Furrowed not-neatly within a circus of brass pipes is a rat. Thick with treacle-scum vetted into its fur, the rat hurries down a lesser-known route. Up a pipe, left a pipe, left again, up some more and the rat is finally out. Peering out into the street, un-saintly and miffed, the rat finds itself not on the intended Great Portland Street, but Little Portland Street instead. The rat scratches away with a temper, along the pavement and past the shoes of several mid-cig louts. Said motley gang of louts, unfazed by the rat’s business, are gearing up for New Gums’ latest event at The Social (Little Portland Street, W1W).
Founded by Sophie Harris in 2017, New Gums strives to promote and curate poetry-based nights throughout the capital. Each event, though often themed on different aspects of spoken word performance (experimental, improv, zine fairs), is comprised of the same objective: to give a platform to a wider range of artists who may not be as accepted on the ‘gigging scene’. “At the time I felt as though there was a gap in the market, in the sense that poets weren’t being promoted properly, or at least in comparison to bands they weren’t.”
I meet Sophie 10 minutes before the event kicks off. I’m sat at the bar when she comes storming in, gesticulating frantically, asking for a float, a roll of tape, a pint, some helpers and several other event manager essentials. She’s quite clearly up to her ears in shit to sort out, but is still happy to give me five minutes of her time before pandemonium breaks out. “This is our first event in central,” she tells me over a pint of £6.50 lager (cheapest on tap (still a bit naff)), “so I’m a bit nervous. We’re used to hosting our events at The Windmill in Brixton, where we always pull a big crowd.” Sophie is keen to reference the South London burgeoning boozer, which has recently gained a reputation for kick-starting the careers of Goat Girl, Shame, Black Midi and other such trendy acolytes. “Our last event was a lot more experimental than this. We had dancers, drama performances, improv-poetry, a bit of everything really. We like to keep it as varied as possible so that everyone feels comfortable performing.” This inclusive approach of allowing anyone to perform does have its drawbacks though, of which Sophie is all too aware. “At first, when I was a tad inexperienced, I sort of made it like an open-mic night, in that people would messaged me and I sometimes said yes without being able to read or hear their work. But now I’ve realised that by providing someone unknown with a platform, there is always potential that their performance could be harming to people in the audience, and then harming to New Gums as a night.” This sophistication and awareness of her position is probably what has made New Gums so successful thus far.
On this night, however, Sophie has chosen to book a few musical acts alongside the poets. This gives the night an interesting dynamic; some of the punters are sat rigidly, digesting the previous poet, whilst others are down by the front of the stage, having a poor crack at getting a dance going. Unarguably the finest group to perform on the night goes by the name of their frontman, Oscar Browne. Accompanied by a full five-piece band, this new arrangement, Oscar tells me later on, will hopefully form the basis for his latest group. Plucking various already-established musicians from other projects, Browne has successfully forged a new and tangible sound that, sonically, could not be further away from his previous endeavor Dead Pretties. The band open with a chorus-heavy melodic number, fit with a rousing saxophone crescendo and a tight two-guitar arrangement. Their sound is more 80’s than perhaps they acknowledge, with healthy portions of The Cure, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, as well as a subtle, danceable dash of Orange Juice. Obvious 80’s influences aside, they’re as contemporary as a London five-piece can be. Time has obviously been well spent sorting out the song’s complex melodies between each member; there’s fitful ska-esque drum fills splattered throughout the set, and a number of walking basslines that only slightly manage to not sound out of place. Browne’s multi-ranged voice adds another dynamic to the mix, and before you know it you’re wishing they had another half hour left to their set. Succeeding this, a truly diverse array of poets and spoken word performers take to the stage and steal the night away. Sam Simmons riffs quaintly on about love, whilst Alex Luke denounces the tragic antics of her former secondary-school self. Shakespeare is re-contextualized and Nike Neblem’s eye-catching performance tops off the night in spectacular fashion.
New Gums, though not an entirely original concept (one must be aware of the vast range of poetry stand-up events across London) is an important and integral creation. By paying their performers and inviting readings from unestablished, fringe writers, New Gums invites the audience to indulge in a rare state of emancipatory poetry: “What we do is hard. We charge low entry prices and pay all of our performers, but we believe it’s worth it if we can give people a platform.”
New Gums host a zine fair at The Five Bells, New Cross, 21st September
Words, Edward Green – @nedgreen