When I first landed in Nottingham eighteen months ago, the city hadn’t yet received its UNESCO World City of Literature status, but the grass roots poetry scene was already pretty vibrant, and I couldn't wait to get involved.
Having come from rural East Anglia – where the only poetry events were those we organised ourselves – I was buzzing to see the huge variety of stuff happening in Nottingham. The city has so many regular events, with new shows and one-off performances happening all the time too. It was exciting, but a little overwhelming. It’s sometimes quite difficult to find your tribe in a new town, so I did what any seasoned private investigator tasked with following a lead would do, I Googled ‘Nottingham poetry’. Easy.
The DIY Poets were the first group to pop up on my screen – a band of local writers who responded to my emails with warmth and generosity, and really helped me find my feet in those first few months. They’re based in Nottingham, but attract writers of all ages and abilities from across the East Midlands. They meet every month to discuss poetry, plan events, and travel to shows around the UK. They also produce Nottingham’s only free quarterly poetry magazine, which is pretty cool.
Meeting the DIY gang, I felt a real sense of belonging, and was impressed by the supportive atmosphere they fostered. In fact, it was this secure foothold that gave me the confidence to explore other stuff in Nottingham.
In some cities, all the poets seem to talk with the same voice, speaking about the same things and even using the same faltering intonations when they perform. Nottingham doesn’t have this problem, and I love the variety of styles and content present at every event. Each voice is different, and though there’s definitely a wide range of abilities across the spectrum, the overall level of talent is wonderfully refreshing.
I quickly worked out my favourite nights in the city: Poetry is Dead Good, Too Deep for a Monday, Black Drop and Speech Therapy. I checked out events at the Alley Cafe, the Playhouse, The Lofthouse and Rough Trade. Every venue in town seemed to have a spoken word night, and every spoken word night seemed ready to welcome new performers with open arms.
I went along to everything I could in those first few months, joined the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, checked out Writing East Midlands and took a tour round the Bromley House Library, inspired by the vast amount of support available to emerging writers in the city. I admired the Mouthy Poets, and all the incredible work the organisation did with young writers and performers. Every former Mouthy that I met was so talented and genuine that it made me feel a rush of pride for my adopted city.
Then, Nottingham became a UNESCO City of Literature – one of only twenty cities worldwide to share the honour – and things really kicked into overdrive.
While Nottingham always seemed to be aware of its great literary heritage, there was now a growing understanding of the importance of its literary legacy, too. The Nottingham Festival of Literature was launched, and the Words for Walls project was created in partnership with the University of Nottingham, giving local poets the opportunity for their work to be published across the city in visible places like buses and public buildings. The City Council commissioned an art installation piece on Station Street, Line of Light, which projects lines from famous writing onto the underside wall of the tram bridge, as well as giving Nottingham-based writers the chance to add their own lines of verse to the mix too.
The fact that Nottingham is so open to creativity and so sincerely supportive of new projects is one of the reasons why I love the city so much. Travelling around the UK, I often get the impression that some areas have reached peak poetry saturation – that there’s ‘no more room at the inn’. Here, the scene is growing and evolving all the time, with everyone supporting each other and making space for others to try new things. It’s that sense of community and the complete lack of competitiveness that makes the city such an excellent place to run events.
When I started Crosswords, the spoken word open mic night at the Malt Cross, I wanted to add to the rich diversity of the Nottingham poetry scene, and create more opportunities for emerging writers to perform their work in a safe and welcoming space. I also wanted to bring in mid-career poets from further afield for longer featured performances, to help establish regional connections and expose local writers to other voices within the national poetry scene.
The standard of open mic across Nottingham is some of the highest I’ve seen, so it’s a real pleasure to provide a stage for talented local writers. Crosswords events are proud to encourage a high proportion of first time performers at our open mics, as well as a great core audience who attend every month. We’re also really lucky to have this amazing venue in the form of the Malt Cross caves, which makes a really unique and quirky atmosphere at our events, luring people down into the underground world of spoken word.
But, is poetry really that deep underground any more? Since I started performing back in 2010, spoken word seems to have exploded into the mainstream; it’s everywhere in Nottingham at the moment, and once you start to notice it, it’s very hard to stop...
Opportunities crop up in the strangest of places, and local organisations seem really keen to work with writers at the moment too. Aside from buses, tram bridges and caves, I’ve seen poetry on pavements, in cafes and in stately homes. I even had the opportunity to record some poetry for an art gallery, which was definitely a new one for me.
Listen In is an exhibition space within Nottingham Trent University’s Bonington Gallery, and the venue is perfect for soundscapes, experimental student work and other auditory artistry by local and international artists. Robert Squirrell, the technician who curates Listen In has been instrumental in bringing new forms of art into the space, including poetry. My spoken word recording, Hysteria, has been really popular, and Rob is really keen to collaborate with more writers and performers in the future.
If you’d told me two years ago that Nottingham was one of the most exciting places in the country for writing, poetry and spoken word, I’d probably have been a little sceptical. But it’s the mix of creative cooperation, experimental ingenuity, and a willingness to take a chance on emerging voices that really sets it apart from its contemporaries. With the resources from the UNESCO bid now filtering through, things can only get more exciting for the city of a thousand Robin Hood statues. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Crosswords Spoken Word Open Mic runs on the second Wednesday of the month at the Malt Cross, St James’s Street. The next events are on Wednesday 12 April and Wednesday 10 May. Doors open at 7.30pm, entry is £2 per person.
If you would like to speak to Rob about putting your experimental audio work into the Listen In gallery, contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.