Find the Right Words (Upstairs at the Western, Leicester, 15 Nov 2017)

reviewed by Sally Jack

A review of one of Leicester’s regular spoken word events, Find the Right Words (FTRW), is long overdue*, having appeared on the Sabotage Awards long lists for best regular spoken word show in both 2016 and 2017. Created and compered by performance poet and playwright Jess Green, FTRW – on the 3rd Wednesday of the month – has been going for five years now, four of them based at pub theatre Upstairs at the Western.

Jess secures some of the country’s top spoken word performers, and uniquely, offers a free, hour long workshop before ‘curtain up’ run by one of the two featured artists. With a roll call of past performers including Buddy Wakefield, Hollie McNish, Jemima Foxtrot, Inua Ellams, Paula Varjack and Elvis McGonagall, these workshops are a gift from the word gods.

After the free workshop, FTRW follows this format: ten open mic slots, two headline guest poets, and a coveted speed poet slot (not forgetting a raffle).  With support from Apples and Snakes, FTRW keeps going through ticket sales  – a price of £8/£6 concession is pretty fair for a good couple of hours of quality spoken word.

Part one: Lego, Barbi and Jeremy Corbyn

There’s a supportive, relaxed feel to this show, and boasts a hardcore of regulars. Initial business of the night involves the audience deciding on the three topics the speed poet must feature in a poem, and tonight it was the turn of James Ward to disappear downstairs, notebook and pen in hand.

Jess performed a poem from her forthcoming Burning Eye Books collection Self-Help Guide to Being in Love with Jeremy Corbyn (due to be published July 2018); it is both plaintive and amusing, with faint echoes of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Adagia’.

And now, the first five open mics. At any spoken word event I inwardly cringe when a poem is introduced with words along the lines of ‘I wrote this on my way here, it’s not very good’ (and which happened several times during the show). I know it’s a confidence thing and scribbled notes in a book may not seem much, but they can transform into magic when read or performed – poets, please have faith!

Moving effortlessly between humour and anger, Jay performed a couple of poems on transgender life with amusing thoughts on moving from use of the ladies to the gents, and a great re-working of the adage ‘our aim is to keep these toilets clean, your aim will help’.

Singer, songwriter and poet Grace Petrie read a ‘just-written’ poem but it had a polished feel – thoughtful and moving, and with astute points about her relationship with the word ‘butch’.

Dickie-bowed Poetman read his recent musings on artificial intelligence and Merrill presented an unusual (and effective) contemplation of his life when looked at as a series of stairs.

With themes including Kristallnacht and Afghanistan, Michelle read two excellent poems, both packing an emotional, but well-controlled punch.  Her first considered her prized Afghan coat from the 1970s and what it means to her now having recently taught an orphaned Afghan boy, once a goatherd in the mountains but now a refugee in a strange land.

First headliner of the night, and leader of the earlier workshop, was Louise Fazackerley (a 2016 Sabotage Awards long-lister with her show Council House Poetry).

Louise’s warm, reassuring style of delivery and Wigan vowels contrast with the jagged edges of the lives of the protagonists in her poems. Her collection Love is a Battlefield, the result of a BBC3 The Verb New Voices commission, considers the effect of war on soldiers (and their families) who served in Afghanistan, and, as is often the way at readings, coincidental connections appear throughout the evening  – Louise’s work showed another side of the same ‘war changes lives’ coin, a counterpoint to Michelle’s earlier poem about the Afghan refugee boy.

Louise creates some wonderfully concrete imagery:

Sweat glands seep
Lego men and workwear Barbis

‘RSVP’ is a love song to rain:

Let hoods fall while the streets become streams, the roads become rivers,
riding waves down to the call of woods and beck.

and good advice worth taking in ‘Fly’:

there’s only one life we’re living
so let’s fly

Part two: weddings and waving

Jess opened the second half with ‘Innuendo and Hotpot’, a heartfelt plea to the current producers of Coronation Street.

James the speed poet returned to the fold to perform a lovely tribute to Jess following her recent wedding to Dave – the randomly selected themes of weddings, sequins, Bonfire Night and the Australian vote fitting nicely together.

The next set of five open mics began with Gill who energised her poems with movement, and a lovely wry observation of what it’s like as the stationary waver and watcher of family members enjoying the many revolutions of a carousel.

Mike alerted us to the dangers of homonyms off-page – his poems on mourning and morning were delivered with quiet care, heightening their emotional power.  In contrast, Sammy performed her intense poem about love and addiction with good control of pacing and delivery.

Christine’s amusing reactions to visiting a bird fair at Rutland Water this summer also informed, with a line many of us are unlikely to write:

we learnt about the dragonfly
squirting water from its anal passages

Her delivery had great comic presence, and put me in mind of Josie Lawrence.

Shruti is working on her show Sky Diaries, and she performed two poems which examine her cultural heritage, particularly how she has come to embrace, and love the meaning behind her Sanskrit name.

Caroline Teague, also known as Caroline Smiling, was the second headliner of the night, and brought beautiful music into the intimate space. Another engaging performer, her rich, soulful voice wraps you up like a warm hug – she is also an expert giver of hugs, which is always a good thing if words ever fail.

She is inspired by place, particularly her life growing up and living in London; ‘Good Earth’ describes the richness of cultures in Harlesdon:

Dialects bounce off the walls

Accompanying several of her poems with her ukelele, Caroline’s performances and poems are sensual and her final poem, ‘On the Bad Days’ is melancholic yet uplifting – the description of her work as tragic optimism is beautifully put. 

And what words would I use to describe FTRW? Welcoming, warm, witty and wise.

Image supplied by Find the Right Words

* A confession: as co-founder and a director of Upstairs at the Western from 2012 to December 2016, I attended many Find the Right Words and have watched it grow and develop. I am no longer involved in the running and programming at the venue, and therefore delighted to now be free to enjoy the show as a ‘normal’ audience member.