Fading spring light still clung to the evening hour through the haze of light drizzle as April’s instalment of Bilston Voices commenced . The usual, strong , crowd assembled early for coffee and cake before sampling the main course of the evening’s entertainment for one of the more diverse bills of a fine 2012 programme which was to culminate in a reading by award winning poet Liz Lefroy.
Storytelling commenced proceedings with Iris Rose remembering her four weddings (without a funeral) as a bridesmaid. Iris bears an uncanny resemblance to Sky News anchorwoman Kay Burley, but her roots were emphatically Black Country and not media luvvie. It was a leisurely stroll through schooldays of apple scrumping, wheelbarrow rides and British Rail services which ran on time, a journey the appreciative audience were happy to climb on board for.
Spoken Word at the Hollybush Public House in Cradley Heath is another regular Black Country night out. Veteran Richard Bruce Clay has recently handed over the reins of organising the event to tenderfoot Jack Edwards who tonight was performing, rather than cheerleading. Young, ebullient and full of ideas, he is unashamedly a performance poet. His opening trio of January Sales/ I’m a Rock Star/Health & Safety were the poetic equivalent of a fast bowler in cricket bowling his opening over, effective, exploratory and testing the reaction of what was opposite to him. By the time he had delivered his closing salvo of Supply Teachers Guide/Fair Trade / Sorry he was regularly taking wickets. Supply Teacher evoked gales of laughter, and Fair Trade is probably his best poem. Sorry which he closed with, whilst good, worked better as an opener when I saw him perform it recently in Kidderminster, underscoring how sensitive poems are to their position in a running order.
Octogenarian Win Saha ,closed the first half with poetry that was neither sentimental nor retrospective in tone, drawing instead on the past to illuminate the present. Vulnerable Man, about the effect of the recession, could have been written in the 1930’s or 1970’s, but packed a contemporary punch, Consolation Prize was a saucy take on internet dating, whilst Rain Dance was demonstrably effective as the pavements outside glistened with the results of a timely April shower. Win and Jack proved with their first half sets the adage “if you are good enough you are old enough,” from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Win’s collection, Win’s Top Thirty is available from Offa’s Press.
After the interval Roger Jones split his performance between four poems and a reminiscence of his first day at Secondary School in 1948. Anyone lamenting declining standards of behaviour in schools now would have been shocked by the chaos of teacher assault and vandalism that confronted Roger on his first day. Yet it was his shortest piece, Simian , a poem about a black man who was admitted to the same hospital ward as him, then died, over half a century ago, that stood out for me.
Headlining the evening was Liz Lefroy, from Shrewsbury, whose debut pamphlet, Pretending the Weather won the prestigious Roy Fisher prize in 2011. Her latest pamphlet, The Gathering, had been delivered by the printers that very morning, affording her the opportunity to offer Bilston a world premier performance of some extracts!
Her tall frame gives her a commanding presence which combines with her measured mellifluous delivery to create calm and confidence. She picked up on the nostalgic thread which had run through some previous performances on the night to introduce her first poem, Archaeology. In it, she draws parallels between the work of archaeologists who attempt to piece together physical fragments of the past, and poets who seek to create poems by searching for fragments of memory. By so doing, both strive to make sense of the present. It was a compelling and powerful analogy.
Liz is engagingly eclectic in her choice of subject matter. Poems about childhood risk being intensely personal with little reach beyond the author, but not in her skilled hands. In her Episodes sequence she wrote of her mother; ”Once you let us find you stripped down to your tears,” the silence in the room cried out in recognition.
Her language is economic, precise and compassionate. In Roadside Shrine she opens with, “I pass your death each morning.” Gratuitous grandiloquence is no pitfall for her. As an aside she revealed that she is a vicar’s daughter. Her writing , as if by osmosis, combines the clergyman’s oratorical skills of sensitivity and candour. The liturgical awareness which surrounded her upbringing is explored in the exact, lyrical words of The Gathering , which also has a musical arrangement, from which she read The New Testament Reading/The Creed. The tradition of setting devotional poetry to music has a rich tradition, most successfully practised by Christina Rossetti – Liz is in fine company! Determined not to leave the audience with too serious an impression of her, she delighted and entertained also with Sunday Gifts about ladies’ underwear, and the self deprecating Gender Reassignment, before closing with a cautionary tale of the tensions between prose and poetry writers which struck a chord with all.
Bilston Voices once again succeeded in its mission of providing a platform for distinguished performers with a national reputation whilst also providing a platform for local talent.It meets again on Thursday 24th May.
Gary Longden 26/4/12