Kate Tempest, Manchester, 2014
I’ll be honest, dear readers, I expected to hate this performance at Manchester’s Contact theatre as part of the literature festival. There is so much hype and bluster around Tempest, what with a Mercury nomination as well as poetry awards and garlands. Is she a poet, or a rapper, or a “performer” - whatever that is. Is she the greatest thing since the last big thing, or just an overrated south London oik with attitude? Harsh words - and when the show opened 20 minutes late I was toying with a “rock star poet turns diva” intro to my piece.
But let me tell you, if you don’t already know - Tempest is simply magnificent. She had me from the moment she walked onstage to rapturous applause (she already has a reputation at Contact, having stormed it earlier this year with Brand New Ancients while Prince played around the corner). She has a lovely, open face with a halo of golden hair, and a smile to melt the hardest critic’s heart.
She said she was thrilled to be back in Manchester, and I believed her. She talked to the audience as though we were mates – and I still believed her. She admitted she had planned to simply read from her latest collection, Hold Your Own, but got so carried away chatting to us that she walked off and made a second entrance before getting down to business.
Hold Your Own is her modern version of the ancient story of man/woman/child/blind seer Tiresias, followed by a sequence of poems that feed off its inspiration. Tempest delivered the first lengthy, mighty piece enthrallingly, a real teller of stories, barely an intake of breath, stalking the stage, face glistening with sweat, mic in hand, no reference to the book (she barely looked at the book all night).
There is a shopping trolley
There are some keys
There is a hawthorn
There is a horse chestnut
There’s a used condom
There’s an old desk lamp
There’s a nice conker …
Is that blood or ketchup?
Bird in the branches
Light in the darkness
Like sand in the toes of the bushes.
Tiresias is called on to settle a row about love and sex between Zeus and Hera:
Finally, when neither has
The strength to raise the anchor
And the ship of their relations
Is broken-keeled and sinking,
And they’re fighting over what the other
Might have just been thinking …
When Hera doesn’t like what Tiresias says, she strikes out and blinds him: "Zeus is shocked, appalled, impressed. / Mate he says Ah mate."
Tempest’s delivery is a tour de force and every word is thrown down like a stone to create a glorious, rocky picture. Her diction - sorry, one of my obsessions - is faultless, her rhythm spot on, and her sheer excitement infectious.
She said almost apologetically: “There’s a lot in this, it’s a lot to take in”, before reading some of the later poems in the sequence. In between she talked about her attempts to understand the world we live in - the word “dread” comes up a lot, and she says the only real weapon we have is "empathy". A world with more understanding, more kindness, more caring, more sharing, might just hold the awfulness at bay. Amen to that.
Tempest can write very tenderly, as in ‘For my niece’.
No flower bends its head to offer
teaching to a seed.
The seed will grow and blossom
Once the flower’s ground to dust.
But even so, if nothing else,
One thing I’ll entrust:
Doing what you please
Is not the same
as doing what you must.
She is funny as with ‘Snakes in the grass’, which is too long to quote here but hilarious. Or the bitter truth of ‘Some couple’, about the irritation of seeing loved-up people in the street when you have just had a row with your partner. She urges teachers to be the inspiration for the next generation instead of the dead hand of conformity and dullness, before reading ‘School’:
We wander into school, happy children:
kind and bright and interested in things.
We don’t know yet the horrors of the building,
The hatred it will teach. The boredom it will bring.
She has good advice for women – don’t read women’s magazines, they screw you up. A lot of her most wry lines are delivered with a knowing look at the audience. And Tempest knows full well that the bluster around her can be a pain: “All this hype and nonsense will go away soon”, she tell us with a smile.
I can only urge you to get the books, read the words, listen to the CD and kill to get a ticket to see Kate Tempest perform. And as for all those awards she is up for – GO GIRL.
PHOTOGRAPH: NIAMH CONVERY