UK poetry scene produces a very special Sunday night in Stratford

Something very special happened last Sunday night. Kat Francois, an excellent poet in her own right – she can point to a BBC world slam championship, as well as several headline slots at leading events and festivals – hosted the tenth anniversary celebration of her celebrated weekly poetry night, Word4Word, at the Theatre Royal in Stratford. The longevity of the night, which is free to all-comers, is remarkable enough in London’s fickle entertainment landscape. Its success is a tribute to Kat’s endless efforts and the steadfast support of her partner, the poet, photographer and DJ Rob ‘Sloetry’ Covell. Despite an evening of bracing cold, the event was welcomed by a full house, with something like a hundred people clustered around a series of tables.

The greatest beauty of Word4Word, I think, is that the poetry here is utterly unrestrained: its performers aren’t just gifted writers, but they have perhaps the greatest attribute of any artist, which is the bravery to express that which is most personal. There was no subject deemed too taboo; each topic, be it quiet heartbreak or the anger left by generations of slavery, was raised and powerfully examined, the house falling silent with shock or falling about with laughter. Francois, whose skills as a stand-up comedienne came to the fore, stitched the night together with warm, engaging and occasionally waspish asides, whilst Covell’s playlist had several people swaying in their seats, then sprinting to his DJ booth to see which sublime tune he’d just rolled out.

The format of the celebration was straightforward: each artist, be they poet, singer or rapper, was given a slot of five to ten minutes to stand up and do their thing. It was all here: from a young drama group mentored by Francois who formed a three-man spoken word chorus, telling a tale of the bitterest loss; to the souful storytelling of songwriters El Crisis, OneNess, and Dionne Reid; and the magnificent vocals of Delicia, whose imperious tones would put many an X-Factor finalist to shame.

Star poetic turns also came from the outstanding newcomer Kareem Brown, Word4Word stalwart Justice Lyric, Tshaka Campbell, Kemi Taiwo, Deanna Rodger, Lyric L (whose hilarious dramatisation of a Kat Francois poem was comedy platinum) and Mark Thompson, whose address to his wife, on the seventh anniversary of her diagnosis with cancer, was one of the night’s most moving moments. My personal highlight of the night was an astonishing piece by Yomi “G.R.E.Ed.S” Sode, an open letter to the President of Nigeria’s wife in criticism of that nation’s proposal to legalise child marriage. After his performance, which moved several to tears, Sode was himself overcome with emotion; in those few minutes, he produced as compelling a piece of live artistry as I have seen in several years.

The night was fittingly closed by AmeN Noir, whose new documentary on the UK spoken word scene is already attracting excellent reviews: it was only right that someone who has taken such care to document the genre’s past should end a night of rare commemoration and celebration. Kat Francois and her friends have created something truly special with Word4Word, and it will rightly be regarded as a cornerstone of this scene for many years to come.

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