This article reviews three books by writers who occupy both the page and the stage. My first experience of all three of these women was as poets on the stage, yet reading them was entirely different and allows time to mull over the words in a way you can’t necessarily with live performance.
Kate Tempest: Hold Your Own, Picador Poetry (2014)
This collection takes a slight departure from the previous Everything Speaks in its Own Way, which reminded me of reading from lyric sheets as a teenager along with the tracks playing as it came with a CD and DVD. Edited by Don Patterson, at times I felt this direction took away from the rawness of the previous collection, and at worst the process appeared rushed, with errors that hadn’t been spotted and disjointed rhymes I wasn’t sure were made with clear intent.
That said, as with any fan of an artist, there’s much to gain from such an ambitious collection of work. With so much under her belt, one could never fault Tempest for not having ambition. From our first meeting with Tiresias, a strong impact is made in the reader that has a clear sense of voice and weaves mythological narratives with familiar settings of everyday life.
Although works such as Progress are missing something absent of a stage — where when I first heard it, felt monumental — it feels important to have the collection, whether to ruminate back over the words, or to repeat them aloud or in your head in live settings. The collection brings together the softness of poems that tell us ‘no flower bends its head to offer/teaching to a seed’ and sestina You eat me and I like it, where ‘in the storm by the river, I couldn’t tell your kisses from the rain.’
There is beauty in these moments of free form, but Tempest is strongest when the reader can feel the beat in her rhymes. Where the words urge you to speak them aloud: ‘Without the fear of retribution/we found guilt-free pleasure/but we lost the sense of union/that had kept us all together.’ It is hard to say how this collection will be received by those who haven’t seen Tempest perform, but for those who are already fans, this work offers a new way of consuming her words that is well worth a taste.
There is beauty in these moments of free form, but Tempest is strongest when the reader can feel the beat in her rhymes.
Sabrina Mahfouz: The Clean Collection, Methuen Drama (2014)
This collection includes both plays and poems, and with Mahfouz, the two have always been intertwined in my eyes. This was confirmed in the introduction to the book, where the author asserts that because the poems were written for the stage, they ‘could/should therefore share the accepted tradition that theatrical texts have of being published and read with such contextualised knowledge.’ This is one of the only statements Mahfouz makes explicitly clear, perhaps due to the use of dialogue and the multitude of voices we get from the work.
Much of her writing deals with one of Feminist’s most contentious subject matters — the sex industry. She takes us inside the world of exotic dancing in the highly acclaimed Dry Ice and delves deeper into sex work with One Hour Only. She draws on her own experience and research, returning to the topic with Fine, wishing for a world ‘where the breath required to speak her name/didn’t have to be taken from a darker part of the lungs.’
Much of her writing deals with one of Feminist’s most contentious subject matters — the sex industry.
What I love about Mahfouz is that, like Tempest, her writing is unapologetically Feminist. She wrote a well-known protest piece against Page Three, and this collection includes a poem against FGM (Female Genital Mutilation). Again, there is breath; ‘I try to slow it… until my chest fills with feathers/my heart taking flight/into a world where my breathing/isn’t something to apologise for.’ The work is political, but it is also about relationships, love, and empathy. Any messages gleaned are worked out for yourself through the characters you meet, characters you know also represent real people.
This is a book that wants to change the world; it shows the power of words, and the power of story telling.
Joelle Taylor: The Woman Who Was Not There, Burning Eye Books (2014)
If you’ve seen Taylor perform her poetry, you will know that she is able to recite poems that mix story telling with political insight using incredible similes and metaphors. You will be familiar with poems such as Crystal Kisses, with its heart-breaking lines about ‘those same boys who once dealt Pokémon in the playground/are now shotting crack and smack and snow/on different street corners.’ Taylor presents characters and explores the darker side of humanity with those like the unnamed gay man who has his limbs pulled off ‘like an ill-fitting wedding ring/and threw him/tangled in the dusty earth,/a red Rorschach for birds to read.’ These poems encourage empathy, and like the Fairy Godmother of those such as Tempest and Mahfouz, there is an urgency that wants to see the world shift.
These poems encourage empathy, and like the Fairy Godmother of those such as Tempest and Mahfouz, there is an urgency that wants to see the world shift.
To those who are able to recognise the words of The Correct Spelling of My Name, I would urge to read over the collection, which gives you the time to mull over messages that are at times too deep to take in when listening. It is in this poem, Joelle ends the last line of the poem, and the collection, with ‘you have found your tribe.’ To those who perform poetry on stage, it is a familiar sentiment. For audience members and readers alike, this is what poetry can offer. Arguably, music can do this too, but with the music stripped away, spoken word has a rawness and vulnerability that offers a different kind of community. Taylor is also the founder of SLAMbassadors UK, which is a youth poetry slam. The importance of childhood is something that also runs through the collection, and through poetry, Taylor gives people a voice ‘And together/quietly/they changed the world.’
Changing the world is something all three of these women poets are doing, in their own way, both on the page and on the stage.