“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.

Sylvia Plath The Spoken Word (British Library) CD Review

The Spoken Word poetry by Sylvia Plath

The British Library’s “The Spoken Word” series of CDs feature poets reading their own work from the BBC sound archives and have finally got round to Sylvia Plath (according to the list in the CD, the only other women to feature are Stevie Smith and Edith Sitwell).  She made 17 radio broadcasts between 20 November 1960 and 10 January 1963, although only 7 survive.

The CD opens with an interview recorded with Ted Hughes, “Two of a Kind” where both were invited to speak about writing poetry and living with another poet.  As you’d expect, Ted Hughes is rather reticent and Sylvia Plath more generous with her answers, although the questions are fairly inane and the interview doesn’t reveal anything people aware of both poets’ biographies don’t already know.  At the point of the interview both poets are living in a small flat in London with a small child, Frieda, and effectively living off savings and small amounts of income from writing.  Sylvia mentions that Ted can write even with the distractions of other people in a room whereas she needs solitude otherwise she’s too tempted to join in the conversation.  There are hesitations and interruptions as there always are in a live interview where the subject is not given the questions in advance.

There are poems too, including “Leaving Early” and “Candles” recorded in October 1960, “Mushrooms” recorded in January 1961 along with Ted Hughes reading his “The Pike”, “The Disquieting Muses”, “Spinster”, “Parliament Hill Fields”, “The Stones” recorded June 1961, “The Surgeon at 2 am” recorded in August 1962 and “Berck-Plage” recorded in October 1962, with Sylvia’s brief introductions.  At first Sylvia sounds wary and her pronunciation is cautious.  So it’s not surprising that where she sounds most at ease in on “Tulips” which was read in front of a live audience rather than in a studio.  But the later tracks show her becoming accustomed to reading in a studio and more at ease with presenting the poem as a live recording.  Sylvia did read her poems to herself whilst drafting and editing but there’s a huge difference between murmuring to yourself in a study and reading a poem for broadcast. 

That’s not to say she was precious about her readings.  There’s also a brief interview where she was asked why she stayed in England.  She starts with Milton’s tree at Cambridge, wandering round London and see double decker buses and scenes recognisable from Dickens.  But goes on to her first experience of English sea: the muddy grey mizzle of Whitby poles apart from growing up on Cape Cod.

Sylvia was hampered by being tone deaf: she would have struggled to hear her own tones as she read so would find it hard if not impossible to judge how the recording sounded to others and whether she’d got the emotional tone right.  This would have added to the self-consciousness of the earlier recordings.  Tone deafness is a bit of a misnomer in that problem lies with an inability to interpret the tone when listening to someone speak.  Seeing someone face to face allows you to see facial expression and body language so you can compensation for what you can’t hear.  But when you only have the voice and you can’t interpret whether that voice is happy, sad, irritated, angry, bored, although speed and volume of the voice may hint at the mood of speaker, you’re generally left with just the words.  Problem is, most people are sloppy with words because they rely on tone to get their message across.  Sylvia would have had a more acute ear for rhythm and sound patternings in works whilst simultaneously being disadvantaged by not being able to interpret the tone the words were said with.  It would be more difficult for her to assess how her own recordings sounded.

The CD is rounded off with her review of an anthology, “Contemporary American Poetry”.  It’s a shame some of her recordings have been lost but wonderful to hear her read some of her own poems.  I could practically feel those tulips burn through their wrapping as she read.  Warmly recommended.

Making A Mark

Leicester Writers’ Club celebrated its 50th anniversary with the launch of “Making A Mark”. First to read was Liz Ringrose with an extract from her warm, genuinely funny mystery (there’s no murder, but that’s not the mystery) novel, “Unwrapping Angelo”. Next up was Debut Dagger shortlisted Rod Duncan with an extract from “The Mentalist”. Light relief came in the shape of Nick Stead’s radio play. Poets were represented by Mike Brewer and Marilyn Ricci whose poem “Stowaway” was runner-up in a poetry competition and subsequently published in “The Coffee House”. Carnegie Prize shortlisted children’s writer and current Club President, Chris d’Lacey, who’s seen his books translated into 24 languages, wrapped up the readings.

Deputy Lord Mayor of Leicester, Roger Blackmore, kindly spoke of Leicester’s diversity, how important writing (and reading) is and warmly congratulated the Club on reaching 50 years. Creative Leicestershire, Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, all of whom had part-funded the anthology, also passed on congratulatory messages. Naturally huge thanks go to the editorial committee who compiled the anthology and club members who made the night a success.

I came away with a warm glow and feeling that just maybe all those snatched hours of scribbling or typing, honing and developing time management and organisational skills that go into keeping on top of submissions, deadlines and constantly compacting so many things into so few words, just might be worth it.

Leicestershire Authors Showcase Hallowe’en 2007

A simple and effective idea: take ten writers, an audience of librarians and teachers and let the writers talk about their work and/or perform it. The writers get to raise their profiles and librarians and teachers are encouraged to use local authors.

Except it was subject to the usual pitfalls. I was fighting off a cold and sore throat combination so thought it better to keep it short but audible rather than stick with the original, longer version and leave mid-poem as my voice gave up.

But why do writers, knowing full well they have an audience and how long they have the stage for, fail to consider the audience? That doesn’t apply to everyone at the Showcase. However, there was the writer who over-ran (“Well, I had so much to pack in.”), the writer who had prepared reading the extract from their work but not the talk inbetween, the writer who complained “People don’t understand this, but…” then explained in unnecessary detail and the writers who asked “Am I all right for time?” (although those immediately following the writer who over-ran are excused on this point as they were aware they had to get the day’s schedule back on time).

There’s no excuse for insulting your audience. Your audience are intelligent and want you to succeed, if only because it’s horribly uncomfortable trying not to squirm whilst stuck with a poor presenter. This audience was good. Live readings enable writers to get instant feedback. Friendly smiles and nods reassure as does laughter at intended jokes. If an audience is frequently glancing at watches, fidgeting and/or reading notes, get the hint and finish quickly. The best feedback of all is that attentive silence that says “we’re listening because you considered us.”

Today lack of consideration for the audience could only backfire. The audience weren’t just there to put a name to a face or listen to writers rattling off a list of publications, readings and workshops but to see how those writers could cope in front of an audience. Teachers aren’t going to book someone who’s going to bore their students rigid or who can’t keep to a specified time. Librarians aren’t going to book a reading by someone who can’t prepare for or work with an audience.

A big thank you to the county librarians who organised the event and the audience who attended.