LIVEwire at the Verve Poetry Festival (February 22, 2020)

-Reviewed by Hannah Ledlie-

Late last year, UK spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs announced their first national tour. Their goal was to bring ‘LIVEwire’ (an event showcasing artists from the label alongside guest performers) to eight different venues across the country. Birmingham’s Verve Poetry Festival marked LIVEwire’s third stop. 

The night featured Nymphs & Thugs artists Toria Garbutt and Salena Godden, plus guest acts Saili Katebe and Oakley. Following an introduction from Nymphs & Thugs founder Matt Abbott, Katebe was first to the stage. The Bristol-based poet delivered a series of lyrical, rhythmic pieces, punctuated by carefully placed movements. ‘I like playing with the musicality in language, I’m inspired by the oral tradition,’ Katebe explained. This was particularly evident as he recited a piece about his relationship with his grandmother and her language. 

‘We navigate through our memories with caution / knowing there’s a casualty waiting round every turn of phrase. / She smiles, / I smile / and the silence sings my shame.’

As he explored themes of communication and identity, Katebe enraptured the audience with a narrative strengthened by wordplay, sibilance and rhyme.

Next to the mic was Toria Garbutt, a poet and educator from Knottingley, West Yorkshire. Knottingley, or Knottler, was the setting of several of her pieces at LIVEwire, including ‘Nowt Matters Now’, a poem which begins as a broad reflection on the Knottler of her youth, before transforming into a heart-breaking love poem for a lost friend. Garbutt demonstrated an ability to sweepingly capture years of life into a few lines, then startle the audience with a delightfully specific, grounded image. ‘Britpop blasts and blares through Warwick estate on carnival day. We win goldfish, then eat them for dares.’ The poet’s knack for infusing the present day with history – and demonstrating the inextricable, political connection between the two – was similarly impressive, as the ongoing impact of the Thatcher era loomed over the poem.

‘thought we’d be here forever, / weightless and old, burning rocks / instead of coal / burning for our fathers’ and grandfathers’ souls’

Surprisingly, for an event occurring in late February, one of the highlights of the entire event was a Christmas poem: Garbutt’s take on ‘the Twelve Days of Christmas’. As the piece expanded, Garbutt’s misfortunes grew, and so did the hilarity. Gems such as ‘on the tenth day of Christmas my youngest gets a plastic bead in his ear… we drive to A&E and wait for six cunting hours’ had the audience practically in tears. 

Matt Abbott then returned to the stage briefly with a piece about the British flag. Brandishing a Union Jack around his shoulders, Abbott drew attention to the contradictions and conflicts the flag represents. ‘This flag is liberal guilt, pride and honour too.’ 

Following Abbot was Out-Spoken prize winner and former Worcestershire Young Poet Laureate, Oakley. Themes of mythology, sexuality and transformation recurred throughout Oakley’s set, which they sped through with an earnest intensity. Highlights included ‘The Urban Queer Finds Themself Walking Again’, a poem drawing attention to the queer body and its fraught relationship with heteronormative, gentrified suburban neighbourhoods. Occasionally, the breakneck pace of Oakley’s performance did a disservice to the incredible intricacy of their writing. Brilliant double-enendres such as ‘Emerge soft as you pass, pass churches and alleyways’ were almost lost in the live performance, warranting several rewatches online. A similarly ingenius but hurried line in Oakley’s final poem – ‘I visited an occult store, the palmist could tell me nothing without lines to prompt them’ – made me long to see the poem breathe on a page. I also wondered however, if perhaps this breathlessness was the point; the relentless onslaught of tongue-twisting alliteration, internal rhymes and passion designed to render every line equal.

Closing LIVEwire was award-winning poet and activist, Salena Godden. Godden’s stage presence was completely unmatched as she bantered with the audience and treated them to a set which ranged from sincere, political list poems, to bizarre, surrealist persona pieces. In this setting, some of the poet’s more genuine commentaries occasionally risked being overly sentimental or reductive (at a poetry event, calls for togetherness or digs at Trump are always somewhat preaching to the converted). However, when it came to absurdism, Godden served up a masterclass. Through taking on the personas of various dislikeable or complex characters, the poet could truly unpick and expose their illogical mindsets. The hilarious but unsettling ‘Yeah Baby’, was reminiscent of Jennifer Knox’s infamous ‘Hot Ass Poem’. Both are pieces which expertly highlight the ridiculousness and tastelessness of those who objectify women via taking this objectification to the absolute extreme.

Prior to the tour Abbott commented:

‘I’m addicted to watching spoken word, and when it’s presented in the right environment, it can be a life-changing experience. It’s an art-form which most folks choose to ignore, and I can understand why, but with ‘LIVEwire’, we’re changing that.’

The group were performing in the festival’s final Saturday slot, meaning many audience members had already experienced up to ten hours of poetry events and were emotionally saturated. Arguably, it was far from the ‘right environment’ Abbott had described. It was therefore a testament to the poets’ abilities that they still managed to deliver an electric night of poetry, turning a large theatre filled with drained guests into an intimate, dynamic space. At the end of Garbutt’s ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, the whole theatre spontaneously joined in for the final chorus of ‘and a partridge in a pear tree’, while at the end of Godden’s ‘Suncream in February’, the poet successfully roused the audience into chanting ‘love’ in unison. 

While it must be heart-breaking for the organisers not to be able to continue their tour as planned, LIVEwire is proving resilient in these difficult times. On April 29th, Nymphs & Thugs will be celebrating their 5th birthday with a gig streamed on Facebook Live and YouTube. Several poems from the Birmingham event are also available to watch on the VerseFirst YouTube channel. While the world may be upside down, we can be thankful that the arts will always survive, some way or another, and provide us with some small solace.