The arrival of December heralds not only Christmas, but the impending year end. A year in which I have had the pleasure of attending several dozens of poetic events in the Midlands both as a performer, and an audience member, and so it seems appropriate to take stock, to reflect, and celebrate what a remarkable spoken word scene we have in the Midlands,particularly as no-one else does it! This is a personal view, and any comments, or criticisms are welcomed. Omission of event or poet should not be seen as evidence of a slight , but instead of brevity, or my poor memory.
Without doubt the first thing which strikes me is the scale of activity. Each month there are approximately twenty seven regular events in community halls, cafes and pubs playing to audiences of typically between a dozen and a hundred, many offer free admission. Where charge is made it rarely exceeds £5. In addition to that, there are one-off events and occasional slams . Add them all together and that probably equates to around a thousand people a month attending poetry and storytelling.
Then there are the festivals, and the numbers escalate still further, Buxton, Lichfield, Shifnal, Stafford, Much Wenlock, Birmingham Artsfest, Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stratford, Worcester, Gloucester, Hay, Ledbury and Cheltenham ( to name but some) all now have poetry, or literary festivals which include poetry, as a staple of their annual cultural calendar. The poetry cognoscenti are fond of describing the poetry scene as an underground movement, but with these numbers the underground can scarcely cope!
Not only are the numbers of events significant, but their diversity is also surprisingly great. An identikit poetry evening, thankfully, has yet to emerge. Success tends to come to those who create a clear identity, and some of those successful formulas can, when placed side by side, appear to be contradictory. Bilston Voices charges a modest entry fee, has a set bill of local and regional talent, no open mic, is finished by 9.30pm, has a predominantly older audience – and plays to full houses every month. Hit the Ode in Birmingham charges £5, has an international set bill and open mic, finishes closer to 11pm, has a strong young audience – and also plays to full houses.
It is also not just the events which are diverse, but the content. The lines between rhyming poetry, blank verse, unaccompanied rap, accompanied rap, prose, monologue, short story and storytelling are becoming increasingly blurred, and are largely tolerated by audiences, although different events provide natural homes for some of these expressions more readily than others. Shindig in Leicester, organised by Nine Arches Press and Crystal Cleat Creators, sets its stall firmly at the quality end of the market attracting those who are, and aspire to be, published poets, whilst Speak Up in Birmingham sets its sights on a younger hip-hop performing style. Flying Donkeys in Derby, by contrast ,majors on storytelling, with poets filling in while Poetry Bites in Kings heath packs them in with a formula of strong floor readers and the skilled eclectic personal pick of headliners by Jacqui Rowe.
Any year has its casualties. Poetry@ the Cafe finished when the venue closed in Digbeth, Lorna Meehan announced the demise of Rhymes , as was, with a reincarnation in different form intended for the new year. Poetry Train in Wolverhampton is seeking a new home having lost its last one at the Britannia Hotel, Wolverhampton, and Rhubarb Radio, the online Custard factory station finally ran out of funds. Yet simultaneously Parole Parlate in Worcester has had a fantastic debut year, The Goblin Folk and Poetry Club launched in Ashby de la Zouch in November, and Spoken Worlds successfully relocated venues in Burton, and broadened their audience.
Worcester has undoubtedly been the most active place for poetry this year, with the aforementioned Parole Parlate establishing itself, the Worcester Literary festival having a spectacularly successful debut year and Be magazine, brainchild of the Worcestershire literati, appearing for the first time too, to provide some competition for the excellent Crystal Clear Creators Literary Magazine “Hearing Voices”. It also found time to create its first Poet Laureate, Theo Theobald.
Controversy stalked the usually tranquil regional poetry waters in the middle of the year with the first women only I-Slam. The rationale for the event was to provide an opportunity for women from ethnic groups where culturally speaking out is difficult. Female friends who attended felt that this objective was met, with the promotion a big success. More generally I see a meritocracy at work in Midlands poetry in which women are flourishing, Fatima Al-Matar from Coventry, Maria Taylor from Leicester , Jody Ann Bickley from Birmingham, Emma Purshouse from the Black Country, Amy Rainbow from Malvern and several female poets from Worcester, to name but a few, all fear no male poet when performing on the same bill. Frequently it is they themselves who are headlining! Although the context in which I- Slam appeared has merit, I think that it is important that female poets should have confidence that there is nothing stopping them succeeding on mixed bills – and there are plenty of excellent role models to prove it.
Birmingham Poet Laureate Roy MacFarlane left a particularly strong legacy when he relinquished his title in October to be succeeded by Jan Watts. His Bring & Share series at Birmingham Library Theatre promoted his office, cultural diversity and poetry in a powerful, accessible mix, making a significant contribution to the poetic life of the city. His anthology of black midlands writers, “Celebrate Wha”, was a triumph of determination and will, as well as an artistic coup , bringing writers like Sue Brown , Michelle “Mother” Hubbard and Marcia Callame deservedly to a wider audience beyond those who frequent The Drum, in Aston. The Birmingham Library Service deserves credit for supporting and promoting the Laureateship which is now in its fifteenth year and has inspired many other places to follow suit.
Libraries across the region are under threat as spending cuts bite which is a particular threat to the many excellent writing groups which often use their buildings. Sonia Dixon at Walsall Council continues to be a passionate supporter of this cause, and has brought national figures like Matt Harvey to the Borough to promote poetry.
Converting poetry from bits of paper to published book is no easy task, yet Walsall author David Calcutt and National Poetry Day Director Jo Bell succeeded in doing so with “Bugged”, a nationally sourced compilation of poetry with several local contributors which gave occasion to a regional launch at the Icon gallery in Birmingham.
In the region we have no fewer than five independent poetry publishers in Nine Arches Press, ( Matt Nunn and Jane Commane), Flarestack Press ( Jacquie Rowe and Meredith Andrea) and Offa’s press (Simon Fletcher). The publication which stands out most for me this year is “Mytton, Dyer and Sweet Billy Gibson “ from Deborah Tyler- Bennett and Nine Arches Press, a delightful romp through notable, but largely forgotten, historic lives with a sharp eye on some universal truths.
Yet this year has not simply seen poetic talent committed to paper. Mal Dewhirst, leader of the Polesworth Poets, has spearheaded the creation of the second part of the Polesworth Poetry trail at Pooley Country Park where poetry was selected to be presented, in situ, on plaques, walls and in engravings in a permanent physical display for posterity. Given that Polesworth’s poetic ancestry takes in John Donne, Michael Drayton and Ben Johnson, this was a bold initiative and one which will resonate for decades to come.
Radio Wildfire continued to blaze an on-line radio trail for the spoken word under the committed leadership of Dave Reeves. Bulging at the seams with its current format of a live show once a month backed up by a loop I know that Dave has exciting plans for the future. Combine this and the commitment of website Behind the Arras to poetry reviews and listings and you have a platform for promoting spoken word in the region which is not replicated anywhere else in the country.
However the backbone of regional poetry are the dozens of individuals who run events for no, or little, personal gain. They are experts in securing free rooms, social networking publicity and the diplomacy skills of organising running orders. Their number include the likes of Bohdan Piesecki , the regional Apples & Snakes representative, who from nothing, has created “Hit the Ode” now consistently claiming the biggest audience numbers, and securing international talent which culminated in over 150 people attending the International Dice Slam incorporating poets from seven different countries. It also includes Dee Davidson and Caitlin Belgard who, not content with saving poetry events have saved an entire building in the Malvern Youth Centre.
So what does 2012 hold? The numbers of events and performers guarantee two things; a conveyor belt of new talent, and a platform for existing talent to develop further. Events will sometimes finish, that is a natural part of the creative arc. What is reassuring is that the total number is increasing as fresh initiatives replace those that that have waned and new ideas emerge to fulfil untapped interests. I see a trend for collaborative group performances emerging. The Decadent Divas comprising Charlie Jordan, Maggie Doyle, Lorna Meehan and Laura Yates are experienced and show much potential. Type S, a young trio comprising Matt Windle, Mstr Morrison and Jodi Ann Bickley burst with youthful brio. A project of particular interest to me is Brewers Troupe, a company of poets lead by Emma Purshouse and Heather Wastie who perform a site specific selection of poems, “Snug” about pub life- in a pub! Not quite a drama in verse, it is episodic in construction and is a very clever concept in popularising poetry that still has much to offer.
Slams continue to both bring poetry to the masses and act as a platform for new talent to emerge, although the instant fix that it demands, and offers, is but one niche in the overall poetry spectrum. They are also an essential ingredient in the burgeoning Literary/poetry festival market which this year offered both the gloriously grass roots, low cost, enthusiasm of the first Worcester Literary Festival and the glossy, high powered, slick and expensive Cheltenham Literary Festival which with the sponsorship of The Times and Sky is surely set to the pre-dominant festival in forthcoming years. It is the events in between which will need to be clearer on their proposition.
But it is a much smaller initiative that I single out for particular praise, the Coventry- Cork poetry exchange in which O Bheal from Cork in Ireland, and Night Blue Fruit from Coventry, exchange three readers annually in the spirit of friendship and artistic nourishment, which this year brought Colm Scully, Afric McGlinchey and Jennifer Mathews across the water. It is a worthy and valuable initiative which deserves to grow still further.
And that just about sums up 2011 poetically for me. I close by offering my profuse thanks to all who have listened to me perform, read my articles, listened to me on Radio Wildfire and who have inspired and fired my artistic enthusiasm.