Stairway to poetic heaven with Puzzle Poets at the Blind Pig
The Puzzle Poets at Sowerby Bridge have a banner on which many guests who have read there have inscribed their names: Andrew McMillan, Steve Ely, Jackie Hagan, Louise Fazackerley, Steve Pottinger, Char March, to list but a few. Its current location at the Blind Pig pub boasts an illuminated spiral staircase leading to the upstairs space where poets read and perform. But don’t go thinking that this monthly open mic poetry night, which has been going for more than 20 years, is all about poetry stars. The open micers are its heart and soul, encouraged for many years by organiser Freda Davis, and more recently by co-comperes John Foggin, pictured, and Bob Horne.
First up last week was Joy Edwards, pictured right, with ‘The Journey’, about a childhood steam train trip – my kinda poem. She revealed that she had first read three years ago at the Puzzle Hall Inn, home of the Puzzle Poets until quite recently, at Freda’s urging. I remember Joy at an evening of railway poetry at Sowerby Bridge refreshment rooms, which was her second public reading.
Ross Kightly is an exuberant Australian and a former teacher, who read from his sprawling, ever-expanding epic ‘Locale’, which is flavoured with surreal, zany humour, and another poem, ‘In Tesco’, that featured Nigel Farage. (Who was he?)
But it was Stephanie Blythe, pictured left, in particular that captured the heart of compere John Foggin, who makes assiduous notes in a beautiful hand as each poet reads, so that he can make detailed comments afterwards. Stephanie’s hilarious update of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ had him entranced, so much so that it has since featured on his weekly blog, the great fogginzo’s cobweb.
Geoff Winde, accompanying himself on the guitar, performed from his show Money is as Innocent as the Gun, while Andy Smith read a couple of poems inspired by poet Gaia Holmes’s Igniting the Spark creative writing workshops that several Puzzlers are known to attend in nearby Halifax.
Anthony Costello is co-editor of the online quarterly poetry magazine The High Window, and also comperes Todmorden’s regular spoken word night Kultura, which includes poetry lectures. It may be pure coincidence, but until recently he hadn’t written a poem for about 18 months, he revealed at the Blind Pig. He also recalled taking part in a poem-a-day challenge with two Americans: “The moment I gave up and said, ‘I can’t do this’, then a poem came, and it ended up getting published.” His poems included 'Dad's Feet': "I showed it to my mum, thinking it was quite poignant, and she was doubled up in laughter."
It was a big week for Bob Horne, pictured left. The following night he was launching his own collection, Knowing My Place, at Brighouse library. At the Blind Pig he had a copy of the book: “I’ve never before read from a collection of mine before an audience, so this is a proud moment.” Bob read ‘Navvy’ (“Killed by winter, disease and drink, / Killed by landslips, killed by the wind”), and ‘Suitcase’, about the treasures to be found when clearing a house. At the start of this year Bob also launched his small poetry press Calder Valley Poetry, which has already published four pamphlet collections.
John Foggin is a serial poetry prize winner, has published several pamphlets, and he too will soon be publishing his first full collection. His poems including a particularly arresting one, ‘Taken by the Tide’, concerning a saint who died out on an isolated rock in the Atlantic, with gulls and fulmars nesting “in the cloister of her ribs”. Freda Davis, pictured right, provided the evening’s finale with her politically rousing ‘The Entropy Song’: “It’s all a massive Ponzi scheme / to rob the future of its dreams.” This proved to be another John Foggin favourite.
How did such a successful open mic night begin - and what happened along the way? Freda Davis tells the story: "Puzzle Poets began in 1995 when Jill Barker decided that Sowerby Bridge needed a touch of culture. The Puzzle Hall Inn had always been a friendly, community pub, full of live music and water gypsies. For several years Jill compered the event, and poets emerged from the shadows and strutted their stuff, me included. Poetry has its high times and low times, and in the early 2000s the poets outnumbered the audience. Eventually musicians took over the slot for a while, but when Phil took over as landlord the poetry was once again established and the rise of Write Out Loud nights in nearby towns helped to build a poetry community.
"Gaia Holmes and Sean Bamforth shared the compering with me, and we began a new format with guest poets and then the open mic, which continues to this day, bringing a wide range of successful and published poets to our town, and inspiring local writers to think big. Two or three years ago Gaia got too busy, so John Foggin and Bob Horne agreed to compere, and once again the Puzzle flourishes. Sadly the Puzzle Hall Inn has been closed down, but Julie gave us a welcome at the Blind Pig, so we have moved to our glitzy new venue and on we go."
Last week I was privileged to be the guest poet, and was very grateful for the warm and generous welcome and reception I received at the Puzzle Poets, especially from Ross, who seized upon my Trainspotters pamphlet with gratifying enthusiasm. And I got to put my name on the Puzzle banner, too! I was standing in for the unwell Helen Burke, who hopefully will be able to read to the Puzzle Poets – if not necessarily at the Blind Pig, on account of the spiral stairs – at some time in the future. Get well soon, Helen.
The guests at Puzzle Poets represent an eclectic mix of page and performance. Next up is Wakefield’s marvellous Jimmy Andrex, on Monday 1 August, who has a poem called ‘Normanton is made of dying stars’.