by Rachel Beaumont

latest archive about contact

Potaetry: Famished at Café OTO

Cherry Smyth, Ed Bennett and Lauren Kinsella
Café OTO
Unallocated, £12
25 March 2019
Café OTO page

I accompanied a friend and former student of Cherry Smyth’s to Famished, mostly out of friendship, partly out of interest and at least just a little bit for the potential comedic value of being able to say I’d been to a 90-minute poetry reading about the potato famine some of which was in Irish. In these three respects it did not disappoint, and an unexpected bonus was the opportunity to admire the astonishing Lauren Kinsella. But it was still a 90-minute poetry reading about the potato famine some of which was in Irish, and as such it wasn’t the most fun I’ve had on a night out.

Like Netrebko Kinsella is fantastically good at what she does. She draws on her palette of extended vocal technique with pinpoint precision, seeming to know exactly how to chain together radically different sounds, when to arc into melisma, when to add height to her sound and when to squeeze it down into a briny nasal skein. She’s given little support from Ed Bennett’s chillout score, there more to suppress the silence in between Kinsella and Smyth’s utterances – but that, presumably, was more or less the brief, and with Kinsella to fill the spotlight who could complain.

Smyth is not such a confident performer and comes across as earnest rather than impassioned, anxious rather than energized, supplicatory rather than commanding. Out of the tiny number of times I’ve been to poetry readings this is the first when I’ve been disappointed in the way someone reads their own work, Smyth stumbling over words, nervously flicking pages and generally sounding as though she just wants to get all the words out of her mouth and into the air so it can all be over. But then she did set herself quite a challenge.

The work itself I’m not too sure about. Despite Bennett’s ambience the thing as a whole falls easily into its constituent parts: there’s Smyth speaking, there’s Bennett fiddling about with sea sounds and then there’s Kinsella on a different performative planet (and also the lady who read the Irish bits, very nicely). It sounds like a poem with add-ons. As to the poem itself, the dreadfulness of the potato famine makes it as a subject less, I think, rather than more workable. Smyth cannot entirely avoid sentimentality, and the fear lurks throughout that horror is being parcelled into consumable arty chunks.

Such a criticism is mostly unfair, and I think in part has its origin in the flood of famine-related information I’ve been bobbing about in lately (a podcast, an LRB article and a long, extremely ill-advised conversation with an Irish colleague). While I question the efficacy of the format Smyth does find interest and difference, particularly in a resistance to codifying subsequent generations as definitely good or bad. I feel awkwardness that the poem’s main value for me was as a vehicle for Kinsella, but I don’t doubt there were many others in the room who took something entirely different and hopefully more famine-related. As it is, I don’t feel myself rushing to buy the book – but more Kinsella? I wouldn’t say no.

No comments yet.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

<< Wild horses: La forza del destino at the ROH

Free art: Silver Screens/Steel Strings by Zubin Kanga >>