Summer finally arrived on a sweltering Black Country evening as the poetry faithful gathered for another instalment of Emma Purshouse’s Bilston Voices. Emma is something of a poetry evening alchemist, throwing together a disparate concoction of poets, and invariably coming up with something special. Tonight was no exception.
Making her Bilston Voices debut was Michelle Crosbie whom I have caught perform twice previously. As before, she did not disappoint. I believe that from the moment that a poet decides that rather than simply read their work to themselves, they want to read it to others, they have a duty to present and perform it in a way that connects with their audience. Michelle understands this perfectly. She consciously played to every corner of the room by eye contact and gesture, modulating her voice for effect. She introduced her work informatively, whilst never dulling the pleasure of what was to follow. Oh Dark Pilot Whales was a beautiful hymn to a stranded pod off Scotland ,drawing on Norse and Icelandic legend to beguiling effect, Fireworks of Love a dramatic playful performance piece. However this time it was Swifts that caught my ear, with a particularly striking simile of swifts as fighter planes. Warmly received by an appreciative audience , I hope that Michelle will take this success as a spur to perform more regularly, and more widely.
Writing groups and workshops can be invaluable for nurturing the skills of budding writers and Brian Titton, who followed Michelle, drew upon that experience to perform a diverse range of poems. Fresh from leading some groups herself earlier on in the day ,Jane James stepped in at a few hours notice to cover for an indisposed reader. I really enjoy listening to Jane perform. She opened with a prose piece, A Very Guilty Pleasure about the anguish of the chocoholic. Her dry laconic words belied a very funny, and well delivered, performance piece. Yet it is her versatility that amazes; a poignant tribute to a lost parent, an ode to the joys of salmon fishing, a fisherman’s prayer, an environmental tirade in Don’t and a spiky slam poem Not A lot to Ask are all handled with panache and aplomb. And just as some women have the unerring knack of always having something in their handbag for any eventuality, so Jane seemingly has a poem for every occasion.
After the break Paul Francis appeared , a retired comprehensive school teacher with a meticulous and well crafted approach to his poetry. He opened with his strongest poem, Surveillance ,which won a national competition resulting in its permanent display on the side of a bus driving around Guernsey. Its qualities were immediately apparent as were those included in his Olympians collection in anticipation of the forthcoming London Olympics.
It is a truism that the most talented writers are invariably the most modest, this is certainly true of Paul McDonald, of whom I had previously known nothing. Yet as soon as he opened with Shakespeare’s Barred my poetic antennae twitched, here was no ordinary poet. Funny, sharp, economic and engaging in his writing, warm in his disposition he grabbed my attention from the start, and never relaxed his grip till he finished. Upon researching his biography, this comes as no surprise.
Paul was born in Walsall and is an academic, comic novelist, and poet. He teaches English and American Literature at the University of Wolverhampton, where he also runs the Creative and Professional Writing Programme. He left school to work as a saddlemaker, an occupation that provides the backdrop for his first novel, Surviving Sting (2001).After a period studying with the Open University, McDonald entered fulltime education at Birmingham Polytechnic where he began writing fiction, initially producing stories for the women’s romance market under a female pseudonym. He later won a scholarship to research a PhD, and in 1994 took an academic post teaching American literature at the University of Wolverhampton. His second novel, Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle (2004) is a comic mystery satirising the Midlands town of Walsall while his third, Do I Love You? (2008), takes Northern Soul as its theme.
His poetry began appearing in the early 1990s and embraces a range of themes and styles. Again humour is a feature, as is surrealism, but he also writes serious love poetry, and verse about art and travel. His most recent collections are Catch a Falling Tortoise (2007) and An Artist Goes Bananas (2012). As a humour specialist, he has made several TV appearances, including BBC Breakfast and The One Show, and he is credited with identifying the oldest joke in the world.
Those impressive credentials were evident in everything he performed, each poem couched in a witty self -effacing aside . His modest journey into adulthood was referenced in Real Men from his time as a saddlemaker, his current position amongst the literati providing the perspective for An Author Obsessed with the Hay on Wye Festival. Next time he will not be able to sneak in unnoticed! A tremendous and hugely enjoyable set.
Bilston Voices next meets Thursday, 28th June at 7.30pm.