Review of Kate Tempest: Hold Your Own

1007541Performance poetry might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as Alison McManus discovered the Mercury-nominated Kate Tempest offered something magical when she appeared at Durham Book Festival.

“So you’ve got a babysitter? And we’re going out? Really out? Properly, like grownups?”

“Yes,” I say, excited, but hesitant as well; this is risky.

“Are we going to see a film?” When I shake my head, he gets really animated.  “A band? A play? A ….comedian? Come on, what?”

“A… performance poet!”

His face falls. “Oh, OK.”

“But she’s really talented,” I say, a little defensively, pointing out a recent interview with Kate Tempest in the Observer, hoping the photograph of an unexpectedly youthful and attractive poet might help my case. “She’s up for a Mercury Award this year.” That should help; his eyebrows go up. “And it’s not the old-fashioned, mike-clutching stuff you hate. Trust me.”

I can see he’s not convinced yet; I am worried too. I prefer to approach poetry by reading it first. Later, I may read it aloud, quietly, to myself, to hear the sounds, but I find it hard to concentrate on anything being read aloud; I don’t even really like Radio 4. My mind wanders.  What if this is a disaster and we are both bored? So the evening begins with an inevitable row. Unusually, I am ready first, he is not. We drive to the restaurant in silence.  Later, mid-way during the show, Tempest describes a “domestic” between Zeus and Hera as “what’s to be expected/ From an eternity of marriage” and we share a laugh, but we’ve both known from the start it was going to be OK.

As soon as Tempest takes the stage, raw, energetic, all golden locks and bouncing Nike trainers, she has started to weave her magic

As soon as Tempest takes the stage, raw, energetic, all golden locks and bouncing Nike trainers, she has started to weave her magic around us. Her physical presence is charming, disarming; at twenty-eight, both child-like and mature, with a confidence in how her body uses space but also maintaining the innocent, wide-openness of a very young girl. There is something of the fairy tale about this contradiction, a cheeky sprite, a playful imp. The audience is captivated by her spell, calling out encouragement when she considers skipping over a particular poem, delighted when she mentions a fondness for Durham, nodding in recognition at her characterisation of the battle of the sexes.

For this is one of her themes in Hold Your Own, which centres on the myth of Tiresias. Once she begins to recite, powerfully, from memory, what she jokingly refers to as her ‘shortest poem’ (it isn’t), any residual apprehension I may have felt about the evening is quickly dissipated. This is Tempest’s magic: storm-like, she carries you along with her words. One cannot help but follow the narrative of Tiresias, neither the most accessible nor familiar of Greek myths, somehow made contemporary and urgent when spoken in Tempest’s voice, embodied through the use of gesture and physicality. Her take on the story is simple, rhythmic: of a boy, bored, stoned and skipping school, disturbed by a vision of copulating snakes, transformed into a woman and then back into a man. Called on by Zeus to settle an argument over the god’s infidelity to Hera, Tiresias is then blinded by Hera for unknowingly backing Zeus’s claim that ‘women like it more’.  This leads to a fourth phase in the mortal’s life, for Zeus, unable to undo Hera’s violence, gives him instead the power of prophecy to compensate for the loss of his eyes. Hold Your Own is divided into four corresponding books: “Childhood,” “Womanhood,” “Manhood” and “Blind Prophet.”

Thus is it not only gender that Tempest handles in this collection, but also empathy for the marginalised, the powerless, the dispossessed. Before beginning the performance, she speaks of her experience earlier that day of leading a writing workshop within the confines of Durham’s prison for men, an experience which obviously has unsettled her. “These are the most macho men you can find,” she says, before describing their vulnerability and humanity, and dedicating one of her poems, “Man Down,” to the inmates. The poem’s quiet exhortation to men to release their emotions seems especially poignant: “we are made manifest/ By the hearts that bang hard on the bars of our chests — /Let them out.” Later, Tempest speaks passionately of her concern for the world, of cities and towns gripped by fear and hate, of disease and war. Her voice raw, her posture vulnerable (and yes, she is clutching the mike, forgivably), she pleads with the audience to be empathetic towards our fellow human beings, even when we don’t believe they deserve empathy. This earns a roar of praise and clapping, which she cuts short with, “Naw, don’t clap it, don’t clap it. That makes it all contrived.” And she launches into another poem, afterwards with an apology for taking us all into such dark places.

And there is darkness in her work. There is, for example, “The Ballad of a Hero” written from a mother’s voice to her son, trying to explain the behaviour of her husband who has returned from war, and also “Progress,” which describes an increasingly secular society that has failed to replace dogma with meaning, ridiculing “all-you-can-eat-Freedom” and “the joy of being who we are/ by virtue of the clothes we buy.”

If there is something of the sprite in Tempest, there is also the rapper and the evangelist

If there is something of the sprite in Tempest, there is also the rapper and the evangelist. She manipulates register with ease, switching from profanity and street-talk to a familiar, churchy, fire-and-brimstone voice. But not all the poems are preachy. “Snakes in the Grass,” for example, is deceptively funny, referring both to the snakes Tiresias uncouples in the myth as well as Tempest’s childhood observation of a copulating couple in the park.

Afterward, at the book signing, there is a tiredness beneath Tempest’s eyes. We struggle hard to think of what to say, but, like the rest of the audience, are stunned and overwhelmed by the experience of her performance, which has taken its toll on us as well as on her. It is all we can do to utter, “amazing… thank you.”

And him? He was first in the queue to buy the book.

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