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Manchester lifestyle reviews

Liverpool Poetry Cafe

Liverpool Poetry Café

with Pauline Rowe, Clare Kirwan and Dave Jackson

Reviewed by Denis Joe January 2012


Attending a poetry event in Liverpool can sometimes seem as if you have gate-crashed some group therapy session or some private fan-club party. In the way that you always see the same old faces on trade union marches these days, so too it is the case with the poetry events. If the person on stage isn’t whinging about how they lost the love of their life, or ranting bile about their hatred for those ‘lowlifes’ from the north of the city then you will get some decent poetry, which is, sadly, lost in the dross.


The Poetry Café is the major poetry group in the city and they have attracted some big names such as Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott and Brian Patten. It takes someone special for me to go to a poetry event in the city and it was Pauline Rowe, one of the finest poets writing today. Whilst Pauline is also a friend and the founder of North End Writers, a charity I am involved with, I hope that I can be trusted to be objective.


Pauline Rowe: quality for poetry's sakeWhat is immediately apparent about Rowe’s work is that it does not pander to any perceived needs of the audience. This is obvious from the opening two poems, Uninvited Guest and Alchemist. Whilst the poems have the appearance of autobiography (from the latter: My Grandmother,/dead at 39,/sprayed all things gold.), there is none of the ‘pity me’ that one finds in much ‘confessional’ poetry.


Even Autobiography 1968 seems as if it is composed by a watcher rather than a participant (Each Morning Offering a pledge/of works, prayers, sufferings and joys/like letters fixed on a pyramid of milk). The poetry is about the poem. It does not call on the audience to empathise or identify with the poet, it drags them into another world and forces the captured to see behind the lines. This is difficult enough to achieve on the page, it is near impossible to do at a reading, but a disciplined and serious poet can accomplish this.


It was in the next poem that I felt that Pauline drew the audience in. Driftwood was a collective composition by writers from North End Writers group. The piece was commissioned by Radio Merseyside as part of the Heritage and the Sea event, last year. The piece deals with the History of Liverpool and the Mersey. There is no fixed point of time and we are moved from one historical period to another without a link. We have to find that link for ourselves. One section of the poem, which Pauline composed, runs:


I have seen green moor and marshland
blazing, burning, earth charred black,
tasted stink of factories,
salt-cake, borax, soda-ash.

I keep a look-out on the waters,
this my testimony -
copper, iron, early death and industry.


There is almost a natural flow from the pastoral opening line leading into the violence that illustrates the force of progress; not just historical progress, but the progress of the poem itself. Burma is one of those poems that I go back to again and again, like a favourite piece of music. It was a real pleasure to hear it this evening. To me it is one of those perfect poems. It is also hard to define (as are most of Pauline’s works): at once it seems like an elegy, yet there is too much in it that speaks of life:


He sometimes prays
in Latin
with his fists clenched
hard in his pocket.


The contrast between the dead (Latin) and the determination of the clenched fists is one of the most powerful images I’ve encountered in poetry. And perhaps it might have been best to leave as the closing poem. There were four more poems to come including the beautiful and playful Why Dorothy Died (Dorothy was so ill/she became a virgin). Not only did Rowe provide some of the best poetry you are likely to hear, but she also delivered them with professional élan. It is a pity that we do not get to see Pauline Rowe giving more readings, but it is a great pleasure to be there when she does.


Clare KirwanI have seen Clare Kirwan (click Clare Kirwan for her website) reading her poetry on a number of occasions. I have to say that her work is, generally, not to my taste and I normally wrote her off as being the “Beryl Cook of poetry”, rather in the same mould as Pam Ayres. It was a pleasure, then, to hear her reading some of her more serious works - apart from the opening Robbie Burns pastiche. The poem Mousetrap was a pleasing piece but it was the poem Ovens that really grabbed me and If I forget… with the excellent image:


and citrus fruit big as your head –
each segment broken into, an act of violence.


If I forget… is an early poem and is suggestive of a serious and considered poet. Kirwan did explain that the poem was written about her time on an Israeli Kibbutz and the poem does have a feel of Różewcz or a lighter Paul Celan.


Glue was another interesting poem. The next poem was called Catholic Girls. Kirwan’s introduction of it provoked one audience member to shout out something anti-Catholic, like some Guardian-reading Asperger Syndrome sufferer. The poem itself started off quite tenderly but morphed into a rant about halfway through. Although it never descended into populist vitriol, it became a little tiresome, nonetheless. From then on her set went the way of most open-mic sessions and I was only too pleased when the final piece, How To Communicate Cuts To Staff (the title says it all I think), closed the first half of the evening.


Kirwan is good at what she does. Whilst she holds back from the misogyny that seems to be the fare for many populist entertainers doing the circuit, I find her more recent work rather tedious and not very original. Which is a shame because she does show, in her earlier work, an ability to knuckle down and compose really good poetry.


The second half featured Dave Jackson and his band, The Cathedral Mountaineers. First off I really had to do some homework to find out who Jackson is. The late 70s was the tail end of my interest in pop music but I do remember a lot of very obscure bands from that period and The Room is not one of them. I also have never heard of Benny Profane (so when Jackson said ‘This is a Benny Profane song”, I thought he was going to go off on a New-Atheist rant) also I have never heard of Dead Cowboys. Suffice to say I never knew of the existence of Jackson either (you can listen to some of his songs here).


From what I was given to understand, Jackson was supposed to be reading from his book of lyrics. Instead we were treated to a gig with his backing band. For some reason Jackson, who I believe is from this part of the world, sings with a very strong Nick Cave/Johnny Cash accent. The themes are much that you might expect from Nick Cave: dead people; murders; preachers; murdered preachers and there might have been some alcoholics and vampires thrown in to suggest edginess (aren’t vampires a bit infantile stuff these days?).


The whole thing was a bit sad really. Jackson is around my age (oldish) and has a job at the local university. The first couple of ‘numbers’ (I assume that term is still used) sounded like outtakes from the Postcard label bands Orange Juice or Aztec Camera, whilst others sounded as though they were written (and rejected) for an 80s David Lynch film soundtrack.


I’m not sure how or why there is a book of Jacksons’ lyrics as they are pretty naff really. It sounded as if the lyrics were written first and then hammered into the tune, irrespective of whether they fit or not (I know this because I used to do the same thing myself in the ‘legendary’ band I was in). All in all, the band were quite ordinary. The female backing singers were okay, but sometimes they were singing in a different key from Jackson (or was it the other way around?). I would probably have them on my computer as background noise. They just seemed mundane, and rather old fashioned. Maybe the organisers of the Poetry Café were desperate to get people in, so they booked a local celeb. But what has it got to do with poetry?


What I heard of the lyrics they were okay at best, and squirmish in other places. I get sick of hearing about the poetics of Dylan or, even worse, Jim Morrison. Lyrics are not poetry. Poetry has its own music, lyrics are written to be accompanied by a tune. However good lyrics sound, once they are down on paper they are just words without music. A good singer can make the corniest of lyrics sound otherworldly, but a great lyricist will always need a tune.


At the end of the evening Alex Scott Samuel made a plea for the audience to fill in forms so as to present this to the Arts Council as a justification for funding. I am not a supporter of Arts Council funding. In the same manner that welfarism has created a culture of entitlement so too has much of the arts in this country become moribund due to its dependence on state hand-outs. Had it not been for the fact that Pauline Rowe was reading, I would balk at having to pay for what, in effect, was simply a back-slapping get-together. Why should the public be expected to support such narcissism?

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