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Henry Normal's Nature V Human Nature at Nottingham Lakeside Arts with Pete Ramskill and Milla Tebbs

10 October 18 words: Chris Davis

Chris Davis headed down to Nottingham Lakeside Arts to check out Henry Normal’s Nature V Human Nature…

For someone whose poetic delivery is meticulously slow, Normal’s wit is lightning quick

Standing somewhat nervously at the lectern, Pete Ramskill does not initially seem to me to be at ease in front of the Lakeside audience, but it can’t be easy stepping out first. Between poems, he fumbles with his papers and repeatedly rubs his head with his hands, almost as though the experience is a little discomforting. But I learn quickly that, like my colleague, Ramskill’s demeanour is a central part of his act. In 12th July, that same uneasiness aptly frames the childhood memory of narrowly avoiding the drunken punches of Orangemen’s Day marchers, while Don’t Make Me Do It also captures the awkwardness of avoiding saying “I love you”:

Shock my nipples with wires
Pull my nails out with pliers
Just don’t make me say I love you

Yet in Sand, which draws upon his experience of growing up by the coast, Ramskill is suddenly fluent, any semblance of nerviness gone, apparently soothed by the memory of childhood:

Leaping from dunes
The marram grass cuts
Feet sinking
Like running through mud
Slipping back down the steep slopes
Sand so fine like warm snow
Under the finger nails.

Unlike Ramskill, whose poetry often ruminates over memory at arm’s length, Milla Tebbs’ poems engage with the immediate past, even – or perhaps especially – where it is most painful. “I wrote this poem after going through some mental health problems,” the twenty-year old announces as an opening gambit. “I don’t want to be vertical any longer than I have to be. Keep me parallel to the ground.” In Fingerprints, meanwhile, Tebbs describes the strangeness of being in her home long after it has been burgled:

I don’t know
if the police will find fingerprints,
but I can feel them;
in the creases of my underwear.

...for all the sadness, the poetry is not without resolve

The most premature conclusion one might draw about Henry Normal is that he is a poet and a poet only. His output over the years puts paid to such an idea. And while every anecdote he ambles through during his set does eventually lead to a poem, the passages themselves end up forming the backbone of Nature vs Human Nature. He speaks encyclopaedically about the Nottingham of his childhood years and about the era more generally, all in an accent that has not lost any of its Nottingham sharpness.

For someone whose poetic delivery is meticulously slow, Normal’s wit is lightning quick. When a member of the audience volunteers an answer to a question, the poet is quick to offer him a free book as a reward. “In fact, I’ll give you one of Pete’s,” he quips to much glee. The crowd are putty in the poet’s hand after that, never failing to laugh on cue.

“This is a work in progress,” Henry remarked at the beginning. “So we can look back at the end and discuss if you laughed where you were meant to.” Needless to say, such a task isn’t necessary.

After each moment of candour – that is, when Normal changes gear and characteristically reels out poem that captures some universal truth  – it draws a thoughtful and appreciative purr from the crowd. In What to say to visitors on Halloween, for example, he comments:

I’ve never seen a ghoul
a vampire
or a zombie

I have seen a young woman severed
by a car crash
A tangle of motherhood and torn metal

I have seen two honest men eaten by cancer and
a conspiracy of care

I don’t need to wear a mask
or eat sweets to remember

If ever there were angels
in which to believe
I have lived among them

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night, however, is when Normal recites A Close Relationship Unsung, which has the audience uncomfortable to begin with (“My dad didn’t have a penis,” it begins), laughing by the halfway point (I exist, so he must have used some form of penis or penis substitute at least once”) and humming in approval by the end. It is a fitting reminder, from a man who could at times be mistaken for a garrulous uncle, of poetry’s capacity to defy its own boundaries.  

Henry Normal performed Nature V Human Nature at Nottingham Lakeside Arts with support from Pete Ramskill and Milla Tebbs on Saturday 29 September 2018

Nottingham Lakeside Arts website

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