One of the only downsides of being amongst a very few reviewers of Midlands poetry is that my own performance is rarely commented upon. I am grateful to Liz Lefroy for giving her time in this regard on the occasion when my myself, and David Calcutt, visited Shrewsbury. She reports as follows:
I like living in Shrewsbury, and I like it more since The Shrewsbury Coffeehouse opened. As well as being an excellent café and meeting place, it provides a venue for music and words on a scale which feels democratic and authentic.
The Coffeehouse is located on busy Castle Gates, reported in 2011 as having some of the worst air quality in the country. This is surprising in some ways, as the town, with its medieval and black and white buildings, looping river and self-claimed subtitle: ‘Town of Flowers’, has the feel of a place with kinder air.
On Thursday night, the audience for the monthly Coffeehouse Poetry evening was treated to fine performances from Gary Longden and David Calcutt. It was only the ninth event in what has become a feature of the West Midlands / Borders poetry calendar and it was good to see newcomers in the audience as well as regulars.
Gary, who travelled from Birmingham, opened the evening in style with his unabashed poem, ‘Adultery’ which toys with our expectations and nervousness, describing changes in behaviour which arouse a partner’s suspicions. And the cause? The narrator’s obsessive attendance at poetry readings. I suspect that there is a strong autobiographical element to this poem – Gary’s numerous reviews of poetry events across the Midlands is evidence of his not-so-secret and generous devotion. And he showed the necessary charm, acknowledging both audience and venue by featuring the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse as the backdrop for his next poem, The Moment.
Playfulness was a constant in Gary’s energetic set, delivered with a confidence which enabled the audience to relax and enjoy the words and (often double) meanings. His is a playfulness with a sharply witty edge – the vibrant Dead Pop Stars laments that ‘Rock and Roll death is not what it used to be’ and Going through the Wardrobe was nothing to do with Narnia, but everything to do with all the stereotypes linked to female insecurities about appearance. Whilst my inner feminist was stamping her feet, my outer woman was laughing in recognition as the pile of disappointing, and therefore discarded, clothes grew. And this is one of Gary’s skills – to show us the common ground of assumptions and then to take us beyond them to make us recognise some other truth. This is the case with his more serious poems as well. A particular favourite for me was Loose Change, a tribute to coinage pre-decimalisation, when tanners, farthings and half crowns were ‘always a name, never a number.’ Gary rightly observes that our new coins have acquired no such names.
In all, then, a set which showed a poet with an exceptional range, from beautiful and haunted lines – ‘sometimes swifts lean their heads to listen to the rising tide’ – to the downright colloquial but immaculately placed ‘Say cheese!’ in At the Charles Cotton Hotel. From ironic (I hope it was ironic …) confessions about a crush on Rebekah Brooks, to the sensitive exploration of the language of serious illness, all was delivered at pace and on time.
After the break, David Calcutt took the stage – which is interesting, because there is no stage to take. Unusually, and completely successfully, he began his set sitting down, and performed initially from memory. The Coffeehouse was busy, and in addition to street noises, the sound of cups and chatter from upstairs was a background reality. David created a sense of calm and intensity, a cocoon-like pod of drama. Like Gary, he made the audience feel utterly confident in his performance, and any unsettling occurred through the power of his words. Simile and metaphor leapt into the room as ‘the sun rose like the barrel of a gun’. We were there in woods with him, could visualise Dead Badgers, ‘each one a nail driven flush into my head’. David’s pamphlet Road Kill, co-written with Nadia Kingsley and published by Fair Acre Press, which Nadia runs, is out in December, and I am looking forward to reading these poems, and more.
Next came two poems inspired by works in Walsall Art Gallery: The Enchanted Forest and Broken Children. The forest has ‘no way in except, perhaps, through the soul’s enchanted eye.’ Poems inspired by other works of art can be difficult to appreciate without the visual image that prompted them, but not in this case. These are stand alone works but nonetheless have made me resolve to make a long overdue visit to the gallery.
David is a playwright, novelist and poet, and has a strong list of publications for young people including Crowboy, Shadowbringer and The Map of Marvels, all published by OUP. His work is powerful and mystical, full of sharp imagery and quick-as-a-flash moments that touch something deeper. David’s view of his work is that its seriousness is best expressed in free verse, and he is right, but the audience enjoyed a poem written the day before which uses rhyme entirely successfully. In contrast to the lighter mood evoked by rhyme was the beautifully wrought She is Trying to Get back to What She Was. Full of strength and stark imagery, not a word is wasted, nothing is easy or explained away; David’s technical skills are impressive.
A consummate performer, David entertained us with two speeches from a recent production of Robin Hood, a script which captures the tradition of Mummers plays but with a contemporary and West Midlands twist. Also produced with a flourish was Sister Dora’s speech from The Alchemist and the Devil, the second of the Bayard’s Colts Mummers Plays for Walsall, due to be performed in the town centre on Saturday 17th November.
Thanks to Gary and David for an enjoyable and inspiring evening – we hope to welcome them back to The Coffeehouse soon.
Next month, Thursday 11th October, is an open mic (slots are currently full, but if you’d like to put your name on the reserve list, or to read in future, please email Liz Lefroy firstname.lastname@example.org). The following month on Thursday 1st November we welcome Emma Purshouse. 7.30 for 7.45pm.
Liz Lefroy teaches at Glyndwr University, Wrexham, where she is a Senior Lecturer in Social Care. She has had two poetry pamphlets published,Pretending the Weather in 2011 , The Gathering in 2012, and won the 2011 Roy Fisher Prize for poetry.