Performance poet Mig Ale barrels towards the front of the audience, a bundle of fizzing energy, and launches straight into his first piece.
It’s a clever, funny, rapid-fire rant about the iniquities of Special Brew dropping its ABV from nine to eight per cent: ‘I thought I could drown my sorrows, but I think they’ve learned how to swim.’
With barely a pause for breath he’s on to similarly entertaining pieces which riff on pop-culture, like celebrity idiot Joey Essex and the concept of the hip-hop ‘OG’ – not original gangster, but old granddad.
Within 10 minutes he’s done, and next up is Jackson Davies, already apologising that his work is not so up-beat. But what he does deliver is a deeply affecting poem, The Machine’s Bleep about his father’s battle with cancer, his death, and its impact on those around him.
The two performances couldn’t be more contrasting in style, but it nicely encompasses everything that The Front Room aims to be.
As just one night on the burgeoning spoken word scene, the evening at Hunter Gatherer coffee shop in Albert Road, Southsea draws a full house. Hosted by former Portsmouth poet laureate Sam Cox, there’s a wide array of talent on show. There’s Ellie Day, who asks us to imagine the props she’d like to have with her – namely a wheelie bin to climb into. Or Gareth Howells, who as frontman of folk-rock band Bemis has performed to huge crowds at Wickham and Victorious festivals, nervously made his spoken word debut as he read from his first collection of short stories. Musician Simon Cattermole provides a thoughtful contrast with songs supporting the WASPI campaign and in memory of the Pompey Pals. And then there’s Duncan Green, who adds audience participation to I’ve Got Soul, while also introducing his dystopian show Connected which imagines a world of sentient mobile phones (it’s at NST City in Southampton on February 26 and March 1).
There’s also the open mic section, which gives several newer performers – some first-timers – to air their work to a supportive room.
The back room at the coffee shop is packed with an attentive audience who laugh, cheer on, and are moved by the performers.
Johnny Sackett set up The Front Room to host nights like this after talking with his friend who ran Aurora coffee shop, also on Albert Road and trying to capitalise on its late opening hours.
They toyed with idea of doing music open mic, but there are several other venues in the immediate area doing that.
‘I’d been to a few poetry events, and people were telling me the scene was out there, but it was a bit cliquey,’ says Johnny.
‘I suggested a spoken word night, and we’d need to make it entertaining. I’m an events manager, and I know I think what makes something entertaining. I knew a few poets who were up for it. We made the sets short, and we made it more performance based rather than just reading from books.
‘The first one was a big, big success,so we carried on monthly and I knew I was on to something. We cast our net wide and there was a real buzz about it so it wasn’t hard to bring people along.’
As the evenings’ curator Johnny prides himself on creating events that keep the audience engaged.
‘The formula was that we always included a musical element and we kept an open mic slot for poetry, but we kept those spots short and sharp as well – a maximum of three minutes, then if it goes well maybe next time they can do 10 minutes and give them a featured slot.’
While the performers cover a wide age range – as do the audience, Johnny can see that there’s a lot of young talent coming through.
‘There is talent in Portsmouth coming from younger people, coming out of university, I don’t think 10 years ago you would have got that, in terms of a spoken word scene.
‘People I’m talking to from other places are saying the same thing - it’s a vehicle young people have more respect for as a way of saying things. Perhaps 10 years ago when the music industry was more dynamic people would go that way.
‘In Portsmouth we definitely hit a vibe straight away, and there’s other nights as well like Trash Arts’ Shut Ya Mouth and T’Articulation which is more on the writing side but is still spoken word.’
Jackson, who closed this evening, was nudged into performing by his girlfriend, now wife, after writing for himself for years. She encouraged himto try some acting, and through that he met Sam Mason Bell, local film-maker and founder of the Trash Arts collective.
The 35-year-old, from Southsea, says: ‘Sam wanted me for a film that he was doing, and that was around the same time he was putting on an open mic night, but he didn’t just want it to be music - and that was Open Yer Mouth, so that was when I first did it.’
He recalls his first performance: ‘My hands were shaking and my heart was in my mouth and all of that. But I got up and people seemed to like it, so I did it the next month and then another and another. It became this thing where people would keep asking me if I’d do another one and I kept saying: “Yes”.
‘I always feel a little bit awkward referring to myself as a poet. I think people get an idea that poetry has to be this very serious and refined and emotional kind of thing. I’ve always liked writing rhymes, but I’m far too white and middle-class to be a rapper so I thought I’d try this.’
He says he finds tackling personal subject to be ‘cathartic,’ and adds of The Machine’s Bleep: ‘ That was only the second time I’ve ever performed it. I started writing that two years ago, but it was far too raw at that point. It’s the second anniversary of my dad’s death on the first of March, so it was only about six months ago I felt ready to release it.
‘Again it’s my wife – she’s fantastic at getting me up to do this sort of thing – I wrote it and it was only going to be for me really, it was just going to sit in my sketchbook. But she said it was really good because it speaks to people and it’s got an honesty to it. It wasn’t me trying to pull at heart-strings, it was just me telling how it felt, and if other people felt it, then fair enough.
‘But it is a catharsis, and like a typical man I struggle to express my emotions. Ssomehow writing them down and making them rhyme makes it that little bit easier.’
While he would like to have his work published, that’s not Jackson’s goal.
‘The aim has only ever been, “I quite like doing this and people seem to respond well, and I get a bit of a thrill out of performing it”.
‘I like performing the stuff. I think there’s a bit of a division between page poets and performance poets, which isn’t always accurate – lots of people can do both and do both very well. But I think I’m far better at performing, the delivery side of it, rather than just the actual words.’
Sean Smith was one of those performing for the first time, an amusing poem called Snowflake – taking online trolls and blowhards to task.
Sean, 38, from Southsea, had been writing since university, but decided to give performing a go.
‘Snowflake was something I had been working on, but performing it was always the plan. I tend to write things in the way that I would speak, so I don’t think it would have the same impact if it wasn’t read in front of people.
‘It was my first time at a Front Room event and it was much supportive than I was expecting – I thought it would be more intimidating.’
Now he’s got a taste for it, Sean has already performed again.
‘I performed at another spoken word since, for T’Articulation. It wasn’t a poem this time it was more of a politically tinged rant, but that went down well, and they’ve asked me to come back and giving me a bigger slot too which is quite exciting.’
Thanks to the success of The Front Room’s events, it has grown an offshoot in the shape of Future Folk.
Front Room founder Johnny Sackett teamed up with folk artist, and winner of this year’s Guide Award for Best Solo Act, Megan Linford, to create a series of events that blends the best of the acoustic music and spoken word worlds.
‘Future Folk really came out of it because we felt there was a synergy between the musicians we started to invite, they all predominantly have that folky thing, and they’re acoustic – like Day of The Rabblement or Megan Linford on her own rather than with her band, or someone like Gareth Howells, who was going: “Ruddy hell! I love this, people are listening to my songs, not talking over them!” It’s because it’s got that vibe – it’s that kind of atmosphere, people want to listen. We thought for Future Folk we’d reverse what we do with The Front Room and make it mainly music and occasionally bring in a poet.’
On Thursday, February 28, they're putting on their biggest night so far at Portsmouth Guildhall’s new Studio venue. Day Of The Rabblement headline, along with Dan O ‘Farrell and the Difference Engine. There will also be a unique collaboration, the sort of which they aim to do more of.
‘We’ve got poet Sam Cox working with Fugitive Orchestra, and they’re now working with another poet, called Ricky Tartt and what you’ll see at The Studio is a 20 minute set by the three of them, and that’s how I’d like to see it evolve.’
Doors open 7pm, entry is pay what you like. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk
OTHER SPOKEN WORD EVENTS COMING SOON
*Time and Tide is a collaboration between Portsmouth Poetry, The New Theatre Royal Dancers and Players and the BTEC Dance students from Castle View Academy, Paulsgrove at The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth on March 1&2.
*Trash Arts presents Open Ya Mouth at The Loft in Albert Road, Southsea on March 11 from 8.15pm.
‘All are welcome to express ya selves via music, poetry, comedy, storytelling or general ranting!’ Each artist has 10 minutes on stage and new performers are welcome. Entry is free (donations welcome).
*Write Angle meet regularly at The Townhouse, Petersfield. Their next open mic night is Tuesday, March 19, 7.30pm, with special guest Stewart Taylor who has a claim to the dubious title of Worst Poet in the UK, having won the national final of The Anti-Slam 2016.