I have always enjoyed poetry but never been in the habit of actively consuming it. I’ve followed the likes of Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest for a while and love their work, but haven’t really sought out poetry to read. I’ve only started to do so since receiving Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey for my birthday last year, which lit a fire in my belly.
So when I saw a few months ago that Hollie McNish was performing in Bristol in April, despite having never been to a poetry performance before, I booked tickets straight away (it was only £7 per ticket which is astonishing given the talent of the performers). I was joined by my friend Katie, who had never been to a poetry performance either, but was suitably intrigued.
The event was organised by Milk Poetry, a local poetry/ spoken word group. I didn’t catch the organiser’s full name – I think her first name was Malika (edit: have since found out her name is Malaika Kegode – hi Malaika!) – but she was the compère for the evening and despite being a bit ill and heavily medicated, she was good fun.
It took place in the Tobacco Factory theatre in Southville, Bristol. On the whole I love the Tobacco Factory but in visiting last night, I discovered certain things about it that disappointed me (more on this in a separate post, as I don’t want anything to detract from how awesome Milk Poetry was).
Hollie McNish was the headline act for the evening, and supporting her were Inua Ellams, Eve Piper, Amy León and Chris White. I have nothing bad to say about any of the performers: they were all incredible.
Up first was Inua Ellams, who is a poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer (according to his website). He asked the audience to contribute random words, and then he would search his iPad (which contained all of his poetry) for poems which matched the criteria. I loved that idea – it was great fun! Among the words suggested were ‘tunnel’, ‘peaches’, and, inevitably, ‘sex’. He has a rhythmic and beautiful way of reading, made all the lovelier by the Nigerian lilt in his accent. His stage presence was fantastic and I loved hearing his varied and profound poems, particularly about his background and life in multicultural London.
Next was Eve Piper, who is studying in Bristol I believe. She is less established and less confident than Inua (and indeed the acts that followed her), but brilliant nonetheless. One poem that particularly spoke to me was called The Wrote-Offs (I think, but I might have that name wrong), which was about the kids who are written off in school, and left to rot away in bottom sets with no one seeing their potential. I went to the same type of comprehensive school as Eve, where all the students were allocated into sets based on perceived academic intelligence. I remember always feeling annoyed that we were defined based on the results of totally arbitrary exams. In particular, I remember that so many of the kids allocated to ‘bottom sets’ were intelligent in different ways – in sport, comedy, and performance for example. I also identified with Eve’s poem in a different way – it reminded me how being sorted into the ‘top sets’ and always being told I should go to University and pursue academia actually broke me in its own way. It meant that I expected life to be handed to me on a plate; that I would go to University and afterwards I would get a good job and have a stable income. But life doesn’t work out that way. Finding that out was hard.
Next up was Amy León who was actually the stand-out act of the evening for me. Her performance brought me to tears – I’ve never been so moved by a spoken word performance. She also did some a capella singing, and that VOICE! Such power. Her stage presence is like nothing I have EVER seen; she practically shone from the stage. I lost all sense of time in watching and listening to her. She spoke about race, self-care, gender, politics and so much more. Her ideas were cloaked in beautiful metaphors, and spoken with unapologetic confidence and self-love. She mentioned not neglecting your self-care/ losing yourself in pursuing your art, which is something that meant a lot to me (more on that shortly). I was especially moved by one particular piece – unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it – I think was written for an event at which Trayvon Martin’s mother was present. In the piece she explored blackness, and used looping to build up the volume and intensity over the piece. It reminded me of how it feels when you have a thousand conflicting thoughts in your head all at once and you entirely lose all sense of yourself. As a white woman, I obviously can’t properly know and haven’t experienced the black identity she explored but I was truly blown away and my eyes fill up just thinking about the poem. I can’t recommend Amy highly enough – please go and check her out.
After Amy’s performance there was an interval, and Katie and I came out of it feeling a bit like deers in headlights – what can you say after a performance like that? It felt like we were emerging from a different plane of existence. We went over to Amy’s merch stand and I unashamedly declared my love for her. She gave me a hug and called me beautiful and I felt embarrassingly awestruck. I bought one of her t-shirts, which says ‘how easily a body can make a body feel like a garden’. It took me a minute to process what it meant, but once I got it I couldn’t not have one. I am the worst for self-care. I neglect myself at every given opportunity. I never quite learned how to look after myself, and am only learning that skill now, very slowly. The t-shirt felt like a gentle and loving reminder. I asked Amy to sign it, and she asked me to take a photo of myself wearing it and tag her in it on social media (I’ll get round to this eventually…). I also asked her how she found the confidence to express her voice because this something else I struggle with on a daily basis. She explained that she’s been writing and performing poetry since the age of 14 and it has helped her to express and open up dialogue about abuse and so much more; that in performing poetry she is inviting people to have conversations with her about important issues that affect us all. I couldn’t agree more.
After the interval was Chris White and a DEFINITE change of mood! He was absolutely hilarious. His faux-awkward persona was very well executed and I loved the surrealism of his poems. He did a long piece about showers, followed by a guide of steps to follow when you have an ant infestation (which takes some twists you definitely weren’t expecting). I cried with laughter at that piece. Definitely check him out if you want a good laugh.
Finally, we had Hollie McNish who was our headliner. As ever, she was wonderful. I will say this, though: her latest book is about parenthood, and that’s what the whole performance was based on. It definitely alienated Katie and I a bit as it’s not something we can empathise with. It’s quite audience-specific, and if you don’t have kids, you can kind of switch off a bit. That said, there are still things in her pieces that apply to everyone and her readings didn’t disappoint. I love her voice, her words, her presence. Her exploration of issues such as breastfeeding and women’s bodies and their social roles was spot-on. She manages to articulate so much that I wish I could. She also has a wicked sense of humour, and I spent most of her performance nodding in agreement and laughing.
After the performance we went out into the foyer and queued to meet Hollie and buy her book. I bought Cherry Pie and Katie bought Nobody Told Me. Despite knowing nothing about me, Hollie signed my book with a message that said ‘Dear Charlotte, here’s to each fresh sun’ which is the best possible thing she could have written, whilst I struggle with a relapse of my anxiety and depression. We also had a great chat with her – I compared our freckles (she’s the only person I know who has as many freckles as me!), we talked about how our mums are nurses, and I asked her the same question I’d asked Amy about finding the confidence to express herself. As it happens, Hollie’s entry into the world of poetry was kind of by accident/ chance and it just kind of went from there. Hollie is adorable and funny and the kind of person I would love to be friends with in ‘real life’.
After that I was tempted to go back for another chat with Amy because I loved her so much, but I had nothing in particular to say and felt like if I went over I would just ramble nonsense at her so I decided to leave her alone. Ha. She’s another person I would love to be friends with.
All in all, it was an absolutely amazing night and I am genuinely considering going to Milk Poetry’s local monthly meet-ups and doing a bit of open-mic myself. Katie was similarly inspired, so I’m hoping poetry becomes more of a constant in my life from now on.