbrook River.  She then read from Unsent: New and Collected Poems 1980 – 2012, including observing the transformation of her daughter from child to woman in ‘Outgrown’, the pathos and humour of ‘Hearts’ and the wicked fun of ‘Things You Can’t Post’.

Penelope’s poems cover wide landscapes, the physical and personal and her readings felt like a gorging of the senses. Spoken word events are a wonderful place to hear and share words – ephemeral and of the moment. Penelope and Kathleen’s imagery demanded more and this is when reverting to the page provides even greater satisfaction. Going to a reading prepared to make purchases is thus advisable.

WORD!’s goals are admirable and democratic: provide a programme which represents as many different genres of poetry as possible whether that is rap, stand up, experimental as well as more mainstream formats. Also, encourage all individuals and groups to join in, no matter your social or poetic background and a great fit with Leicester’s position as one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the UK.

Thanks to Awards for All funding, WORD! is now able to offer free afternoon workshops by the main headliner and participants enthused about Penelope’s elements-themed session. How lucky they were …