Okay, I’ll admit it – I’ve been a little wary of poetry since those dark, dark days of GCSE English Literature revision (the set anthology ‘Moonlight on the Tides’ being a particular bane of my 16-year-old life). So maybe some fresh literature was just what the doctor ordered… As I was waiting for Lit Live to start, I was uneasy about exactly what to expect from this event that’s been officially described as ‘an evening of poetry and prose curated by Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre – showcasing new writing from Goldsmiths students, alumni and guests, as part of Goldsmiths Graduate Festival 2016’. But I was surprised to find how engaging and talented all the night’s speakers were – I didn’t even need to rush out for wine during the interval to power myself through!
First up were two Goldsmiths students: Alex Vann and Lizzie Hudson. Alex, a second year BA English Literature with Creative Writing student, won the Poetry Book Society’s National Student Award in February and is ‘obsessed with David Bowie, sonnets and wine’. His performance of the night might not have indicated those two obsessions, but it definitely proved his strength as a poet. With titles such as ‘Hayfever’ and ‘The Revenge of Grass’, he started the night beautifully, tapping in to the pains of any allergy sufferer with a pinch of humour. A particular standout was ‘Bad Love’, the bittersweet poem gave an immediate sense of his style: honest, emotive, profound.
Lizzie Hudson, another second year English and Creative writing student, is a storyteller and teaching assistant for Chelsea young writers. She performed a piece of prose entitled ‘The Elliptical’ – perhaps the funniest and most endearing piece of the night. On paper it might have been described as a teenager’s letter addressed to Julian Assange, but this doesn’t do it justice. The perceptive narrator’s whimsical stream of consciousness brought the audience to tears of laughter as Lizzie showed a knack for engaging everyone in the pains of teenage life – whether being hit by a basketball in gym or analysing the lack of space in a school toilet cubicle. These fine details and personable, perceptive moments were really enjoyable and overwhelmingly authentic, making it a joy to watch.
Next up: Talin Tahajian from Boston, who’s studying English at Cambridge. Her poetry has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Indiana Review, Best New Poets 2014, Sixth Finch, and Columbia Poetry Review. Talin took the audience down a deeper, more abstract path and gave us an insight into the beauty and splendor of words. Though wittily claiming she kept her performance brief because her American accent is ‘too much’, her poetry spoke volumes. The galaxy, the sky at night, the end of the world – Talin gave a sense of yearning, exploring nature, life and sombre themes that brought things back to earth (but also beyond). It’s quite hard to put a lid on it, really.
Fourth on the night was S.J. Fowler. Having published seven collections of poetry, been commissioned by Tate Modern, British Council, Tate Britain and, being in residence at Wellcome Collection, it was no surprise that his work was polished and evocative. At home in front of the microphone, he opened up new possibilities I never knew existed for what poetry could be. ‘The world in its core’ was powerful, expressive and eloquent, setting him apart for a unique style of speech characterised by a fluid, fast-paced rhythm. Most notably was his ‘Goldsmiths Poem’, which pushed boundaries of voice very playfully by involving Goldsmiths students within the audience; parts of the poem were spoken in chorus, giving a surreal and interesting listening experience as scattered voices fluttered all around me.
The night’s talent seemed to be getting more and more prestigious, and there was no sign of letting up as Khairani Barokka took the stage. A Jakarta-born writer, poet, and artist, published and awarded internationally (and also a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths in Visual Cultures), Khairani’s warmth and passion radiated to the back of the lecture theatre as she read her prose whilst lying on the floor, uninhibited as if at home in her bedroom. Her work looked at family, one’s origins, identity, and memory. An evocative portrait of the stories she gleaned behind photographs cut across any cultural barriers in the audience, and was completely identifiable and vivid. Khairani incorporated the audience too, making us shout ‘Stop’ at certain moments of her concluding piece ‘Cease and desist’, which proved to be a more harrowing and scathing work, and certainly left me thinking as the interval came about.
The second half of Lit Live began with Ruth Boon, another English and Creative Writing student at Goldsmiths. She grew up in Hong Kong, writes spoken word, prose and page poetry and is starting The Dead Pixel Project, a new collective looking to make short musical films with poetic narration. After the exquisite, world-leading work of S.J. and Khairani, the bar was already phenomenally high, but Ruth still somehow managed to raise it with her remarkable, show-stealing performance. Her heartfelt approach and integrity came across clearly (Ruth was also the first performer of the night to not read their work from a script or a phone). A particular highlight was her second piece of prose ‘Awkward for Edward’, a resonating commentary on the social challenges of student life and lads’ nights out, crammed with youthful, energetic (but also wise) details which any Goldsmiths student would connect with. A real treat.
Ali Lewis followed with some of his poetry, which has appeared in Magma, Brittle Star Magazine, and Best New British and Irish Poets. Ali was runner-up in the Poetry Book Fair Competition and is working on a MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, which encapsulates the broad range of academic levels all the night’s performers came from. Ali’s style couldn’t have been more of a contradiction; angry and dry but also joyous. His work on ‘the cancer diagnosis of a relative I dislike’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it ultimately brimmed with a life-affirming honesty which made it well worth listening through to the end. ‘Swallow’ explored with a dark, dark humour a woman’s hatred for a man who, ‘like bad hotel carpet’, acts in a bar as he does in bed. Ali even performed a new piece of work, ‘Do we have a good relationship?’, written on the very same day of the event.
The next performer of the night was Kathryn Maris, a poet from New York who has published two poetry collections (The Book of Jobs and God Loves You) and a pamphlet, 2008 (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2016). She is also working towards a PhD at Goldsmiths, yet again showing the standard of writing which Goldsmiths attracts. Kathryn’s poems on the night gave a glimpse into her tastes and interests – updating old stories, editing poems from women’s tweets, and playing on domestic setups – particularly clear with her imaginative poem ‘the adulteress’ and a playful set of short poems depicting three stages in the life of a women condemned to death. Metaphorical wheels and preoccupation with an idealistic women’s ‘Fuck Off Castle’ gave her work a sharp, sardonic power and left most women in the audience in stitches: a testament to her poems’ effect.
Last but not least, came the night’s two headline performers: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Dean Atta. Rowan is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer working on a PhD at UEA whose writing has appeared in the Harvard Review and NPR’s Selected Shorts. She read several extracts from her debut novel, ‘Harmless Like You’, which is to be published in August. Rowan has certainly earned her place among the crème-de-la-crème, as the polished style of her book proved. She took the audience back and forth in time, through the non-chronological narrative of ‘Harmless Like You’, giving a taste of the book’s exploration of family bonds and adolescence, and vivid descriptions of New York, Berlin and Connecticut. It certainly sounds well worth a read and, after her eloquent reading of it to us, I can’t help but feel that Rowan could just as easily make waves performing on audio books. Her speaking tone reminded of being read stories in bed as a child (this meant as a compliment!), and the warmth and feeling that literature can (and should) bring.
And finally Dean Atta, a writer and performance poet who has been commissioned to write for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. He won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. Dean also spoke of fond memories studying for his MA at Goldsmiths, so it seems the world of prose and poetry is littered with our uni’s alumni! His mastery of performance poetry was a wonder to behold as he artfully played with ironic, clichéd expectations of how to be a poet, veganism, and mum’s advice. But this intelligence was not just hilarious, it was also uplifting and inspiring. Some of his verses were so memorable, such as ‘Cheese is your kryptonite’, that I feel I ought to get them tattooed. I also loved his quirky reflection on the cultural differences of using Grindr and sexuality in Italy in the poem ‘Rome is eternal’.
However, the stand out piece of the night has to be ‘I am nobody’s nigger’, performed from his 2013 published anthology. Having been inspired by the conviction of Stephen Lawrence’s killers, the poem was harrowing, real and uncomfortable to listen to at times – which is the effect I’m sure Dean wanted to produce. But nevertheless, it demands to be listened to. Dean has a formidable way of picking apart social issues, unrelenting in his voice (particularly in expressing his stance on rappers’ using the N-word) but without coming across as self-indulgent. Poetry of the highest order. Dean definitely has something to say.
But what’s more, his (and the rest of the night’s performers’) outstanding work has given me a new confidence to approach literature. Maybe my post-GCSE disdain for this sort of thing has come to an end…
Photos by Adam Thornton