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Bookworm Festival Pulse:The Transformative Power of Poetry&Music

The cool air from the fans overhead does little to cool our anticipation; every seat is taken, and the crowd is restless from the wait, watching as wires are connected and musical instruments are squeezed into the little space that is left in the Bookworm. Sensing the mood, Matthew Byrne, the British poet and charismatic founder of Spittoon—a Beijing-based arts collective that exploded onto the scene in 2015—grabs the mic. He explains that what we are about to hear is the result of a one-month collaboration between musicians and poets, where the music has been inspired by the poetry. This creative melding of genres is the purpose of the Spittunes series, one of many literary events put on by Spittoon around Beijing.

The strumming of an acoustic guitar by Liane Halton, who sits placidly in all black at the front of the room, announces itself on the speaker. They are low notes with a deep acoustic vibration, and once the mood is set, poet Anthony Tao steps to the microphone. Tao’s poems seem as if they are meant to go to the music, landing on our ears in suggestions of images. I catch the lines, “with dust wiggling inside chests,” and, “in the congealed, sticky air of summer/there was conversation . . .” It is clear that there is a deep, intellectual purpose to his descriptions, especially as I hear the line, “there were artists/who created a new genre of art/in the form of dying.” But Tao’s story-telling style, and the lull of the guitar with the images of dragonflies behind them, pulls me back and forth from the words to the music. A line from Tao’s poem seems to say it all: they are “unsure if gravity/pulled them toward destruction/or a new morning.” (These two will perform their album at the Bookworm on Sunday, Marych 24th at 6pm).

After a short break the next act begins. Wen Liang, a thin Chinese man with a shadow of a beard and a stylish collared shirt sets himself up behind a table with a computer. He turns on some sort of electrical box that comes out as static at first, then stretches into an odyssey of extracted sound, eventually coalescing around the futuristic tune of his keyboard. I let my eyes drift closed, thinking first of an alien communication, then air moving through a ventilator. As the chimes come there is the feeling of waking up from a dream, somewhere gently soothing.

Eventually South African poet Lethokuhle Msimang begins to read. Her voice is soft and velvety, buoyed by Lian’s computerized equivalent of dew drops, then ocean waves, which conjure the setting of Msimang’s poem. She plants us on a beach where an old man is sitting, looking out at the sea. A woman much younger than him approaches. She says hello and we imagine a touching moment, then we hear from Msimang the secret thoughts of her character, “these youths are too quick to trust an old face, and had I gathered the strength to have my way with her, the ocean would have drowned the sound her resistance. . .” The man is too old and too weak, and so instead there is a quiet exchange, and they share a respectful silence. That Msimang is talking through the voice of a would-be rapist with this kind of honesty and even compassion leaves me with my mouth open. Seagulls squawk through the computer of Lian’s accompaniment.

After a short break we are greeted once again by the sounds of a computerized synthesizer, brought to us by Solent. This one is a long slow swim through a cool, gentle lake. It is the lapping of the tide and the gliding of your flotilla body. It is so much like suspension it’s hard to stay seated normally, and so my eyes slip closed. Now it’s a body being rocked gently. It’s fingers and arms vibrating. It’s whips of sound and drips in a basement and a door opening.

I think to myself that closing your eyes is the only way to experiences Spittunes fully, and that they should tell you this in the beginning. They should pass out sleeping masks to complete the transformation. This is when bi-lingual poet, Jady Liu, who is an unassuming young man in a zipped up black jacket begins speaking. He slips from Chinese to English and back again. From the English I can understand, I hear a non-judgmental portrait of isolation in today’s hyper-connected world. I hear, “isolated pockets of solitude,” “trapped in our mazes,” and “We keep talking./We keep silent./We meet. Just meet./We depart. We depart.” And, “in the dilemma of reality and delusion.”

For the final set, pianist David Bond, drummer Matthew Byrne, and Spanish poet Jaime Santirso take the stage. Santirso is wearing a yellow tee-shirt that says, in big block letters, “Treat People with Kindness.” He reads standing up from loose sheets of paper and stops between poems for the music. The drums are light, the keyboard celestial. Byrne and Bond are visibly pulled into one another’s rhythm; there’s something soothing about the two of them. When one is playing the other is leaned forward to listen, and it is a listening that is nearly part of the music.

Santirso begins again, and if you don’t know Spanish is doesn’t matter, because his voice sounds political and poetic and determined. He likes to make sounds with his voice that are beyond or not in need of translation. Little exhales of purpose. Little tremors of intellectualism. Repetition sounds good in any language. Sounds have their own harmony especially when spoken with a voice that feels them as Santirso is doing. He says “ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta” as if he’s a part of the drumming.

I want to get out my camera to capture the way Bond’s hair is flying around him as he presses into the piano keys, and how Byrne’s foot pounds against the bass drum in time with his head nodding, but then I remember I am here to type these images into being, not snap pictures of them. I hope I’ve done them some justice.

Written by: Amanda Fiore
Writer & Writing Educator in Beijing, China
BLF Volunteer, 2019
WeChat: AmandaJaneFiore


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