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TOAST @ Norwich Arts Centre

toastpoetry.com

TOAST is a recurring poetry night that draws together some of the biggest names in the UK poetry scene. It returned to the Norwich Arts Centre as part of their ‘Tilted East’ micro-festival this October. The night was hosted by the one and only Lewis Buxton, with live performances from Shannon Clinton-Copeland, Piers Harrison-Reid and Andy Bennett.

Abbie.

TOAST at Norwich Arts Centre felt like a warm slice of almost-normality – almost like sitting in a cosy local pub by a fireplace, surrounded by a mixture of friends, and people you hope will be your friends by the end of the night. I cannot stress enough how much the Norwich Arts Centre team deserve recognition for this event and the way they are currently running their venue – at all times, we felt completely safe and at ease. In fact, this is the first indoor arts event that I’ve attended since COVID came along, and I felt so comfortable that I didn’t even notice this until long after the event had ended.

Cider in hand, I settled in for the evening, not quite knowing what to expect – this was my first time attending a TOAST event, though I had heard many rave reviews from friends and colleagues. Greeted by warm host Lewis Buxton, the event felt wonderfully personal – Lewis has a skilled way of commanding the attention of a room whilst engaging on a personal level with each audience member, sharing personal anecdotes that give us a charming glimpse in to his day-to-day. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a host who cares just as much about hearing others’ stories as he does sharing his own, and when Lewis introduces his fellow poets, his praise for them seems deeply heartfelt – setting the tone for the inclusivity of the event perfectly.

The first poet of the evening was Shannon Clinton-Copeland – a genuine and earnest storyteller, wearing a ‘vegan is the future’ t shirt (a woman after my own heart). Shannon’s poetry feels lyrical and nostalgic; at times I felt like I was perching on a tree branch outside of a familiar stranger’s window, peeking in at a life not too dissimilar to mine. A shining highlight of her set was a poem about Shannon’s Grandmother, which left me feeling a burning need to call my own grandparents – and to buy a donkey. A joy to watch.

Next up was poet-come-nurse Piers Harrison-Reid. I’ve seen Piers perform a handful of times – and each time I’ve been absorbed by Piers’ demeanour, kind and grounded. I often find myself stunned by moments of tangible honesty in his poetry; so much so that sometimes it feels like the words hit me in the chest. This performance was no exception, and though I’d heard some of these poems before, Piers’ delivery ensured that this performance was just as fresh as the first. It felt particularly important to hear Piers’ most recent BBC-commissioned poem ‘More Blacks, More Dogs, More Irish’ again; amongst this predominantly white crowd in a predominantly white county, Piers’ shared a sobering and poignant reflection on race, and what it means to be black in Britain right now. I would strongly urge you to watch it.

Andy Bennett finished the show wonderfully, asking us to imagine him in a huge armchair by a fire telling stories – not a difficult ask because that’s exactly how his poems make you feel; warm, cosy, and a bit tipsy. Andy’s poems are a little bit bewitching – his hold on rhythm and language transports us to faraway lands, ethereal planes, and then straight back to your seat again. Fortunately for the audience, Andy was given an extra five minutes for his set – just enough time to send us off with his hilarious poem ‘The Badger’; a jovial reminder that no matter how crazy your night gets (and how bad your hangover is the next day), at least you didn’t drink a bottle of Lenor.

I’m really impressed at the team at TOAST and Norwich Arts Centre for delivering an event that felt so cosy and intimate, despite social distancing requirements and restrictions. I’m so grateful that we felt able to relax, kept safe by the team, allowing us to really be able to focus on the astounding poetical talent that Norwich has to offer – which TOAST is the perfect home for. See you all at the next one?

Georgia.

Walking in to the Arts Centre after so long away, it instantly feels the same, but not the same. There’s the feeling perhaps not of a tribute band as such, but of a boyband reunion. All the old classics, but with a different, slightly more jaded knowingness. The equivalent of noticing there’s no Posh Spice, and Gary Barlow’s looking a bit grey, but at the end of the day Patience is still a banger, and Scary was always your favourite anyway.

This sense is clear from the very beginning, from the bouncer at the door who takes my temperature (with about the same level of embarrassment as if he’s just asked me for both my weight and body count, poor man.) The feeling of slight odd-ness continues, as I’m led by a masked (but very friendly) steward to my seat, around a table set out cabaret style. The space definitely feels a tad empty, and there’s an impressive one way system in place – going to the toilet becomes a little like entering the Crystal Maze – but once I was sat, order felt almost restored.

Once the event started, in fact, my worries about this different-ness soon evaporated. Lewis Buxton as host was as chipper as always, with tales of Lockdown arguments over apples and a poem about washing machines. It felt so good to be back in the Arts Centre, it was easy to ignore the reduced capacity of the audience, the masks, the strange health and safety announcements (clapping allowed, but absolutely no whooping or cheering).

The three performers make the task of Pandemic-ignoring even easier.  Shannon Clinton-Copeland opens the show, and her relaxed and friendly demeanour (plus her beautiful voice, with which I’m very much in love) puts me instantly at ease. This is despite the fact I’m sat in literally the very front seat in the whole venue, which I do my very best to ignore, although I periodically panic I’m not giving a good enough encouraging-but-not-too-intensely-staring listening face. Her poetry feels very much a part of her, standing in her combat boots, slogan t-shirt and long skirt; homely and welcoming but with an edge of world-wearied knowingness. I like it a lot.

Next up is Piers Harrison-Read (with this line up for once I’m not feeling out of place in the double barrelled surname club). I’ve seen Piers perform before, and I’ve actually seen him perform some of this exact set before, but it doesn’t matter one bit. Every time I hear his work, I’m completely wrapped up in it. For sure, this definitely has something to do with his depth of subject matter (racism, depression, masculinity) but it’s also the way he makes these often heavy subjects feel accessible, inviting even. He tells us about the trolls who sent him abuse after he released his poetry series on Black Lives Matter. Listening to him speak, I want to singlehandedly hunt them down one by one.

Closing the show is Andy Bennett, the night’s headliner. By this point, most of my glass of wine is sunk, I’ve (almost) lost my front row self-consciousness, and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. The only reminder of our pandemic reality is the masked technician, who deftly swaps the microphones with gloved hands after each performer. Andy’s set continues the vibe I’ve enjoyed so much: an air of self-awareness, as if to say that this is not perfect, but we are all here, in this together, and isn’t it great. He says he may forget his poem half way through (he doesn’t). He apologises that he’s not able to stand for his set (it doesn’t matter). His poetry is engaging, funny, a little bit weird, in the best way. These are not perfect times, far from it – but TOAST and the Arts Centre have done an absolutely stellar job of getting pretty damned close.

Ellie.

I had been waiting months for the return of TOAST, my favourite Sunday evening poetry extravaganza, and it did not disappoint. The concluding event of the Tilted East mini-fest facilitated by the Norwich Arts Centre, TOAST comprised of three spectacular poets and was hosted by the man behind it all – Lewis Buxton.

Every member of the audience settled into their seats around small wooden tables, drinks in hand. The newly refurbished space breathed easy, once again alive with art, music and applause after all these months. The fairy lights twinkled and the giant ‘TOAST’ cardboard cut-out beamed bright yellow on the stage… and I watched it all from my living room.

For the first time ever TOAST was live streamed on YouTube. The camera angle gave me a fabulous shot of the top of Lewis’s head – a lockdown buzz cut still visible under the white lights. I caught snippets of his banter with the audience, imagining the looks on their faces as they recalled quarantine arguments and lover’s quarrels. I would have loved to see their faces. It’s never quite the same. Still, the very notion of knowing live poetry was happening just a few miles away filled me with an incredible warmth.

First reader of the night – Shannon Clinton-Copeland. I laughed at the irony of her opening with an apology for reading her poems off a tablet. Like a strange spirit in sweatpants watching from above, I stared at my screen whilst she stared at hers. I adored the physicality of her subject matters, the story-like telling and subtle inflections that made each poem so personal. Her poetry meandered around the people at its core, drawing out their every feature, their peaks and troughs, their simple natures. Never had I heard a poem dedicated to J. K. Rowling’s James Potter, but Shannon’s will surely go down in history. Her witty references laid into the fictional character with such oomph I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

Next to the stage, the one and only Piers Harrison-Reid. I’ve been a big fan of Piers for some time, and once again he spoke eloquently about culture and racism, all the while maintaining an air of optimism. His poem ‘More Blacks, More Dogs, More Irish,’ beautifully drew personal experience into a universal format. He held the raptured attention of every member of the audience as he said, “the biggest trick racism ever played was making England believe it didn’t exist.” At the end of his set, Piers gave a shout out to the Birdcage, a popular Norwich venue and bar that has just closed its doors due to lockdown. It’s not the first. It certainly won’t be the last. That evening became all the richer, all the more necessary and special.

Finally, Lewis welcomed Andy Bennett to the stage. That man could rhyme for days. Rather than poetry, his pieces were lyrical folk stories, all imbedded in history and nature. His bizarre telling of a speaker who drinks Lenor and is visited by a talking badger (a very unsympathetic one at that) was drowning in whimsy and wordplay. I felt like I was sat around a campfire roasting marshmallows. Everything was peaceful and still. The only reminder that I was separate from the audience came when Andy asked if anyone had a spare Rizla. It’s been a long time since I heard that. Hopefully someone helped him out after the show, but unfortunately I’ll never know.

I’m so thankful for events like TOAST, but watching it during isolation is a stark reminder of the months to come. We need to lend our support wherever we can. When we’ve weathered the storm and come out the other side in various shades of tattered, I’ll make sure to keep a pack of Rizlas on hand in case someone asks.

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