Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate
I don’t know what’s happening with spoken word in Torbay at the moment, but there seems to be a remarkable increase in energy and interest which is quite thrilling to see. This last month, both Stanza Extravaganza and Big Poetry, the two spoken word nights in Torquay, were standing room only and sold out. Both had audiences that were bigger than the actual venues, which is certainly a nice problem to have.
I was chatting with Brenda Hutchings as she gave me a lift home, and she was of the opinion that spoken word audiences in Torbay now see it as normal that they should come to such a night and expect comedy poetry. I believe she’s right, and that this is a local thing, a peculiar speciality just of the Torbay scene. Audience members in Bristol, London, even Exeter, do not automatically expect that what they are about to see will necessarily make them laugh, and that if this happens, then it’s just a bonus. However, Torbay’s audiences expect to be entertained and to have a laugh. This is not to say that serious poetry and serious issues are not tolerated. Indeed, serious content is magnified by such expectations. Witness, for example, the rapturous response to Melanie Crump’s poem about women’s rights and empowerment.
Not only do there seem to be a lot of comedic poets in Torbay, but they are diverse and funny in their own unique way. Melanie Crump and Brenda Hutchings can both be hilariously funny and also deeply serious and emotional. Steve O uses props for incredible effect, Tom Austin uses props and costumes, Joanna Hatfull uses rhyme and storytelling, Shelley Szender explores her material in a relaxed and relatable manner. Both myself and Samantha Boarer, my co host at Big Poetry, look at life and relationships and erotic issues within our work juxtaposing the everyday with the downright filthy.
Part of the success of the local comedy poetry scene is the curating policy of Big Poetry. Each night is put together with one eye on the holistic effect of so many diverse performers, but a big philosophy of the night is to include comedy poets. As well as the local Torbay performers, we invite the funniest poets from Exeter and Plymouth, Totnes and further afield, such as Julie Mullen, Ross Bryant and Jackie Juno, and they become as much a part of Big Poetry as the venue itself. Each has their own loyal following.
I’ve written before of the perculiar nature of the local scene. The poetry nights at the Blue Walnut started almost ten years ago and the emphasis was always on experimentation and comedy, thanks to performers such as Chris Brooks, Bryce Dumont, and the previously mentioned Tom Austin, who would push the performance envelope and be as downright weird as they possibly could be. It was this atmosphere that attracted me to performance and it was with these people that I crafted my own act and stage persona. I can think of nowhere else in the country where these elements hold sway in such a tight geographical location.
We are also very lucky to have some fine poets whose styles are so different and diverse as to add a singular touch to any evening, such as Becky Nuttall, who does an enormous amount for the local art and spoken word scene, and Jason Disley, whose jazz influenced beat poetry is utterly unique. Jason has just started running a new night in Paignton called Speaky Blinders, which is also going from strength to strength and is imbued with the whole Torbay ethos of spoken word as fun. Becky is working hard on various projects bringing art and poetry together, while also running the Stanza Extravaganza poetry nights at the Artizan Gallery.
It’s a thriving scene down here in Torbay, and I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of it. Our audiences are amazing and without them and their encouragement, the scene would not be quite as vibrant as it is.