Poly-vocal Playground

Given that I discovered the joys of spoken-word only relatively recently, and am still very much finding my feet in the West Midlands scene, it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m constantly discovering more and more things you can do with it. The latest find in my gold-panning exploits is probably the most game-changing so far, and has really opened my eyes to the medium’s potential for versatility: namely, poly-vocal poetry.

Several posts ago I mentioned that I’d successfully auditioned for the city of Birmingham team for the inaugural National Team Poetry Slam Championships (a catchy name!), and May’s edition of Hit The Ode (31/5/12) marked our debut performance. This was by no means a last dress-rehearsal (the Champs are not for another 4 weeks) but more a playground for us to try out various ideas and make changes based on audience response. By changes, I mostly mean cuts, as we need to lose about 30 seconds to make the slam-standard 3 minute mark, but also to see if our contrapuntal weaving actually works. Okay, so I’ve just seen the footage and we need to lose 90 seconds (gulp!).

Rehema Njambi, Hannah-Rose Owen-Wright and I each have very different voices. Rehema was born in Kenya and grew up in Kent, producing a lovely kind of soft musicality, her inner Kenyan becoming more prominent when she reads poetry. Hannah is from New Zealand but has English parents (notably, a Brummie mum and a sister who now lives here, in Balsall Heath). In N.Z. they say she sounds English, though to most English ears she will doubtless sound distinctly Kiwi. And, despite being the most conventionally “local” of the 3 of us (just up the M42 in Nottingham), my accent has somehow become a hybrid bastardisation of north Notts and Sheffield (someone at Hit The Ode asked if I was from Sheff.) with select Mancunian vowel sounds (think Elbow’s Guy Garvey: “LUHV, TRUHST, DUHST). I don’t know how this has happened; both my parents are from the South (my dad’s a Londoner, mum’s from Oxford). All I can think of is that my granddad was from Manchester, though sadly our lives didn’t overlap as much as they might have done so I’d be amazed if he is responsible for how I speak. More likely, and much less sentimentally familial, is the influence of my peers at school, and probably a desperate need to sound nothing like my folks!

Our Championships poem has thus ended up being largely about heritage, exploring how we sound, how we feel, and how the three of us have wound up representing a city that none of us are from! I’d like to tell you more, show you the video of the Hit The Ode performance even, but that would be to spoil the surprise for the Bristol audience, and the other teams. Bristol and London’s teams have already started wheeling out the fiercely competitive scaremongering propaganda, and the Twitpic banter is in full flow!

We performed again five days later at Rhymes in Kings Heath, formerly a monthly event back for a one-off poly-vocal special, run by our team “coach” Lorna Meehan, a fantastic performance poet, actress and comedian in her own right. With no rehearsal (save for the last-minute car park run-through we managed to squeeze in at the interval) between Hit The Ode and Rhymes, the performance was clunkier, slower, and (because we were performing with mics for the first time) punctuated by an embarrassing boom-stand incident which saw my mic fall from its clip and hang limply around my shins for a few painfully long and silent seconds! But the evening was by no means disastrous. We performed our individual poems too; Hannah experimenting with a different combination of existing work, and Rehema taking my breath away with a remarkably honest poem about her younger brother. I premièred a new piece too, “F-Bomb”, which went down pretty well, though it will also need serious reductions to hit 3 minutes! Again, a video of this will not be forthcoming till after the Champs, so get down to Bristol. If not for this reason, I still really recommend a trip to the South-West on June 28th to see some of the best individual slam poets flex their figurative muscles, as well as the highlight: pioneering poly-vocal pieces.

This is the Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/397372280304723/, and here’s the place you actually do the actual buying of the actual tickets: http://bierkellertheatre.fatsoma.com/events/63235/

And…here’s a mysteriously effective trailer:


Hit The Ode and Rhymes were personally exciting for another reason, too. Elisha Owen and I wrote and performed a duet (is it pretentious to use the word duet in terms of poetry? Yep, probably, but I’ve gone and done it anyway) after seeing the exciting German pair Le Poonie at Hit The Ode in April. It came from some small sketches I’d made which tried to incorporate clicking into a performance piece, and it turned into something much bigger and more exciting, with a story, some comedy, and some pathos too, I hope. It went down a storm (as much as anything can go down a storm in a small room upstairs in a West Midlands pub) and we performed it again at Rhymes to a more intimate but equally receptive audience. Rhymes was also the first time my mum has ever seen me perform poetry, which was nicely surreal – I hope she enjoyed it!

Both the duet with Elisha and the team poem were mentioned in Gary Longden’s review of the evening: http://garylongden.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/rhymes-poly-vocal-special-station-ph-kings-heath/, and Elisha has also bashed out a fascinating blog post about her submergence in the performance poetry world too, infinitely more succinct than this one: http://www.thelostartofenjoyinglife.blogspot.co.uk/

The potential for drama is inherent in poly-vocal pieces. It allows for the creation of characters and scenes between them; for dialogue, tension and conflict – immediately more vivid and distinct than with any individual stuff…directionless rambling monologues therefore refreshingly avoidable. It creates textures and patterns, and allows for greater extremes of volume, pitch and intensity to be traversed. And the best of it adheres to the Slam practice of no props, no costume, no backing tracks…it remains exclusively about the words, only here the things you can do with them are brimming with myriad possibilities.

All in all, it’s a bit bloomin’ excitin’.

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