ON stage review: Living by the word with poet champ Harry Baker at Meow

We love Harry Baker. Big Time. Dinosaur Love like. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.

We love Harry Baker. Big Time. Dinosaur Love like. PHOTO: SUPPLIED.

ANNABEL WILSON grapples with performance anxiety then catches legendary wordsmith Harry Baker at Wellington’s Poetry in Motion open mic session.

No way. Not going to happen. These are my first thoughts as I walk into the hipster-haven of Meow bar, Wellington. A recent émigré from Wanaka, I’ve moved to the capital with a resolve to live by the word. Tonight I’m on the verge of chickening out of performing a poem at the city’s monthly Open Mic poetry series featuring the youngest ever World Slam Poetry champ, Harry Baker.

The place is swarming with bespectacled bohemians and I’m feeling, frankly, N.E.E (Not Edgy Enough). But this is what you’re here for, my internal pep-talk jibes – just walk up to Ali Jacs and sign up! So I find Ali (who founded PIM in 2012). She points me in the direction of tonight’s MC. Soon I’m on the runsheet along with the other ‘New Poets’ nestled between Poetry in Motion’s mainstays. The mic is open and the words flowing as regulars and rookies share their lyrics. Some are memorised, others performed with the aid of the page or smartphone. Touching on all manner of themes – love, break-ups, coming out, celebrity, illness, ironic ‘shituations’, oppression, expression, freedom… all heart-felt and peppered with punchy moments. When the words resonate with you, the thing to do is to snap your fingers to show appreciation and encouragement. Fingers click a lot tonight. Some lines bring nods of recognition, laughter, tears.  I managed to squeak out one of my shortest poems without stuffing up. I survived! Then it was time for the main act – Harry Baker.

He takes to the stage with the beat-rich tirade of ‘Dinosaur Love’. You can see why he’s been judged the best in the world at what he does. He’s quick and clever, with a glint in his eye and swathe of knock-your-socks-off poems in his mind. The ending echoes the beginning when he screams, T-Rex style, in the way that he’s convinced us he’d like to show love for a significant other.

Harry’s a mathematician, having studied it for four years at Bristol university. He tells us he used to think of maths and poetry as being two quite separate entities, but in ’59’ (a love poem for lonely prime numbers) he shows how he’s come to think of the poetic and the rational as spaces with room for intersection.

He explains how, in Paris, in front of four French judges, he became the youngest ever World Slam Poetry Champion with his seminal ‘Paper People’. That glint again as he remarks “So you could say this is the best poem in the world”. Words such as

Origami armies unfold plans for paper planes

And we remain imprisoned in our own paper chains,

But the greater shame is that it always seems to stay the same,

What changes is who’s in power choosing how to lay the blame,

They’re naming names, forgetting these are names of people,

Because in the end it all comes down to people

cut to the core of our contemporary existence. Lines like People like my grandparents / Who every single day since I was born / have taken time out of their morning to pray for me / That’s 7892 days straight of someone checking I’m okay, and that’s amazing, bring us (in that wonderful way good poetry does) into the present moment. ‘Paper People’ is a winner for its content and delivery. It’s about humanity, “a little paper you and and a little paper me”,  crafted and performed in a personable, unforgettable way.

Harry’s love of words and his ability to play with them, to stretch them, make them sing (indeed make audiences sing them back to him) shines through in ‘Falafel Poem’.  Having lived in Germany for a year, Harry has his head around that language too. Yes it’s about falafels and the spoons you could potentially serve them in: Falafellöffel, how much falafel might be too much falafel “Vier Löffel voll Falafel ist zu viel Falafel (Four spoonfuls of falafel is too much falafel) and it’s awesome.

‘The Sunshine Kid’, the title of Harry’s book, is also the penultimate poem of the night. Written at 18 when he had just finished college, the piece explores the awkwardness of not fitting in and how that can change when someone believes in us. For The Sunshine Kid, that person is Little Miss Sunshine who “was one in a septillion and she was brilliant”.

Harry ends his set with a parody of Ed Sheeran‘s A Team, adding a dessert spin. We crack up at every pun, singing along to the refrain “And they say, she’s looking kinda tasty / Crumbling like pastry / Love covers me like icing while I sing / Her face seems to infiltrate my sweet dreams / My heart melts like ice cream as I scream / Every day’s a sundae for us.”

The queue to have a chat with Harry and buy his book stretches almost to the door. By the time I get there he’s sold out. A sign of his success, I reckon. Forfeiting a career in maths or medicine, he’s a full-time poet now; a positive reminder that it is truly possible to live by the word.

Harry Baker performs in Auckland on Valentine’s Day as part of his Haztralasia tour. He then heads to Melbourne from February 18 – 23rd. Get to one of his gigs and get a book signed if you can!

For support with previews, promotion, advertising, interviews, reviews and photography for your cool happenings and concepts, contact annabel@onmag.co.nz.

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