National Poetry Day is now the vehicle that the Birmingham Library Service uses to promote and announce the new Birmingham Poet Laureate. I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted this year for the position myself, so what follows is a personal insight into the day. For the first time, instead of the position being awarded on the basis of submissions and interview only, the poets were to be taken on tour, and the four short listed poets were to be the guinea pigs.
The opening performance was at the Ikon Gallery, Oozells St, which is dominated currently by the Sedko Nobakov exhibition, from a balcony overlooking the foyer area, in which a decent sized crowd assembled- and stayed. A good start. They liked us. Next stop was the Main Library Foyer where the Birmingham Book Festival, which was launching on the day had a base. Foyers, it seems , are good , and another respectable crowd assembled to hear us hopefuls for a very well received set. Then on to Cafe Blend, the best venue to date with a stage and microphone . Unfortunately our time slot coincided with the mid-afternoon lull ,which the valiant efforts of the poets struggled to lift both in terms of numbers and spirits. Our final spot on the tour was at Cafe Zelig in the Custard Factory which was the undoubted highlight, and used the tour as part of an ongoing “Arts All Over The Place” initiative. A large crowd, assembled by the indefatigable Catherine Crossley, was treated to performances enhanced by impromptu accompaniment from a double bass player, with whom Jan Watts worked very effectively, as the last round of poems on the theme of games or Birmingham were recited.
The nominated poets each had quite distinct strengths. Joanne Skelt offered serious reflective poetry delivered with energy and commitment. Jan Watts included wry humour and sharp observation in her lengthier pieces. Marcia Calame oozed charisma and warmth with every well chosen word. Last, but not least, outgoing office holder Roy McFarlane acted as master of ceremonies throughout, and entertained with his poems about bicycles in Amsterdam, and identity in Birmingham, both audience favourites including call and response elements.
Cafe Yum, also in the Custard Factory, was the venue for the finale during which each poet was able to cut loose with a poem of their own choice – the relief in being allowed to do so, and the benefits thereof, were immediately apparent in an entertaining and inspiring quartet of deliveries. But before the winner was announced we were entertained by the brilliant Matt Harvey.
Matt Harvey is the unassuming darling of the intelligentsia, beloved by The Times, Guardian and Independent, much broadcast, and all round good guy. His trademark is an erudite, but not elitist, and pithy wit with charming, daring but pleasing rhyme. It was an enormous coup to secure his services and he did not disappoint. “Works Perks” opened his set- and brought the house down, his onomatopoeic tennis poem delighted. I hope that we will be seeing a lot more of him in Birmingham.
Jan Watts was crowned Birmingham Poet Laureate for 2011/12 a role she will surely fill with distinction, if not a little trepidation, after the universally acclaimed success of her predecessor, Roy McFarlane. The combination of a nationally renowned poet, public laureate coronation ,and launch of the Birmingham Book Festival, was an undoubted success which the sold-out, packed to the rafters crowd of over two hundred clearly enjoyed and should certainly provide a template for the event in future.