Friday, 14 December 2018

A people's history in poetry

Last week I had the pleasure of guesting at Poetry Jam up in Durham run by Steve Urwin.
The North East is a lovely vibrant community, it feels like one big regional village of Newcastle, Sunderland Durham and Stockton where faces pop up across the poetry events.

I was struck by a shared love for stories at the night.  Rich, warm, generous and personable, a good number of the open miccers told their tales through verse.  Sometimes poetry scenes get known for a particular form, some nights love stand-up comedy poetry, others enjoy right-on political poetry.

It’s no surprise, the North East has a special history of working class folk music and shanties, Alex Glasgow being a particular favourite of mine.

The other guests were the wonderful Ellen Moran and Tom Kelly.  Tom’s career has spawned eleven books of poetry, stories and plays, a real veteran of the scene.  Ellen, by contrast, started performing poetry this year. Nevertheless she was one of the most confident and fierce performers I have seen for a long time.
A notable connection between these two poets was their use of characters and stories.  Ellen shared a poem about her Great Aunt, Peggy, and the rehousing of the working class of the 1960s.  Tom shared a poem about a family photo, and also stories of Jarrow.  A poem that really struck with me told the story of William Jobling, a striking miner and one of the last to be hung by a gibbet in Britain.

I have been researching a lot of British history lately.  The Peasants Revolt of 1381, anti-fascism in the 1930s, the Land Laws and enclosure of the 1700s and the Diggers, Levellers, Luddites and Blanketeers that pepper our history.  The working class struggle often ignored in favour of the story of Kings and Queens and their wars.

Some of my favourite poets are story-tellers.  They paint a picture with language of place, people and time.  And through that story we can write our own.  Ellen works for the Union Acorn, supporting tenants and tackling housing injustice.

I feel connected to a people's history, not because of some shared language, ethnicity, race or religion as Nationalists would unite us, but through a struggle against the rich, the bosses, the managers, the powerful and those that would divide us, erase our stories and enforce their own.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

We want our scene to be magnetic

Poetry scenes become poetry communities.  Because attendees are not necessarily housemates, family or work colleagues, these communities thrive as refreshing spaces to see people once or twice a month in a context for sharing art.  They come from a range of ages and backgrounds, and familiarity of people's poems is a cornerstone of friendship.  You can also make new pals by complimenting someone's poem, a handy conversation-starter.

However whenever a community starts to emerge, we humans also create hierarchies in the form of references, in-jokes and expectations.  Cliques can start to creep, we request classic poems, we shout-out things perhaps understood by the minority in the room, we chat about people, places and events from within.

In a recent review, A Dork In York blog praised Say Owt's recent collaboration with Sonnet Youth and it’s a glowing write-up.  I'm Artistic Director for Say Owt, and hugely proud of this night where we mixed poetry, comedy and music.

However the reviewer does point out “slam poetry has a reputation for being too cool for a reason, and I think that Say Owt could bear that in mind … When the hosts (I’m excluding Sonnet Youth from this – y’all were a joy) are all sat with their mates whooping and bantering on one side of the pub and the audience is on the other, it can feel at times like you’ve wandered into a private poetry party.”

Say Owt’s vibe can, at times, became a little bit raucous because we want the spoken word genre to be excitable and energetic.  We have developed an in-joke of acting slightly rowdy, coming up with chants for poets, subverting the expectations of usually quiet, introspective poets.  Because Sonnet Youth were taking over hosting duties, possibly I wanted to be a high-energy audience member, after all that’ the vibe Sonnet Youth as a “literary rave”.

I can only profusely apologise if any audience member, or poet, has ever felt alienated at our events.  We always try to greet and welcome poets to events we are hosting, and in terms of audience members try and ensure we’re all on the same wavelength, sharing a unified vibe.   

We want our scene to be magnetic.

Coming to any event, especially if you’re considering sharing poetry, can be a daunting experience, and I can see how someone turning up not knowing us might be uncomfortable with toying with a banter-ful vibe.  I certainly know if I’d turned up to a gig when I was starting out and not felt comfortable in that community, I would not have returned.

If anyone has suggestions how nights can dispel cliques and ensure it is a open environment, please comment below or send us a message