Slam Poetry Queen Caroline Teague

Caroline Teague

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23 May 2019 /
Wardini Books, Napier /
By Rosheen FitzGerald

Performance poetry is having something of a moment in the Bay. Motif Poetry might have a bit to do with that. The love child of local Ben Fagan (tonight absent, being entertained in Auckland by Clarke Gayford, no less) and ex-pat Londoner and slam poetry queen, Sara Hirsch; Motif have been on a mission to spread the joy of the crafted word since 2018.

Performance poetry is having something of a moment in the Bay. Motif Poetry might have a bit to do with that. The love child of local Ben Fagan (tonight absent, being entertained in Auckland by Clarke Gayford, no less) and ex-pat Londoner and slam poetry queen, Sara Hirsch; Motif have been on a mission to spread the joy of the crafted word since 2018.

Nestled in the back of Wardini Books, spiritual home of all that is literary and good in these towns, chat and cups of tea flow and teenaged poets embrace and gesticulate with nervous excitement between rows of exquisite literature. The seats are all filled and the crowd crams in on cushions and creeps up the stairs. There are no fusty, dusty-jacketed English professors here. These poets have neon pink docs and two-toned teal and mustard nail polish; purple curls and pierced septums. They are the fresh face of poetry for the twenty-first century.

Sara, our MC for the evening, breaks the ice and sets the tone with a selection of her newest pieces, born from a disciplinary exercise of writing a poem a day for the month of April. Her work spans themes from the negotiation of relationships to the nature of time to the experience of darkness and light, all imbued with her signature spark of tenderness and curiosity about the world that make her a continual delight to hear.

We are then treated to a curated open mic featuring a selection of Sara’s students from NYDS and beyond. There’s Will, who displays a forceful command of metre and rhyme with works that are at once sweet and vulnerable and silly. There’s Rachel, whose razor-sharp rambling wit flows through and around her poems, ranging from a humorous look at identity through the lens of a buzzfeed quiz to a spine-chilling evocation of death by stoning. There’s Fergus, a gangly teen in pastel pinks who spouts lyrical nature poems in a throwback to the vintage, rote-learned stuff of our school-days. There’s Georgia, whose diverse offerings include a funny free-form twitter-inspired rant, a hard-hitting staccato diatribe on climate change and a concentrated two-line love poem. And there’s Grace, who puts the performance in performance poetry, utterly fierce and fearless in all the fucks she refuses to give.

Our appetites thus whetted, we are given opportunity to peruse the shelves, refresh our teacups and queue for the single loo before the main event, the debut New Zealand performance of poet and musician extraordinaire and long time Sara Hirsch bestie, Caroline Teague, aka Caroline Smiling, aka floral-clad word-mistress and generalised goddess.

She’s just landed in New Zealand so it’s unlikely that Caroline knows the word tūrangawaewae but she embodies it all the same. Her opening piece, accompanied by Sammy, her trusted, busted UK uke, expanding on her love/hate relationship with her stomping ground of South West London, is a pepeha, sung in velvety tones, pure and simple.

The stage thus possessed, she unashamedly takes up space with her own particular brand of what she calls tragic optimism. Inspired by her imminent homelessness and itinerant London life, she explores the meaning of home, using the great and powerful culinary lodestar of the immigrant experience. Her asides extolling the virtues of plantain fried with spices and salt are utterly charming. A memorised musing on what it is to be an ex-patriot African, sucker punches to the gut with its bare-faced telling of the weariness that accompanies putting one foot in front of the other daily against the pervading tide of institutional racism. Giant Woman tells of the self-preservatory desire to make oneself small in the face of a society that tells you you’re too much, too loud, too angry, too visible. An interluded song about self criticism and feeling undeserving of one’s own skin exposes naked vulnerability in dulcet tones. A heartrending piece about the astrological chasms that can erupt between people nominally living together in love leaves me softly weeping. A Portugal-penned free write personifies loneliness and inhibition. Good Earth, the eponymous poem of her upcoming tome, creates a rich picture of a community in its last stand against gentrification. For a finale (we’re over time but she can’t help herself and we can’t help but indulge her) we are gifted an emotional narrative on nostalgia hung on the frame of the calendar year across continents and time zones.

When she finally finishes the applause is effusive, the embraces effervescent. If Teague’s talent can be circumscribed, articulated, pinned down, it would be thus – an innate ability to crawl up inside a head and a heart, turn around three times to get comfortable, then broadcast their innermost contents to the world at large. She is at once idiosyncratic and universal, real and raw and wholly herself.

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