Poet Martin Figura took the audience on an empathetic journey through a life that is far removed from their own

A sponge cake rising behind the oven door, the shape of a lover’s face seen under moonlight, Polish sausages served with pickled cabbage, the muddy faces of the ‘vineyard boys’, surreptitiously made margarine sandwiches, and re-enacted battles with toy soldiers: these are some of the images that linger in your mind after watching poet Martin Figura perform poems from his book Whistle.

Figura does not believe in acting out his poems.

“They need to be spoken without resorting to theatrics because the words matter more than the performance,” he explains to us at Taj Deccan, a few hours before the event.

Whistle, a collection of poems that capture the events leading up to and following the death of his mother at the hands of his father, was written in 2010.

“I did have the show in mind while I wrote the book; I had an archive of photographs and knew it would be interesting to put it all together,” explains Figura. Was it tempting, then, to write for the stage? “Not at all; I wrote towards the book, rather than for the stage, because it is the words that have to speak to the audience and a book is more permanent; I have higher regard for a book in that sense,” says Figura.

Through description and metaphor, complemented by photographs and a minimal score, Figura takes the audience through a post-war, British childhood. As promised, there were no histrionics.

His characters — June, his mother, Frank, his ex-army father, and Uncle Philip — weave in and out of the narrative as his own perspective shifts between that of the boy in the poems to the man who wrote them, years later.

Figura expressed concern that many British references would be lost on the evening’s audience, but this was more than made up for by his ability to speak using metaphors that allude to universal themes.

The poems draw attention to Figura’s difficult childhood and the relationship he had with his father, which he describes as ‘awkward and tedious’.

“As a child, I was shifted around a lot, both psychologically and physically. Writing did help me retrospect and re-imagine myself, my identity and place.”

After his mother’s death, Figura spent his time in an elite boarding school and the Vineyard home for children before he was taken in by a family. At the age of 17, he joined the army, where he worked as an accountant for twenty five years.

Figura’s performance, though intense, has many light moments. Whistle is one of his most serious works.

“While writing it, I didn’t allow myself to write funny poems because I love performing funny stuff. Being funny gets the audience on your side and lets you say things you otherwise couldn’t. Humour and satire are useful tools. Often, the audience laughs at something, and then comes an easy realization that they are laughing at themselves, eventually leading to introspection,” explains Figura.

Figura and his wife, Poet Helen Ivory, were in the city on the invitation of the British Council Hyderabad, which organised the evening in association with Taj Deccan.