We’re putting three of our new writers to the test this week by inviting them to review the May event for Café Writers, a virtual open-mic night. The event was headlined by Tiffany Atkinson and the UEA Ink, Sweat & Tears scholars. Did the poetry tug at the viewers’ heartstrings without the added allure of pub pints and background hubbub, or did it fall flat?
It has been, to my memory, many years since I last attended an open mic event. Back in my university days, most audience members were there for booze rather than talent. Café Writers feels different and that’s not just because we open with chatter about the undulating reliance of Zoom. It was a warm atmosphere; organisers, participants and audience members sharing in a communal affection for the written word. True to its name I felt like I had settled in a café with like minded individuals. Pleasant. Relaxed.
The event was structured nicely to highlight the key speakers and lessen the burden on those brave enough to share their works too. Unintentionally, the segments of readers all seemed to gather themselves into themes, which I found fascinating. One of my favourite things about poetry events is the lottery you play with the kind of content you’re going to hear. This night’s event had a solid beginning, one creator after another providing raw works relating to the struggles of womanhood. A short vignette about first blood and a longer monologue about sex work. Then later we covered life at sea, Covid, dementia, among many other topics. I was once told that art is a social X-ray of its time and I think that’s especially evident in the kind of works poets choose to read when they can read anything.
Our first headliner was Iranian/British poet Eve Denney. Eve has a visceral style, and yet one that drips with beauty. In her poem ‘What Keeps me up at Night is my White Heroes’ she paints a very raw image for us of the circuitry of her mother’s body. Eve blends the human with the technological and it is powerful to listen to. In ‘Take off Your Rubber Gloves and Fetch Me Some Love’ she describes being infected with intelligent plastic, and invites us to televise her organs. She read for ten minutes and I was enraptured the entire time; as much as she had begun her reading by apologising because her works were written for the page and not for
performance, the delivery was flawless. Repetitive, like an incantation, almost. I was definitely hypnotised. I honestly wish she had blessed us with a longer slot. After another four readers took to the virtual stage, our next headliner was Tristan Coleshaw (tristan-e).
Tristan’s poetry was mouthwatering. Literally, their use of food and delicious descriptors while discussing uncomfortable topics is a unique kind of contradiction I really enjoyed even as it confused me in some instances. That one can talk about mozzarella and skulls reshaping in the same segment will forever change the way I look at pizza.
Our final headliner, award winning poet Tiffany Atkinson, came to us with some excerpts from her book Lumen. What struck me most about Tiffany’s work was how she used humour as scaffolding to hold up darker topics. ‘Socrates’, which explores the kind of questions one might be asked when trying to categorise their pain, had one liners such as ‘it’s in the bottom of my red bag and it won’t stop ringing’. Inventive and amusing while tackling a difficult subject.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the few hours spent with Cafe Writers, it’s an event I would very much like to attend again, or even read at, one day. The atmosphere is warm and welcomes all voices and topics to be heard. If you are a poetry lover then it is definitely worth your time.
Though I must say, for me Eve Denney stole the show with her reading.
Armed with an embarrassing lack of research, knowledge, or preconceptions, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the Norwich based Cafe Writers event. Their May open mic night – hosted over zoom, of course – boasted headline readings from UEA Creative Writing professor, Tiffany Atkinson, alongside MA students, Tristan Coleshaw (tristan-e), and Eve Esfandiari Denney. Providing the accompanying voices were contributions from apparent Cafe Writers stalwarts, from Norfolk natives, and from those further afield. With no theme required of the speakers, subjects ranged from the female experience, to dementia, to dogs, to food, to hospital stays; the whole illogical, messy gamut of human kind.
I usually like to know what the v i b e s are going to be before events like these – whether it’s a physical, or online situation – but Cafe Writers felt mysteriously elusive. A simple WordPress blog tells me to expect ‘readings of poetry and prose of extremely high quality in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere’ all held in Louis Marchesi…we should be so lucky… I’m not sure some of the readings were quite of the quality their blog promised, but who am I to judge? I’ve struggled to write anything in the past year, and make it a particular point to actively encourage the pursuit of hobbies at any age. More fool me for underestimating the community support for Cafe Writers, however. There I sat, wondering if it was the kind of event where you really ought to turn your camera on, watching the attendees rise from twenty odd, to thirty odd, to forty odd. I lost track a few minutes after kick off and decided that they could cope without my face in the sea of muted squares.
There were two distinctly charming aspects of the evening that I made a particular note of. Firstly, the specifically Zoom cultivated phenomenon of not quite being sure how to respond to a piece that you like so just typing the favoured lines into the group chat. Secondly, the varied, but telling ways that different writers signal the end of their reading. Some opted for loaded silences, made a little more awkward than they needed to be by the mass-muting the host had imposed upon us. The captivating Eve Denney concluded her 10 minute long slot with a quietly humbling ‘and that’s that.’ Cheery ‘thank you’s, shy ‘thank you’s and the occasional ‘that’s it’; I couldn’t help thinking you could probably psycho analyse each individual’s chosen ending.
So that describes the welcoming, if slightly middle-aged feel to the whole evening, I suppose I should talk about the poetry itself. The highlights were undeniably the three headliners, who presented bewitching, intelligent, humorous poems, often exploring the confusing experience of understanding our own identity. Both Eve and Tristan both spoke of the freeing nature of the past year allowing a more experimental writing process, resulting in poems written very much for the page. Despite their concerns, these experiments still translated into an interesting aural experience.
Perhaps it’s because of the lack of accountability with a switched off camera, perhaps it’s my current attention span issues, perhaps it’s just lengthy Zoom events, but I have to confess to a little social media scrolling while others were speaking. I did appreciate the opportunity to attend my first Norwich based open mic event in a while, but I found the format tricky. It still isn’t quite what I expected, despite my lack of preconceptions, but honestly I kind of enjoy this unique moment of being present at an event while also being able to fold my washing.
As a complete newbie to open mic nights, especially virtual ones, I was dubious as to what to expect with Café Writers. I had a lot of preconceived ideas as to how the evening was going to go when I saw that the majority of the readers were of a more mature age.
All my prejudices were shattered right from the first reader, Ruth Aylett. Her poem ‘Titration’ was a beautiful, impactful comment on the gender roles and stereotypes forced on women from the moment we are born, and the somewhat trickle-down effect these have on the violence that occurs against women.
This was followed by Zoe Brooks reading her poem ‘Breaking of the Blood’, an interesting look into a young girl’s first period, and Chaucer Cameron reading ‘The Raid’, a comedic, yet dark, monologue of a sex worker. I’m sure it’s obvious by this point that I love a strong feminist narrative, which is exactly what Café Writers delivered. It was so refreshing to hear four incredible older women discussing various feminist issues and topics, from multiple perspectives.
At this point I was beginning to think I was in for an evening of feminist angst against patriarchal oppression (rightly so), however once again I was proven wrong. Topics introduced by readers ranged from life at sea, to the tragic effects of dementia on both the patient and the family, and everything else in between. A personal favourite was Kathy Pimlott’s ‘Grand Union Canal Adventure’. I knew I recognised the name the moment she said it, and as she painted with words this pleasing picture of a pastoral paradise, and a group of friends exploring it, I realised she was talking about my hometown. After describing this idyllic scene, she reveals to the listener at the end that she is in fact talking about Milton Keynes. Most viewed this as a juxtaposition, as Milton Keynes is predominantly associated with concrete cows and roundabouts, however I really enjoyed hearing the way she portrays these places of importance to me in such a heart-warming tale of friendship.
Eve Denny’s headline set created beautiful imagery using interesting forms and allowed for total immersion into the art. Although it must be said that my favourite of the headliners was Tristan (tristan-e). The nostalgic feeling they conjured up within me while exploring a childhood memory of eating ice cream on a beach was phenomenal, and the use of both French and English to describe the realisation of their identity allowed the viewers to understand the confusion that can happen prior to this. Their final poem ‘Marry Me When You Meet Me’ was a perfect description of what modern online relationships can look like, especially with people who form attachments easily. It was comforting to hear that I am not the only one that has the thought ‘liking my freckle shot means you love me.’ It was a comedic exploration of the sometimes ridiculous thoughts that can run through your mind before you have even met someone, and I loved every line of it.
The closing headliner, Tiffany Atkinson, I found hard to understand and identify with, until her final poem. Being a film student, and a feminist, ’21 Points For a Feminist Essay On Film’ had me laughing while also ferociously nodding in agreement. she epitomised how frustrating it can be to be a female film student in a predominantly male industry.
Café Writers did not disappoint as my first open mic night, and it certainly will not be my last.