Novelist and performance poet, Lucy English entered her first Bristol Poetry Slam in 1996 wearing a multi-coloured jumpsuit and won. Since then she has performed poetry world-wide, written three novels, and is a Reader at Bath Spa University where she teaches performance poetry as well as studying for a PhD in digital writing.
Lucy’s poetry, however, has never been in print before, despite her international reputation. Designed to be performed, much of performance poetry tends to be ethereal, existing for the audience, the next gig, living on the stage rather than the page.
Now Lucy’s collected performance poems from the last 20 years have been brought together by local indie publisher Burning Eye Books. Editor, Clive Birnie said: “There’s a vibrant live poetry scene but poets aren’t getting published by mainstream publishers and that’s where Burning Eye comes in. We’re on a mission to publish poets like Lucy English to deal with the under-representation of performance poetry by mainstream publishers.”
At the book launch of ‘Prayer to Imperfection Poems 1996 – 2014’, organised by Novel Nights, Lucy took the audience on a journey through the changing landscape, not just of Bristol, but also of Slam Poetry itself.
“Bristol’s quite an inspiring place – first in terms of the way it looks and how smart and scrubbed up it’d become.” Many of Lucy’s poems feature local landscapes such as ‘The Telephone Box up Ashley Hill,’ or ‘Temple Cloud.’ Totterdown also features on the book cover from a painting of the familiar pastel Victorian terraces by artist, Emily Ketteringham.
In ‘Take Me To The City’, we journey through different cityscapes, ‘I walked to Tescos where the motorway meets the river. Above my head, one stream flowing on concrete pillars, and ‘I wore nothing but my fear of forgotten places.’ The narrative voice becomes Bristol – ‘my hair is Leigh Woods, and, ‘my knees must be Totterdown.
Using place in this way is of course hugely popular with a local audience, but it was her compelling performance of her work and understated lyricism that had the Novel Nights audience quietly appreciative of her work.
‘Liar’ plays with the audience’s expectation. Given a strong narrative voice spoken with conviction, the lines, ‘I take smart drugs every ten minutes’ or ‘I can speak Croatian’, are believable but the line quickly follows, ‘No I don’t. I’m a liar.’ The simple assertions of truth and untruth throughout the poem kept us intrigued as Lucy produced ever more fantastical versions of a ‘self’. The point here perhaps is that all writers create fictions, and playing with that idea is part of the fun of creation.
Her poem about taking her children to Cemetery Road referenced Arnos Vale Cemetery in the days when it was a wilderness without lottery funding. Pork pie, coke and crisps as a treat captured life as a single parent just as vividly as her son’s scuffed shoe.
The joy of the evening was hearing a superb performance by Lucy with an audience who were intently listening. So much meaning is communicated via tone so poems like ‘Send me a Man’ would be multi-layered when read by the poet as opposed to being read on the page.
This is a poet who is directly accessible who writes about love, motherhood and relationships and who defies us to think the poems are autobiographical. In ‘You are the one for me,’ the poem states,
‘I want your babies.
I want all your babies, even the ones you’ve already got.
In fact, I could be your mother.’
Lucy ended the evening with a tribute to her sister and mother in ‘Family Prayers.’ The narrative structure introduced the different family members and builds from a family saying prayers, to the poem itself becoming a prayer, ending on a poignant but quiet, understated note.
Prayer to Imperfection Poems 1996 – 2014 is available in bookshops, via Amazon and directly from Burning Eye Books. Novel Nights hold regular events for writers. For details see www.wordpoppy.com. or email firstname.lastname@example.org