I get about a bit as a poet, travelling across the country to tiny venues in the back rooms of pubs where an audience of three or four are there for the open mic night and have never heard of me, let alone read my poetry. They sit and shuffle their papers, waiting for their 15 minutes of fame. I am polite, interested and engaged by what they produce, and usually a bit sad that I’ve driven a four-hour round trip for zero payment to read to people who don’t care about me and have no interest in buying my books.
OK, I’m exaggerating. I actually really enjoy travelling and meeting new poets and I have read at some genuinely lovely places and met some of the most vibrant and talented poets you could imagine. But doing the promotion work for poetry can be soul-destroying. It almost makes me want to avoid readings, partly because I’m knackered and partly because I’m worried I’ll be disappointed. I have such a bare minimum of spare time between running my business, teaching, mentoring, writing and doing two degrees concurrently (yes, yes, I know, I’m an idiot) that it’s really hard to choose the most enjoyable readings and events. I try to support people I know and whose work I love, and, of course, those who have supported me. And I don’t mind the travelling, though I am only just getting used to driving alone on motorways, which scares the hell out of me. But it’s always nice to be invited to read at something that is on the doorstep, in a venue you know you’ll love, and an event that you can’t wait to see. And so it was with Bob Beagre and Andy Willoughby’s Reforging the Sampo.
I’d been reading about this poetical/musical/mystical ‘show’ for ages. In their own words: “Reforging The Sampo is a multi-voiced, musical mash-up of mythological and contemporary social commentary across a landscape of love, loss and endless questioning for the shamanic holy grail of Finnish legend. Developed over ten years, this spoken word performance with improvised music and sound effects is unique in contemporary poetry. Their raggle-taggle band of folk and jazz musicians help them recreate and conjure up the archetypes of wizardry, animalistic shamanism, ice queens, vagabonds, warriors and lovers lost to the flow in a world of decaying industry, karaoke kings and conveyor belt game show prizes.”
I was intrigued by the concept of a performance that involved poetry and music and moved between personal, mythical, modern and ancient. So when I was invited to be part of the show at Old St Stephen’s Church in Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorks, I jumped at it. I only had a short set which meant that I’d be able to do my thing, get off the stage, and sit back and enjoy the show. But I didn’t expect to be blown away. If you get the chance to see this show, then go. It’s touring the country and a list of dates can be found on its Facebook page.
St. Stephen’s is used as an art space and performance platform as well as an actual church and has a wonderful history. The pulpit is huge and on three levels, it dominates the space. Apparently there is a spring which comes up right into the pulpit itself. It’s on a steep hillside looking down into the crooked hobbit town of Robin Hood’s Bay, and black-faced sheep meander among the tumbled gravestones and wild flowers.
The day of the reading was beautiful and atmospheric, with wood smoke floating up on the non-breeze and the sea a millpond in the bay. The church was quiet and cool and the small audience was excited by the prospect of the show. After chatting to the other performers and to Willoughby, I got up and read some of my own mythical bits and pieces from all three of my books. It was so very nice to be reading for pleasure and not trying to flog anything, and I was too excited about the show to be nervous. After my stint I slunk into one of the pews and shut the wooden door behind me so I could lean over the side and watch Sampo performed. Sadly, poor Bob Beagre couldn’t be there as he’d damaged his ankle in a ku-fung accident (I saw the photos on Facebook and it was pretty bad) so it was down to Willoughby to do both his and Beagre’s parts and to carry the show off. And my God, he did a sterling job.
As soon as the low moan of the didgeridoo started rattling through the brickwork of the church I knew I was in for a treat. It bubbled up from the ground, invoking the old gods; it felt magical and, yes, shamanistic. The sound drove through my bones and then, when Willoughby started to speak, started to read about Teeside, started to invoke the gods of blood and sweat and to bring back the metal working and link them, chain by chain, to something more ancient, and the thrum of the music was pounding like a heartbeat, I was transported.
Willoughby took us on an amazing journey down into burial mounds and out onto the sea, into woods where gods transformed into animals. I’m a sucker for any sort of legend and the Finnish stories are captivating. I was completely absorbed throughout. I felt like the sound effects and the music were pulling on something in my chest and the words were breaking into me and dragging something quite primal, like a memory, from me.
This is bollocky poetry talk from me but I can’t explain the effect it had on me without talking poetic bollocks. It’s an amazing show. Even though the audience was ‘intimate’ (poetic world slang for small) and a big chunk of the show was missing in the form of Beagre, it still carried me along, it still rang through me the way that poetry should.
I was ready for a set of big, crashing poems to inhabit me. And these are big poems; even the poems about the small stuff are big poems. There’s something cleansing about watching someone who’s so confident in their own work. I needed that heartbeat to reinvigorate me and revive my joy and love for poetry. It made me want to travel again, it made me want to experience poetry again. Sampo is a defibrillator for poetry, go see it.
By Wendy Pratt, Poetry Correspondent
Reforging the Sampo: www.facebook.com/events/389425674563798/