Stablemates (Rosie Garland, Jackie Hagan, Henry Normal with Jill Abram, Waterstones, Birmingham, 18 Oct 2017)

reviewed by Sally Jack

Created and hosted by poet Jill Abram, Stablemates is a regular monthly spoken word night where three poets from one press have a brief chat with Jill then read their work for about 15 minutes.   Stablemates has previously been held in different venues around London, although hopes to establish a permanent base at The Poetry Cafe.

Occasionally, Stablemates will also bolt out of the capital into the provinces and thus, the 4th floor of the Birmingham branch of Waterstones became the latest setting. Jill introduced our three poets with collections published by Manchester-based Flapjack Press: Rosie Garland, Jackie Hagan and Henry Normal.    

Brightly-lit, overly air-conditioned, Waterstones nestles in the heart of Birmingham’s city centre, no more than a scatalogical throw of a cowpat from the Bullring shopping mecca.  During his set, Henry commented on the significance of the positioning of chairs for the reading, ie directly between the philosophy and business sections – a wry observation and what does that tell us about poetry?

Jill began with a couple of her own poems, including ‘Al Dente’, an emotionally-satisfying exploration of mother/daughter conflicts.

First of the Stablemates was Rosie Garland, and Jill discussed As In Judy, Rosie’s sixth poetry collection, but also her work as a novelist, lyricist, singer with The March Violets, and twisted cabaret performer Rosie Lugosi the Vampire Queen.  Rosie recalled her early experiences of spoken word – going to the library, the joy of being read to, held and hugged on her grandmother’s knee – which fired her writing instincts.

Rosie has a knack of describing the everyday and recollections from her past in both an accessible and sometimes sinister way, her Gothic-leanings ever present. “When You Grow Up” is laced with both disappointment and threat:

Every night she tucks in
the sheet of marriage, husband,
tucks it in tight

Her love poems are bleakly realistic, lamenting to a lover on holiday with another:

Your fortnight in the Maldives,
have you forgotten our weekend in Whitby?

Rosie also read from a previous collection Things I Did When I Was Dead, with a not-quite-so-wistful recollection of teenage years ‘I Want to be a Teenager in Devon’. In her final poem, her love of recycling extends to its ultimate conclusion – her body, a sensual but practical ode to her organs and vital parts:

I want my liver to filter someone else’s anniversary

With her calm and poised delivery, Rosie’s poetry is clear but always with a dark streak lurking near the surface, each word savoured and delivered with assured purpose.

Second of the Stablemates is Jackie Hagan, winner of Saboteur Awards Best Spoken Word Show 2015 with Some People Have Too Many Legs.

Jackie has also recently been awarded one of three inaugural Jerwood Compton Fellows, and she discussed the impact of this on her life as a travelling poet, comedian and playwright.

Her style of language is as colourful as her rainbow hair and false leg festooned with fairy lights and sequins, and both in conversation and in her poetry, she succinctly, and quirkily, conjures up concrete images of people, places and situations:

Barbara has a face like a hen party

Her forthcoming show, This is Not a Safe Space, premiers at Manchester’s Contact Theatre 27 October, and features words from “shitloads of skint, disabled people piped into the auditorium”. Her voice is honest, uncompromising, tough and tender – and funny – and rails against the vilification of the working class and the disabled, and their portrayal as either saints or victims:

Don’t tell me I’m brave every five minutes just for eating a Twix

In ‘I Am Not Daniel Blake’, this touching line:

He grips the ends of his sleeve
so his feelings don’t fall out

Henry Normal brings the evening to a close. Unassuming in appearance, affable and amusing, Henry has returned to poetry after pursuing ‘other interests’ for 20 years (a small matter of a BAFTA Special Award, co-writer on shows includingThe Royle Family, producer of Gavin and Stacey).

Jill and Henry discussed punctuation; there is a distinct lack of commas and full stops in his latest collection Raining Upwards, as “there is something oppressive about a full stop, and they and commas just get in the way”. This view makes me twitchy, however, Henry is so charming I let it go.

Henry’s poems are quiet and accessible but often with a punchline that gets you in the gut. Raining Upwards focuses on life in the Normal household coping with Henry and his wife’s son Jonny’s autism. His poems are moving but not sentimental, and show a comedian’s knack for storytelling and observation.

In ‘Walking Wounded at Lidl’:

My psoriasis doesn’t qualify me for priority parking

And of the moon:

set itself in fickle landscape,
reached accommodation with the sky

A restrictive train timetable meant I couldn’t linger to purchase books – as ever in these performances, much can be gained from hearing the poems from the poets themselves, but many more layers can be gained from the page.

Distinct and assured in their style and delivery, each poet overcame the rather sterile surroundings to give a tempting taste of their work, with Stablemates serving as a well-curated and delicious hors d’oeuvres for a poetic feast. 

Stablemates are held on the last Thursday of the month, the next event is 26 October at The Poetry Cafe.