A short tribute to Ellie Davies

As with many on the Devon performance poetry, I was saddened to hear this week of the passing of Ellie Davies. Ellie was such a staunch supporter of the local poetry and spoken word scene that it seems inconceivable that she wont be there when gigs start properly in earnest again. Ellie was such a warm, caring and supportive person, and her company was always cheerful. Many have attested to her innate kindness and encouragement.

This probably isn’t the place to go into too many details, suffice to say Ellie had to deal with a lot over the last decade, including illness. But she never complained, not even once. If you were to ask how she was, she would turn the subject back, and dismiss her problems with a wave of her hand, and a smile, and a laugh.

And it’s that laugh which I will miss the most. She was such a good audience member, helping build up the energy in the room by laughing and joining in, enthusiastic and infectious.

Her own poems demonstrated a soul whose interest were very definitely human. She wrote about emotions and feelings with a deftness and subtlety which were then delivered on stage in her Birmingham accent. A lot of her poems were serious and spoke of serious issues but always with that simplicity of language and imagery. Other poems were hilarious, she had a fine comic touch which will be missed.

I knew Ellie long before I began performing. She was a member of a Writers’ Group, which is where we first met. We would meet every two weeks and read stories or poems and Ellie was always very encouraging. I was only young at the time, (my mid twenties), and I cringe to think of some of the things that I used to read to the group back then, but Ellie was always supportive, and again, there was that wonderful laugh which lit up the room. This would have been around 2004-2005, judging by my diaries.

In 2008 I went to a night of performance poetry at the Blue Walnut Cafe in Torquay. I had no idea what performance poetry was, so I went along to watch feeling very nervous. But then a familiar voice came from the table next to the window, and it was Ellie. Not only was she there, but she was one of the performers too, and it was that night which kickstarted my interest in performance poetry and spoken word. Of all the people I have met in the spoken word community, it was Ellie who I knew the longest.

A while ago Ellie moved to a flat not far from my own, and she would invariably offer me a lift to gigs in Torquay at the Blue Walnut or the Artizan Gallery. I remember once she had a new car, which she called, ‘Roger the Rover’, which had to be reversed up a very narrow lane to get to her flat. And she would laugh as she drove, that familiar laugh coming from behind the steering wheel as we grazed dustbins and wheelie bins so that the car was pointing in the right direction for the next time that she needed it.

Ellie loved life, and she loved people. She was wonderfully forthright in her views and nothing would hold her back when she saw injustice or bullying. And most of all, she loved poetry and the things that could be done with literature.

Suffice to say, Ellie will be very much missed by everyone who knew her.

To the ghost ships

An ode to the ghost ships

Through the mists of a calamity
In a year we never asked for,
The long arm of our shoreline bay
Offered you anchorage at first only
For commercial reasons.

Yet your streamlined sleek and tower block decks
Formed a fleet of imaginary towns,
Dark horizon Christmas trees with an
Imaginary population, new neighbours.

In a world of sudden restrictions you became
A local secret, an impossibility of the soul,
A solace as onerous as the mournful horns
Adding an extra solemnity for remembrance,

Seeing out this accursed year, or those
Poor fishermen who would never return.
We can sing sweet lullabies, dainty and plaintive
Though none can compare to your industrial symphony,

A blast of the horn as unsubtle as anything!
On foggy mornings you layer the imagination,
Ethereal in the gloom your hulking gross tonnage
A link to a world beyond immediate geography,
Ghost ships, haunting the present with voyages past.

Image Ian Williams

Spoken word as fun : The peculiar Torbay spoken word micro climate

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.