Poetry Can Fuck Off

By Michael Kemp

Review of Poetry Can Fuck Off at The Other Place Theatre, Brighton , .

poster for the event
Poster for Poetry Can Fuck Off

A cold night in Brighton. Followed the illuminated neon arrow on Kensington Street, up to the box office (I’d like a ticket for Poetry Can Fuck Off, please ~ You enjoyed saying that, didn’t you?), and then down the stairs to The Basement at Otherplace ~ and found myself a vacant seat for Heathcote Williams’ Poetry Can Fuck Off

A packed and high-spirited house… awaiting, but wait a moment, just who is Heathcote Williams? Man of mystery, distant voice in the shadows, a name remembered from hazy underground days and old copies of International Times, an elusive presence…

The usual sources, and suspects, offer disparate biographical strands ~ can all these be the same man? Playwright, poet, author, actor, activist… Fire-eater, fire-farter (the Flames segment of Dreams of Thirteen, 1974), invigilator of the first Wet Dream Festival, lifetime member of the Magic Circle…

Born in 1941, we know that much. Wrote The Speakers and The Local Stigmatic. A passionate marine conservationist (Whale Nation, 1988), a fiery crusading ecologist (Autogeddon, 1991) ~ composer of ribald lyrics for Marianne Faithfull (Why d’ya do it? Why d’ya let her suck your cock?) ~ played Prospero in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979)… Fierce anti-monarchist and scathing critic of American Foreign Policy ~ a man who refused to tour America to publicize his books, and then turns up in Basic Instinct 2 and the final episode of Friends… A master of disguise, of duality.

Limited editions of more recent work ~ American Porn (2009), La Môme (for Edith Piaf) (2012), An Iraqi Child (2012), Heaney at Gallarus and Eating the Rich (both 2014) ~ all published by Rotterdam’s Cold Turkey Press (via Sea Urchin Editions). But the more details you uncover about Heathcote Williams, the cloudier, less distinct the picture ~ and the more elusive the man…

Leaving him free to curate this glorious and incendiary song cycle of rhyme and rebellion: Poetry Can Fuck Off. Which is where we came in. Ably interpreted & brought to life by Roy Hutchins, with Sameena Zehra, Selina Nwulu, Jonny Fluffypunk and special guests – with live music from Dr Blue.

An evening celebrating the power of the word ~ a voice for the dispossessed ~ a rallying call ~ poetry as ammunition in the constant struggle against rich tyrants and unspeakable odds ~ from Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt to Ozymandias, king of kings ~ from Percy Bysshe Shelley to The Fugs (Jonny Fluffypunk giving The Fugs a good run for their money on the wild ranting CIA Man ~ he also does a pretty convincing Pussy Riot) ~ Martin Luther King, Gil Scott-Heron, Emily Dickinson, Jim Morrison, William Blake, Federico Garcia Lorca, Oscar Wilde, Victor Jara (brutally tortured and executed by the Pinochet regime in 1973).

We had poetic tales against corrupt U.S. Imperialism, Mahatma Gandhi using not violence but Shelley’s words to defeat the British Army in India, Sameeena Zehra and Selina Nwulu gave us spirited and rabble-rousing renditions of Gil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Billie Holiday’s harrowing tale of lynching in the Deep South of America ~ Strange Fruit.

And, at one point, all the lights turned out, and a full choir ~ the Brighton Tubthumpers (Brighton and Hove’s choir for the Progressive Left) suddenly appeared at the other end of the room singing Leon Rosselson’s arrangement of James Oppenheim’s poem Bread and Roses in amazing intricate counterpoint, conducted by the ebullient Kirsty Martin … a joyous communal moment in time…

A stunning show. Made my way back up the basement stairs to re-enter that cold Brighton night, but fired with passion, solidarity and compassion ~ and the raw power of the live spoken word. Give us bread, but roses too…