With its commitment to ‘literature, literacy and free expression’, and the home of English PEN, which supports writers in prisons, London’s Free Word Centre was the perfect venue for an edgy, comedic show about environmental activism. Stand-up poetry might seem an incongruous vehicle for exploring the most serious issues humanity faces, but both poet-performers played to a full house.
Danny Chivers opened the show, taking the audience on a journey over a four year period of his life, as he charts his transformation from a liberal environmentalist engaged in ‘lifestyle change’ (“feeling hardy in my cardie”) into an activist committed to civil disobedience and non-violent direct action. His narrative framework flashes back in time to explore how “a bookish boy from Bristol” might end 80m up a power station chimney, his home for a week.
It isn’t always obvious where Danny’s commentary ends and the poetry begins, but his physical energy and enthusiasm is infectious. His ‘radicalisation’ takes place at Climate Camp in 2007 beside Heathrow, neatly summarised in the lines “eco-piety won’t change society", "we’ll build solutions from below". Heart-warmingly candid, he describes the eye-openers he experiences with heavy police responses at Climate Camp in 2008 as “lessons for the Guardian-reading middle class”. Trying to allay his family’s fears, he’s nevertheless candid about his privilege as a white, middle-class male “getting a softer ride in the justice system”.
Despite the humour, the stakes are high: "Who wants to be a domestic extremist, not quite a terrorist, a bit more B list!” And his slick routine includes the revelation of Mark Kennedy, an undercover cop who infiltrated Climate Camp, with a powerful poem about a woman’s relationship with “one who never existed”. Clearly intending to empower others, Danny completes his narrative with scaling the chimney at West Burton gas-fired power station, telling us he’s “living proof that you don’t need any practical skills to do an action”.
After the interval, Pete the Temp's show seemed to be similarly designed to inspire others, with hilarious footage of him making a spoof supermarket ad and disrupting an oil industry conference in protest at the Canadian tar sands. However, at times his show felt more comedy than poetry, despite the 'Verses' in the title, while its slogan, 'Watch him defeat climate change using only his mouth', seemed to refer to the range of stand-up techniques used by this versatile performer. Having previously heard Pete in another role, performing beautifully poignant, original songs of social commentary, I guess I was also underwhelmed by my own expectations.
Dividing his show into ‘chapters’, Pete introduces animated film clips with a short lesson on climate change and our energy use, via cycling Oompahlumpahs. Bouncy and fearless, Pete also takes the audience into a hellish vision of the decadent Secret Garden Party festival, which he prefaces with the remark: "We need to stare collapse in the face… it’s a bit dark and you’re just going to have to suffer it!”, and follows by call and response with the audience, our “Ho! Ho! Ho!” ringing perhaps deliberately hollow.
Drawing from his experience fundraising for a charity at a call centre, Pete’s routine includes phoning an elderly lady, as he impersonates her in a grey wig to provide an insight into fuel poverty. I found the piece monotonous, and was glad to watch him morph into another identity as ‘human beat-box and loop pedal artist’, impressively creating a backing track on the spot to deliver his upbeat ‘Global Food Renaissance Rap’.
Despite my reservations, the audience remained loudly engaged and appreciative throughout. Some were already seasoned activists, including a woman who had appeared with Pete in footage of the tar sands protest, and I wondered how many others might go away inspired to engage in new exploits. This double bill of environmental activist stand-up poetry is, after all, a good contribution to a culture of resistance that needs collective input.
Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and community artist/activist. Her debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books 2012) was described by Alasdair Paterson as being "in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry."
Her second collection, ECOZOA, will be published by Permanent Publications in spring 2015. For more information visit www.natures-words.co.ukAn edxpl
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