Bohdan Piesecki has been personally responsible for shifting the profile of Birmingham’s poetry scene up several gears with his monthly “Hit the Ode” series at the Victoria Public house in the past year. Tonight, he went still further , assembling seven poets from across Europe to entertain a large audience for this special event in conjunction with the Birmingham Book Festival and several other national and international Arts sponsors.. The format was innovative. The seven poets were to perform, in English or their native tongue, be scored on the roll of a dice, with a panel of expert judges on hand to entertain and justify the scores.
The setting was new, and exciting. Fazeley Studios is a refurbished and newly created space, the new home of Ikon Eastside, stylish, airy with a pleasingly louche ambience. For the evening to work, the judging panel needed to have been chosen wisely, and Bohdan had done just that. Jonathan Davidson has been a key figure in regional and national literature circles for many years, Kim Trusty is a Canadian writer based in Birmingham, and Professor Luke Kennard a spectacularly successful , and supremely talented, Birmingham University academic, poet and playwright. Jonathan offered sage observations, Kim was a paragon of common sense, whilst Luke invoked the wisdom of bacchanalia with a fine line of wit which kept the audience entertained throughout. Responding to playful suggestions that his generous offer of wine and pizza to audience members (who were later to vote for best judge) might amount to unfair influence, he acknowledged that, “mistakes have been made,” with a sincerity that another Doctor, Doctor Fox, might be wise to emulate!
First to perform was Swede, Henry Bower. A renowned hip-hop artist in his homeland, Henry’s long hair and beard was reminiscent both of Rasputin and ZZ Top, although he said that he was often mistaken for either a terrorist, or Santa Claus! Dog food was a marvellous existentialist journey about many things, but not dog food. I Like Darkness was playfully psychopathic. It was a strong and confident start to the evening performed in English.
Bernard Christiansen, from the Netherlands, claims to have invented the Dice Slam format and instantly changed poetic tack. His set was delivered in Dutch, with English subtitles by Anna Arov. Quirky, offbeat, combining the surreal and absurd , his style initially caught the audience off-guard, and then delighted them as they caught on to what he was about. If David Lynch did poetry, this is what he would be writing. If the juxtaposition of conductors and buckets, camels and job opportunities, and beetroots and sisters intrigues you – Bernard is your man.
For England, from Brixton London, Indigo Williams stepped up to fly the flag in an impassioned set. Call Me By My Name was a fantastic piece on identity, spiky but beautiful ,and lyrical as well, the latter traits of which also shone in Shadows and Bricks. A very strong performer she dispensed with a microphone and enthralled the audience. My only reservation was that the powerful opener Statistics ,about human stereotypes, itself lurched into stereotype.
After the interval Biru from Portugal gave an emotional performance, in Portuguese ,but with English subtitles, focusing on the plight of the homeless with On the Road of Life and Please Mend My Heart. Bold and tender, it was poetry which echoed the sentiments of early 20tth Century American Bluesmen. In 2007, Grzegorz Bruszewski was 26th on a list of the fifty most culturally active Warsaw citizens. Tonight he represented Poland is some style, touching on the five senses and the joys of jazz before offering a tribute to Miron Białoszewski, the distinguished Polish poet and literary figure. His question ,“ why is minimalism such a long word ? ” was the best one-liner of the night.
During the interval I spotted the hunched figure of a young woman who was obviously due to perform .“Nervous?” I asked, “Yes” she confided. Yet once Abby Oliveira , from Derry Northern Ireland, bounded onstage, you would never have guessed. She delivered a blinding set of commitment and brio. Priestess, about urban deprivation was delivered with evangelical zeal, Signs was no less political. Her energy , sincerity and linguistic dexterity was an immediate hit with the audience, the enthusiastic applause fitting for a fine performer and performance.
To close proceedings Bas Boettcher from Germany took to the stage. Babylon 2.8 warned of the global power of the likes of Google, whilst Flower Blossom was a wry, and very funny romp through the way that flower blossom images have been commandeered for a wide range of seemingly unsuitable purposes. With classic Teutonic efficiency, he took control of the computer delivering images and translation himself , the technology of which was very powerful with, In the Loop a rewarding fresh take on the familiar theme of the predictable monotony of life.
One of the joys of multi-lingual performance , the ambiguity of language, was evident in Boettcher’s final Believing in it, which was a cautionary tale about believing in anything too much, because the German word for believing can also mean to die. His content was the strongest and most varied of the night, his unassuming air as he finished surely came from the confidence of a man thinking , “veni, vidi,vici”.
The night concluded with the audience voting Jonathan Davidson the judge of the night, the arbitrary roll of the dice which awarded an individual score for each performer was forgotten, and served only to provide a platform for the judging panel to delight, entertain and impress with their observations. This gave the denouement to proceedings a slightly unbalanced feel as the enthusiastic audience would I think have relished the opportunity of crowning their favourite poet on the night, mindful of the distance and effort that they had put in to attend, but no doubt this wrinkle will be ironed out as the format develops.
Such was the artistic success, and audience turn out, that hopefully this will become a regular feature of the Birmingham Book Festival week.” Hit the Ode” returns to the Victoria PH on 27/10 and 24/11 with Dizzylez/ Tshaka Campbell and Matt Harvey/ Joe Coghlan respectively .