– reviewed by Lettie McKie –
At The Big Green Bookshop (Wood Green)
(Your editor – James Webster – would like to apologise for the extremely belated nature of this review.)
The Tiny Big Green Bookshop
Unsurprisingly the world of performance poetry is full of Bookshops. Usually with some sort of café or bar attached. Often in obscure locations. Often with idiosyncratic owners, a charming bohemian aesthetic and a suitably literary clientèle who hang around for hours looking artfully dishevelled. The Big Green Bookshop could tick the box on pretty much all of these things. It was in Wood Green (so in my South Londoner’s book that is about as obscure as you can get), it comprised one tiny room filled floor to ceiling with books on spindly shelves, and it was crammed full at 7pm on a Friday night with a whole host of writer types intent on spending their free time listening to other writers read poetry.
I couldn’t comment on the idiosyncrasy of the owners, but they were certainly friendly, warmly welcoming guests with a makeshift bar. As host, Amy Acre, began by telling us how the shop had came to be: how the Wood Green Ottakar’s (much beloved by the community) was bought out by Waterstones and thence became an H&M. The owner (who used to work there) was devastated, so decided to open his own shop in order to ensure those who loved Ottakar’s still had somewhere they could go to read and buy books.
What better way to start a night of readings from a group of talented young women who have all just published poetry books?
The Poets and their books…
First up was Michelle Madsen who is a school poet in residence and also happens to live on a boat. She started her set by explaining that the problem with publishing a book is that you very soon become completely sick of reading from it. So, while her first collection Alternative Beach Stories is really quite good, she mostly performed new material…
From poems about the pitfalls of googling yourself (only to find someone with your name is out there being more beautiful and successful), to the comparative benefits of Home County comfort vs London bustle, her poems were fun and relatable, full of self-deprecating humour and linked together with good chat. Her description of the sense of loss felt as your one-time home becomes more distant, especially, was full of evocative language (‘tang of bleach, buttery roast beef, call me to home’) and contained a twist of sadness that stayed with me.
Her last poem was one she’d written for a night of erotic poetry and played on the word ‘it’ with a list of enticing words ‘pull, lick, twist, kiss, stroke’ etc that was…well…extremely erotic (*blush*).
Next up was softly spoken Fran Lock. Reading from her book The Mystic and the Pig Thief, her poems were literary and intellectual, filled with unexpected imagery like ‘a splashy gallop of roses’ and ‘my off-white body, soft as a mosquito net’. Like Michelle, Fran was also quite self-deprecating but I felt she put herself down a little too much, perhaps relying too much on this type of humour between poems. However her poetry itself was mesmerising. Her words weren’t just clever but original and displaying an impressively dexterous lexicon. She described in detail gouging out a man’s eyes in Poem in which I gouge out his eyes with a spoon, layering a comic premise with a healthy dose of feminism;
‘It isn’t that I hate him
That ornamental pedantry!
His Magdalen drawl!
His fish-eating sneer!
Can I really not tell
Demitasse from parfait?’
All the poets had their books on sale during the night but Fran’s was the only one I bought. This wasn’t because I thought the standard of the other poets was lower, it was simply that Fran’s were the poems I most wanted to contemplate again, I felt I wanted to unpick them like puzzles over a glass of wine.
Amy Acre introduced the next poet Amy McAllister by saying ‘she’s so good at giving you a good time you don’t notice when she slips something you need to learn in, like your mum hiding your broccoli’. Amy’s collection Are you as single as that Cream? Is made up of poems, drawings and pick up lines (hence the title), and her reading was full of short quips based on a simple premise and a good punch line. Her take on the infamous metro Rush-Hour Crush column was especially good, blandly describing two completely non-descript people trying without hope to identify themselves to their secret crush. As Amy Acre had warned us there was a serious point to this witty piece e.g. why don’t people actually talk to the people they fancy?
Amy then changed the tone saying ‘I’m now going to do something a bit more slammy’ and launched into an absolutely hilarious poem about having sex to cover awkward silences. I loved it because, again, it tinged its humour with a hint of sadness ‘on and on I bleat’, ‘trip our separate ways’, ‘plug the empty spaces’. While her poem ‘Toilet Trouble’ pulled a similar trick, pinpointing the everyday reasons people stay in a relationship too long (such as: ‘It’s hard to move out of a flat’).
After a quick comfort break where we could buy books and chat to the poets it was Sophia Walker’s turn with her collection Outside the Tour Bus. Sophia’s high octane performance style was integral to her heartfelt and impassioned poetry that had the immediacy of being written to perform. She sometimes bordered on angry, but in a good way, her anger fuelling the passionate depictions of unjust and messed up situations. Her poem about children discussing porn was particularly pertinent, dissecting how and why a 14 year old girl answers the question ‘what is intimacy?’ with the reply ‘anal sex’. In a poem about a homophobe trying to pick her up in a bar, she espouses ‘if you hate gay men then you hate me’ and cleverly explores the derivation of the word faggot to show that it is related to twigs, women and baggage.
Another poem about a teacher who helped her, and countless other students at her school, was particularly moving. She highlighted the huge difference one person can make when they are quietly selfless, paying attention to those children who otherwise go unnoticed ‘ he never knew how many of us he saved’.
At the end of her set Sophia introduced Amy Acre (a nice touch as it’s always slightly awkward when a host has to introduce themselves) to read from her collection Where we’re Going we Don’t need Roads. She started with Percussion (which I’ve heard before and enjoy every time), a piece about Amy feeling too English to enjoy Salsa dancing. The poem typifies Amy’s ability to mix sexy rhythms, and a sultry delivery with down to earth subject matter that is consistently surprising. Amy also did Nothing but the Whites of your Eyes, a charming piece about that feeling when you’ve met someone new and can’t get them out of your head.
‘I’m not thinking about you
As palm trees weave their tales through the breeze
Like your hair’.
I love listening to her because she appears so relaxed on stage, her understated performances allowing her simple, evocative poetry to shine through.
These chicks can write
The talents of the poets who read at Chicks with Books were diverse but united by their passion and energy. Their performances well worth the trek to North London …even if it did take me three hours to get home!