Review of Off the Shelf, Sheffield

The season of literature festivals is well and truly upon us. October saw the 23rd annual Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield. For as long as the festival has existed, it has attracted plenty of famous faces. This year was no exception. From literary newcomers to veteran writers, the festival was a unique celebration of the written word. This year marked the biggest Off the Shelf festival yet, with over 200 events taking place across the steel city. Aesthetica takes a look at some of the best events across the City.

Faber New Poets
Introduced by up-and-coming poet, Helen Mort, the Faber New Poets event saw four young poets take to the stage. Will Burns was first. So that you get a feel for who Burns is, he’s the kind of guy who writes whilst drinking alone in hotel bars and reads Charles Bukowski poems. Burns’ poems are rhythmic, yet take a narrative form. He reads with a shy confidence and manages to look modest, though he knows he has great talent. He’s the kind of poet who can slip the line, “they say the granite here is the cause of all the cancer,” into a poem and still sound completely natural. Whilst the two other poets, Zaffar Kunial and Declan Ryan, were memorable, one young girl stole the entire show. Closing the show was the breathtaking Rachel Allen. Rachel is the awkward, gawky poster girl of Generation Y. She writes poems about social forum 4Chan and watches TV shows about murderers. Her poems are dark, yet hilarious. She expresses the 20-something mindset with ease, garnishing her poems with brilliant lines, such as, “ my father is more shame than father.” The event finishes with the audience asking such delving questions as “were you encouraged in school?” and “what do your family think of your work?”

Viv Groskop: I laughed, I cried
Journalist come comedienne, Viv Groskop, has a jittery on-stage presence. When she appeared in front of an audience in Sheffield Student’s Union, wearing a glittery cardigan and a sheepish grin, you’d be forgiven for thinking she had just drank five espressos backstage. Starting with some questionable quips about her own appearance (why is it all comediennes feel the need to apologise for the way they look?), Viv then begun talking about her recent transition into the world of comedy. Her story begins with a mid-life crisis; something to which many of the audience members could relate. In 2011, on the advice of her despised life coach, she embarked on an epic “100 tours in 100 days” challenge to see whether she could make it in the field. Spoiler alert: it turned out she could make it, at least according to her. Her ad-lib, autobiographical talk was certainly entertaining to watch, but to say she was laugh-out-loud funny would be a lie. Viv is a raconteur, rather than a comic. She is the sort of woman who can inexplicably bring a tear to your eye. Whilst she recounted a tale about a text message conversation between her and her husband, I found myself in tears, but they were tears of sorrow rather than laughter.

In Praise Of Air
It is rare that science and literature come together in one exhibition, but the In Praise Of Air exhibit at the Sheffield Town Hall had both. In the UK, particularly in the cities, there is a huge problem with pollution. Researchers at the University of Sheffield have created a material that goes some way to solving that issue. Their creation is a marvel of modern technology. The researchers have sprayed a length of material with electrons. When the material meets the natural environment, they rearrange themselves and begin to break down the pollution in the air, at least that is my weak understanding of the system. As if the material was nothing all too special, the exhibition shows a piece of exceptional poetry from Simon Armitage. “I was six or five / when a conjurer opened my knotted fist / and I held in my palm the whole of the sky / I’ve carried it with me ever since,” reads the breathtaking poem. The words and technology are completely in sync; both in sheer appreciation of air and both attempting to hold onto it in some way.

Happy Birthday Dylan Thomas
In the dimly lit back room of The Greystones, a group of people wait in anticipation. They are Guardian-reading, woolly jumper-wearing types. They are good people, who appreciate great poetry. They are drinking red wine and being altogether very civil. A few moments later Colin Pinney takes to the stage. He is wearing a blue shirt and a stand-out red bow tie. He’s eccentric and charismatic; an ideal narrator. He clears his throat, reaches for a bright green ring-binder, and begins. Dylan Thomas lived just 39 short years and our narrator fits the period into just over an hour of beautiful prose. We learn of Dylan Thomas’ short-lived career as a journalist, in which he managed to annoy many an editor with fake reviews and lacklustre. We learn of his love for women, booze and poetry. He sounds the perfect gentleman; an individual and a word-smith. All the time, our narrator is playing various parts. He adores the tale and his passion is contagious. He acts out voices from Dylan’s past and tells stories will a huge amount of vigour. Integrated into the story of the poet’s life are sweet exerts of Dylan’s poetry. When the narrator recites poetry, his tone changes. He becomes suddenly solemn, as though he is reading a eulogy and in a way he is. The night ends with a chance for others to share their own words; poems inspired by the late, great Dylan Thomas. The evening is a perfect celebration to mark a century of the Welsh legend’s work.

Off the Shelf events run until the end of November.

Charlotte Grainger

1. In Praise of Air, courtesy of Sheffield University.