This weekend I had the privilege of seeing Kate Tempest perform at the Bongo Club in Edinburgh (hosted by the Scottish Poetry Library and Rally & Broad) as part of her tour promoting her new collection Hold Your Own (website here, book available here). The venue was completely packed, with audience members lining the walls and sitting in the aisles; after the event sold out quickly, the hosts decided to release standing-room-only tickets, which from the look of it were snapped up just as quickly. It was wonderfully reaffirming to see the commitment to poetry evident in the willingness of people to venture out on a rainy Saturday night to listen to spoken word.
Sam Small, a Glasgow-based performance poet who hosts the Inn Deep poetry evening opened with a fast-paced, high-octane set of poems questioning humanity, love, and dastardly experiments on sleep deprivation with a good deal of cheeky humor (website here). After his impressive and hugely engaging set, the eminent Scottish poet Don Paterson took the stage to introduce Tempest and she took the mic.
Let me preface with this: I think the general public can sometimes get a sense of performance poets as melodramatic hacks in black turtlenecks who splash around messily composed words with an air implying that they are the second coming of Kerouac. This impression often derives from poets putting on artificial personas when they perform, drawling out syllables or adopting otherwise affected speech in pursuit of some “poetic effect” (I discuss this in my previous post, here). Watching these poets can be frustrating because their work undermines that of poets who perform genuinely, feeling the power in their work and conveying that power honestly onstage.
In stark contrast to that stereotype, Kate Tempest’s performance of her own poetry was the most genuine, intense performance of creative work that I have ever witnessed. Clutching the mic and moving about the stage, often doubling over, curls falling over her face, eyes closed, she rode the dynamic waves of her poetry and we clung with her for each moment of the journey. Nothing about her performance felt staged or forced, nothing done for effect or ego. She simply shared her work with the same level of emotional intensity she no doubt felt writing it. It was intensely moving because it felt so natural: an undiluted, pure expression devoid of shame or fear. Her memorization skills were also incredibly impressive, as she performed multiple lengthy segments of the collection (some up to fifteen minutes) without any apparent trip-ups. Following her performance, much of the audience gave a standing ovation, many attendees appearing visibly moved. It was a reminder of the spiritual power of good poetry performed well: the caverns of the Bongo Club acted as a sort of religious space for a couple of hours before the club-goers swirled in.
The collection Tempest is touring, Hold Your Own, traces the story of the mythical prophet Tiresias, who was transformed into a woman by Hera, returned to his masculinity seven years later, and later blinded by Hera for stating that women enjoy sex more than men. Through four sections, Tempest transports Tiresias across legend into modern times to explore sexuality, transformation, and the painful process of maturing. While Tiresias appears throughout the collection, some poems are more personal recollections set in modern day, including one in which the young Tempest encounters a couple going at it in the woods and strikes up a conversation with them about their dog, to be cursed away. These poems skillfully negotiate multiple emotional spaces, tickling the audience with humor as often as they strike them with vivid memories, fantastical images, horrifying gore, and deep questions.
I must confess that although I purchased the collection, I haven’t yet opened it because some part of me fears that the experience of silently reading the words will pale in comparison with Tempest’s live performance. And maybe it will: I don’t know that anything could top the quasi-spiritual experience of being present at that reading. However, I also know that the language is rich and intricate enough to hold the page even divorced from the powerful performance. I strongly encourage everyone to attend Tempest’s show and purchase a copy of her book (tour schedule here, books here). Poets like Tempest are a reminder of why we write, why we perform, and why we continue to show up to poetry events on Saturday nights in the rain: for that elusive but brilliant spark that draws a community in to hold our breath and wonder.