StAnza International Poetry Festival
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Harry Baker (8th March)
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Ben Norris (9th March)
Studio Theatre, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews
I’ve decided to roll two reviews into one, because in many ways the ‘Poetry Café’ experience at StAnza is of-a-piece. For example, your ticket entitles you to a drink, and a pie by Stuarts of Buckhaven – you get a choice between macaroni, scotch, steak-and-ale, and chicken curry, and believe me, they deliver more pie for your peso! The chicken curry pies are insanely delicious and, without fail, I’m in danger of regarding the poetry as an afterthought. You get a comfy armchair too.
However, the good folk at Stanza have a knack of picking poets for the Café that they know will deliver on a par with the pies. On the two occasions I was there this year, for example, they put up two Slam Champions for us. First up, on the Friday was Harry Baker, at one time the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion. The other amazing fact about him is that he is a mathematician, though really I don’t know why that should be amazing – the juxtaposition of poet and mathematician – because a love of numbers and patterns can manifest itself in both disciplines. In Harry’s case, it can result in poems that are actually about prime numbers. Equally it can result in alliterative displays about proper pop-up purple paper people.
Harry Baker delivers, somehow, with the air of a boy in Year 10, but a very clever boy. If he were wearing a blazer you would want to hate him, but you wouldn’t be able to, because not only would he be too clever he would also be too damn funny. You would let him hang out with you and the rest of the kids who think that school in uncool, he would take a sip of Relentless and say “Bloody hell, that’s strong,” and proceed to tell you the percentages of the ingredients, and then multiply the calories by the number of minutes in a week. He, and only he, could compose a poem about the number of birthdays there are every day, or how many hours he has been alive, or could say that ten thousand days equals 27.39726 years, unless you’re talking binary, and then it’s sixteen.
A panel of five random French people crowned him champion, true, but there is one thing that worries me rather than delights me in his delivery. He has a tendency to let his voice die away at the end of lines or phrases, to the extent that sometimes, regardless of the mic, one can lose an important word and thus fail to succumb to the force of the slam. High point, though, was the poem in which he taught us a brand new word in German: Falafellöffel. As I said to him afterwards, “Das war ausgezeichnet!”
Two slammers means more of the same, right? Wrong. For a start, have you ever had this nagging feeling that you recognise someone’s voice? That’s how it was with Ben Norris. “Who the heck is this bloke?” I kept asking myself. It turns out he plays Ben Archer in BBC Radio4’s The Archers. StAnza sure know how to pick someone for a middle-class, middle-aged audience!
Ben Norris is not as outright funny as Harry Baker, but then he doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. Twenty minutes of his performance was dedicated not to a poem, but to a short story written from the point of view of a young man visiting his gran, who is hospitalised and in the grip of senile dementia. It is written in a style, and was delivered in a style, that demanded and held attention. For most of it the story had a solidity and a flow; towards the end it became more fragmented, but for the listener that was the part which reminded us that Ben is a poet, its fragments signaled ideas, breaths, images.
A Poetry Café performance, you see, does not need to be funny. As Ben launched into a series of poems about the time when his parents split up, and he learned that his mother had been having an affair that lasted six years, he told us there was no need to applaud. And indeed, they were moving, intense, and personal, so we didn’t. Not that they were full of angst or resentment – though he did refer to them as the poems he wouldn’t recite to his family – indeed the poem dedicated to his father’s subsequent partner, Sue, was a work of dedication and appreciation. Strangely enough, this was probably the point in the performance where the majority of the laughs came, if only because Ben forgot the opening words of the poem – ‘The Only Ethnic Minority Dentist in Boston, Lincs’ – and decided to do the millennial thing of reading it all off his phone. And why not. Hand-held devices are now part of the performance poet’s natural toolkit.
It’s marginal which of these two poetry lunches I liked best. I liked them both, I loved the poetry, I warmed to the poets. Ben, by a whisker, though. People slightly ahead of numbers. But do appreciate these two guys, and if either comes to your town, give him a look-see and a listen-hear.