Friday, 18 October 2013

A Few Words from Off The Shelf (Festival of Words in Sheffield) ...

Who's been a busy boy, then?

Besides some scrub clearance for the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, Parkland Ranging for Wentworth Castle, Guide Dog training, administering to and singing with the Waldershelf Singers this week, a lot of other literate things are happening in this part of the world. I’ve been to three events, which are part the Off The Shelf Festival Of Words, Sheffield's own Literature Fest. Saturday was a marathon open mic poetry slam in the Winter Gardens, compered by Word Life Project Manager, Joe Kriss; I only managed to get to the last couple of hours, so missed Ian Enters' reading, but enjoyed the whole experience, including readings from 'The Rhyme of King Harold', a novel about the Norman curse, entirely in verse by Ian MacGill.

On Wednesday we attended an event that was a very special piece of story telling. "The Old Woman, The Buffalo and The Lion of Manding" (links to a sample of the show) produced by Adverse Camber Productions, founded by Naomi Wilds, English Literature Alumnus of the University of Leeds. I attended the singing workshop beforehand, run by the three performers of the 'play' itself, Jan Blake, the story teller (Griot) and musician brothers, Raymond and Kouame Sereba. This workshop was an eye (mouth and brain) opener with a certain amount of physical movement and coordination as well singing, following the lead of one of the two brothers chanting the lead. One piece we performed in the workshop was also performed in the live show itself, which we (about a dozen of us) were expected to remember and join in, which, with a bit of encouragement, we all did ... with gusto! This performance was engaging, enthralling and certainly entertaining; I highly recommended you see it if it ever comes your way.

On Thursday night we went to a poetry reading run by the Sheffield based Poetry Business. Readings from winners of the pamphlet and book competition, David Attwool, Emma Danes and Kim Lasky. The star of the show, who was also judge of this year's Prize Book and Pamphlet competition, and who did some readings of his own poetry in the second half of the evening, was the one and only Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage (links to his reading of "Harmonium") is not only one of the best poets of his generation, besides being Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, his poetry is also Yorkshire dry, lightly sardonic, amusing, sometimes laugh out loud funny as well as having a poignant touch. The combination of all these qualities makes him, for me, one of my favourite contemporary poets, certainly in live performance. In one of the poems he read, he announced the first two lines to be the funniest he’d ever written, which went something like “I gave up writing poetry and sunk the profits into a restaurant…” he had to read these twice before the ‘funny’ sunk in to an expectant but slightly slow audience! 

Another great line from a very amusing poem called “Poundland” after one of his students declared they’d discovered a copy of Ezra Pound’s poems in the shop of the above name. So he wrote this poem in the style of several of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (involving Homer's Odyssey). In this poem Simon Armitage described the “Manager, with a face like Doncaster”. Now you may not be able imagine why, at this point, the audience, who had already got the giggle going from earlier parts of his poem, then broke into almost uncontrollable fits of laughter! He had to take a run at those opening lines again, but claimed not to have a clue where they came from!

I made note of one more interesting point Simon Armitage made. He spoke of a quotation made by the poet, Blake Morrison, who said words to the effect "if you try to write a poem that tells us the meaning of life, you'll come up against a brick wall. If, on the other hand, you write a poem about a brick wall, you may just shed some light on the meaning of life". He subsequently adjusted his writing habits and explained that, every three weeks or so, he makes a point of writing about something quite trivial. To demonstrate this, he read a poem he'd written when, one day, he'd gone into their garden and "kicked a mushroom", which was "the highlight of his week". It sounds daft, but the poem he read was quite extraordinary and even felt quite poignant in places. I do sometimes find this myself, starting to describe something that maybe quite ordinary, but which then turns into something else altogether, something deeper.

Listening to and reading Simon Armitage leaves me with two conflicting feelings. The first is that, in the face of his brilliance, I should give up trying to become a poet! The second feeling is that I am inspired. The second should have my vote; we shall have to wait and see. One thing I know is that I'd love to attend one of his lectures on writing poetry.

Next year's Book and Pamphlet Prize competition is being judged by another quite well known poet, a certain Carol Ann Duffy! I’m very tempted to enter, but could be pushed for time, since the closing date is 30th November. I think my priorities need realigning!

So, all in all, a very entertaining and enjoyable week, so far, and there’s more to come from the Off The Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield, which runs until 2nd November.

P.S. And on Saturday evening, we went to see Bernard Wrigley, aka the "Bolton Bullfrog"; a very, very funny man. Go see him if you want you stomach to ache from laughter. Value for money. So, along with a couple of family get-togethers this weekend, that completes a very full but thoroughly stimulating week.

Watch this space for more reports on the Off The Shelf Festival.