“The Venus Papers” Lydia Towsey book launch

Lydia Towsey The Venus PapersAttenborough Centre, Leicester University, Lancaster Road Leicester 29 September 2015.

Lydia Towsey is already well-known in Leicester as a spoken word artist, coordinator for Word!, Leicester’s spoken word evening, for being one of Three The Hard Way, lead of workshops in the NHS and tutor for Writing East Midlands. So it seemed an anomaly that a first collection seemed to be a long time coming. “The Venus Papers” falls into two sections, her poetry sequence “The Venus Papers”, looking at modern life through the eyes of a 15th century goddess who moves from innocence to experience, and the non-Venus poems which explore similar themes, looking at families, relationships and friendships with a wry wit and compassion. In picking poems to read at her launch, Lydia was spoilt for choice.

Jonathan Taylor, novelist, poetic, publisher and lecturer at Leicester University’s Centre for Creative Writing, introduced Lydia Towsey’s work emphasising how her poems’ musicality lifts them during performance and their written lyricism means they work as page poems too.

Lydia started with “October” which includes “The air is cool with the stench of roses;/ I hold his hand – hosanna, incanto” and ends “summer is dead/ Long live the autumn,” thus beginning on a celebratory note. The night had a lot of firsts, first book, first baby (Lydia’s daughter is two months old), her first reading as a mother.

“The Don’t Look Dance” was accompanied by Dave Dhonau on cello, kept in the background but gradually building a sense of menace, as if reaching for a flamenco but never quite yielding to the final flounce and stamped foot. The accompaniment was very effective in the repetition in the final stanza. The poem’s about how the narrator’s mother would stand in front of the TV hiding pictures of bad news by holding her skirt out “as a crinoline shield”,

“She’d hide us from all of the hurting.
She’d cover the wounds of the world.
She’d fill that small room with her caring
but I never understood.

My mother would do the don’t look dance
the don’t look dance the don’t look dance
My mother would do the don’t look dance
the don’t look dance the don’t look dance
My mother would do the don’t look dance
but now I can’t look away”

During “Alice” Dave tapped on his cello, effectively turning it into a djembe. Alice is from Rwanda and teaches the narrator how to dance “like a cow” in recognition of a country where “dowries are paid/ and families are fed/ on cows” but no one talks of genocide. There is always a risk that a musical accompaniment will drown out or detract from the spoken word but Dave and Lydia have worked together before and the music was like the best film scores: unobtrusive and used to enhance the mood of what it was accompanying. The poems’ rhythms and musicality were driving the music rather than the other way around. Lydia’s delivery captured the mood of the poems, without defaulting to a poetic voice, and conveyed familiar work so that it was open and accessible to an audience hearing it for the first time.

A slide guitar accompanied “Venus at Customs” giving a melancholy throb of inevitability to the attitude of interrogators’ repeated staccato questions about her country of origin, whether she has a valid reason for leaving and for coming and if she believes her life is in danger or if she is at risk of harm. When she emerges from questioning, she finds herself rapidly adjusting to contemporary life and not all of it friendly, “Things people say about Venus in the Tabloids” ends “Go back to where you came from./ Nice tits.” When “Venus Walks into a Bar” – still as naked as she was when emerging from her shell – she’s accused of killing business as a desperate barman pleads, “If you’re going to do it,/ least you could do/ is wear sequins.” This is accompanied by a pizzicato cello, strutting like a would-be seducer.

Naturally, she’s determined to try a career and “Venus gets a job as a glamour model” explores her suitability. She finds she’s encouraged to get a tan and go platinum but the photographer “passes her the card/ of his favourite surgeon.” She also commits the predictable and falls in love with her artist in “Love Poem to Botticelli,” layered with soft strumming from the guitar which continued during “Incanto” which asks “What if you could cast a spell?” and gave the reading a wistful finale. Perhaps it’s a risk not finishing on a big flourish but here “Incanto” was a wise choice, leaving the audience thinking about the poems they’d just heard and taking their impressions away as they walked around the exhibition of Scott Bridgwood’s paintings which had inspired some of the poems in “The Venus Papers”.

“The Venus Papers” by Lydia Towsey is available from Burning Eye.

2 Responses to ““The Venus Papers” Lydia Towsey book launch”

  1. secretagentartist Says:

    Reblogged this on Lydia Towsey and commented:
    Thanks to Emma Lee for this lovely review of The Venus Papers’ launch event. Power and blessings to her elbows.

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