Martin Figura was born in Liverpool and lives in Norwich. He is a qualified accountant and retired army major. He is also a poet as well as a portrait and social documentary photographer, and holds separate websites for each of his professional identities. As a poet he demonstrates a “delicately balanced” (Jackie Kay), “moving and deeply courageous” (Jo Bell) voice, alongside a well-honed capacity for wit and comedy. He has been a member of the poetry ensemble The Joy of Six since 2000, and has performed extensively with them in the UK and at various venues in New York, as well as producing booklets and a CD. He gained an MA in Writing the Visual in 2007 from the then Norwich School of Art & Design, and is chair and compere of Café Writers; a Norwich-based live literature organisation. His photography has been widely published and exhibited, including at the National Portrait Gallery.
The poems published in Whistle (2010) examine Figura’s unusual childhood: when he was nine years old, his father killed his mother. Indeed, the book is written “In memoriam” to June Evelyn Figura (1933–1966), whilst also being dedicated to Figura’s wife and fellow poet, Helen Ivory. Rather than over-explore his subject matter, Figura “employs throughout a pared-back and piercing lyricism”, says Penelope Shuttle. Jackie Kay’s endorsement of the collection gives a further sense of this:
Martin Figura’s riveting sequence of poems about his childhood, his father killing his mother, and the consequences of that upon the whole family is remarkable for the story he doesn’t tell, as much as for the story he does. Exercising a humanising restraint, delicately balanced, these poems are an attempt to excise memory, to fill in some of the missing gaps, but the sense one is left with most of all is absence and loss. Moving, brave, unsentimental, Whistle doesn’t blow the whistle on the family. Instead it rather heartbreakingly tries to piece together the fragments of a life, shattered by murder.
Set in post-war Britain, the collection utilises imagery of conflict, as in the following extract from ‘Victor’, winner of the Poetry Society’s 2010 Hamish Canham prize:
At tea time, those whose turn it is
break cover, make a zigzagging run for it
shouting — ACHTUNG ACHTUNG.
They go down in a hail of bullets,
competing for the most dramatic death.
The pavement is so littered with Germans
the men must pick a way through
to reach their gates and take their sons
down paths into quiet houses.
The collection, along with the accompanying spoken word show, made the shortlist of the 2010 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. An Apples & Snakes associate artist in receipt of an Arts Council Lottery Fund Award, Figura has performed Whistle at a number of festivals across Britain, including the Ledbury Poetry Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. Figura’s Edinburgh performance was described in the Fringe guide as “a multimedia depiction of a post-war British childhood using poetry, family photographs and striking visuals”.
In the same year that he published Whistle, Figura also published the very different Boring The Arse Off Young People. This collection sees some of the poems from his previous publications, Ahem (2005) and The Little Book of Harm (2002), republished along with new material. This forms the lighter arm of Figura’s work: he is a competent comic who enjoys parodying other writers. In his blog, Luke Wright recites an anecdote about one particular reading, a “storming twenty minutes which included poetry ‘covers’” including ‘Miss Joan Cooper Clarke’ (Miss Joan Hunter Dunn). Wright comments: “John Cooper Clarke’s daughter was in the crowd and got on the phone to her dad who came down to join the party.”
Figura’s more light-hearted work includes an acrostic which takes for the letters of its first lines: N,I,C,E,T,I,T and S. In ‘AHEM’, which draws on Allen Ginsberg’s ‘HOWL’ he talks of “teenagers, /who tripped out to Skegness Vimto-fuelled in charabancs”, whereas in ‘Talking’ two consecutive lines read: “I’ve a habit of repeating myself / I’ve a habit of repeating myself”. Altogether this strikes a balance with the sensitively executed story of Whistle and marks Figura as a writer and performer of immense flexibility and breadth.
His photographers’ eye has surely contributed to his success, and his exploration of performance and recital, and the ability to fill venues at various festivals with shows that incorporate mixed-media, highlights Figura as a truly twenty-first century poet.
The Little Book of Harm, Firewater Press, Cambridge, 2002
Ahem, Eggbox Publishing, Norwich, 2005
Whistle, Arrowhead Press, Darlington, 2010
Boring the Arse Off Young People, Nasty Little Press, Norwich, 2010
Photography & essays
This Man’s Army, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, 1998
Work-Space-Work, A Happen Publication, Bedfordshire, 2007
Visit Figura’s poetry website and his photography website
Figura is also a member of the poetry ensemble The Joy of Six
Read Penelope Shuttle’s review of Whistle
Listen to Figura reading his work on the Poet Casting website