This was the inaugural evening of what is to be a monthly event which Behind the Arras was pleased to support. Normally to be an open mic, the first evening was launched by Liz Lefroy and Vuyelwa Carwin. Although Shropshire is quite well served by storytelling evenings, poetry hitherto has been a little thinner on the ground. Wilfred Owen is a past resident, so a resurrection of the poetic tradition in the town is not before time.
The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse itself is a good venue, centrally situated in Castle Gates by the castle with car parks a short walk away. It is licensed as well as selling the usual range of coffee, teas and cakes with a rustic, welcoming ambience offering a good reception facility. The poetry itself is held downstairs in a dedicated room, accessible but private, as the upstairs still functions normally whilst the poetry takes place downstairs.
Liz Lefroy lead the evening in some style. She lectures in Social Care at Glyndwr University in Wrexham. Her pamphlet Pretending the Weather ,published by Long Face Press, won the Roy Fisher Prize for Poetry and is endorsed by both Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke. Although she lives in Shrewsbury she is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Keele University. She opened the evening by commenting on the recent Geoffrey Hill v Carol Ann Duffy spat, tactfully opining that Poets were not renowned for being team players whilst also praising the qualities of Mills and Boon writing, which lead nicely into an airing for her freshly composed Team Players upon which the ink had barely dried that day.
I had travelled specifically to hear Liz and was not disappointed. The School Concert was a beautiful hymn to her son, Leaving told of the familiar desire in all of us sometimes to run away from work, My Ambiguous Relationship with Rain her tour de force. A strong spoken performer of her own work, her writing is economic and stylish, accessible but clever. She read nothing from her prize winning pamphlet which is a testament to the depth of her portfolio, and a treat yet to come.
The headlining poet was Vuyelwa Carlin who was born in South Africa,, brought up in Uganda, and has lived for many years now in Shropshire – Vuyelwa means ‘rejoicing at the birth of a girl’ in Xhosa . Her poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in the UK and abroad. She has published four poetry collections to date and has won prizes in both the Cardiff and National Poetry Competitions. She is also a Hawthornden Fellow.Her publications include; How We Dream of the Dead, Marble Sky, Midas’ Daughter and The Solitary , published by Impress Books. The past five years she has worked as a carer in an Elderly Mentally Infirm unit, inspiring her opening poems about patients with dementia, which she writes with love and affection. Thereafter, she took in a sequence on the Holocaust and her own family relationships.
Poetry and Plaques was the strongest of her dementia sequence, which always referenced her patient’s first names, cementing the identity which they themselves were losing. Namirembe Cathedral ,the red brick cathedral in Kampala, she dedicated to David Cato the murdered Ugandan gay rights activist. The poem itself was as strong as the diatribe she offered on the regressive Ugandan regime aided and abetted by a fundamentalist church element. It offered a strong sense of place and I would have liked to have heard more of her work set in Africa. That immediacy and sense of being there was noticeably, and inevitably stronger, than her Holocaust pieces . In the latter she was fond of using biblical epigraphs, to mixed effect. On the one hand they offered solemnity by historical association, but on the other they softened the impact of the message.
Her strength lies in her ability to offer powerful glimpse into her subjects. Of Ellen she quoted: “ I wish I could be a little girl again, I wish I could go back in time.” Of Mary, a beleaguered centenarian, she observed: “She would have liked to have gone earlier, but didn’t know how to.”
The next Poetry Evening at the Shrewsbury Coffee House is on Thursday 1/3/12.
Gary Longden 2/2/12