Reinforcements! Yorkshire contingent joins Words on the Wall

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You might be forgiven in February for shivering at the thought of Northumberland’s Words on the Wall, given Hexham’s setting, close to the evocative Hadrian’s Wall. Cold, bleak, inhospitable? Not a bit of it!

This open-mic poetry gathering, plus three headline poets, was held in a warm and cosy side room of the town’s busy County hotel on Saturday afternoon. It was thronged with poets, possibly a record attendance, many of whom had travelled up from Yorkshire, and masterfully compered by Joe Williams, pictured, who hails from Hexham, but now lives in Leeds, and also runs the Chemistry night at the Chemic tavern in that fair city.

embedded image from entry 128206 The three headline poets were Manchester performance poet Dominic Berry, Yorkshire-based poet and facilitator Gill Connors, and Middlesborough’s much-published poet and freelance creative writing tutor Bob Beagrie. The entertaining, endearing and irrepressible Dominic Berry, who is currently on tour, and was in Kent the day before, read largely from his latest collection, Yes Life (Flapjack Press). Poems from it included ‘The Crying Café’, a place that he imagined people could gather to cry their hearts out if they wanted to: “Imagine somewhere / we could all be audibly bawling, / sharing our troubles, / sharing a table …”

A prose poem, ‘And James Lived Happily Ever After’, conjured up a care home resident who imagines he’s James Bond. It concludes: “James Bond is a secret agent who may have forgotten his mission. That does not mean his mission was not a success.” Another poem, ‘He-Man, The Most Powerful Bottom in the Universe’, celebrates his mother’s pride in and support for her son. Dominic also read an affirmative poem about going back to reassure his 10-year-old self about the feelings he was having, and how they were ok, and all part of “the fecundity of gender fluidity”. He has been Glastonbury festival’s poet in residence, twice won the Saboteur best spoken word artist award, and appeared on CBeebies with his children’s poetry. He told his Hexham audience: “I’ve been a freelance poet for 16 years. I love what I do.”  

embedded image from entry 128205 When Gill Connors published her collection A Small Goodbye at Dawn (Yaffle) last year she was still Gill Lambert. She has since married fellow poet Mark Connors; they run workshops together, and with Mike Farren are managing editors of Yaffle Press. The centrepiece of her collection is a lengthy sequence of poems about Anne Boleyn, charting her rise and fall. In her acknowledgements she thanks the doomed Tudor queen “for speaking her words in my ear, and helping me tell other women’s story, and mine, through hers”. One poem, ‘Peach’, observes Anne losing the power she once had over Henry VIII, by surrendering to him. Other poems included a wife haunted by a husband killed in an industrial accident; young women making plans for a night out that include a scenario “in case one of them doesn’t come back”;  and a poem for a grandson who had four holes in the heart fixed after a visit to A&E.

embedded image from entry 128204 Bob Beagrie introduced his hefty new collection, The Last Almanac, also published by Yaffle, by saying that it contained some of his “quieter, more contemplative work,” gathered together over 20 years. The poems have been arranged “as a calendar of days”.

His prose poem ‘Something like but not quite purpose’ is a collection of observations … “the last blast furnace at Teesmouth is being demolished … Dad’s increasing deafness is one of his secret comforts”. ‘Good Friday’ celebrates the sound of a woodpecker as a spiritual portent; ‘Kirkcarrion’ is where “the moon rests here to sip its milk, / dribble light into Lune and Tees”; ‘Chaffinch Among the Daffodils’ thrills to the “flow notes, trills, arpeggios / that sent a shiver down my spine”; ‘Everything Under the Sun’ marvels at sandpipers on Saltburn beach.

Compere Joe Williams, due to be headlining himself at Under the Arches, Tynemouth on Tuesday night, kicked off a couple of the open-mic sessions with poems of his own; one, a brief, wry nod to aliens in the news, about opening a pub on the moon; another about Ashington, the town where he spent his early years. He had been thinking about it recently because, like many others, he had been on strike. He said that Ashington had been “destroyed” by the 1984-85 miners’ strike, “and Thatcher”. Someone from the floor referred to Ashington as a “shithole”. It now boasts a splendid mining museum, at any rate.

The first of the open micers, Hilary Elder, recited an extract from her epic novel in verse. Yorkshireman David Hutchinson confessed, “I only write short poems, I can’t afford the ink”, and brandished “this amazing paper. It doesn’t need charging”. Joni Bowyer delivered an uplifting “list of things that are nice”, including “the wind round the ears on the top path at Allen Banks”.  

Jane Sharp invoked Greta Garbo and Sylvia Plath in a theatrical rendition about losing her spoken word voice. Mark Connors read three poems from his admirable collection, After, in which all the poems are inspired by song titles – ‘Atmosphere’, ‘Human Touch’ (a poem about his dad –“You’ve been a postman for years and dogs don’t like you”), and ‘More News from Nowhere’.  Aaron Wright was inspired by a Roman soldier on the wall and John Cooper Clarke, imagining said soldier writing home in the style of JCC’s ‘Chickentown’: “This bloody wall is hard as rock … it never stops bloody raining.”

Angela Marshall is staging a poetry open mic night at Newcastle’s Prohibition Bar on Friday 14 April as a 4Louis fundraiser, for a charity that supports families through miscarriage, stillbirth, and child loss. Her own book is called Not Just a Statistic. Keith Fenton revealed an admiration for the Yorkshire singer-songwriter Jake Thackray; Alwyn Gornall made me think of the US government official Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq war, with his poem about “relevant irrelevancies”.   

embedded image from entry 128203 At this point a very snappily dressed member of the audience, pictured, got up to go, remaining only to say that he was a miner’s son and that it had been an “exceptional” afternoon of poetry – although he also remembered playing football in these parts, and that “you had the dirtiest footballers around”. And with that he was gone.  

Then on with the final open micers. Steve Irwin, who runs Durham’s Poetry Jam, told us of his “crazy family”, and of poems scribbled in Consett library on Thursday afternoons; Penny Blackburn, who comperes Tynemouth’s Under the Arches, gave us a piece of flash fiction about the legend of Robin Hood and Kirklees priory, and a poem that was “torn about where I belong”, called ‘Unsettled’; Tim Brookes evoked lost relationships, “a woman I haven’t spoken to for 25 years”, and the pickled eggs and pork scratchings served up by a beautiful barmaid in the Dog & Duck. Kathleen Strafford delivered powerful poems on women’s themes, including one about Eve; amusing chimney sweep poet Malcolm Barnes included a poem about an alternative career path he might have taken, that of vicar.

The final open mic poet was translator Rosemary Schuitevoerder, who was reading her own poems. Her last one was about a visit to Poland “on a very special journey”. Her poem ‘Grandmother’ mentions Sobibor, and includes these words: “The train rumbles on in my mind … the wind plays with dust and ashes, among trees.” Joe Williams explained at the beginning that the running order of open-mic poets was generated randomly, as he plucked names from his ‘Box Of Mystery’. A remarkable poem to end with, in that case.         

I must thank Joe for the warm welcome that Write Out Loud received at Words on the Wall. In keeping with the borderlands vibe, I guess, the proceedings were watched over by a portrait, not of a Roman legionary, but of the ‘Old Pretender’ James Stuart, figurehead of the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1715.  Words on the Wall holds its gatherings three times a year, although there will be an extra special one in April, as part of Hexham Book Festival.




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