No need to mind your language, Mab: loose talk that's about women's lives
At the start of her set, Mab Jones seemed a little unsure of her audience, and said she probably wouldn’t perform the poem containing her “best rhyme” … the one rhyming “Venus” with “penis”. By the conclusion, at the all-women Loose Muse night at the Poetry Café in London, she decided she would: “I’m trying to find the level here. But we’re in a basement, I should have known.”
Mab, pictured, a former columnist with Write Out Loud, provided a brief biog, which included the fact that her fifth gig, as a finallist in the national poetry slam, meant she was heard on Radio 4 “by a sort of fluke”. She first became known as a comic poet, which she blamed on having watched too many Carry On films as a child.
She is also resident poet at the National Garden of Wales, as well as being “not a mad fan of the royal family”. (The title of her recent Burning Eye collection is Poor Queen). Her poem ‘Imperial’ was written to mark the birth of the royal baby, and talks of an invasive species “here for a thousand years” that “blocks the light” and puts others “in the shade”.
There was a bitter-sweet poem about what happened to the dwarves after Snow White took off with the handsome prince. And she concluded with ‘Millionaire’, a “poem to my boyfriend”, that was turned into an animation and shortlisted for a Southbank Centre award.
The second guest poet, Janine Booth, was a revelation. In a former incarnation she was a “ranting poet” as The Big J. Now, after a break of 25 years, and with a day job as a London Underground station superviser, and as “an active trade unionist, Marxist, and socialist-feminist”, she is back, with a new book called Mostly Hating Tories.
Although mostly hating Tories may be a fairly accurate description of Janine’s oeuvre, she also delivered a highly effective poem about Reeva Steenkamp, ‘Her Name is Reeva’ – and not just “Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend” – and two on violence against women, ‘Real Rape’, and ‘Two Women Every Week’, the latter reflecting the fact that in England and Wales women are killed by current or former male partners at the rate of two a week.
She may have misjudged her audience a tad when she said that a villanelle - in Janine’s case, about a care home in Swindon - was “too complicated to explain”. But overall her rousing performance did my old lefty heart some good. Janine is tireless, too – she has also produced two non-fiction works, Guilty and Proud of It, on the Poplar rates rebellion that saw Labour councillors, including future Labour leader George Lansbury, sent to jail, and Plundering London Underground, on dubious financing of tube projects set up by the last Labour government.
Another tireless poet is Agnes Meadows, host of Loose Muse, who read a couple of her own poems, including one about the second world war “death railway” in Thailand, a subject very close to my heart.
Loose Muse, for women writers of all genres, meets once a month at the Poetry Café, and has offshoots in Manchester, Cornwall, and now Winchester. It’s billed as women-only, but men are welcome to attend, as long as they accept that they’re just there to listen. On Wednesday night, there were open mic contributions about coming to England from the Caribbean to make a new life; a poem, with wolves in the title, about a dinner party “that went very wrong”; another that was “certainly not a Valentine’s poem” about a chap called Anthony; and one introduced with the words: “I just wondered what would have happened if the Virgin Mary had said ‘No’.”
Agnes Meadows has argued in the past that the women-only format is necessary because somewhere is required that is “a nurturing environment, where women can have a good laugh, support each other, where they don’t feel they have anything to prove or display – other than what talent they have”.
Some men disagree with this philosophy, and comment on Write Out Loud whenever something about Loose Muse is featured. At a poetry class I attended last year a young woman poet laughed in amazement at the concept of a book of women’s poetry, that an older woman was quoting from. But if poems like ‘Real Rape’ and ‘Two Women Every Week’ are anything to go by – and they should be - some very old battles are still a long way from being won.