2Kolegas is a small live music venue hidden inside the grounds of the Beijing drive-in movie theatre. (Yes, we really have one.) When considering how to describe it to you, the word grungy didn’t so much spring to my mind as catapult vigorously in its direction; it is the type of place which serves cheap drinks and big dreams and where every square inch of the walls is covered in graffiti. I dropped in for the first time last Saturday night, to attend a slam poetry performance sponsored by the Bookworm International Literary Festival and the Jue Festival. The event featured performances from Luka Lesson, the current Australian Poetry Slam Champion, and Tim Clare, British stand-up poet and author of WE CAN’T ALL BE ASTRONAUTS; Montreal based musician Courtney Wing opened the night, but since you came here to read about poetry, I will with the utmost respect gloss over his part in the proceedings.
First up after the music, then, was Tim Clare. Clare talks like a poet but takes the stage like a comedian; in his T-shirt and scraggly hair, he exudes a very powerful, and oddly endearing sense of self-deprecation. This is reflected in the nature of his writing: his set began with Pub Stuntman, a poem which opens with a vivid description of banging an old lady for a bet. In this poem, and indeed throughout the set, Clare’s choice of rhymes is integral to the comic effect; lines like ‘Her lips are dry, her legs are splayed / She switches off her hearing aid’ are nothing so much as the poetic equivalent of carrot and stick. And yet this poem, when it comes full circle, highlights what is perhaps the most powerful part of Tim Clare’s work, which is the pathos behind the joking.
Clare’s set also included Down With The Kids, a poem so deftly inserted into a comic monologue that we were five lines into it before anybody had noticed; a song entitled Nice And Gentle, Jesus which takes a chance moment witnessed on the River Cam and turns it into the Passion of the Christ; and finally, what was possibly the most impressive rap I’ve ever seen from a man attempting to impersonate famous women throughout history while rhyming at the same time. His set was short, but it packed a punch, blurring the boundaries between poet, musician and stand-up comedian and doing it well. I missed Clare’s solo show Death Drive while he was in Beijing, but I’ll be picking up his book as soon as I can.
Then it was Luka Lesson’s turn. By this point, I have to confess, I was a little the worse for wear: it was St. Patrick’s Day, I had come straight from a bout of heavy drinking, and I had the sort of headache which makes a bear to the face seem like a cheeky massage. Lesson’s performance cut through all that; by The Confluence, a simple yet incredibly powerful portrayal of the coming together and parting of two lovers, I was on the edge of my seat despite the haze. ‘Half a bird seemed to chirp half a song in half a tree’; he said he wanted to get this poem over and done early so he wouldn’t have the chance to cry, and I believed him. Other highlights included A to Z, a glorious rollercoaster of a journey through the alphabet complete with audience participation, and Athena, my favourite poem of the night, for which I can conceive no higher compliment than that it made me think I was Greek too.
Lesson’s poetry is a heady mix of mythology, political commentary (immigration and racism are two issues which are frequently referenced) and stylistic influences from rap and hip-hop. In fact he performed a number of hip-hop pieces in addition to his standard spoken-word, but I won’t discuss them here because hip-hop might as well be moon opera for all it makes sense to me. But that just emphasises my point: Lesson’s work is a very far cry from the sort of poetry I usually engage with, it was battling the twin forces of exhaustion and alcohol, and yet it moved me. It opened me up and invited itself in.
SLAM! was the first spoken word event I have ever attended. I know, I know, I’m a terrible person, but I have to say I couldn’t have chosen two better poets to take my slam cherry if I’d tried. Between Tim and his ukelele and Luka and his hair–I’m convinced it’s a sentient being that just happens to live on him–I was introduced to the big wide world of performance poetry with a maximum of magic and a minimum of mess. If either of them ever comes back to China, I’ll be in the first row at their shows. And I learnt another important lesson that night too, one just as important as the literature: don’t challenge the Australian Slam Poetry Champion at foosball. He will rock your socks every time.