Twelve months ago I’d never willingly been to a poetry event (I say willingly to exclude my compulsory year 10 trip to Poetry Live, which I ended up enjoying anyway!). If you’d asked me what a poetry slam was I might have suggested a now obsolete move made famous by a notably eloquent wrestler. 2012 saw me fall in love with all (or at least most) things performance poetry.
Before February this year I hadn’t attended a single edition of the Apples and Snakes night Hit The Ode, but since then I think I’ve only missed one, and that was probably the result of being at another poetry-related thing elsewhere. Promise, officer.
Indeed February’s HtO lit the figurative fire under my actual ass when it came to this facet of the written and spoken word. It was the night that inspired me to set up this blog. Vanessa Kisuule, Paul Murphy, and the two touring Americans Jon Sands and Ken Arkind were an unlikely quartet, but they came together wonderfully. For one piece Jon and Paul, who I believe had never met before that evening, literally came together for an impromptu guitar/poetry duet. I shouldn’t have been too surprised though…it was only a matter of time before they realised the collaborative obligation they had to fulfil given their forenames! That night was one of those rare occasions when you are aware of the finite beauty of an experience while it is still occurring. I was grateful for realising that, as it meant I sucked up the rest of the performances like a man deprived of performance poetry and haiku jamborees, well, all his life.
As an actor and page writer, the question of why I’d never considered performance poetry, a genre that crudely but sweetly marries the two, before then seems to scream louder than any other, but I can honestly say that I simply didn’t know it was out there. Had I discovered it sooner, I’m sure I’d have embraced it sooner, but perhaps it is fitting that it wasn’t until moving to Birmingham that the genre burst kicking and screaming into my creative consciousness. The city has a vibrant, and ever-increasing scene, the growth, health and variety of which I hope I have contributed to with my exploits of the past year.
Happy to do the rounds of the open mics, I was delighted when I started getting asked to do gigs (yes, even the one I did at a free vegan arts festival in a disused building in Digbeth to a small but attentive audience enjoying healthy slabs of cornbread). Delighted at being asked to do gigs, I was over the moon when I started getting paid to do them, and it’s with this kind of encouragement I delve into the new year.
I open-mic’d at many Hit The Odes since that fateful February, as well as at Speak Up and Shambala Festival, to name but a few, competed in slams in Wenlock, Worcester, Ledbury, Bristol (the city twice and the Selly Oak pub once), and Cheltenham, performed in poly-vocal collaborations, new nights and experiments, twice accidentally headlined Word Up, and passably pastiched one of the greatest rappers of our generation.
I’ve seen some fantastic performances too. Most I’ve already mentioned in previous posts (I try to do a “poem of the night” for each gig I watch), but most recently I saw The Strivers Row on tour. This collective of American poets (featuring Jasmine Mans, Joshua Bennett, Zora Howard, Alysia Harris, Carvens Lissaint, and Miles Hodges) had only 3 dates in the UK and I was lucky enough to catch their opening night in London. It was like no spoken word event I’ve ever been to. The atmosphere was electric (enough to make other gigs seem funereal) and I felt like I was at a concert rather than a reading. Because it was a concert, really. The fans in the crowd were fans, and not sympathetic friends or grandmothers, who sung along with their favourite lines, clicked to appreciate a fine metaphor, and inhabited the pieces just as much as the performers themselves. This is something that I’d sometimes seen in the periphery of a YouTube video but never thought I’d experience in real life, as it were. Consequently, it was much more in the authentic oral story-telling folk tradition than I expected, and regardless of your opinion of work that is often religious and always boldly self-affirming, many other audiences and events could do a lot worse than to emulate the effervescence of The Strivers Row. POEM OF THE NIGHT could have been almost any of them, but I was particularly blown away by the multi-lingual, powerful yet humble tour-de-force that is Alysia Harris:
This year I also took on the mantle of Literary Events Officer at Writers’ Bloc, and have set up and hosted two new nights in Birmingham, which I hope will grow in scope and popularity, and may even be inherited and harnessed by the next wave of student writers and performers after me. I hope so.
Grizzly Pear is the performance poetry powerhouse (well, it’s all relative, but 100+ people at a paid poetry gig is never bad), and emerged out of the nameless open-mic nights run by the society in 2011-12, which provided such an inspiring platform for me when I first moved to the city and started at UoB, but which suffered a bit from inconsistency of structure, regularity and branding. I tried to give it a boost (partly because I enjoy making irreverent and endearingly bad posters!) by introducing a paid headliner. Something a) to enjoy, and b) to aspire to, is what makes a night really worthwhile for me.
Scribble Kicks was focused more on page poets and prose writers, or those competent with a pen but less confident with a mic, and was held at mac Birmingham in November. Again, a stupid poster, again a decent turn out (possibly because mac professionally rebranded it themselves, and changed the poster, although I played my part!) and again a successful evening. I’m excited about the future of both of these events. Which brings me to the question of 2013.
I feel sorry for 2013. It must be like going on after The Rolling Stones (if such a thing ever happened). It may well be remembered as “that year what followed the Olympics,” “the diamond jubilee + 1,” or “when we found out to our immense relief and amusement that the Mayans were right about everything except the date, which they pre-empted by a mere 6 months.” But I’m optimistic about lil’ 2013’s prospects. I think it can do alright.
And I’m excited about what I might get up to as well. I have more gigs: in Plymouth with Apples and Snakes, at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, and hopefully a few I’ll be able to announce soon. The next Grizzly Pear is on Thursday 24th Janurary and features the afore-revered Vanessa Kisuule…Bristol-based multi slam champion. I’m very excited. Scribble Kicks will resurface triumphantly at mac soon pending confirming some final arrangements. And the epic inter-University poetry slam that has for so long been a pipe of mine looks set to become a reality. Again, I’ve told myself I won’t announce it until absolutely everything’s in place, so I’ll try and keep quiet. Although that’s hard. It’s going to be big.
I’d love to know what your favourite poetry and spoken word moments of 2012 were. Comment with some choices, or recommendations of things I should watch/listen to/go and see/check out.
Thank you to anyone and every one who’s enjoyed and supported my poetry since it all kicked off. Lecturers, friends, housemates, parents, other poets (I’ve met some brilliantly talented and brilliantly hardworking and brilliantly selfless people) and random strangers who’ve laughed and cried along, and told me as much in the bar afterwards. Let’s have more of that, of all that, again!