Event Report: All Aboard the Southampton Showboat!

Festival organiser Charlie Hislop coined the phrase ‘the cream of Southampton’s spoken word scene’ for yesterday’s Southampton Showboat; it’s a great line. But as it turned out, this spoken word night was about more than the cream, it was the sprinkles and Malteasers on the top, finished off with a perfect Flake like the best Cadburys bars… or something decidedly more British.

Hosted by Southampton Festival’s Artful Scribe, Matt West, the show took place at The Stage Door, a small venue with a distinct cabaret theme; more than simply the table set up, the theatre is resplendent with golden chairs (with red seats), festooned by a large tasselled curtain, and wallpapered with photographs of famous film, stage, and music stars of the last century. And it was packed.

Susmita Bhattacharya’s poem about the partition of India was superb. “She learns to keep the past hidden in the cracks and bends / She writes poems… But there is promise in her grand children’s tears / That they will not forget.” Duncan Green’s poem was about the way people talk about his body, his weight was a worthy follow-up. The poet took his top off to show us the context – his thin appearance. “If I’m skinny all my life, what will be will be.” The applause resounded, and it started up again after Deborah Gerring’s poems about life for women in the medieval period.

Introducing his own poem, from his anthology Seagulls and Spitfires, Matt West pointed out that the plane was created in Southampton, and mentioned the irony that it was responsible for a lot of destruction of the city. “Your projectiles would conquer the air / Protecting your name through time.”

Jayne Ede, quick spoken, very funny, performed a play about her chicken. The ingenious poet made her mark on the evening with fabulous lines – “My pet chicken is a dinosaur […] She is descended from some fellas who would tear off your head.”

The first of the Festival’s commissioned poets to take to the stage, Matt L T Smith read his 20 minute poem, a piece called Cigarettes focused on the theme of Changing Times. “My house smelt like sweat / like this is my house, my wife, my kids.” One of the ending lines was this gem in the context of a piano, “poaching the ivorys from my finger tips”.

Mo Foster followed. Then came Nazneen Ahmed, Southampton Libraries’ Writer in Residence and now a novelist with a completed début on her desk: “Some days England has no colour of its own / What a blessing it is that some people bring the colour with them.”

UK Anti-Slam champion and National Hammer & Tongue finalist Stewart Taylor brought physical activity into his performance, used onomatopoeias and a lot of clear perfect-on-the-surface imagery. Then came Issa Loyaan Farrah, the tall poet who made Matt West’s life easier when he pulled the microphone off the small stand used his quick, clever, multiple-rhymes-per-line, half-singing some and speaking the others. And National Flash Fiction Day Director, Calum Kerr, spoke of the edge of our city, “The Southampton docks drew closer and closer… They weren’t lined with well-wishers, but it didn’t matter, she was home.”

The penultimate performer, Dae Fletcher, describes themselves as ‘a performance poet from Southampton who is a bit of a mess really’. Transcending taboos, their poetry is filled with incredible hard-hitting truths about living with disability, identity, and being happy in themselves. We could quote many lines, but these stood out in particular: “I make jokes about my joints / They get out more than I do […] Ableism is proving to be the hardest internalisation to beat”.

In a 20 minute Changing Times multi-media piece with a lyrical interlude, second Festival commission, Damian O’Vitch, talked about the way our city’s green spaces have been given over to pasture. There was a film in which a ‘hidden pond’ ‘speaks’ about how it would be good for the environment brought the house down with its subtitled dialogue, a microphone being no match for a voiceless bunch of reeds; audience participation swiftly followed.

As the evening drew to a close, I spoke to Charlie Hislop. He said: “We set out to put the cream of Southampton’s writing community on show and we certainly achieved that tonight. There were phenomenal performances by everyone.”

I’ve used that coined phrase twice in this report, and now you know why. This was a spectacularly fantastic evening and I urge you to watch out for these and our city’s other top talents in Words on Wheels this Saturday. The skill, inspiration, and sheer excellence of our city’s creatives is bar none.

Written and photographed by Charlie Place.

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