Melissa Todd on Life Behind Bards

Life Behind Bards is a collection conceived and driven by working class people, rather than by some box-ticking twerp at the Arts Council. They’re an actual community, a disparate group who met at slams, inspire and identify with one another, and the majority of them live in Southend, a place very near my hometown, a forgotten windswept day-tripper destination, with its not quite London, rusty, flaking, end of the pier feel: I love it. This collection is suffused with a rich sense of the town, a proud local identity and heritage. It belongs to this time, this area, this set of cultural and economic conditions, rather than timeless concerns or psychological states: how sad I am that girl still hasn’t noticed me,  how nice that cat looks by that flower. These are poems about zero hours contracts and Snapchat, Brighthouse and store detectives, KFC,  student debt, food banks and anti-depressants, and in Sadie Davidson’s words, the ever present smell of weed. These poems make immense demands of their audience, and that’s no criticism, nor indeed suggestive of any fault within the writing or the performances, all of which are flawless. They require an empathetic listener to work. If you’re not getting them, the fault is in you. Try harder. Listen harder. Imagine harder.

Of course there is no single working class culture, no common theme to working class life, unless its hybridity. It’s a merging of a million different histories and customs under a sea of economic and social pressures, which drive a desire to live in the moment, to make the most of it; or else, escape it, with drink or drugs or fights or sex, then go on to attempt escape from the fallout these escapes create.

Every creative involved in this project has identified an issue with their ability to access poetry, whether that’s feeling self-conscious and outnumbered at poetry events, or not possessing ready familiarity with terms like spondee or enjambment.  Not that they need to, with talents of this magnitude.

For this collection is jaw-droppingly good. I put it on to make dinner and found forty minutes later I’d done nothing but stand in the middle of the kitchen, straining to catch and relish each machine-gunned syllable, gasping at their eloquence and energy. It presents a dingy kaleidoscope of images that somehow make up a solid block of radiant colour, a feral scream that yanks your ears and threatens violence if you turn to hide from its onslaught.
It opens, colours nailed proud to the Essex mast,

We done change ourselves to make ourselves better placed on sales shelves in a veiled attempt to save ourselves from the sale of self…

Each word clipped and tense with fury, embodying the influence of rap on these poets, the internal rhymes, the puns that are not quite jokes. There’s no free verse here. The rhythms and rhyme schemes are complex, and offer up subject matter that’s earnest and bruising. Throughout this collection there’s a good line in male tenderness, still tough and macho, but ready to concede; it possesses the young male swagger of rap, but there’s no arrogance, only fierce, resolute pride. It captures the dichotomy of lower working class life, tender and tough, confrontational and compassionate, and all united by a modern malaise – a sense they can’t belong, aren’t included, aren’t expected to succeed.

We’re too grown up to be unaccountable but we’re too poor to have mortgages, see, that’s us.

As the collection unfolds, every piece of inarticulacy, every cry, every shout, gets balled together into one frenzied, bruising, eloquent assault.

We are large screen TVs and no stair carpets
We are looked down on, so for us, things are always looking up
We are the less said the better
We are listed as vulnerable
We are the least vulnerable people you will ever meet
We are the people Jesus would have loved
We are worth more than the weight of our wallets…

There are nineteen poems in this collection, from six different voices, and by no means are they all angry and confrontational. Why I hate Mondays tells of life and death with a dad on heroin. More brooding, more anecdotal, it’s a coming of age story reeking of guilt, a three minute bildungsroman, a young man coming to terms with being failed by his father,  ruminative, breathless with remorse. 

It’s OK to love someone and be disappointed by them

It sets you up to hear a story you never really hear – the poet only alludes to it; offers up, between the rage and regret, a chance to figure it out for yourself. It’s beautifully crafted, economically delivered.

But then, as the next man comments,

 I will always remember what my dad said to me….
He left me, my mum, my sister, with absolutely nothing
And from that moment on I swear to God I had to be something…

I’d rather use my words and verbs to paint a picture…I don’t need insta

Yet he proceeds to recognise and explore the energising motivational force of social media to a poet. Why have I got my face in these books trying to get my face booked? That desire to be something, to escape thwarted ambition, flatlining hope, invisibility.

Their six voices are distinct, their backgrounds and stories widely disparate, yet their work displays collective narratives that unify their voices into one choir, one solid body of experience, one shared reality, trying to make itself heard over a roar of economic and cultural pressures that constantly threaten to drown them out. They don’t have the author’s name by each individual poem. Maybe that’s the point. 

The poets hope to make their work into a book too – Sadie Davidson, a key voice within the collective and multi-slam winning performance poet, with two books already to her name, is busy collating the work, editing it and looking for potential publishers. The broad accents and furious spat syllables give it an extra dimension, but I’m absolutely confident it will work in print  – these are words that deserve also to be lingered over, studied, savoured.

 But for now, listen, and wonder.

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