Bringing a stellar week of poetry performance and discussions to a close Helen Mort from Sheffield described by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy as being, “among the brightest stars in the constellation of Young British Poets” and from South Africa Finuala Dowling, with an honesty and wit that cuts through all the pretence and niceties in order to survive life’s ills.
Helen Mort’s favourite place to read is Hull. It is true. She told the audience herself as she opened her set with four short poems all set on Hessle Road from her collection No Map Could Show Them (2016). Lil’s dream, What the papers said, Lil’s answer and Lil’s last word explore the way fish worker turned campaigner Lillian Bilocca, was viewed and written about by the media. Helen cleverly uses the repetition of ’17 stone’ in What the papers said, to transform it and say something important about Lil’s character. Difficult, does something similar, rejoicing in the idea of being unruly, framing the difficult woman as something to aspire to and celebrate.
Shifting location to her hometown of Sheffield, Helen reads Rachel in Attercliffe a poem that takes the city’s sex workers and transforms them into the saviours of Christmas. Then, turning towards Park Hill Flats she sets up a social justice story borne out of a piece of graffiti that read, I Love You Clare Will U Marry Me. The graffiti that appeared over night, became a local landmark but the story behind it has lain hidden until fairly recently.
Jason (revealed as the author of the graffiti) after professing his undying love to Clare, years later finds his words being robbed of their real meaning. Clare’s name is removed in preparation for a neon art sign to be fixed in its place. A declaration of love now appropriated by the Park Hill developers Urban Splash, to be read as an ‘invitation to the city’. This poem resonates loudly as we face up to what that word ‘regeneration’ really means for our communities. Using poetry to shine a light on these dubious and cynical business practices might be all we have left.
Helen’s next collection planned for 2019, is to be called Failsafe and is loosely based around the notion of failure. She reads a poem about inventions that didn’t work called Catalogue of Errors inspired by the Museum of Failure in Helsingborg Sweden.
Building a scene like a war reel she tells of a young boy swimming in a cove in Torquay, as a plane and a bird cast a shadow overhead. Returning to one of her favourite past times long-distance running, she shares the annoying habit of other runners incessantly talking about their diets. To conclude, Helen lovingly imbues her grandmother with the mischief and devilry of Beryl the Peril, a favourite comic strip character she used to read when young.
Helen Mort has recently made a foray into fiction with a collection of dystopian stories called Exire published via Wrecking Ball Press.
Finuala Dowling’s Pretend You Don’t Know Me published by Bloodaxe in the U.K. sports a zebra in sunglasses on the cover. At first glance you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a children’s book. Inside the reader is faced with darkly humorous poems, laced with truths and real life. Her work on this first reading, bears a distinct lack of virtue signalling, refreshing in the mood music times we live in.
Finuala points an accusatory finger at misled adventurers on a quest for accidental death, then a very real death as Finuala speaks about the loss of her brother Sean, dedicating a poignant poem to him called Red rover. Death and a futile search for meaning – as she categorises her work at the start of the reading – then follows us into the hospital for a series of grimly funny and unflinching verses written whilst caring for her ailing mother. ‘How her madness growls wards of death’ There’s humour mixed with fear and anger and a sense of the impending loss. ‘When she can’t hear words but fears the sounds,’ underlines the confusion and the cruel ways in which dementia affects us all.
Hoping for some light relief from all this reality, a poem The woman who jumped in my place, frames a news story of a drowning bringing it closer than is comfortable. There follows a meditation on the nature of depression, done in an unsympathetic, unpitying way and anyway there’s always salvation in the form of porridge. Well is a poem that takes an everyday greeting response and fills it with something far less welcome.
Living in the bush you can come across a wild animal when you least expect it, a rhino on the driveway, a boomslang in the branches or a snuffling rodent as found in the glorious How to use a porcupine as an alibi. I like to imagine the heart-stopping tale of beast versus man being gleefully trotted out at every opportunity.
There’s more sideways humour in a poem about cauliflowers dreaming of the good life, until the final poem I am the zebra, that hints at the reason for the eccentric looking animal on the cover.
In a country where poetry was characterised by veld and vlei poets and the protest poets of the apartheid era, Finuala Dowling is offering the world a fresh South African voice refreshingly not steeped in racial conflict and political unrest.
And that is it seven days ten events an all-female Humber Mouth Literature Festival.
Enjoy more pictures from festival photographer Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments
Many thanks to James Reckitt Library Trust, Hull Libraries (Hull Culture and Leisure ltd) and Kardomah 94 for their support hosting events. We’ll see you all again in 2019.