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Poetry Profile: Crosswords

18 May 18 words: Martin Grey
photos: Martin Grey

On the second Wednesday of every month in a cosy cave three floors below the Malt Cross you'll find Crosswords, Nottingham's only subterranean spoken word open mic. Our Martin Grey popped down to May's event and also had a chat with the organisers, Leanne Moden and Jake Wildeman, and this month's headliner, Gemma Baker.

Tell us a little about yourself.

Leanne: Well, I'm a poet, performer and event organiser. I've been living in Nottingham for nearly three years, I like it here.

Jake: I'm a very shouty poet. I like to think of poetry as expression of the self, so any good poet will have angry poems, romantic poems, introspective poems, they'll have s**t poems for when they felt s**t. That's what poetry is and that's why I shout a lot, 'cos I'm an angry young man.

And what is Crosswords, exactly? 

Jake: Crosswords is a fab little spoken word open mic that we have down in our cave. It's amazing, you don't get poetry in caves. I want more interesting venues. The first spin-off event that I did was at Sue Ryder, the charity shop where I work, and I just thought it was a fascinating idea for a venue. I want to at some point have an event in the Arboretum. Could you imagine it, poetry amongst the frigging' trees, it would be incredible! Also, I want to make drunken poetry a thing, because people drink and it would be an interesting twist on a poetry night.

Why should people come to Crosswords?

Leanne: Well, we're in some sandstone caves underneath the Malt Cross, a 19th century music hall, so it's literally the weirdest venue in the whole of Nottingham. But more than that, Crosswords is a really friendly and open writing and performance community, everybody is so welcoming and supportive and particularly for first-time performers we're a good shout.

Count me in.

Jake: I know, right. I'm not paying for the drinks though.

Leanne, you've toured all over the UK, how is the poetry scene in Nottingham?

Leanne: Nottingham is completely flourishing in terms of spoken word. At my last count there were eight or nine regular monthly nights happening here. Every time you go to a night it will be full, which is wonderful to see, but the thing that always strikes me about the Nottingham scene particularly is how welcoming and challenging but also non-competitive it is.

How was Nottingham Poetry Festival?

Leanne: It was so good! Tommy (Farmyard), Henry (Normal) and everybody involved did such a fantastic job. Last year's festival I thought 'Well it can't get any better than this' and this year it's completely surpassed that. I was pleased by the variety of performers, the variety of events that were on and the representation of all the grass roots poetry communities that we have in Nottingham. I was also really pleased to see the big headliners getting support from emerging talent from Nottingham. I loved it.

What are the main themes of your poetry?

Leanne: For me, it's issues and experiences around being a woman and also interpersonal relationships. I think both of those things are really important to society as a whole and need to be expressed, discussed and thought about and also I think a lot of the issues around both those things are really very funny. I think there's a lot of humour to be found in the absurdities around expectations of being a woman and the expectations of interacting on an interpersonal level with other people.

Jake: Like I said - Shouty. 

Any particular poets, poems or collections that first got you into poetry?

Jake: In terms of first getting me in it would have to be the Brontes, 'cos I studied them initially in school. I remember their words and I remember constant references to death and misery, it was delightful for young Jake. In terms of a particular collection though, do go and read HP Lovecraft's Fungi From Yuggoth sonnet cycle, it's a beautiful thing.

Any advice for aspiring poets?

Jake: Two things. First thing is just go to an open mic for god's sake because for the longest time I didn't and then when I did I realised that 'holy s**t, there are like seven of these things a month!'. Just go and put yourself out there, you will learn more about yourself and it leads you to the second piece of advice, don't expect to have your style immediately, your format, your ideas, they're not going to be crystallised when you start, but then you don't want them to be. Experiment. Find your style while you're on the stage.

Finally, poetry plans for this year?

Leanne: I'm going to Estonia, to the Primavista International Poetry Festival in Tartu. Then in June I'm doing a commission for the Derby Book Festival and I'm putting together an Arts Council bid for developing my first live literature spoken word show, so fingers crossed for that.

Jake: Ooh, I'm going to do a CD.  I'm more a performance poet than I am a written poet, so what I'm gonna do is put out a CD this year. It's going to be magnificent. 


Next up I had a chat with poet, organiser, and legend of the East Midlands poetry scene Gemma Baker. Gemma was this month's headliner at the event, and her vibrant, charming poetry went down an absolute treat. 

So, a little about you?

I run three different poetry nights in Lincoln. I've been performing for about three years and writing for about five. I have lots of different little creative projects and things going on all at once so I'm kind of here there and everywhere all the time.

I see you're a full time poet/events organiser, can you tell us about that?

It's a lot of fun and a lot of hard work, but that's good, I like hard work. It's looking at ways to diversify and do different things, it's not all just about performing. A lot of my work is organising things, so that takes up the bulk of it really, I don't get to perform that often, so it's a lot of computer work and a lot of evenings going out to events work, so it's full on but it's good.

Is this your first time in Nottingham?
Not in Nottingham, first time at Crosswords. I have performed at two other nights in Nottingham before, the first one of which I accidentally got the wrong train home and we ended up in a village in the middle of nowhere and had to get the train, so I've not got a great track record when it comes to getting to Nottingham and back.

You got back safely though?

Yeah, it was fine!

What inspires your work?

It's just day to day life really, things that I experience. I don't tend to write that often, it tends to be that need to write comes all of a sudden and I have to write something down. Usually I'll spend maybe 15-20 minutes writing something and then I'll leave it and move on. It's usually emotion based, whether that's positive or negative or whatever, it tends to be quite honest, quite sweary, it's a bit of a mix really.

Finally, what are your poetry plans this year?

I've got a lot going on! I've still got a few gigs spread out throughout the year. I want to be focussing on a spoken word show but it just keeps taking a back seat. I also run an organisation called Women in the Arts and that's kind of taken over my life right now, so good things everywhere, but we'll see what the year brings. I like to go with the flow and see what opportunities come up.

Crosswords May 2018: No Cross Words, but Plenty of Clever Ones

Crosswords is a one of a kind spoken word night. The cave was a refreshingly cool temperature after a scorching day, its relaxed and friendly atmosphere swirling between the mood lighting, the sand that gently attaches itself to your fingers, the well in the middle of the stage and the sectioned off massive plumbing machine thing that provides periodic gurgles of approval. Jake was hosting tonight, making it clear that it was his cave and he loves his cave.

Each performer had two poems or five minutes, with the stage hosting young and old, brand new and experienced, regulars and first timers, as the night went on. More than twenty people took to the stage during the evening, with a range of poetry that very much represented the diversity of poets in the city. The cave walls amplified the ever evolving words, no need for a mic, making the listening experience very natural, visceral and almost tactile when a poem really grabbed you.

Alistair Lane told us that pets look like their owners and that his cat is a sexy mofo. Meaghan, 19 years old, spoke of sleazy approaches by 15 year old boys, how “my coding has learned to fail before it has even begun”. Others spoke of Dementia Awareness Week, a parent who struggled to make tea and a mother's pride in a daughter recently diagnosed with autism, further voices weaving stories of Nottinghamshire's mining history, to a hermaphrodite cat and the arms provision to Israel by western countries. Manjit Sahota's tale of how racism repeats itself across generations, Adam Nightingale's tale of sharing a wedding dinner with a “really nice satanist” and Fay Deller's story of her partner's battle against Windrush deportation were particular highlights. “Your welcome's been exceeded, we presumed that you were legal, we've taxed you all we can”.

Gemma Baker, promoting her new book 'No Word Left Unspoken', gave us a delightfully blunt and forthright headline slot. With a theme of the pleasures and perils of alcohol, 'Authentic Self' celebrated our mess, our imperfections and not wanting to talk to a well trained shadow. From the joyous drunken bonds of nights out with close friends in 'Sin City' to 'In the Bedrooms of the Lonely', a poem about battery powered intimacy written for a filthy poetry competition, Gemma enjoyed playing with the crowd's reaction to the themes, before stories of alcoholism and recovery sobered the mood, the end of the set celebrating the transition to sobriety and warning of the dangers of drinking too much too often. The theme was only broken mid set with 'The Man of Violence' about how domestic abusers are often not what they seem outside closed doors. Gemma's poems are like icebergs, with a lot of their real depth hidden below the surface.

All in all, Crosswords is a great way to spend a Wednesday evening. It takes you by the hand, from the absurd to the profound to most things in between. Roll on the next one!

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