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The Spoken Word Poetry Explosion in Nottingham

21 July 16 words: Philip Deakin

"I have listened to poetry in a chintzy tea house and in a cave deep beneath the streets of Nottingham, from a dear old lady sharing her favourite Pam Ayres poem, to a punk screaming hatred and vitriol"

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photo: Steve Johnson

This week, it’s a year since I set foot in JamCafé for a poetry slam created by Josh Judson for Poetry Is Dead Good. I hadn't performed any of my poetry since I was about fourteen.

I signed my name at the door, and waited for my turn. As I listened, I discovered a strange melting pot, an eclectic mix of artists, poets, rappers and lyricists. People sharing their innermost pains and their most ecstatic joys – I felt instantly at home.

As I stuttered and stumbled my way through a verse, I paused as I lost my way. The crowd blinked, waiting. Then, they clicked their fingers – a kind of polite but quiet gesture hailing from America which means “Come on mate, you can do it!”

After what seemed an eternity, I regained my composure and continued. I was applauded and to my surprise, advanced to the next round. Josh came over to me and said “You’ll need to do another one for the next round.”  I panicked. I hadn’t prepared a second. I desperately searched through my Facebook account for another and found one a rap I had written many years earlier about knife crime called Love Cuts The Deepest.

Now, I am no rapper so, unsurprisingly, I didn’t advance to the regional finals but I was hooked! The folks I met on that evening encouraged me to join Nottingham’s DIY Poets and to write more.

On that evening in June, I discovered that this wasn’t a one-off, but that spoken word was a thing. That all over Nottingham city, and right across the region, little nooks, crevices, and unique spaces are being created for poetry.

Pubs, bars, cafés and even the Nottingham Playhouse is making room for performance poetry. Mouthy Poets operate out of the Playhouse and have taken things a step further by creating workshops to enable children in inner city schools to find their own voice and to gain confidence through poetry and performance.

Twenty or thirty years ago, most comedians were small time, the vast majority eking out a living in smoke-filled, dingy working men’s clubs. These days, so many fill stadiums for several nights in a row.

I believe poetry is experiencing a similar increase in popularity. After years of being fed “reality” TV, there’s a new yearning for truth. People bare their stories of rape, abuse, and mental trauma, are validated and utilised to inspire thrilling and heart-wrenching verse. I’ve heard stories from so many people, including ex-addicts and homeless men and women.

Thanks to the work of people like Miggy Angel, some members of the homeless community have found a voice and a way to express pains and fears that many of us struggle to even comprehend. It is almost impossible to listen to these honest recollections without a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye.

These nights are hosted in Sobar, on Friar Lane. Co-run by affiliated public services, this venue was created especially for recovering alcoholics, allowing people to enjoy a social life without the risk of falling off the wagon.

Moved by their stories, I was inspired to use my voice to share my flaws, my joys and fears to encourage someone else to look up from the despair of their loneliness and to realise that there is always hope.

Hope was the first poem I wrote after a break of many years. As I sat in my room on my own, after contemplating the strength of the light cord, the knife in the sink, I put pen to paper. I stared coldly at the mistakes I had made in my own life and my marriage. Writing Hope was the beginning of discovering that it means the most when you have the least.

I see this hope scything through the inflammatory political rhetoric of Westminster, striving for a fairer society. Andy Szpuk, a fellow DIY Poet, has made satirical writing into an art form, creating a whole musical – Austerity Café, featured on Notts TV and hosted by Nottingham Contemporary, is an extremely funny, yet razor sharp observation which puts to shame the antics of the privileged and proud in politics as they play jeopardy with real lives.

Another rising star, Richard C Bower, has blossomed in just fourteen short months, to a professional wordsmith. First inspired to write when he lost his mum to cancer, this delicate and eloquent writer has moved swiftly from being signed off work with depression from his health care work to performing at Glastonbury. Even he has been surprised by the speed with which his work has become recognised.

Another DIY’er, Alice Short, spent all of last year writing a rhyme a day and sharing them on Soundcloud and Facebook. With musical backing, her solo performances are powerful and inspiring. Her homemade YouTube shows have gained such exposure that she was recently featured on BBC 6 Music.

As DIY Poets has grown, members have hosted poetry events at the Sherwood Arts Festival and The Stuff of Life Festival in a leafy nook in Forest Fields. Leanne Moden from Kings Lynn has set up her own night, Crosswords, in the recently excavated limestone cave beneath the beautiful Victorian Music Hall that is The Malt Cross, St James’s Street.  This unique venue, though small, has proven incredibly popular, attracting newcomers to the poetry scene and is full to the brim with an appreciative audience every month.

All these poets are very different people with startlingly diverse agendas, methods, styles and rhythms. But that’s what I like about spoken word. I have listened to poetry in a chintzy tea house and in a cave deep beneath the streets of Nottingham, from a dear old lady sharing her favourite Pam Ayres poem, to a punk screaming hatred and vitriol; I have discovered that it as foolish to say “I don't like poetry” as it it is to say “I don’t like music.” There are so many genres, styles, voices and opinions, I truly believe that there is a stream of poetry for everyone.

Poetry is riding a wave of increasing popularity and Nottingham is blessed to have so many talented writers, who are not only able to write, but to perform their poetry with skill, enthusiasm, passion and intrigue.

Check out the Facebook page, Poetry in Nottingham for details of events happening each month.

DIY Poets
Mouthy Poets’ Deborah Stevenson and Poet in da Corner: A Grime/Poetry Project 
Mud Press
National Videogame Arcade's Poet-in-Residence
Newstead Abbey's Poet-in-Residence

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