In the immortal words of Björk, it's been oh so quiet in Nottingham this month with the launch of Psst., the latest in a long line of poetry events based in the city centre. The brainchild of Christopher Lanyon, Psst. is (in addition to being a grammatical nightmare), a prime example of the newest breed of Nottingham poetry: inclusive, soft, powerful and punchy. I popped down to Jam Cafe for their debut, and while I was there I managed to collar Chris for a chat over a pint of posh ale.
Firstly, could you tell us a bit about Psst.?
Psst. (I’m oddly attached to the full stop, despite its confusing grammatical implications. Don’t @ me, awkward typography 4eva) is a series of poetry events I’m running at Jamcafé between June and October this year. Initially it was intended as a run of summer poetry sessions but I’m also super into poetry in autumn so it’s extended to that. Every month we have an open mic session and then three to four headliners all sharing their best words.
Where does the name "Psst" come from?
Poets Say Some Things. Poems Spoken Softly Tonight. Poetry Summer Sessions, Tho. Psst.
Did I say any of those on the opening night? Nope. Did I even manage to say my own name when I got up on stage? Absolutely not, that would have made way too much sense.
What do you think the core ethos of Psst, and the poets you're working with, is?
My main aim is to create a space where people feel safe and comfortable performing, the kind of night where people are happy to get on stage for the first time because they feel welcome and supported. A lot of the poets headlining are people I’ve spent time with at poetry events or workshops and I know are capable of both great performances and great kindness.
There are two things I try to make very clear at the start of nights that I host - we will not tolerate hate speech (though you can say “men are trash” all you like, we’ve got different algorithms to Facebook) and, due to the content of some of the poetry, there are times that audience members may feel distressed and are welcome to do whatever they need to do in order to feel safe.
You've been on Nottingham's poetry scene for a while now. How do you think its developed over the last few years?
Okay, this is wildly clichéd and, as a poet, you know I’m not about that, but the most important things about the scene haven’t changed. It remains really welcoming and non-elitist. There are so many opportunities for new poets to share and to develop. That said we have seen quite a few changes, I think the most notable is the arrival of more intimate and fiercely vulnerable poetry nights, huge shout outs to Kat and Jim at Between the Shadow and the Soul and Akor, the man behind Poema Nouveau, for giving the city new outlets through which to feel its feelings.
You're a poet yourself. What's your process like for creating new work?
I run a lot of workshops as part of the UoN Poetry and Spoken Word Society which tends to mean that my brain is swimming in prompts at least once a week. Recently the work that I enjoy the most are the poems which properly draw on my lived experience. I find it quite easy to write fiction so I’m pushing myself to be more honest. I’ve also really embraced form this year, a lot of what I’ve written is bound up in lexical or structural constraints and it’s generated some pieces that I think are way more interesting than they’d be if I’d just let them spill out unhindered.
Psst is a very new night for the Nottingham poetry scene. What do we have to look forward to in the future? Any big plans?
The return of Nottingham’s prodigal poetry son, a stray Londoner, the Stamford poet laureate, a Derby special and all the words we can fit in between now and October.
Do you have any advice for people who might want to get involved with poetry in Nottingham?
Go to as many nights as you can and work out which ones suit you. They’ve all got really different personalities and sensibilities and there are enough that there’s almost certainly one that you’ll enjoy. Alongside that, nothing improves your poetry like imbibing poetry. Listen closely to people; talk to poets; if your legs will let you, get on stage and say words; talk to the people who run gigs; ask for feedback; go to workshops and get out of your poetry hole; find the part of the community that you want to belong to.
If you’re a student at the university of Nottingham, the Poetry and Spoken Word Society runs weekly workshops in term time. If you’re not, Anne Holloway and Chris McLoughlin have just started running monthly workshops in the upstairs of Ugly Bread Bakery and Neal Pike has started Tentacles, a collective for disabled and D/deaf writers which also runs monthly workshops.
My most important piece of advice though, is this: don’t write poems about how our phones are making us disconnected from each other, we’ve all heard it before and we don’t care.
I bet you wrote that poem on a phone, didn’t you?
Psst. is at Jamcafe on the 9th July, 13th August, 3rd September and 1st October.
And So Peaceful Until: My Night at Jam Cafe's Newest Poetry Night
"It's not even a real kilt," Christopher tells me as I greet him at the bar. "It's just a skirt I bought from Sue Ryder. The sporran is actually a bum-bag."
This sums up a lot of the interactions I face at the inaugural Psst. event at Jam Cafe on the fourth of June. Pleasant, candid, playful and slightly self-effacing, Psst. is a new breed of poetry event, and brings with it some much-needed gentleness to modern poetry. Christopher, himself a veteran of Nottingham's poetry scene and seasoned compere of many-an event, brings that same atmosphere to the stage with him as he introduces the night. This is a night dedicated to providing a safe, open, and honest venue for self-expression, in whatever form that may take, and Christopher makes that crystal-clear from the outset.
"Bad things are coming - we are safe," is the phrase that book-ends, and indeed goes on to inform, much of the night, and this is reflected in the content produced by those on the open-mic. The talent on display is very typical of the Nottingham scene - witty, sweet, endearing, intimate, personal - and to an old sod like yours truly the night feels on like an old glove, immediately comfortable and relaxed whilst still providing that hard-hitting tension that makes poetry worth listening to.
First up after the open mic is a last-minute addition to the roster, poetic prodigy and legend of the Big White Shed, Anne Holloway. She takes to the stage with a mild admission of guilt - she hasn't had time to dedicate herself to carefully curating the full twenty-minute set and must therefore present the audience with "Pot Luck Poetry". What then follows is a literary grab-bag of talent taken from Holloway's famously long and varied history as a writer, all the while engaging with hecklers and plugging her wares with grace and flare that has come to characterise her sets. There is something almost bilingual about Anne's work. Her stage patter is playful, almost ribbing at points, as though speaking to an old friend. Her poetry, however, is every bit as alluring, mystical, and esoteric as an old fairy tale, and it often feels as though she is speaking to different cultures in the same breath.
Following Anne is another long-standing patron of Nottingham poetry Jim Otieno-Hall. Jim breaks his six-month break from performing in style, setting the scene with some Craig David to get himself pumped up. His first poem begins in a way that is fitting with the night's themes - "You're alive," he tells us, and the rest of his twenty-minute performance is just as sincere, emotional, and kind. Despite admitting that he is "not trying to cheer [us] on or up," his pieces play with a sense of optimism neatly-woven into cheerful softness and wicked-sharp pop culture references (of which I understand maybe one in five).
Finally we are treated to the work of Nottingham's own young poet laureate Georgina Wilding. She dives onto the stage a nervy ball of energy, quickly admitting to overwhelming nerves in spite of being instantly charming. Georgina's work always sits on the knife-edge between daft and deft, merging strange snapshots of every-day life (tripping over and spilling red wine on the Sky Box, for example) and easy-going eloquence. She often reminds one of a family friend, the one who rocks up on Christmas Eve with some nightmarish horror story about the journey over, all the while laughing and rolling her eyes in a "what am I like" kind of way.
I began this review by saying that Psst. is a new breed of poetry night, but in actuality it is more of an evolution, the next logical step in an on-going process. Gentle, warm-hearted and pleasant, Psst. is a must for both long-standing fans of the form, and for anyone who wants to experience poetry for the first time.