Poetry in October

Autumn is the most poetical season: there are almost as many poems written about autumn as there are essays written about poems about autumn. As you may have gathered from my September post, it’s an appropriately busy time in the poetry world, with October (the most autumny month I think) the busiest month of all. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

Kicking us off on the 6th, National Poetry Day this year was on the theme of games, and I found myself down in Canterbury for two engagements. Year One Consulting, with their consistent commitment to doing cool things in the arts, gave me an afternoon residency in their office, where I asked the Twittersphere for their favourite games, which I then turned into haikus. The form is perfect for Twitter! A couple of my favourites were:

Scrabble: We play with letters / It’s a night on the tiles / Linking words we score.

Hop Scotch: Girl’s incantations / Sometimes haunt me, even now / “Boys can’t play”, they say.

Pong: Thump thump beep thump beep / Thump beep thump beep thump beep thump / Beep thump beeeeep! One nil.

Thanks to Year One for having me for the afternoon, and to everyone who submitted a suggestion.

Canterbury Festival Schools' Poetry Competition poets

Down the hill and into town to present some awards. I’ve been adjudicating the Canterbury Festival Schools’ Poetry Competition this year, and the presentation ceremony was the most rewarding part of that work. Twenty six young people from five to seventeen years old were selected for prizes and commendations from nearly a thousand entries, and they came to read their work to an appreciative crowd on National Poetry Day. It was a fantastic evening and the young poets did themselves proud with some excellent readings (the performance workshop I’d run the week before seemed to have paid off!). You’ll be able to see some of the poems on buses around Kent thanks to Stagecoach. It’s a really wonderful competition that Canterbury Festival puts on every year that encourages young people to write and read their words, and I have been delighted and honoured to be a part of it.

I offered the audience stickers, which were not a bribe in the least or at all

The following week and another competition. This time something a little more serious, as I verbally fought at the Flea Circus: Battles event. Organised by the Flea Circus guys and the ever-delightful Mark Grist, this was a subversive take on the grime battle scene. I was performing in the guise of the Poetry Party Leader, up against Chris Kraken’s right-wing reactionary on the topic: ‘Poetry is the solution to Britain’s problems’. After going at it for three rounds and the debate/battle almost descending into a fist fight (he started it), Chris triumphed in a closely contested measure of audience applause. I disputed the result, demanded a recount, realised there were no votes cast and eventually conceded gracefully. Other highlights included a compliment-off between Mixy and Richard Tyrone Jones, and Mark battling his 13 year old self. A hilarious and fun night!

That weekend, The Word House returned. After a successful launch in July which saw a sold-out Gallery Café rock with the words of some brilliant poets, the anticipation and expectation for October’s edition was high. It didn’t disappoint – if anything, it was even better. The place was packed and our feature acts of a high quality: Christian Watson started us off with humour and tales of growing up, before one of the strongest open mic sections I’ve seen took us into the interval. John Berkavitch brought dry wit and political astuteness to the stage before Inua Ellams charmed the raucous crowd with his trademark lyricism and beautifully crafted lines. Hosting The Word House is fast turning into one of my favourite gigs – the atmosphere is electric and the audience really responsive. As one reviewer says, it’s “more akin to a house party than a bar” and he’s right – there’s a sense of friendly banter and enjoyment of words underpinning the whole thing. Much respect and praise to Amy Stratton who produces the event and DJ Able who effortlessly creates the right vibe. Come to the next Word House in the new year, and in the meantime check out some of the videos on the Facebook page!

Inua Ellams at The Word House

Inua Ellams at The Word House (photo courtesy of Zofia Walczak)

Back down to Canterbury to debut a commissioned piece at the Canterbury Festival Schools Debate. The topic to be discussed (and the subject of my poem) was ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. After putting out my piece I sat down to help with the judging. The schools got to debating, and I was impressed by the depth and range of the arguments. I felt myself torn one way then another – completely agreeing with the proponents of the topic only to be utterly swayed by the opponents. In the end, Barton Court’s team arguing against the motion took the team prize, though one of the debaters from the ‘for’ team from Archbishops School won the individual prize. As with the Poetry Competition, it was great to see students really engaging with words and thinking about big issues in their writing and reading. For engaging me on both projects, a huge thankyou to Canterbury Festival, especially their Education Coordinator Sarah!

Peter Hayhoe popping up!

My last contribution to this year’s Festival came through Workers of Art, who run an annual event called Poetry City. Lots of interesting and unique poetry happenings occur throughout the day, engaging people with poetry in new and unexpected ways. Last year I engaged in walkabout theatre as the Poetry Party Leader, and I retained that street performance element this time. Alongside Peter Hayhoe, one of my spoken word buddies in London, we presented a pop-up poetry stage in various places along the High Street. Gathering a crowd at each stop, we put out some poems to a sometimes bewildered but often interested audience. As happened when we did it at Lounge on the Farm, it was really rewarding when people stayed to listen to a few poems, and we got lots of positive comments about people never having seen anything like it before.

It was also a good chance to direct people to the other part of the show – Canterbury in a Can. I’d run a workshop at Canterbury High that week (thanks for having me Miss Montague!) and recorded the students ‘Secrets and Dreams’ on audio devices. Tracey Falcon, a local artist, did the same and combined them with tins, each one featuring a line for a poem. In this way, you could create your own poem from each tin! A really lovely way of presenting poetry – as was the entire event, in fact. Big thanks to Beth Cuenco for organising the day and programming such a diverse range of poetry activities.

My last October activity once again involved Twitter. Kent’s Creative Coast launched last weekend at Whitstable, which is one of my favourite places in the country.  As part of the launch, Catriona Campbell engaged me to put together a poem about why people loved the Kent coast. I decided to use Twitter to gather lines for a poem, and in this way we crowdsourced responses from anyone who wanted to contribute using the hashtag #iloveKentcoast. I then edited these lines into a coherent piece for performance on the Sunday of the launch. I am very pleased with the result – somehow, a voice seemed to emerge from the disparate lines submitted. It’s not one person’s voice, but that of the crowd. However, it’s surprisingly consistent, as it reflects on memories from spending time on the coast and snaps back to the present day. Have a watch of the video above of my reading of this truly communal coastal poem. Thanks to Catriona (follow her on Twitter @escapetocreate) for asking me to be a part of the launch, and for allowing me to work with new technology and poetry in such an exciting way!

Happy October everyone!

– Dan

Poetry in September

My experiences at Edinburgh Fringe part two are on their way (part one here), but in the meantime some other poetical experiences I’ve had this September.

In full flow - photo from Catherine Brogan

At the start of the month I took part in the Utter! Paid Gig Contest Final, up against all the other winners from the last two years of Utter! It was a fantastic night of high-quality poetry, with Natasha Moskovici eventually triumphing with a heart-felt poem about a partner in Iraq. Richard Tyrone Jones hosted marvellously before passing over to Catherine Brogan, BBC Slam champ and the new face of Utter! as RTJ goes off to tour his (now fully crowd-funded) solo show RTJ Has a Big Heart. No doubt Cat will continue this long-running and important night in 2012 with more crazy themes and top class spoken word!

I saw a brilliant poetry film too at the BFIWe Are Poets, which charted the excellent work of Leeds Young Authors as they took a group of six young people to Brave New Voices, a massive international slam in the States. An amazingly inspirational and moving film, be sure to see it as it tours the UK. Speaking of working with young people, I’ve also taken part in an Apples and Snakes workshop: the Open Masterclass with Jacob Sam-La Rose. Focussing on delivering slam workshops in schools, I learned an incredible amount over the day, from specific warm-up games and writing exercises to more holistic approaches and methods of working with young people. It has definitely helped me think about my own workshops in schools, and I’ll be using some of the devices and techniques in future (especially River Bank!). A great day of learning and collaboration, particularly with the added bonus of spending time with fellow poets from across the spoken word spectrum.

I’ve been up to Newcastle, and the six and a half hour train journey (we were delayed by a kite. Really.) was totally worth it to see the Tyneside Cinema Slam: spoken word is clearly thriving in Newcastle! I came back to host Monsters of Poetry at BAC Café, where I mined the depths (of hell) for as many fiendish puns as I could muster whilst Richard Marsh, Yemisi Blake, Comfort and Aoife Mannixentertained the audience with spoken word sets that mixed in monstrous moments.

Then, to the most epic poetry event devised.

The WWF belt - missing, presumed stolen

I was in the crowd for the phenomenon that was the Word Wrestling Federation’s first outing: Page Match at Roundhouse, Camden. Sixteen contenders from four poetry collectives faced off, with Salena GoddenNiall O’Sullivan and Charlie Dark judging and Polarbear refereeing. An epic night that saw Bang Said the Gun just triumph over Dirty Hands, leaving Rubix and the Roundhouse Collective floored before the final twist in the tale: the championship belt went missing! Who took it? A poet out for revenge? And audience member wanting to get involved? The Bang crew themselves to stir it up? The plot thickens…

I was pleased with my banner

I take JSJ very srsly

Away from poetry, I went to the first Wild Rumpus, a new indie video game night at 93 Feet East. I played the hilarious and frantic Jesus vs Dinosaurs: one player is God, the other Darwin, and you create creatures that fight whilst dropping bombs on each other – genius. My highlight, however, was Johann Sebastian Joust. 6 players hold a lit-up Playstation Move controller that goes red if jerked too suddenly whilst Bach plays at various speeds – the slower the music, the more sensitive your device. The aim is to be the last player standing – knocking other people out whilst trying not to shake your own controller. It’s simple and enthralling, at once tactical and action-packed. My friend and Bang golden-gunner Ian filmed it. I won a couple of games, lost most but always had a thoroughly excellent time. Definitely going back when it returns! What sort of poetry-related video game can we make?

Tomorrow I begin my Masters degree at Queen Mary – part time for the next two years. I’m hoping to look at spoken word for my dissertation, but for now the taught part of my course begins. Exciting! Gig wise, I’ve got the culmination of judging the Canterbury Festival Schools’ Poetry Competition in Canterbury on National Poetry Day (6 October) and I’m compèring the return of The Word House in Bethnal Green on 15 October. That  promises to be another high-energy night of quality performance poetry, with Christian Watson, John Berkavitch and Inua Ellams, plus open mic (email our amazing producer Amy Stratton to get a spot!). We sold out last time, so come early for a seat!

– Dan