I have only heard good things about the poetry scene in Canterbury: the home-grown talent, the cosy, intimate settings of the readings, and the genuine sense of community that the poets have formed. And yet I had never been to a local poetry event.
So, on being tasked to cover Arthena: A Showcase, I headed into the city centre, in anticipation of seeing and hearing for myself. Arthena was held at the Foundry BrewPub, tucked off the main high street. Being the novice that I am, I arrived just after doors opened to an almost empty space. Note to future self: the poetry scene is very relaxed; the idea is to pitch up and grab a drink from the bar in your own good time! As the poets began to arrive, both those performing that night and others on the local scene, it was immediately clear that this was a community, everyone greeting each other with bounding enthusiasm and warmth.
Arthena is the brainchild of Laura Kestrel, a hugely talented poet and performer in her own right, who decided she wanted to host an event that showcased the female creative and poetic talent in Kent. Following the success of her book launch last August, at which several of the night’s lineup performed, she wanted to reprise a platform for female poets.
The event was so much richer for the diversity of the lineup, a range of ages and backgrounds contributed to an engaging spectrum of the female voice. The opening performance by Angela (Angel Cakes Dye) was anecdotal, giving us a glimpse into her creative writing thought-process, often drawing on natural imagery. She also set the tone for the evening in opening up about her personal experiences to give a vulnerable, beautiful performance.
The next poet up was Neelam Saredia-Brayley. Her poems were performed to music, a new concept on me, but one which instantly grabbed and held my attention. I found the combination of Neelam’s precise and rounded diction and her ability to express the mundane so precisely, thus elevating it to new heights, with subtle yet well-chosen background music, utterly compelling. We were treated to two new poems. The one dedicated to her friend, supporting her in the front row, was a stand-out performance which celebrated a beautiful friendship, and reminded me afresh of the joy of women faithfully building each other up. Her poetry is emotive and humorous, full of rhythmic and tonal surprises. She is one to watch.
Clair Meyrick’s poetry was a perfect foil to the brightness of Neelam’s performance, exploring darker themes with raw, emotive language and abstract imagery. Following her was Alice Gretton, who changed the pace of the evening yet again. The majority of her poems were committed to memory, seemingly a small detail, but it made for the most dynamic performance in terms of gesture and body language. This was well matched by her style of poetry, each line brimming with ideas and seeming to run away with itself, so often does enjambment feature in her writing. The idea of exploring one’s image and self-worth was movingly expressed in her poem entitled ‘Jane Doe,’ and a theme picked up by the next poet, Katrine Lynn Solvaag. Both spoke movingly of their personal experiences of everyday sexism. I was also struck by the boldness of Katrine’s subject matter, especially the poem entitled ‘The Morning After’; a poem that just used the questions asked at the pharmacy the morning after, but that was so much more than the sum of its parts.
The evening concluded with a performance by our host, Laura. Her energy did not dwindle during the entire evening, and the way in which she introduced her fellow artists showed such genuine respect and admiration, that those of us unfamiliar with her work were already hugely drawn to her. Her stream-of-consciousness style was refreshing and honest, vivid in metaphors discussing gender and identity. She performed wth palpable passion on her subject matter, especially her poem in response to the #MeToo movement: To those of you who know / That violence is more than just guns … Me Too.
I came away struck by the openness around, and prominence of, themes of feminism and everyday sexism, pregnancy and miscarriage, self worth and female friendship. It might sound stereotypical that these issues were prominent in an all-female line-up, but several of the poets commented that they felt that the spirit of the event, a celebration of the female voice, invited topics which affect women every day and need expressing. The support in the room for their vulnerability and bravery was tangible. Laura mentioned her ambition to make Arthena an annual event; based on the quality of the performances this year, I’ll hold her to that.