The third evening of the A Toast to the People series opens with Vanessa Kisuule, a Bristol-based writer and performer with more than 10 poetry slam titles under her belt. Her charismatic nature and (at times) uninhibited chat with the audience create an open and energised atmosphere. Her set covers an array of unusual topics, from octopuses to aunties, cryonics to nights out. It’s a great mini showcase of her style and curiosity as a writer, which she admits has evolved since the start of the pandemic. Undoubtedly the highlight is her final poem, ‘Last night’; not only because of her hilarious interjections – with her remarking on how old and tired the club night described makes her feel – but also how she has you reliving your own nights out.
This poem comes after her ‘Toast’, which is arguably one of the more unique approaches to the brief. After an intense Wikipedia search of everything that happened in 1975 – the same year Gil Scott-Heron’s song that inspired the series was released – Kissule found herself dedicating her toast to the woman captured in the Pulitzer prize-winning photograph Fire Escape Collapse. Encouraging us to look it up, Kisuule explains how the picture was taken during an apartment block fire in Boston, during which the fire escapes proved to be unfit for purpose. The unspoken parallels between Boston and Grenfell are glaring, and sure enough, Kisuule makes a subtle reference to it. Infusing lyrics from Bohemian Rhapsody (another song released in 1975), her commission is a poignant and evocative reimagining of a woman’s life and final moments. Though she says later on that she didn’t intend on making a statement with her Toast, she certainly does.
With Kisuule ending her set on a more upbeat note, she perfectly sets up the audience for Sissay. Somehow, the BAFTA-nominated poet and author is even more energetic than Kisuule. He spends almost half his allocated time trying to get the audience to sing his poem ‘“How do you do it?” said Night.’ A little bewildered, the audience seem reluctant to commit and wonder when the poetry is actually going to begin. It’s a shame, as later on Sissay reveals the importance of the poem to him, which could have urged the audience to participate earlier on. Like Kisuule, he often digresses, with his excitable, unhinged “performative self” makes the set feel more like a stand-up routine. When he does read his three chosen poems, his words take over him, and his gift as a storyteller shines through.
A dead iPad means that Sissay has to end his set without reading his commission, though thankfully we get to hear it later. Before that, the series’ host, Nadine Aisha Jassat, returns to the stage for a discussion with the two artists. When asked about how the pandemic has changed them and their writing style, Sissay says he’s not the same person he was prior to COVID-19 and that he likes the person he is. For Kisuule, lockdown propelled a change in her style and performance; with her poetry being introspective and exploring more morally-ambiguous themes.
The evening ends with Sissay’s commission, an almost frenetic piece that manages to make toasted bread into a symbol of the world. His joyful, hyper delivery infects the audience, closing the night on a high.