Oliver H Baines is the founder and host of Waifs and Strays. His dry wit and sharp humour have been heard on stages around the world, from the Royal Albert Hall to Hà Nội and everywhere in between. — VNS Photos Seán Nolan
Poetry is the oldest form of literature, but, long before pen touched page, audiences have been enthralled by spoken word performances. Thanks to Waifs and Strays, Hà Nội’s premier spoken word night, the world’s oldest performing art is truly alive and kicking in the capital.
In the words of Oliver H Baines, the founder and gatekeeper of Waifs and Strays, the night is for the “hodgepodge of diverse voices that are found all over the world,” and is a platform for these varied stories and experiences to be aired.
The eighth edition of Waifs and Strays took place at the nucleus of the spoken word scene in the capital, The Snug in Tây Hồ. The event started fashionably late, of course, and was attended by an equally chic crowd that filled the room long before the first mic was picked up.
“This is my first time at Waifs and Strays,” said David, 28, a teacher from the United States. “I heard about it from a friend who has been to the last few shows. We’re here to have a few beers and hear some great slam poetry!”
For Liz, 32, from the UK, this was her third Waifs and Strays event.
“I love the idea of standing up on stage and performing, but I don’t think I’ve got the constitution for it! I really enjoy coming to these events though – it’s a great way to catch up with friends and hear some diverse stories and takes on life in Việt Nam.”
The low hum of friendly conversation that buzzed around the room fizzled out when Oliver stood up to introduce the night’s event.
From his first word, he had the attention of the entire room, with razor-sharp questions on society and politics linked with a dry wit and smart turns-of-phrase.
“A fool follows fools, a sheep follows the rest – be yourself.”
His opening set was followed by another Brit, Theo Moxham, whose work, by his own admission, focused on the introspective, the abstract and the autobiographical.
Particularly touching was a poem about a time a stranger pointed out Orion’s belt to him, reminding him of being in his garden with his brother as their father showed them the stars.
Other performers took to the stage, some for just a single performance, others for longer. Some touched on serious topics like mental health, while others mixed humour and wit to shred apart culture and class.
Perhaps the most poignant of the performances came by way of a duet between Oliver and Hạnh Phùng, the founder of the popular Let’s Speak Vietnamese language school.
In a back-and-forth of English and Vietnamese, their performance focused on the 39 Vietnamese people that died in a lorry in Essex, the UK, in October 2019, even going so far as to read some of the final messages sent by those inside to their families back home, when they knew their fate was sealed.
Oliver, as organiser and guardian of Waifs and Strays, is very protective of the artists invited up onto stage; at one point he scolded the crowd for not giving a performer the respect they deserved – kudos to him.
“The night has been running for around two years, restrictions permitting,” he said. “It began as me wanting to give a space for spoken word in Hà Nội. I also wanted to challenge myself – although I had performed extensively, I had never organised nor hosted an evening.”
He’s not wrong about his extensive performing experience either, having hit the stage everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall in London to the Jai Thep festival in Chiang Mai.
His journey on stage began in Newcastle when he was in his early 20s, inspired by the godfather of punk poetry, John Cooper Clarke (he grew up just down the road).
The John Cooper Clarke inspiration was on full display during his next stint on stage. Juxtaposing the touching Essex tribute, he launched into a brash account of young hedonism, disreputable company, and trying to find “the afters” with just 6 per cent phone battery, a tale that anyone who has been on a night out at a certain age in the UK can relate to.
Oliver H Baines returns to the stage for a tale of youthful hedonism.
“I draw inspiration from the lens through which I view the world; always wanting to give a voice to those who can’t articulate. The stories I read, the tales I’m told meld together when I put pen to paper.”
The next event is the Waifs and Strays Slam in May, though after that, the future of what the event will look like is up in the air. The uncertain nature of living life far away from home means that the next Waifs and Strays event could well be anywhere in the world, though one thing is certain – as long as Oliver has breath in his lungs, the show will go on.
So, if you’re a spoken word stalwart or a first-timer with a notebook full of material just waiting to be heard, don’t delay — this is your chance to be a part of the oldest performing art in the world, right here in Hà Nội. — VNS