World-class spoken word showcase at Hay Festival 2018

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Question: How can you see a huge variety of world-class spoken word events in different venues all on the same day?  Answer: Take a trip out to the Hay Festival.

In just one day, at this two-week festival I saw MOBO award-winning poet and musician Akala talk about both Homer’s Odyssey and British race and class issues. I heard specially commissioned Poetic responses to Gustav Klimt from Jo Brandon, Aviva Dautch and Shazea Quraishi, felt the power of the inspirational Last Poets from the USA and laughed and cheered along to the fabulous Benjamin Zephaniah.

Akala has been making a name for himself with his own particular style for many years now.  Outspoken political commentator and founder of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, the artist, writer and straightforward thinker is simply one of the most informed, engaging and fearless speakers one might wish to encounter.  With a huge and superlatively diverse body of work, he was hosted at two events at Hay. Firstly being interviewed by the BBC’s Director of Arts Jonty Claypole about his recent documentary on Homer’s Odyssey and a little later speaking at fascinating length about the motives and issues that guided the creation of his memoir Natives. in this he speaks directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class.  Akala’s childhood experiences guided him into highly creative circles from a very young age as his father worked in professional theatre.  Since then his career has progressed at speed in line with his immense talent, clear intelligence and confident ability to express himself. His understanding of his cultural origins in relation to modern Britain has made him superbly placed to speak out on behalf of a society tied up in restrictive knots over race, age and class.

Three paintings by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt were the inspiration behind the Poetic Responses from three poets who read their work and then discussed their processes during a fascinating session and audience Q&A.  Commissioned by the Bradford Literary Festival to mark the centenary of Klimt’s death, the event began with celebrated poet, playwright and translator Shazea Quraishi’s response to Klimt’s The Kiss which ranged quite musically through different form and content.  Next, the award-winning poet Aviva Dautch raised emotions with her response to The Embrace, before speaking about her own initial reluctance to engage with the painting. Finally, former Development Writer in Residence at West Yorkshire Playhouse Jo Brandon gave a moving and highly personalised response to Klimt’s The Three Ages of Woman.

The jewel in this crown of spoken word performance at Hay was the chance to see, listen and speak to The Last Poets, who formed in the US in the late 1960’s and are so called because they believed themselves to be the last poets of their era before guns took over.  Original members Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan appeared with relative newcomer to the group Don Babatunde. Also present was Dutch author Christine Otten, who has befriended the group over several years and has now written a book about their story. 

Often referred to as the grandfathers of the world’s entire hip-hop movement, The Last Poets’ seamless drifting in and out of poetry, rhythms and musical vocals was a truly breath-taking display of the power of the spoken word.

A late but thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable finish to the day came in the form of an hour in the company of Benjamin Zephaniah, whose gig I have previously reviewed here.

Hay-on-Wye is itself a fascinating and charming little town to visit particularly for the fan, collector or connoisseur of second-hand books. But the addition of the world-renowned Hay Festival each May makes for an irresistible draw, with fascinating events, household names and creative delights in absolute abundance.  Former US President Bill Clinton was here a few years ago and described the Hay Festival as "the Woodstock of the mind".  The whole thing is extremely well run, all protected from the rain and has proper facilities... yet still manages to capture quite perfectly that festival spirit of fresh-cut grass, ice creams and muddy car parks.  See you there next year!


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