Irish rugby fans will tell you that sometimes years of hard work and preparation for an event can lead to an anticlimax – but neither the people behind Lingo Festival nor the hundreds of poetry fans packing out the Button Factory will agree with this. It’s only eight, half an hour after doors for tonight’s festival main event, and the air is electric with conversation and anticipation as MC and Lingo organiser Kalle Ryan takes to the stage, taken aback: “Look at all the people who want to hear some words.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise – are we not a land with a deep grá for a bit of filiocht? As headliner Saul Williams points out, isn’t the president himself a poet? But a there’s a sizeable show of hands when Ryan asks if any of us have never been to a spoken word event before – this reporter included.
We’re given a crash course in spoken word etiquette – no clapping while the poet’s in full flow, instead show your appreciation by softly clicking your fingers – before opener Abby Oliveira takes to the stage. She’s earned her slot by virtue of winning the previous night’s Lingo Poetry slam and demonstrates exactly why in her 10 captivating minutes onstage, speaking of raising her children to not believe in war, “no matter how good it looks”.
Next onstage is Dubliner John Cummins, a biblical looking figure with locks flowing from hair and chin. His stage presence and flow is relaxed yet supremely confident, like a Coolock Snoop Dogg – rhyming about chips and youth rather than Gin and Juice. For his finale he’s joined by a beat boxer and a hook singer for a gorgeous acapella trip-hop song about his relationship with his mother and how it’s changed as he’s grown up – plenty of clicks, plenty of laughs and leaves everyone with a warm heart.
Third on the bill is Mark Grist, an English teacher by trade who moonlights as the poet laureate of Peterborough and an unlikely battle rapper. His set is light on actual poems but heavy on laughter as he tells the audience the story of how some of his troublemaking students got him involved in hip-hop and the battle rapping world.
Then came the main event, Saul Williams. The New Yorker takes to the stage, immediately a class apart. His presence onstage is almost presidential, holding tonight’s diverse audience of grey bearded academics in tweed coats and curious first timers alike rapt and reverential. “I am certain I speak a new language” begins his opening number Said the Shotgun to the Head, and it was certain too, for every word he spoke, it became true in hearts and minds.
In Sha-Clack-Clack Williams speaks of being “the life that supersedes lifetimes” and “riding on the wings of eternity” and his words allow us to ride with him, experiencing eternity with him, bringing us to “the beginning of the road beyond time”. Anyone recording would be shocked to find that the poem clocks in at under three minutes long.
His set mostly draws from his new album and multimedia project Martyr Loser King, with recent single Burundi as a highlight, its chorus “I’m a candle, Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo,” deeply resonates with the audience.
In promoting the festival, Lingo organisers emphasised how proud they were to bring Williams to Dublin in just their second year, and it was clear everyone in the room was proud of them too,for enabling them to be in the presence of true genius.
It was clear from the atmosphere and electricity in the air on the night that the Lingo Festival still has room to grow.“Next year this is going to be in a stadium, poetry is gonna be bigger than rugby” said a grinning Williams.