On Friday 20 March 2015 the Harris Museum & Art Gallery hosted an evening of performance with Banjamin Zephaniah and others. Tarquin Scott went along to the event to take in the performance. The following passages are of his appraisal as to what ensued during the evening’s entertainment.Advertisement
Some might wonder why the National Portrait Gallery is leading this exploration into the spoken word and the context within which it exists, but verbal English is as broad a palate as that used by Holbein, Turner, Caravaggio or Roth. So the Harris Museum & Art Gallery seems a fitting venue in which to present this work, and by and large, its wonderful setting worked very well. But spaces designed for ocular amusement tend to have appalling acoustics; where aural clarity is paramount, the full house audience was straining to listen through a cloud of reverberant fog. Many words were lost. As much as we’d wish to cross-fertilise among all the arts, the eyes and ears require differing architectural briefs and solutions.
The evening, organised by London based Apples and Snakes, was hosted by Ali Gadema who spent his late-teens and early 20s living rough. Nowadays, he works in schools, prisons, and for the last five weeks with clients of The Foyer in Lawson Street. He helps to show people how expressing one’s self through poetry in a positive mien is both cathartic for the individual and inspirational for the listener. Using his own and The Foyer folk’s writing and presentation, these points were clearly made.
A group of six from the Preston Poets presented a well written and rehearsed consommé of the History of Preston from pre-history to the present day, to the entertainment and erudition of all.
Following silky smooth serenading from Horsedreamer, where the resonant acoustics of the Harris’ central space enhanced the musical experience, we returned to our seats for the event ‘headliners’.
Mike Garry is a seasoned performer who has well crafted his performance poetry for the attentive audience. Entering the stage whilst reciting with rucksack, he seems to have got off the bus in Stockport, rather than heading on into the centre of Manchester. Quick-fire, disjoint visions of the inner city suburbs fill one’s head; relationships, meeting places and ‘occupations’. Garry presents in audio the 21st century equivalent of a large L S Lowry canvas, full of ordinary people doing ordinary things (some far from legal), yet with detail etched into every word. Told as if in the first person makes his work all the more visceral, the audience feeling their own, northern neighbourhoods involved in every scene.
His second piece is an homage to Garry’s school teacher who brought spoken words and books to life for him. This is a theme which ran all through this particular Picture The Poet event. Poetry is not just Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy; the disenfranchised discover for themselves that Eminem has his place too when actively engaged by the likes of Gadema and who helps them find their own voice in a world seemingly deaf to their concerns and aspirations.
Then it’s back to the streets of Manchester and Garry rounds off by picking up his rucksack and leaving the stage, reciting, thus perfectly framing this contemporary vision of Lowry’s Manchester as we know it today.
Benjamin Zephaniah is immediately engaging to any listener with his easy smile and convivial patois. I’d only heard him on Radio 4 beforehand and imagined him to be more earnest, more angry. With dreadlocks down to his knees, the only black man in the room noted that this was his only performance show this year. And what a special treat we had laid before us.
Zephaniah’s work is totally inclusive, subtlety revealing to anyone who cares to listen that what some think divides us is what actually unites us. A good dose of humour accentuates this reality. Between the set pieces of performance poetry, I had the feeling that here is a man born to be a poet as he chatted with his middle-class, white audience as if we’d all always been his best friends. Unwittingly, every sentence of spoken, ad-lib prose was in itself poetic, and a joy to listen to.
I left the evening very enriched.
Tarquin Scott 23 March 2015
Picture the Poet is a National Portrait Gallery touring exhibition in partnership with the National Literacy Trust and Apples and Snakes, funded by the Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund.
Did you go to see this performance? Let us know what your thoughts were in the comments below.