Meltdowns, anthropomorphic puzzles, and other surprises at The Other Room's birthday party

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I see Write Out Loud’s Julian Jordon was at The Castle pub on Manchester’s Oldham Street the other night doing a review - and blow me, I was in there the following evening, this time for a birthday party.

We were celebrating the seventh birthday of The Other Room, home of experimental poetry and it certainly lived up to its name. We started in near darkness after what the organisers called a “technical meltdown”.

If anything it added to the humour of the opening performance by affable but barbed American Lou Rowan on his first trip to the city. The adopted New Yorker was ready for any hiccups, after revealing that his trousers had fallen down at airport security. Reading in the gloom was no real problem for him and his wonderfully acerbic words from The Prelude and a short story called “L” were a great opening set. His barbed references to an early Bob Dylan advert for knickers (forget going electric in Manchester, this was Dylan’s real sell-out) were funny and seductively written and read.

Rowan has written a number of books and collections, particularly since giving up his career as an institutional investor. In 2003 he abandoned finance to write full-time and started the Golden Handcuffs Review, which he continues to edit. He says his informal education began in the Lower East Side of New York with artistic experiments in and around St. Mark’s church in the Bowery, and thanks the English department at Harvard University “for making the formal study of academic literature repugnant”.

The first half of the party was rounded off by JR Carpenter and Jerome Fletcher. Carpenter is a Canadian (now living in Devon) artist, writer, researcher, and performer who says she is “a maker of maps, zines, books, poetry, short fiction, long fiction, non-fiction, and non-linear, intertextual, hypermedia, and computer-generated narratives”.

Fletcher’s bio says he  was born in London, educated by French nuns, minor public school and Oxford. He has worked as a landscape gardener, eel catcher, real tennis professional and writer before teaching performance writing at Dartington College of Arts. He is now associate professor of performance writing at Falmouth University.

So far, so good – I didn’t know what to expect but at the end I was still baffled. They combined voices in ‘The Fetch’, a tale about a wraith/doppelganger that is a prelude to death but also refers to the fetch-and-execute basic operation cycle of a computer. It was haunting, baffling and intriguing with the words up on screen and to be honest I wasn’t sure what I felt about it. At the end a man behind me simply breathed “wow” and someone next to me said it was more like music.

Carpenter went on to perform, with Fletcher, ‘etheric ocean’, a more complex, visually intriguing piece incorporating water and sound and telegraphy which I found more difficult but ultimately more satisfying. I clearly need to work on this challenging art form.

Mark Greenwood, pictured, opened the second half with an infectious set. The Newcastle-born, Liverpool-based performance artist/writer uses “indefinite durational practice and minimal actions as art forms” and is interested in “anthropomorphic puzzles and inter-textual folds”. I was fearing the worst but his piece inspired by a young prog-rock band, one of his “pigeon poems’ and two others sparked by an exhibition about polar explorer Shackleton were stunning. His work based on the commentary to the Mayweather-Hatton boxing match was outstanding, one of the night’s best moments for me.

Write Out Loud’s Greg Freeman had already suggested that I would enjoy Sophie Herxheimer, the London painter and poet, and he was right. How could you not look forward to hearing someone who says in her biography: “Sophie has illustrated five fairytale collections; created a 300-metre tablecloth to run the length of Southwark bridge, featuring hand-printed food stories from a thousand Londoners; made a lifesize concrete poem in the shape of Mrs Beeton sited next to her grave; and a pie big enough for seven drama students to jump out of singing, on the lawn of an old people’s home”?

She read some poems in memory of her grandmother, both written and read in cod-German  that makes them both touching and funny. Her latest project took her out of her London comfort zone into a forest for The Listening Forest project, collecting stories and experiences from woodland near Corby. She even dressed for the party in a black satin evening gown and finished with a request from her tiny but delightful Ghost Hotel collection about women poets. Wonderful.

How to top that? The Other Room brought in improvising voice artist Steve Boyland. I had never heard anything quite like it. He works in the field of  improvised music, visual and sound art often inspired by spaces in galleries, working solo or in collaboration with similar artists and poets. His spontaneous outpouring of vocal gymnastics incorporated light and shade, great tones and colossal technique. I picked up elements of Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac, Russian chorales, guttural Japanese barks, buzzing wasps and much more. Everyone will have heard different things. Everyone was stunned.

So,a night of two halves for me and the second was the scorcher. But that’s The Other Room for you – you always get a surprise and you always find something else to love. Happy birthday and here’s to the next year. (And try to pick up the anthology of last year’s performances for a taste of what goes on there.)

Judy Gordon


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