Even if you’ve only dipped in and out of modern poetry on our troubled little island you might be aware of this rift between what would be considered traditional page poetry and (actually not new at all) spoken word, it’s performance-based counter-part. As a publisher at Burning Eye and a poet who has always loved both, I’ve never seen either as a problem or a solution but both as a complimentary way of expression, of narrative and a reflection of social commentary from many voices from different corners, lives and experiences. To wedge classism and any other ‘ism’ between them is surely counter-productive and derails from what both are trying to achieve as poignant and personal social actions. I have always felt this going into the quiet world of page poetry where everything is considered and savoured and then leaping into the loud, expressive hub of a slam or showcase. Both are entirely relevant and so few seem able to marry these elements of modern poetry.
This weekend however Clive and I found ourselves at the foot of Waterstones Birmingham, a towering building with six floors of books and everything you need to enjoy them (reasonably priced strong coffee and cake). We had been invited to take part in the very first Verve Poetry Festival taking place at the store across the weekend. When initially approached by Stuart, branch manager and curator of Verve we were intrigued as to how a ‘poetry and spoken word festival’ would work inside a giant Waterstones, especially with such an ambitious schedule but it worked and as rightly deserved, received buckets of praise for its efforts. Verve has done a brilliant job at diversity, not just for bringing page and performance together but by providing a mindful and inclusive line up. Who knew that doing something as easy as considering representation could set you above so many major festival and event stages?
Here are some of our favourite moments from Verve:
The Dice Slam – first time seeing/hearing of this slam curated by Apples and Snakes northwest co-ordinator Bohdan Piasecki and hosted by Amerah Saleh. There are three judges, each themselves having to perform to the audience (to ‘humanise’ them) is a great idea and I think should be introduced into more slam formats. The judges Dan Simpson, Anna Freeman and Luke Kennard had to then justify the score decided by the roll of the dice. Each contestant had a 12 minute slot in which the quality and performance was judged entirely at random by the dice. I have been to many slams where the host will say ‘now this is not a competition…’ but it always feels like one. The Dice Slam took out all elements of control and made the evening light-hearted and fun for judges, poets and the audience. The perfect prelude to the weekend.
Out-Spoken Press showcase – I don’t know anyone that won’t mention this when talking about Verve. Out-Spoken are another small press who position themselves somewhere between performance and page poetry. Based in London, the Out-Spoken crew sold out their showcase at the store on Saturday with breathtaking performances from Hibaq Osman, Fran Lock, Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Anthony Anaxagorou and Joelle Taylor. Each of these voices are very integral to the progression of performance poetry at the moment, especially in terms of their strong social commentary. As Joelle mentioned as she introduced Out-Spoken, they aim to give a platform to voices otherwise unheard by the masses. But as well as these ardent performances about black communities, gun crime, sex workers and refugees there is such great form there, it was nice to hear page poets raving about them later. Out-Spoken also runs a night in London showcasing new voices so if you’re ever in the city at the right time be sure to get along to an event.
Nine Arches Press showcase -Another wonderful thing about Verve is their attention and promotion of small press like Burning Eye, Out-Spoken and Nine Arches.We all had a showcase to demonstrate the kind of work we put out and why and on Sunday of Verve, our friends at Nine Arches demonstrated how page poetry has all the engagement and energy of performance with readings from Isobel Dixon, Roy McFarlane, Abegail Morley and Robert Peake. As someone who rarely gets to poetry readings, I really enjoyed this time to listen and contemplate each carefully crafted image. I like the delicate way of deciphering poems sometimes, but have only ever been taught to do that from annotating a page rather than by ear.
There were so many aspects of Verve that made it such a wonderful weekend. We drank up readings from Sarah Howe, Katrina Naomi, Kim Moore, Helen Mort and Mona Arshi and wished we could have been everywhere at once to take in everything we missed in the end. We had a great showcase with Hannah Teasdale, Pete Bearder, Jess Green and Emily Harrison. I was honoured also to perform some poems from my upcoming pamphlet. We had a wonderful audience and we were very proud to be part of such a carefully considered and inclusive festival. Due to Sunday trains, we had to say goodbye to Waterstones Birmingham but not before a cheeky glass of wine, hanging out in the gardening section (one to tick off the bucket list).
Clive and I thoroughly recommend Verve Poetry Fest to anyone thinking about going next year. It was a wonderful few days, so nice to see new poets, new poems, old books, old friends and make promising connections. Well done to the organisers and volunteers for all of their time pooled into its creation. Many other festivals and major poetry events could learn a thing or two from Verve as we move further into this age of consciousness and action.