By Tracey Mitchell
Open House is Primrose Hill Community Association’s programme of talks, lectures, and gallery and museum visits, held on Wednesday afternoons. In February, Open House enjoyed an afternoon of performance poetry, led by Megan Beech.
Megan won the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors National Youth Slam in 2011 and currently teaches at the Working Men’s College (WMC) in Camden. Her earliest success came in a competition judged by Philip Pullman when she was just eleven.
She worked an apprenticeship in poetry slams, where participants have three minutes to perform in a public space and are rated by judges drawn from an audience. Megan is enthusiastic about the diversity and inclusiveness of these events, which are ‘open to everyone with no need to have published a book. You can just get up and go’.
During her event at the Community Centre, Megan explained that she sees the roots of today’s performance poetry in ancient traditions of storytelling, as well as ghost stories imparted by a teller to one, or more, listeners. She is drawn to the connective aspects of performance: the ways in which the poet can communicate with the people in a room as she reaches for something that someone else might feel too.
“The best poetry takes us out of the rhythm of everyday life and says, ‘Shouldn’t we be thinking about this? It’s not what you’d talk about over dinner or a cup of tea’. There are things which are difficult to discuss, but poetry gives permission,” Megan suggests.
The political aspects of performance poetry appeal to her support for intersectional causes. She is interested in activism and standing up for things. “There’s no need to go through the process of publication. You can be more polemical and comment more quickly. The work is ‘published’ as soon as it’s spoken or leaves the tongue.”
The democratising quality of the form was demonstrated during the Open House afternoon when one of Megan’s WMC students performed a poem written several years previously. Her impromptu performance was peopled by a range of characters from a housing estate where she used to live.
The ways in which performance poetry allows for personal revelation, and promoting conversations about ourselves, is central to Megan’s belief and practice. In one poem she likens her own experience of life to the Japanese art of kintsugi where, instead of repairing a broken pot so you don’t see the cracks, you pipe gold into the cracks so they show up even more. Megan found this an appropriate metaphor for what she considers to be her own flaws: ‘the cracks in the crockery’ offer an opportunity to build on ‘dazzling fragments’.
Having recently completed a PhD on Dickens’ public readings and adaptations of his texts for performance, Megan plans to combine freelance performing with educational work for the immediate future, at WMC and at City Lit. She has been working with the charity Eastside London, which is running a programme over several years with primary, secondary and SEND pupils. Her workshops encourage young women to speak out about issues like sexual harassment; and young men to bypass bravado, or guardedness, to talk openly about the things they care about. The honesty which emerges can be surprising, even to Megan herself: “Maybe I’ve given that person something they wouldn’t have otherwise; what lives in our heads, which often we don’t give ourselves permission to say.”