Getting in touch with my inner child

I am surprised and absolutely delighted to have had two poems commended in the YorkMix Poetry for Children Competition!
You can check out my commended poems here, and also go to this page to read/watch all the winning, highly commended and commended poems, which are stunning!

I am available for schools’ performances and children’s events via Zoom/Teams for a small fee, so please message me if you might be interested in booking me.


A Laureateload of Poetry

So, Simon Armitage is the new Poet Laureate. Yes, I know everybody except, apparently, Imtiaz Dharker wanted it to be Imtiaz Dharker and it is a shame that a role that has been wall-to-wall white men since its inception, with just a tiny blip from Carol-Ann Duffy, has reverted to being wall-to-wall white men so soon again, but, that aside, Armitage is a decent enough choice. I feel a bit like I do at the end of the Eurovision Song Contest every year – Denmark is catchy enough and I’m not gutted they won, but I’d rather it had been Armenia. But I don’t want to get into the debate about whether or not Armitage was the right choice – I want to get into the debate about whether we should have a Poet Laureate at all.

It’s easy to eye-roll. The Laureateship is notoriously a poisoned chalice. Few Poet Laureates have written much decent work while in post. Some have written truly execrable work while in post – verses trotted out to suck up to the Queen on the occasion of royal births and marriages tend to be high-end versions of Hallmark greetings card poetry, with all the anodyne mediocrity of a local paper obituary notice rhyme. Poems that aim to speak for the whole community are hard to pull off at the best of times and usually only work when they emerge spontaneously, not when you have the pressure of knowing it’s your job to churn this sort of stuff out. There are exceptions – Tennyson produced “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in his role as Laureate – but John Masefield apparently used to enclose a stamped-addressed envelope when he submitted his Laureate poems to The Times, in case they weren’t any good and they wanted to reject them and, while this is a reflection of his modesty, not their quality (Masefield was, as someone on my Facebook page has just reminded me, an extremely fine poet), many people share his lack of confidence in the ability of Britain’s Official Poet to produce the goods.

It’s not true, however, as I frequently see argued on social media, that the Poet Laureate is “the Queen’s private poet” – a lackey of the Establishment who has to write to order. The Poet Laureate has not, since the time of Wordsworth, been obliged to write anything while in post and neither the Queen nor the Government puts in requests.

It’s also probably true, as at most slams, that the best poet never wins. Colley Cibber was widely regarded as a fairly shoddy poet even in his own time, but somehow got the nod. Nahum Tate, now most famous for having rewritten King Lear to give it a happy ending (no, really), wasn’t much better, but also got chosen. Much as I have a soft spot for Betjeman, he will hardly be remembered as a Titan of 20th-century poetry by future generations.

It has never been an uncontroversial role – Browning’s 1845 poem “The Lost Leader” is one long passive-aggressive jibe at the once anti-monarchist radical Wordsworth for selling out by accepting the role – and its associations with monarchy and Empire have made it unpalatable to many. Benjamin Zephaniah recently asserted “I won’t work for them. They oppress me, they upset me, they are not worthy” and Seamus Heaney turned it down partly on political grounds in 1999 (although, given his response to being included in an anthology of “British” poets in 1982 was an indignant “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the queen”, it was fairly tone-deaf to offer it to him in the first place).

And there will always be debate over how “academic” or “populist” the choice should be. I recently saw a spoken word poet arguing on social media that Carol-Ann Duffy had been a “terrible choice” as she was “too inaccessible and elitist”, and yet I remember that at the time many were sniffy about her appointment on the grounds that she was too lightweight and populist. You will never be able to please everybody and it is arguable that in trying to, you may end up with a middlebrow, safe choice that pleases nobody (not, I hasten to add, the case with Armitage or Duffy, but that could explain Tate and Cibber).

I still feel it’s a worthwhile role to have, though. I admire the way that Carol-Ann Duffy has reimagined the role as poetry’s national cheerleader and put the focus on education work and promoting other poets rather than on her own work. I also admire the way that Andrew Motion before her changed the emphasis from poems for the Royal Family to poems for the nation. This interview with him on the drawbacks and pressures of the role is, I think, rather interesting. The role is evolving into something other than a docile minion of the Establishment and it is in the power of whoever is Laureate at any given time to speed up that process of evolution.

More than anything, though, I think it is worth having a Poet Laureate, because the appointment of a Poet Laureate is usually the only time when an item about poetry gets into the mainstream newspapers or on the telly and even people who have never heard of any other poets have heard of the Poet Laureate. That kind of public platform is useful if you want to bring poetry to the masses.

I remember when I was about ten I told my mum that I liked writing poems at school, she said to me, “Maybe you’ll be the Poet Laureate when you grow up”, and that became a burning ambition for me. My mum didn’t know of any other poets who did poetry as a job – I doubt if she could name more than one or two contemporary poets other than Betjeman – but she’d heard of him because of the Laureateship and was able to give me an aim to encourage me in my new-found interest. It’s easy for people from backgrounds where the arts are taken for granted to mock the idea of a Poet Laureate, but the Laureateship’s public prominence means it’s seen by people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware that a life in poetry is possible.

A Host of Difficult Skills

I have never got involved in running a spoken word night. I don’t think this is just me being lazy and selfish (although it’s possibly that, as well); I’m not sure I have any of the requisite skills and, in any case, Bristol/Bath is pretty much at saturation point with spoken word nights at the moment and, unless I feel a burning mission to reach a potential audience that noone else is reaching or meet a need none of the other nights in the area is meeting, there isn’t really any point in adding to what’s already there.

Others have suggested that getting involved with running a spoken word night might help my career and, yes, I have known people start up nights because they think that it will get their name better known in the spoken word community, give them more opportunities to meet and network with the A-listers they book, and that poets who run other spoken word nights might start offering them gigs, in the hope of being booked in return. However, it seems to me that the reverse is actually often the case – most of the really, really good promoters and hosts I know have seen their own careers take a hit, because running a night well takes a colossal amount of time and energy – time and energy that they then don’t have to promote themselves. Generally, when a poet starts a night for all the wrong reasons – as a vehicle for promoting themselves – the night rarely enjoys sustained success, because either its shallow roots soon see it wither or the poet quickly loses interest and moves onto something else. The nights that have become runaway successes tend to be those where the promoting/hosting/managing team is motivated by sheer love of poetry and a desire to serve their potential audience.

Hosting, in particular, requires a very specific set of skills and is often a delicate balancing act. When you say the word “host”, many people immediately think of an uber-confident, charismatic, loud, bubbly person, but many of the best hosts I know are quiet, self-effacing people. Yes, the host has to be charismatic and interesting enough to engage the audience and on occasions has to be able to tell jokes and/or perform their own work, to warm the audience up, put them at ease, and fill any awkward gaps, but they’ve also got to remember that the night isn’t all about them and that they are there to facilitate the other performers (both the featured acts and any slammers/open micers), not to upstage them. I sometimes think that a sign of a perfect host is that you didn’t really notice them, in either a good or a bad way, but came away buoyed by the experience you had and by the performers’ work.

The most obvious thing that the host has to do is introduce the acts and this can make a huge difference, both to how the performer feels about themselves and how the audience receives them. Hosts will often whip the audience up into a frenzy of applause before the performer takes the stage which makes the performer feel like a rock star and makes the audience view them as one. At three different events this week I was lucky enough to be given really touching, personal intros that made me feel that the hosts knew and genuinely loved my work, that they weren’t just reading out my biog verbatim. It made me perform better, both because I knew they had disposed the audience to expect me to be good, but also because I felt more valued and worthwhile as a performer and as a human being. But even more important than how the host makes the performers feel is how they make the audience feel about themselves.

Hosting can take different forms. I’ve been to nights where there has been a lot of audience participation and there has been more going on in the auditorium than on the stage (for example, audience are encouraged to shake maracas or join in with refrains or actions or shout things out or write their own poems which will be read out onstage and there is a lot of banter between host and audience. I have been to delightful shows where play dough and bendy pipe cleaners and magic painting sets were left on the seats or tables, so audience members with low concentration spans had something to fiddle with during the show). This model can work especially well for nights trying to build an audience from people who might previously have thought poetry wasn’t for them and can be crucial in providing an inclusive and fun experience for the audience that will make them want to go back. But not everyone wants a night like that: when I first started going to spoken word nights, as a very shy person who was on her own, I just wanted to slip in at the back unnoticed, enjoy the poetry, and then go home and would have been mortified if a spotlight had been shone on me or I’d been forced to speak to people around me. Poetry nights catering to an established poetry audience, in particular, may legitimately prefer to take a more sedate, less high-energy, “fourth wall” approach, to curate, rather than cheerlead.  Even there, though, the host has a duty to ensure that the audience has a good time, that everyone feels they are welcome and are part of a community and to demonstrate what the night’s brand is about. It’s a case of finding a style that suits your personality and your audience’s needs.

One way that some hosts try to create a fun, high-energy atmosphere and make the audience feel they are joining a family or a club, not just randomly dropping into a venue for a couple of hours, is by making a lot of in-jokes. These can take the form of one of the hosts gently taking the piss out of the other and their supposed well-known foibles, a host sharing personal anecdotes, or hosts making comic references to things which took place at previous performances. This can work well – Harry and Chris’s stage show is a very good example of this approach and audiences are amused and charmed by their self-mockery and by the window we are given into their lives. When done badly, though, it can seem self-indulgent, can hog time and attention that would have been better given to the featured performers and can actually make audience members feel more isolated and unwelcome, if they feel that the inner circle gets the in-references and they don’t.

Sometimes I wish hosts didn’t feel compelled to be amusing all the time. In particular, I get tired of hearing the same old joke borrowed from another venue and trotted out as if it were the host’s own gag. Just because the host at the night where you first discovered spoken word always used to introduce the slam rules or greet the audience back from the interval with the same joke, it doesn’t mean you have to, too. Either think up your own original gags or just give us the information without trying to be funny. In general, I don’t respond well to hosts who I feel aren’t being themselves – they’re trying to copy a template of what they think a host should be. That doesn’t mean that your onstage self should be identical to your offstage self – it’s fine to create a stage persona that’s bolder than you and says things you would never say, but it should be your own alter ego, not someone else’s.

Another way that the attempt to provide wall-to-wall laughs can backfire is if you try to make banter with or about an audience member, open micer or slammer and it comes out wrong or they take it the wrong way. I have seen hosts reduce audience members to tears by making a flippant, off-the-cuff joke about their dress sense, accent or grammar, thinking they had picked someone who would take it in good part and horribly misjudging it.

Another difficult balance that hosts have to strike is keeping discipline without being so inflexible that they come across as as a joyless, jobsworth control freak. Nobody wants to be that guy who sits there with an alarm clock and stops anyone who goes even one second over their allotted time, but then again a host who repeatedly allows performers to overrun by a massive amount (or, even worse, allows the performers on first to overrun hugely, but then takes time off performers later in the evening who have done nothing wrong to ensure the evening ends on time) will create an undisciplined, shapeless, self-indulgent evening where people feel bored, unsafe and/or unappreciated and, in extreme cases, people miss the last bus/train home or the venue pulls the plug on future events because the bar staff were still there two hours after their shift was supposed to have ended.

But it’s very easy for me to carp about this, when I’ve never been a host myself, when the reason I’ve never been a host is because I know I’d be shit at it. Anyone who month in, month out, bravely strides out into the minefield of hosting, usually without any pay or recognition, is doing something I don’t have the guts to do and has my admiration. I know that even the worst host on the circuit is a much, much better host than I would ever be and by sheer virtue of being there deserves applause and credit. And hosts have to deal with the oddest things, at the spur of the moment, with no preparation or planning. I know someone who had to deal with a drunk who had secreted themselves backstage before the show started suddenly leaping out and taking his clothes off in the middle of a spoken word event. How would anyone cope with that?

A good host makes the evening. They are entertaining and confident, but humble enough to arrange everything so that attention is drawn to everyone except themselves. They are talented enough to be able to hold an audience, but self-effacing enough to not hog the stage. They are assertive enough to stop performers and audience from acting up, but calm and relaxed enough to defuse trouble, not escalate it. They are organised enough to keep the evening ticking along at an energetic pace, but not so uptight they suck the joy out of it. They can read a room and always know the right thing to say or do. They make audiences feel valued and involved, without making them feel uncomfortable or  put on the spot. They make everyone who takes to the stage, from the newbie open micer to the world-famous headliner, feel like a world-famous headliner. They are wonderful and worth their weight in gold and don’t get the love they deserve.

Rotten State

It seems that slagging off modern poetry is rapidly becoming one of the UK’s leading spectator sports, far outstripping actual poetry in the amount of media coverage it attracts. Hot on the heels of Rebecca Watts, with her hatchet job on “honest” young women, Rose Tremain now appears to be setting herself up as poetry’s pantomime villain du jour, telling the TLS this week,  “Let’s dare to say it out loud: contemporary poetry is in a rotten state. Having binned all the rules, most poets seem to think that rolling out some pastry-coloured prose, adding a sprinkling of white space, then cutting it up into little shapelets will do”, and predictably sending social media into meltdown.

There are, of course, plenty of holes for the picking in Tremain’s argument. I’m loving, for instance, the passive-aggressive “Let’s dare to say it out loud”, constructing the guardians of the old craft as a victimised minority, bullied into silence by a strident politically correct poetry establishment who will brook no dissent, when, in fact, people who don’t like the direction in which poetry is travelling have been daring to say it out loud for years – they never shut up. From Auberon Waugh’s setting up the Grand Poetry Prize as the first blast of the trumpet against “modern rubbish” and advocating a return to poetry that “rhymes, scans and makes sense”, to Stephen Fry calling modern poetry “arse-dribble”, to Jeremy Paxman declaring “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole”, everybody and his dog seems to have had a pop at modern verse.

Furthermore, as Sandeep Parmar points out in The Guardian, the “craftless” modern poetry being attacked has a craft and tradition – it’s just not the same as that which its detractors follow. And notions of craft have been in flux for centuries – even the crustiest conservative doesn’t suggest we should all write in unrhymed alliterative half-lines, like Beowulf.

Parmar ponders whether Tremain et al are trying to protect their white middle-class privilege by pulling up the drawbridge against innovators: “Is it coincidental that the so-called rotten state of poetry has recently begun admitting increasing numbers of diverse poets as prized citizens, rather than treating them as interlopers?” Ilya Kaminsky on Twitter asked, in a similar vein, “why so many people in power always complain about ‘the state of art’ when folks from underrepresented groups get recognition?”

God knows, there is enough racism and classism and misogyny in poetry, but I still feel that it is over-simplifying things to characterise those who squawk about “a lack of craft” as guardians of the pale, stale status quo trying to keep the oiks out, and the radical innovators as egalitarian and diverse. Much as I disagreed with most of what Rebecca Watts said and deplored her spiteful tone, what most of her detractors (including, initially, me) seemed to miss in their rush to denounce her as a snobbish toff jealously guarding her unfair privilege was that she is from a working-class background and none of the people she was attacking were. I have seen working-class poets who write traditional, formal poetry sneered at for being “dated”, “unsophisticated” and “naive” by university-educated, middle-class poets who pride themselves on how “unpretentious” and “street” their own work is too often to believe that those who are inventing new forms and “binning the old rules” are always on the side of the angels.

The Naming of Nights

Header photo by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018 (and Sharp Teeth is a cool name, too!)

I have never set up a spoken word night, but if I did, I should have to give some thought to what to call it, for the naming of spoken word nights, like the naming of cats, is a difficult matter. There are various approaches one can take and many of these names are poems in themselves.

Puns, particularly ones which involve parts of the mouth, words for speech or speaking, poetic forms, and microphones, are perennially popular, with the nationwide franchise Hammer and Tongue being perhaps the most famous example. Some of my favourite punning names include Manchester’s One Mic Stand, Swindon’s Ooh, Beehive! (which takes place in The Beehive pub and if you don’t get it, try putting “matron” after it) and Paignton’s Speaky Blinders. ETA: And I have just been reminded of Plymouth’s superb Pucker Poets, a night with a particularly clever pun, as it’s not only a pun on “pukka”, but is also a reference to the fact that it used to be held at Cafe Kiss.

Some people like to go for a metaphor. Milk, one of Bristol’s best and most successful nights, is a case in point: that one monosyllabic word connotes so much about the night’s ethos and, indeed, about the nature of poetry itself. It is warm and nourishing, maternal and nurturing, pure and natural. When listening to poetry at Milk, we are like babies, secure on their mothers’ breasts, being fed a substance that keeps us alive. And Malaika Kegode, who runs Milk, while programming some of the biggest and most arresting figures in spoken word, has always also been passionate about supporting and developing young artists and is a particular champion of the subtler, gentler kind of poetry that often gets trampled on in a shouty, slam environment, so the name is even more apt. Weston-super-Mare’s WordMustard also goes with a food metaphor, but a very different one: here, poetry is constructed as a condiment that makes life palatable, and we can expect hot, spicy poems that will surprise our tastebuds (it is also, though, a reference to the homemade maracas made of old mustard bottles, filled with dried beans, which the audience is encouraged to shake to show their enthusiasm for the open micers). Lincoln has a night called Crash Course In Brain Surgery which I know nothing about, but I already want to go to, as it’s a fun, in-your-face name which also hints at poetry’s medicinal properties for mental health.

Some go for a pun-metaphor combo. Jawdance, Apples and Snakes’ night in London, has a name that leads you to expect astonishing verbal dexterity – the poets’ mouths will be moving so fast and with such rhythm that their jaws will appear to be dancing. And it will make your jaw drop! But it is also (and it literally took me about four years to pick up on this) a pun on “war dance”, hinting at spoken word’s capacity to wage war on social injustice and corrupt institutions – this is language as a weapon. Tongue Fu, one of the UK’s biggest spoken word collectives, also goes for a pun that implies you can defend yourself with words (or, at least, that poetry can give you a surprise kicking). Raise The Bar, another high-profile Bristol night, has a name which is a triple pun which brings in multiple overlapping connotations – [1] The idiom, meaning continually up your game or take the quality up to another level. And how apt that is for this ambitious, audacious night, which continually strives for (and usually gets) bigger audiences and bigger international headline acts. [2] Bars, in the hip-hop sense. Craft-D (Danny Pandolfi), who runs the night, is a rapper and hip-hop poet and is inviting open micers to show us their bars. [3] When it first started, Raise The Bar took place in the bar at Bristol University Student Union. Although it long moved on from this venue, the name, to me, still retains connotations of “raise the roof in the bar” or “shake up the joint”.

A rhyming name is another option, e.g. Torquay’s Stanza Extravaganza, London’s Chill Pill. Or you can just go for the downright surreal, e.g. Exeter’s Spork, Guildford’s The 1000 Monkeys.

Finally, there’s the what-it-says-on-the-tin approach, as exemplified by The Berkeley Square Poetry Revue (Bristol), Newcastle Literary Salon (Newcastle), Stand Up and Slam (London), Poetry is Dead Good (Nottingham). Some of these are also alliterative (e.g. the Bath nights Poetry Plus and Poetry and a Pint). There’s a lot to be said for the stop-wanking-around-and-just-call-it-what-it-is approach – if all the other nights in your area have gone peak hairdresser with the puns, calling yourself The Poetry Night is a transgressive and attention-grabbing move. And if your punning/metaphorical name is too clever-clever, you run the risk of alienating potential audience members, either because they fail to realise your night is a poetry night at all or because, if they’re timid or worried that poetry isn’t for the likes of them, they could be intimidated by clever in-jokes and  worry they won’t fit in with overeducated wags like you.

But I can’t resist a pun, so, in case anyone’s looking for a painful pun name, I don’t believe any of the following are taken:
Emergency Word 10
A Fit of Speak
Gob Seeker’s Allowance
Gobstoppers (although perhaps a bit too much like the Newcastle night Babblegum?)
Kissing with Tongues
Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation
Ode or Eaters (maybe for a night in a restaurant?)
Speech Melba
Tongue Sandwich

Unbelievably, all of the following, which I also came up with, are already taken by arts groups or companies of some description: Bubble and Speak, Key Rhyme Pie, Speak and Span, Speaksavers, Speaky Clean, Speeches and Cream.

Versifying and Diversifying

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018

This is a blog I wrote a few months back and can’t for the life of em think why i didn’t post at the time:

Diversity (or lack thereof) in page poetry has been in the news quite a lot lately. First, Dave Coates’s study of the gender and ethnicity of poets and critics in a selection of British and Irish “prestige” journals was covered by The Guardian. Then came the shitstorm that followed Lionel Shriver’s criticism in The Spectator of Penguin Random House’s decision to take active steps to make its staff and list more diverse.

Coming from a spoken word background, where the importance of diversity is almost universally recognised and most promoters, as a matter of routine, ensure a mix of genders, sexualities and ethnicities in their programming, I was taken aback by how controversial Coates’s conclusions and Mslexia‘s decision to sack Shriver as a competition judge were with the wider public. The majority of comments following The Guardian article were extremely hostile to the idea of diversity targets, viewing them as unfairly discriminating against talented white writers, patronising talented BAME writers by suggesting that lower standards be applied to them, and compromising artistic freedom, diversity and excellence by enforcing a narrow selection of right-on subject matter and prioritising this over quality. Some of the comments that got through The Guardian filter seemed to me to be overtly racist (“Multicultural poetry is crap”), while others made the (in my view, not entirely invalid) point that focusing exclusively on gender and ethnic diversity ignores the fact that middle-class bias is often the underlying problem and that if a diversity drive results in posts being filled with public school and Oxbridge-educated black and Asian women, the poetry world may end up superficially looking more diverse, but will still be excluding the working classes, a marginalised group with includes a disproportionate number of BAME writers.

The two arguments that seem most commonly marshalled against diversity targets are Shriver’s: (a) that diversity targets unfairly “privilege” black and Asian writers, while ignoring the wealth of diversity within the broad category of “white”, and (b) that an obsession with diversity will compromise quality, which, it is argued, can only be assured by a blind selection process. A third argument was popular amongst Guardian commenters: that perhaps BAME and female writers are just less interested in writing poetry than white men are and that it is “unfair” to insist on an acceptance rate for them which might be vastly in excess of their submission rate.

Shriver’s first argument seems to me to be nonsensical. Most diversity drives seek to ensure that the percentage of writers published which are BAME mirrors the percentage of British society which is BAME (12.9% – admittedly Coates argues that the percentage of BAME writers should actually be higher to compensate for centuries of systemic exclusion, but in my experience that is not a widespread view). Surely only the most paranoid writer, blind to their own privilege, could perceive a scheme which aims to ensure that 87.1% of writers published are white as discriminating against, let alone threatening to entirely exclude, white writers.  And ensuring 12.9% of writers published are of BAME origin and ensuring that the white writers published are a diverse mix are surely not mutually exclusive aims.

The second argument seems to take for granted that “quality” is an objectively definable thing, which it patently isn’t. Supporters of the status quo often angrily assert that editors often don’t even know the race or gender of the poet submitting, that “A. Smith”, for example, could be any gender or race, and that to accuse them of judging submissions on anything other than literary merit is an unjust slur. I do not seriously believe that any journal editors are deliberately racist, but I reject the idea that any journal editor judges entirely on a transparent and universally agreed criterion of “literary merit”, because anyone who has ever submitted to literary journals on a large-scale basis will know that individual editors all have their own little preferences and quirks as regards style and subject matter, that Editor X has a weakness for left-wing political poetry and that you’re much more likely to be accepted if you submit a piece attacking the Tories than if you submit an equally well-written piece about, say, bluebells, and that Editor Y can’t stand “confessional” poetry, so there’s probably no point submitting to them if you write in the style of Melissa Lee-Houghton or Kim Addonizio, no matter how well you write in that style. If they judged purely on merit in the abstract, then why do almost all journals advise would-be submitters to read past issues to “see the kind of thing we like”? In many cases, editors’ pet preferences won’t, even unconsciously, stack the odds against a particular cultural group, but sometimes they will. I have also heard, “It won’t resonate with our readership/audience” cited by both poetry journals and spoken word nights, as a reason for rejection of work – a valid concern, but if your audience is predominantly male, white and upper-middle class then the experience of anyone who doesn’t fit into that category may well “not resonate”.

As to the third argument, while failure to ascertain what proportion of submissions were by BAME writers may be considered a major methodological flaw of Coates’s study, the readiness of many Guardian commenters to assume as fact, on the basis of no evidence, that BAME writers simply can’t submit as much as white writers is even worse methodology. I also reject the idea that if hardly any BAME writers are submitting to the journal, then it isn’t a problem – if I were a journal editor receiving hardly any submissions from writers of colour, I would be thinking long and hard about which unconscious barriers I had erected which might be deterring a significant pocket of the community from engaging with my publication.

Nonetheless, while I support the drive for diversity, I think there are definitely dangers of diversity initiatives being implemented badly. I cautiously welcome Penguin’s commitment to opening up jobs to applicants who haven’t been to university, as when applied well, this policy could benefit talented working-class candidates with all the requisite skills who faced numerous barriers to accessing higher education. However, if applied badly, it could mean that the exceptionally bright working-class candidate who earned a place at Cambridge from a state school or as a mature student via an Access course through his/her own merits is passed over in favour of an exceptionally stupid upper-middle class candidate who managed to fail their ‘A’ levels, in spite of an expensive public school education and/or being private tutored within an inch of their life. The devil, as always, will be in the detail. In particular, it is important that ethnic diversity initiatives are not focused on meeting white audiences’ desire for “exoticism” or to feel right on. An Asian poet once complained to me about the pressure he feels in a predominantly white spoken word scene to write about his race all the time. “I don’t particularly want to write about being Asian,” he said. “I have lots of other things I want to say.”

Moreover, as someone who both submits to literary journals and actively participates in the spoken word scene, I get irritated by the complacency and virtue-signalling about diversity I often see in the latter scene, where it’s often assumed that it’s “elitist” page poetry that has all the problems and “we” are getting it all right. While spoken word talks the right talk on gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity, sometimes it fails in practice – my subjective sense is that I am judged on my age and gender far more in spoken word than I am in the “bad old” world of page poetry, there are too many occasions when I have had feminism mansplained to me from the stage by earnest men who are seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are hardly any women present, and the success of BAME poets in winning major slams like Hammer and Tongue can sometimes make it seem like they are more present than they are – many years, the proportion of BAME poets at the national finals is considerably less than 12.9%.  Also, it seems to me that there is not the same drive to ensure working-class and disabled representation in spoken word as there rightly is to ensure female, LGBT and BAME representation. Let’s get our own house in order, too.

Nonetheless, the need to avoid doing diversity initiatives badly is not a reason for not doing them at all and the lack of perfection in spoken word doesn’t exempt page poetry from scrutiny.

Womad 2018 – Final Reflections

Now that I’ve had a couple of weeks to digest it all, I just wanted to do a final blog on my Womad experience, charting my overall reflections.

More than anything, I want to thank Liv Torc for giving me this unique opportunity for a second year running, to reach an entirely new audience, to sell a few books and to get a plum thing to put on my cv. As a grassroots poet, on the periphery of spoken word and who is unlikely ever to be booked for a national tour or signed by Faber, I took a childish pleasure in feeling like a rock star every time I had to flash my “Backstage Access” wristband at the security guards. But what I treasure far more than that was the chance to meet,  watch and learn from so many different voices across the spectrum of poetry and spoken word.

The variety was huge, spanning literary heavyweights like Kei Miller, stunning allrounders who can straddle spoken word and page poetry, like Joelle Taylor and Anthony Anaxagorou, household names like Radio 4 whimsical wordsmith Matt Harvey and tartan legend Elvis McGonagall, those whose spoken word flirts with the boundaries between poetry and other art forms, such as Dizraeli, whose set blurred acoustic Anglo-African folk, hiphop, poetry and talk, and Pete the Temp, whose creative use of a loop station, banter and singalonga audience participation was part music, part stand-up, part old-fashioned showmanship.

All of the above are titans of the spoken word scene, experienced, world-class performers at the top of their game, but at the heart of the Hip Yak’s programme was something even more important – nurturing new voices, nurturing underrepresented voices and extolling the benefits of poetry and spoken word to personal wellbeing and community cohesion.

One of the most popular Hip Yak events of the weekend was the Sunday slam, which gave absolutely anyone at the festival who signed up, from total beginners to people who had been writing in their bedrooms for years to people who are old hands at open mics, a chance to have their words heard on the WOMAD stage. As all the best slams do, this gave people the chance to showcase poetic forms that meant a lot to them, whether fashionable with the literati or not (there was everything from rap, through traditionally structured rhythm and rhyme to free verse), and to voice thoughts and ideas that were most pressing to them – there was lots of general ideological comment, about Trump and the Tories, about the shameful necessity for foodbanks, about Me, Too, about Rebecca Watts, but also some exceptionally powerful personal testimonies from poets who had important experiences and truths they clearly absolutely needed to share and we all absolutely needed to hear. The slam also featured an extended set from winners of previous slams – the Frome slam, the Wells slam and last year’s WOMAD slam – all of whom gave assured performances which clearly showed why they deserved to be there. Offering slam winners a concrete career opportunity for their CVs is so important, as there needs to be a ladder up from open mic/slam level to professional level that is accessible and understandable if spoken word is to be truly inclusive.

This focus on showcasing and developing emergent artists continued throughout the rest of the programming, with feature sets by up and coming new voices, like Birdspeed, who was a massive hit with the WOMAD audience, truly one of the most popular performers of the weekend, and multislamwinning Shaun Hill, who has made a massive impact on the South West and Midlands scenes over the last year or so.

But the most visible representation of the unique Hip Yak ethos was the deliberate decision to focus Saturday’s programme on the issue of mental health. Most of the artists programmed have been outspoken in their poetry about their own mental health issues and Dizraeli’s blistering set, which received a spontaneous and total standing ovation from the crowd, was firmly centred on the crisis in men’s mental health and the damage that the patriarchal stigmatisation of speaking about your feelings or seeking help has caused men.

If Saturday’s mental health day was at the heart of the Hip Yak’s programming, then the hour-and-a-half segment presented by the Rainbow Fish Speak Easy, a Yeovil spoken word night which has grown out of a project piloted in GPs’ surgeries in Somerset, using spoken word poetry as a therapeutic activity for mental health service users, was at the heart of Saturday. It was led by Jamie, Jon and Julie, three service users who discovered spoken word through the scheme and who have gone on to run the Yeovil night – their own brutally candid, exquisitely crafted, professional standard poetry about their experience of mental illness, delivered with swagger and skill, was interlaced with poems from more established poets on the bill who have also experienced serious mental health problems. This was no sympathy project – all the poets who took the stage had created work which clearly deserved to be there on merit, the quality and power of the poetry was uniform across the board and moved many of the audience to tears – many, many audience members I spoke to said that it was the most powerful, moving and urgent section of this year’s programme.

There is often debate in spoken word circles, and sometimes ugly, damaging debate, about the competing claims of spoken word as an elite career for the brightest and best poets and as a therapeutic and expressive community activity for everyone. The inspired programme at the Hip Yak tent this year demonstrated that it can be both – that all poets , whether professional or amateur, established or emergent, are driven by the same needs to express their most pressing feelings and inner torments and to reach out to others in the community, and that professional standard work and professional careers are born out of people from the grassroots being given the confidence to just get up there and have a go with the knowledge they will be listened to.

Finally, on a personal note, I saw and heard so much that has inspired me and changed the way I think about spoken word. And, of course, WOMAD isn’t just a poetry festival – there’s a little bit of music, too. Talisk, who took to the Charlie Gillett stage on Saturday night determined to have the time of their life, after first taking Scottish folk music hostage and forcefeeding it five Red Bulls, and ended up upstaging whoever was on the main stage, were my personal musical highlight and have now taken up permanent residence in my CD player.

Womad 2018 – Day 3, Part Two

Sunday at the Hip Yak Poetry Shack was so good, it actually required two separate blog posts!

Matt Harvey’s absolutely stunning set, simultaneously accessible, populist, feelgood and deeply intelligent, drew a large, warm, wildly appreciative crowd. He leapt from ingenious kennings for a slug to reconstructing a Wimbledon tennis match entirely through onomatopoeia, from a story about the challenges involved in buying a pair of curtains that speak of (not “say”) who he is to a love story about two shy people who can only express their feelings through spring bulbs. He’s a technical and linguistic virtuoso, but a warm and engaging performer who knows how to draw a crowd of strangers into his world and the audience went wild for him.

Chris Redmond was also a master entertainer who could combine silly singalonga ukulele songs with superb poetic storytelling and really got the crowd into a good place.

Then Thommie Gillow took to the stage, opening with a very funny anti-slam poem about periods that celebrated the female body as well as being gently self-mocking, before moving onto a varied, but enormously courageous and heartbreaking set that opened up the personal pain of repeated miscarriage and the almost unbearable, cautious, superstitiously repressed joy of pregnancy after miscarriage, before finishing on a defiant, bittersweet poem that made comic capital out of the story of a cheating husband, the pain filtered through the metaphor of a shoe.

Pete the Temp then returned for more glorious mayhem, without the loop station or the beatboxing this time, but with a warm and life-affirming set, involving the audience at every turn, whether inciting them to ban everything on the planet to Darth Vadar’s theme or the tune of the US national anthem (I see what he did there) or exhorting the most crushed and broken to “keep it lit” in poetry that revelled in flouting the boundaries with music and comedy. Brazen, bubbly, bonkers and brilliant.

The penultimate poet, Desree, the runner-up in this year’s Hammer and Tongue National Championships showed she was nobody’s second best in a blistering set that took patriarchal colonialist sexist racist stereotypes of black women by the jugular and gave them a good shaking, but also had subtle, tender moments and fabulous use of language.

Closing the day, and the Hip Yak Poetry Shack’s 2018 Womad programme, was worthy headliner and literary legend, Anthony Anaxagorou. One of those tiny band who can move seamlessly between literary page poetry and spoken word, Anthony read one of his linguistically ambitious poems, packed with virtuoso imagery and dazzling word choices, straight out of Poetry Review, but his intense, angry delivery, his hypnotic rhythms, his socially relevant subject matter of institutional racism, the obscene and casual extinguishing of black lives, the stigmatisation and exclusion of immigrants and refugees, spoke directly to and transfixed a non-poetry specialist audience.

An extraordinary spread of poetic styles and subject matter was laid before the Womad audience on Sunday afternoon, from the quietly reflective to the bold and brassy, from life’s most shocking and tender moments to glorious just-for-the-sake-of-it silliness, and the audience lapped it all up and then came back for more. A truly eclectic and brilliant mix that blew people’s hearts right open, satisfied even the most exacting poetry connoisseurs and made dozens of new converts. Liv Torc has excelled herself in selecting and curating  a truly representative cross-section of the best of contemporary British spoken word.

Womad 2018 Day 3 – The Slam

I’m a bit late with this one – soz. But here’s my part one of my Sunday summary. Another day, another astonishingly varied and fabulous programme from the Hip Yak Poetry Shack at Womad and the slam deserves a blogpost of its very own.

There had been heavy rainfall overnight which didn’t let up until early afternoon. In the backstage campsite, most people were snuggling down into their sleeping bags and sealing themselves inside their tents and for once there was absolutely no queue whatsoever for the showers, so I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a good turnout for the legendary Womad Poetry Slam.

But I needn’t have worried – the tent was packed full of ardent poetry enthusiasts by kick-off at noon and their whooping, cheering and shaking of Liv’s homemade maracas soon attracted enough curious bystanders to fill the entire glade.

The quality and variety of the slammers was amazing, from Miss Merkle’s snappy hip-hop, to Audley’s fab literary poem about composting his father, from slam virgin Willow’s powerful political rhymes to third-time Womad slammer Barry’s witty and deft traditional poetry, and the scores for both the first-round heats and the final were agonisingly close.

There were also stunning feature sets from Frome slam winner, Josie Alford, whose candid, brave  poems about her father’s recent death moved the audience to tears, Wells slam winner, Beth Calverley (who also wrote free poems for festivalgoers all weekend, as she does at festivals all over the country, with her formidable Poetry Machine) and last year’s Womad slam winner, Siobhan McMahon, whose mature, assured poetry with its mythical inspiration, feminist themes and down-to-earth humour was pitch-perfect in both writing and delivery and showed why she is a winner in every sense of the word.

The finalists included Ian, whose use of imagery was absolutely stunning, Kieran, a confident and charismatic performer who knows how to structure a narrative and hit the audience in the soft spot, and Sarah, my personal favourite, whose exquisite writing and still, understated delivery proved you don’t have to be shouty-shouty to be slamtastic.

Hip Yak stage manager Amy entered the slam incognito and came joint 3rd with her straight-talking turbo rhymes – her first-round takedown of Rebecca Watts in defence of grassroots, populist, self-expressive poetry of the heart was something the whole tent could get behind and was greeted with loud cheers. Poetry that comes out of and nurtures the community, that inspires everyone to get involved, is what Hip Yak, in general, and the slam, in particular, is all about, so Amy’s poem could have been our theme song.

Anyra (spelling???), the other joint 3rd-placed poet (who I seem to remember also did well in last year’s Womad slam, too) totally wowed the audience with some powerful feminist poetry, powerfully delivered – a real talent who combines a social conscience with massive charisma.

Runner-up Will, who had never entered a slam before, deservedly scored the highest mark of the whole slam with his first-round poem about being an ex-soldier. His savage, angry, intelligent analysis of the way politicians use men like him as cannon fodder, how the public alternatively sentimentalise and ignore them and fail to understand the unhealable trauma that frontline combat causes to the psyche, silenced and transfixed the whole tent and reduced me to tears (which slam poetry never usually does).

But the very worthy winner was Frances Dormand, a witty, saucy, rhymetastic, hugely engaging performer who got the whole tent behind her with her laugh-out-loud funny and linguistically ingenious poem denouncing Donald Trump in numerous entertaining ways. She was sassy, she was assured, she was deliciously rude and she romped home in style to secure a slot at next year’s festival.

The whole slam was a joyous celebration of poetry that makes meaning of real people’s lives, poetry that everybody can get involved in, poetry that helps them to articulate their greatest fears, joys and sorrows.

Womad 2018 Day 2

It was hard to top yesterday’s Hip Yak Shack, but today’s might just have done it.

It kicked off with a stunning shorts section, including guest spots from last night’s headliner Joelle Taylor, Hammer and Tongue national runner-up Desree and Burning Eye’s own Clive Birnie. The overall vibe was serious and intense and the large crowd in the arboretum lapped it up.

Then it was onto Shaun Hill’s set. Shaun is one of the most exciting new talents to emerge on the spoken word scene in the last couple of years and he gave a passionate rendition of his fabulously written poems on mental illness, domestic abuse, LGBT issues and his working class roots.

Host Liv Torc gave a bravura performance of her poems about motherhood – candid, saucy, funny, moving and immensely poetic, whilst carrying the audience along with her rousing, accessible performance.

Then came Beryl the Feral, who delighted the audience with her rhyme and rhythm in her upbeat poems about anxieties, self doubt and modern life.

Dizraeli got an entirely deserved standing ovation for his fusion of spoken word, hiphop and Anglo-African folk music tackling the topics of men’s mental health, homophobia and the refugee crisis head-on. The audience were totally entranced.

The Rainbow Fish Speak Easy, a Somerset mental health collective,  took over the middle part of the afternoon, with the help of Shaun,  Liv,  Beryl, Birdspeed, Josie Alford and the book shack’s resident star, David Oakwood. Plus a very, very special headline slot from Matt Harvey. Jon, Julie, Jamie and friends moved people to tears with their honesty and art.

Pete the Temp ended the afternoon with a wild party atmosphere, using beatboxing, rap, a loop station and child participation to get the crowd dancing to Star Wars and tomatoes. If that sounds mad, it was actually madder.  In a good way.