God and Tolkien, German hookers and smoking crack on the tube – poetic gems in Birmingham.
Level Up is an interactive, hilariously high energy and innovative event with poetry at its core. While it encourages young poets to debut their work alongside more established artists, it presents a chance for the poetically curious (me) to glimpse into an intriguing scene of creatives in an immersive format. Bringing a sit-quiet-and-dig-this mindset was definitely a mistake on my part, because what ensued was totally unexpected…
From the get-go we’re rallied by Joe Cook (compère) whose unflagging enthusiasm gets fifty-or-so idle observers dancing, Mexican waving and shouting-on-demand at different intervals. Before a poet has even spoken somebody’s already won free tickets to The REP for their superior jigging abilities. This crowd participation is what makes Level Up largely unique and exciting, with even a live twitter feed left of stage adding to its dialogue. But despite this carefree atmosphere poets inevitably lead audiences into darker territories, so this cheery dynamic given by Joe Cook, Beatfreeks, and Apple & Snakes is imperative to keeping the vibe light-hearted and systematically frenzied. It’s a balance they’ve nailed in three seasons of Level Up.
Demonstrating this clearly is first open-mic performer Jess Davies whose piece is based around extremely tragic circumstances, encompassed in closing lyric “if you had wanted to taste the air, I would have lent you my lungs.” So how do you go from clicking your fingers (instead of clapping mid poem, which totally cool by the way) and whispering “woah…” to being in a Mexican wave? I’m not actually sure, but Level Up’s contagious positivity due to the appreciation of each poet manages to do this.
The emotional intention and vocabulary behind each open mic performer is succinct. What resonates most about this is how intimate each performance really is, with every word acting as another step towards empathy with a complete stranger. I get the sense that playful spoken articulation is appreciated, while artistic sincerity is deeply admired, applying to every poet here at The REP.
Open mic highlights include Timothy Scotson’s poem about his infatuation with fire-and-brimstone religion that drove him into a love of Tolkien fantasy, Afrah Yafai’s poem that soliloquized her feelings to an ex-lover comparing herself to a cup of tea, citing that “ a tea bag doesn’t question why it must take the weight of the water to benefit somebody else,” and a double act (Aliyah Hasinah and Aliyah Denton) that catches everyone off-guard by suddenly emerging from the crowd, seamlessly swapping focus while lyrically exploring the issues of Islamic identity in Birmingham.
These are powerful emotions and stories from average people, and that’s really what I’ve fell in love with. But pushing the boundaries and employing more technicality is certainly the forte of feature artists Sophie Fenella and Hannah Silva. Fenalla starts with a sestina called Upstream, whereby the audience is challenged to spot six repeated words – while also introducing the sestina format to new audiences, which is defined as:
“A poem of six six line stanzas and a three-line envoy, in which each stanza repeats the end words of the lines of the first stanza, but in a different order, the envoy using the six words again, three in the middle of the lines and three in the end.”
Again, a poem aimed towards an ex lover emerges as Fenella performs Body Battle, exploring a clash of physical ideals in a relationship. “You proofread my body,” she says. “If there is a moment when my body becomes a mathematical equation, I will call you.” The crowd empathises with a sea of clicking fingers. One of Fanella’s best titled poems To The Man Smoking Crack On The Tube, surprisingly humanizing the stereotype, and bringing him to life for the audience to enjoy, pity and despair.
Hannah Silva’s presence is huge, if not a little confrontational, accentuated by the use of a vocal-loop pedal whereby she’s able to make ambient pieces with harmonies and overpowering repetitions. From poems about at Ed Miliband, Berlin prostitutes (“I’m a woman in a puffa jacket with a corset on top,”) a ten year old’s letter to Colonel Gaddafi, and an ironically contemptuous piece about amputees using prosthetics going back to war (“it’s a good thing!”) – Silva’s certainly the most left-field, inventive and trance-inducing performer of the night. Highly recommended.
It’s frustrating to have discovered Level Up on its season finale, as we’ll have to wait until September for it to return. But after the speeches, bouts of applause, Mexican waves and awards, Joe Cook notably remarks “this is what it’s all about, supporting the scene. And if there’ isn’t a scene near you, make one.”
It was a pleasure to discover, support and celebrate Level Up all in one night, no matter how briefly, because Level Up is just that – a higher level of open mic poetry, for a new generation, by a new generation.