Performance-poetry-sold-as-album is a natural extension of the thriving contemporary poetry scene, in which poets collaborate with other artists, and sometimes musicians, selling tickets to, and books at, their performances. It should surprise no-one that Salena Godden, author of Springfield Road, Fishing in the Aftermath, and contributor to The Good Immigrant, is at the vanguard of this particular publishing moment, as she has been at the forefront of so much else, including the performance poetry scene itself, many moons ago. Live Wire is a thoughtful compilation of some of Godden’s theatre and festival performances over the years, including BBC radio theatre, and the pieces chosen are strongly indicative of Godden’s range, both as a writer and as a performer.
And what a range it is, from the subtly evoked nostalgic pain of Under The Pier, the gaps between the planks, the ‘prisms of watery light’, the inky sea and the ‘tip of the lip and the bottle.’ There is the Godden of the freewheeling and unrestrained imagination in Not Bovvered, comically depicting the Sistine chapel half finished, Neil Armstrong sans ride home, from the moon, or, grotesquely, a brain surgery double wrapped with cellophane to save on stitching time. Then there’s Godden’s scabrous ode to the air hostess who refuses to lend her a pen on a short flight, forcing her to scrawl her inspiration in lipstick on the back of a sick bag (and here is Godden’s social observation writ large, her wickedly unblinking eye for pettiness, for hypocrisy, for the large and small power-plays in the human zoo, “I see you, Baby.”)
In Die Wasp, Godden appears to question her own place in the world of poetry, depicting the calm, ruler-wielding blue-stocking at the next cafe table, who seems to inhabit, just feet away, an unfathomably more tranquil world than her own. Writing about harps and butterflies, gentle nature and other anaemic literary subjects, as Godden, at the next table, twists, sweats and cavorts to avoid the wasps which endlessly dive bomb her. For Godden every word is a wasp, “How can I work in these conditions?” She yells, hilariously. And thankfully answers her own questions by recognising that it’s the heat, sex and rage (it’s the bloody wasps!) which give her own writing its purpose and heart.
Godden’s work often cedes into politics. In Public Service Announcement, the interspersed news reels and the imagery of bodies entangled in concrete, refugees suffocating under lorries, the click bate and the propaganda, “staring down the news lens” is rich and barbed. Or the joyous satirical romp of “My tits are more feminist than your tits”, Godden encouraging wild audience participation, hoots and chanting, cat calls, raucous laughter, in her taut poetic rant about the way women’s bodies are policed, judged and controlled by the public. And this piece is pure Salena Godden (imagine Amy Schumer, set to wild rhythm, music) but don’t make the mistake … Godden’s most wildly participatory pieces are her most controlled performances – she never loses the rhythm, knows exactly how to make the audience reaction chime with the piece and then to create and hold the silence after. When to whisper. When to let her voice break or rasp. Softly slap her guitar.
And politics could not get much more personal than Voodoo, in which the ten year old Salena Godden, in a perfectly timed piece of psychological Kung-fu, saves herself (and her best friend) from a beating by turning the gang’s racism against it, “Run, run, she knows voodoo.”
Godden can be tough on her own vulnerabilities. Like a lot of people who’ve known genuine tragedy, she can yield to an instinct to just power through it. Or to use grotesque humour to find the laughter at the bottom of pain, like turning the casual, intimate exploitation of Princess Leslie into wry humour soup. Or, in This Is Not A Eulogy, imagining her own suicide in magical realist terms, she survives with grotesque injuries, limbs inside out, and flayed all the way down the street by the sound of her own brutal, self-judging voice. And this is rage.
It’s also agony to hear, once you know that Godden’s own father committed suicide (and the poet has written movingly about him in Springfield Road and elsewhere). But I urge you to listen to This Is Not A Eulogy alongside the excerpt from Springfield Road – Godden describing the moment when her father left their home for the last time, and this moment itself prefiguring his later and more permanent desertion,
“We cried as we heard you turn your key in the ignition.”
The children’s palpable yearning is still fully present, as though untouched by time, in the tick and whir of this first line.
And this, finally, is Godden at her nuanced and poetic best,
“That afternoon became a shrine, a cave … I took a stick and scratched our names there.”
Yes, this writer knows how to find the comedy at the bottom of the big and the small pains. When she has to she can even power her way through grief. But she can also quietly turn and pick up the keys to its motor. And hold us there with her, in the turning moment.
You can read my interview with Salena Godden in Woven Tale Press http://www.thewoventalepress.net/2016/02/15/6875/
A version of this article was published by Woven Tale Press, ‘This is not a Eulogy‘.