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Poetry Profile: A Self-Help Group for People With Too Many Feelings

6 September 18 words: LP Mills
illustrations: Kaia Hristova
photos: Sharon Hunt

One year on from their debut, Between the Shadow and the Soul has quickly become a bastion of pleasant poetry. Ahead of their big birthday bash, I had a chat with co-founders Jim Sharpe and Kaia Hristova about the success of their infant poetry night, their own creative processes, and the importance of celebrating good feels. 

First off, what is Between the Shadow and the Soul?

Kaia: It started as just another poetry night, but as time progressed it evolved into this really beautiful thing that fully corresponds to the name. It is a night where poets come and push the boundaries of their vulnerability and their work in an environment that fully embraces this. We even joke it became a support group with poets with too many feelings.

What do you think the ethos of Between the Shadow and the Soul is? 

Jim: The main ethos of the event is to create an atmosphere where poets feel comfortable and happy. There’s nothing more exciting to us than a poet taking risks or doing something outside of their comfort zone, and the very best way to help them do that is to provide them with a space that is as safe and welcoming as possible. 

Kaia: When we first began looking into starting the night we wanted to make sure we created a safe and inclusive space where poets can come and delve into the depths of their capacity as both writers and performers. We wanted experienced poets to feel comfortable pushing boundaries, but also poets that have not had much experience probe what it means for them to perform their work and have a place to do so.

What inspired you to start up a regular poetry night?

Kaia: We have both been in the poetry circles for a while beforehand and had experience running nights, I in Nottingham and Jim in Leamington. When we met, the more we spoke about poetry and shared our work with each other the more we started thinking that we wanted to create a platform where people could spill their human-y bits in a safe environment and feel supported and like they can further explore their work and capacity as poets.

Jim: I think a big part of it for me stemmed from the fact that the Nottingham poetry scene is just so lovely and supportive that Kat and I really wanted to be able to contribute that. And element of it is also that we wanted to create a night where poets who might never have performed a full set before would be able to have that chance. Making the jump from open-mic regular to featured poet can be scary for a lot of people and we wanted to create a night that help facilitate that transition. 

You’re both poets – What’s your creative process like when you’re working on new stuff? 

Kaia: See, Jim is a real writer — he is meticulous with his work and I love his process so much. I have so much admiration for the way he writes and develops his ideas. I am more of a chaotic feelings explosion. I spill things on paper and call it a poem. I pull poems by their tails and imprison them on paper if I am quick enough to catch them — They do scatter a lot though.

Jim: I’m constantly jealous of Kat’s ability to spill poetry onto the page and have it come out fully formed. I’m an obsessive editor when it comes to writing. I spend a lot of time churning poems around in my head, whittling them down until I feel ready to get them down onto the page. I tend to do a lot of free writing just to get out of my own head and then editing that gibberish down into something vaguely poem shaped. An old mentor of mine used to talk about the concept of “writing through” in that way to help take the ego out of writing and that’s something that I’ve always strived to hold onto.

The event’s first birthday is coming up soon. Do you have any big plans? 

Kaia: Big plans is a strong way to put it, but we made sure we put a lot of effort into organising the event and we wanted to make it one to remember.

Jim: To be honest the fact that the anniversary is coming up still blows my mind! It completely snuck up on me. I’ve been saying I’ll make a cake but I’m a notoriously terrible baker so we’ll see!

Do you think the night has developed much in the year you’ve been running it? 

Jim: When we started running this night, we were very much finding our feet. We didn’t know where we fit within the Nottingham scene and we didn’t know what the tone of the night would be. Over the last year we really found the tone of the night. And a lot of that comes down to the amazing community of poets and audience members around between the shadow and the soul. I genuinely have never interacted with an audience that is so warm and supportive and we’re just so grateful.

Kaia: The way the night evolved completely takes my breath away. It became this beautiful little garden where people come and spill and feel happy and safe to be vulnerable and every time an event ends I feel a little more hopeful, because there is so much beauty out there to behold.

Now you’ve got the first year out of the way, what can we expect from Shadow in the future?

Jim: We have some really big plans for the next year that I don’t want to give away! Suffice to say we’re really hoping to be able to expand between the shadow and the soul beyond the event itself and into something bigger and bolder. Kaia and I have some serious ambitions and we couldn’t be more excited! 

Do you have any advice for our readers who might want to get involved with poetry in Nottingham?

Jim: Just start showing up to poetry nights! It can be seriously nerve-wracking but there are few scenes more welcoming to newcomers than Nottingham’s. Sign up for open mics, get talking to other poets and make some connections. There are Facebook groups and pages for plenty of different events and organisations but there really is no substitute for getting out there and meeting other poets.

You Will Always Have a Place Here — One Year Anniversary of Between the Shadow and the Soul 

"You may find yourself," begins host and co-founder Jim Sharpe as he takes to the stage, "Sitting in an abandoned building..."

What follows is a brief, Byrnsian verse outlining the exact kinds of people that show up to events like Between the Shadow and the Soul. Romantics, dreamers, optimistic losers — the kinds of people who, often in spite of the world around them, dare to be happy. This introductory poem concludes with a statement of intent for the night as a whole: "You will always have a place here." 

With his introduction out of the way, the night proper begins. First up is Derby-based poet and old-hand of the Midlands scene Dan Webber, who takes to the stage barefoot and bespectacled. The spectacles are almost immediately discarded — an action that Webber may recognise as a mistake as he struggles to read his newer pieces in the dim light. In spite of this opthalmological error, Webber's set quickly enters an easy-going, natural flow, with sentimental musings on self, mental health, masculinity, appearance, and place, all delivered with a playful and occasionally giddy appeal. 

Next up is Cullen Marshall, whose refrain of "I won't be doing much political stuff tonight" is immediately followed, with a knowing wink and nod, by a song about modern blight and the pressures of our current political climate. Marshall possesses an eloquent hippie charm, detailing a life of simple pleasures, big dreams, the transience of couch-hopping, and the perils of scorched eyebrows. Marshall is no stranger to calling out his listeners, but he doesn't do this in a way that feels judgemental or arrogant. There is no object of scorn in Marshall's poetry — save for careless councils or ruthless budget cuts. Instead, Marshall encourages listeners, and in many cases himself, to learn from their mistakes and to become better people in the wake of them. In short, as Marshall himself would no doubt put it, it's okay to f*ck up. 

The final performer for the first act is a fresh face on the Nottingham scene, but this by no-mean suggests that she is an amateur. Jodie Marley has only performed poetry a few times before, but this is clearly a long-standing labour of hers finally brought to fruition. Her pieces have this trippy, gothic, psychedelic quality to them, with imagery straight from a Bela Lugosi feature or a particularly heavy night of cheese-dreams. In spite of the often nightmarish quality of her pieces — with its shadowy figures and hallucinatory allusions to stomach flu — there is a sense of lucidity about her work that elevates it from your more standard Poe-wannabes. 

After a brief intermission in which City Arts is quickly evacuated of smokers, the evening's musical feature begins. Introduced by Kaia with something bordering on fan-girlish glee, Bartek Dabrowski, with his pony-tail and peach-fuzz, a dreamcatcher dangling from the head of his guitar, looks the part.

"I'll tell my story with music," he says, adding somewhat bashfully: "I'm no writer." He then begins to play, building up into a near thirty minutes of uninterrupted flamenco, evocative of sweeping sierras and the epic instrumentals of Rodriquez y Gabriela. His music is impressive, with each riff folding into another with little sign of stopping, and the word that springs to mind as I cast my eyes over the audience is "spell-bound". 

Next up is a return to poetry with Annette, whose giggly, nervous energy is immediately contagious. "Confession is good for the soul but bad for reputation," she says, before concluding "So please don't judge me." Confession is an apt choice of word — her poetry feels deeply faithful, rife with religious imagery and direct pleas to a god that feels very and present in her life and voice. Love, the concept and the action thereof, is at the centre of each piece — be it through celebration, lamentation, or exploration. 

The last on the "official" set-list (more on that later) is seasoned veteran of the Nottingham scene Josh Judson, whose home-grown set begins with an uplifting round of Happy Birthday for an unsuspecting audience member. Josh then launches into a cover of an Andrew McMillan piece, openly gushing about the poet's beauty and expression and urging the audience to buy a copy of McMillan's collected works. His own pieces are marked by an intense love of the craft, book-ended each time with an ironic eye roll and playful wink to the audience.

Once Josh has returned to his seat, the "final" final act takes to the stage. At a diminutive 4"11, Meegan Worcester's swan-song performance before she leaves Nottingham for university was anything but small. Tackling weighty themes such as abuse, parental distance and the failings of Western humanitarian aid, Meegan's writing hits hard and takes no prisoners. Having said that, between pieces she herself is a delight, introducing each poem with a bubbly tipsiness that has — as she assures us — "nothing to do" with the wine she has consumed ahead of her performance. 

Jim and Kaia then round out the evening with their usual celebration of the audience, the performers, and the venue, before finishing off with a deeply touching poem about the strength of Jim's father and how his relationship with his parents has changed now that he himself has a son. "When dads are good, they're bloody good," he tells me after the show has ended but before I am turfed out of City Arts. Despite the early September chill, however, I am left feeling warm — Between the Shadow and the Soul has that power over people, with its lively atmosphere and unabashed love of love. Kaia and Jim work hard to curate a set-list that is uplifting and pleasant without seeming twee, and the poets who performed on the night toe the line between funny, heartfelt, traumatic and cheerful in a way that never feels discordant or dissonant.  

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