Hammer and Tongue at Smoke and Mirrors

“We love private jokes in the poetry world,” notes Hannah, one of the compères of this monthly poetry extravaganza, as certain members of the audience laugh so heartily that we’re confident this must be the case. Some things you just don’t get and that’s OK. And, as this Hammer and Tongue evening progresses, that observation crystallises in the poetry we hear, here at Smoke and Mirrors in Bristol’s Denmark Street (by the Hippodrome).

The quality of this spoken word is impressively high, from the main act, Rob Gee, who is travelling from his native Leicester to the various H & T venues in southern England, to his support act, Cardiff-based American Christina Thatcher, to the poetry slam entrants, who are hoping to win a place in the Bristol Regional Finals and then, who knows, on to the Nationals at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But what strikes me, sitting here with a pint of ale in this live entertainment pub (magic, comedy, music, burlesque) is that every poet has different things that make her tick, distinct themes that are important and personal enough to write about (although love is usually in there, in one form or another).

Thommie introduces the evening and gives the audience a vocal warm-up exercise, to get us in the mood, though it’s obvious that most don’t need it; they’re already wound up with anticipation and excitement and are rearing to go. Christina Thatcher, though, isn’t the sort of poet to guffaw and whoop-whoop at – hers is a dark sequence of short poems about her addict father’s death and how she dealt with the realities of grieving for a parent who, in life, was challenging and whose death was a series of lessons that she now shares with brutal honesty. Christina’s work is touching, brave and personal and delivered with a combination of sweetness and a nod to inevitability.

Rob Gee, on the other hand, is a comedic performer, born to be on stage with his witty life observations and natural chat. He intersperses a handful of fresh poems with playful banter, flaunting his rebelliousness on and off the page. The Day My Head Exploded mocks the efficiency of our Health Service, while To Whom it May Concern puts us all in mind of someone we know, even if that person is a future us, “So I’d thought I’d better write this letter for later on in my dementia, and if you’re the sorry sod who’s reading it, then my arse is your career.” The man is Mischief.

After the break, the open poetry slam begins. This month, the competition is oversubscribed but the eight poets who have made it onto stage have less than three minutes each to bang out their spoken words. Tim has his eye on the clock (there is a penalty for those who go over the allotted time) and is adding the scores given by five judges in the audience. We hear about a geometric love triangle, sex in your 50s, the universal computer, poems about poems, eating disorders and more love. The competition is tight and the scores highlight there’s not much in it but my date, Mark, and I agree that the judges were wise in their appreciation of this month’s winner, Brenda, and her humorous poem about President Trump.

It’s not surprising that the back room of Smoke and Mirrors is full to the brim for this event and I suspect that the popularity of Hammer and Tongue in Bristol will soon outgrow the venue. There really is a great deal of talent out there and Hammer and Tongue seems to have attracted its fair share.

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