Saturday, 5 January 2013

Arbitrary list: 2012

I like lists. They help make things look organised and deliberate, even if my doings haven't often been either. And after looking through some of my posts over the past year, I felt the urge to compile a list of poetry gigs in 2012 that stand out for me, roughly in time order. I've now noticed that others, including Stephanie Dogfoot and Sh'Maya have also provided highlights of the year, so I realise I'm not alone!

1-  Jazz Verse Jukebox Feb & Nov


It's not often you get jazz singers, a live band and poets together, with an audience lounging on cushions on the floor. I've enjoyed plenty of nights at the Jukebox seeing my favourite musicians (among them, Soweto Kinch) and poets (too many to name) take the stage at  Ronnie Scott's, which has to be one of the coolest venues in London. So when I was asked if I could feature, I was particularly happy about it.

The second time, I managed to collect enough energy to get the band behind me. There's still a video waiting to be uploaded somewhere, so I'll post it when I can!

.... And, of course, another good thing about rocking up to a jazz venue with a name like Keith Jarrett is this.



2 - National Slam Team competition @ Bristol




Until last year, writing poetry has been a solo practice. I've talked before about why performance poetry is particularly powerful - and one of the reasons is its immediacy and engagement with the wider public. Compared to many other forms of writing, it isn't just tucking yourself away in a corner and then sending the finished product away to speak for you, probably from another corner, high up on some bookshelf or other confining space.

That aside, what really challenged me about the Team Slam was taking that wider engagement beyond the performance stage. Poetry is an ego-driven thing: sharing some of what I've written online or on-stage already forces me to 'let go'; sharing the writing process is a step further. The collaborative approach can be a tough one. It just so happens that Katie Bonna, Emma Jones and Sh'Maya are among the most easy people to share a vibe with, write with and joke with even though our styles are very distinct. When I signed up to do this gig, I didn't realise how much fun would be involved - then again, I also didn't know how much cake-slicing, early-morning choreography, and using deodorant cans as microphones would be involved either. Nor was I forewarned that Emma would encourage me to don her disco pants when my jeans started to give way!


Here's a video from Sh'Maya, tracking start to finish, which I saw a couple of days ago. The experience will definitely stay with me a long time and I hope we can all have a reunion soon!





3 - Poets vs Rappers/ Poets vs Comedians

So these were two entirely different events but the concept and the results were both the same.

In Rap vs Poetry, the idea was two bring together two similar disciplines which, for many reasons, have been separated by the types who perform them and by how they are regarded. Angry Sam brought me on to his radio show the week before, where I met up with Solo Cypher and shared some words and hip-hop reminiscences. It's no surprise why so many MCs have stepped over from poetry to work with beats and music. I've always seen hip-hop as a musical manifestation of poetry, even though hip-hop manages to attract a reputation - often undeserved - for violence, misogyny and lack of imagination. Poetry, conversely, manages to attract the reputation - sometimes undeserved - for highbrow pretension and lack of relevance.

The night itself, covered here, was one of the most raucous, enjoyable nights I've had on the poetry stage. It's very difficult knowing how your words will translate when you know most of the audience is there for the hip-hop. Stephanie Dogfoot's poetry is probably the most removed from hip-hop as you can get. She has a quiet, easy-going, storytelling style that I wouldn't have associated with that audience, but the packed bar stayed silent as she talked of pink unicorns and satellites - and they roared when she finished.

Stand Up and Slam's purpose was to bring together two separate disciplines which have a lot in common - yet, once again, have very distinct audiences - and see how they fare in a head-to-head battle. This time, a little less build-up for me and, this time, I had limited experience of stand-up comedy. I think I know what funny is but I've not met many stand-up comics in person; furthermore, I've never seen myself as "funny". I was a bit intimidated! But then, I took to the stage with a few poems, saw a few knowing smiles, laughed along with the crowd and, once again, thought I should do this more often! I can see why some performance poets have crossed over to comedy: in both, you need to engage with audience; in both, timing is key.

Neither event took the competitive element seriously (then again, comedians taking something seriously?) although, in both cases, I was chuffed to see poets crowned victorious. But the overall message at the end of each night? We all have a lot to learn from each other. 




4 - Edinburgh

So I went up to the Edinburgh Festival last year, not once but twice. Lucky enough to have a break from work, I went up the first time to check in on some of my friends and see some good shows. I just paused to win a slam, browse a few bookshops, waltz up to the Castle and have a haggis pizza (really tasty) and a deep-fried Mars bar (much less sickly than I'd anticipated - and worryingly moreish). Oh yeah - and walk through Newcastle and Gateshead at dawn on the way up. I also saw Dirty Great Love Story, just before it started to sell out and win loads of awards, one of many highlights which I detailed, I think, in my August "Mega Update" (link later). 



The second time round, I came armed with a sack of goodies and a stack of Christmas-themed rhetoric. A good couple of poems came from this, as well as a few lessons: 


1 - wearing a pseudo-Santa outfit before October will really confuse people (unless you work in Harrods, in which case July onwards is fine)
2 - spray-on beards are a health-hazard
3 - adults are really difficult to cajole into playing pass-the-parcel 
4 - Santa shorts are actually pretty warm, but they will earn you weird looks when you order drinks at the bar that you managed to convince to let you in, despite their official "no shorts" policy. Bah humbug!



5 - Guernsey


The Guernsey Literary Festival was in its second year; Farrago Poetry was invited to run their Youth Slam - the first poetry event of its kind on the island - and I gladly obliged when asked to join as a workshop leader, alongside Katie. John Paul O'Neill has been running slams around the UK for nearly two decades and I'd previously accompanied him and Deanna Rodger on similar trips to Jersey, so I knew it would be a rewarding trip.

And, indeed, it was: I bumped into an old university friend, made new friends, went for long soul-searching walks along the coast, ate some good French food - well worth a trip back for - and, most of all, really enjoyed doing the workshops in schools which, although they were brief, still managed to produce some good poems from children who had only ever written poetry as a school task, and had certainly never performed them. Seeing this transformation over such a short time - and the caring nature of some of the teachers who helped - was really touching; I hope many of them continue to write, and I also hope to return!     


6 - River House



Apart from the odd appearance as a guest lecturer, nearly all of my teaching/mentoring/workshop-leading experience has come from working with children and young adults. When the opportunity arose to lead workshops at River House, I initially found the prospect daunting. Many of the people who attend are much older and more experienced. Ongoing health problems and other difficulties make a service like River House invaluable and writing is simply another outlet for people to express themselves and come together.

Anna Hope - part of the Unwriteables writing workshop - and I knocked our heads together and came up with a Creative Writing programme. She's been great to work with and has good energy, so it was easier than I'd anticipated coming up with a varied set of workshops to promote the creativity of all those who subscribed. I've looked forward every week to coming to the sessions and seeing work progress - and I look forward to this continuing!

I also realised some of my ignorance surrounding HIV. My best education has come from a poem one of the attendees wrote, which I hope will soon be put up on the River House website... I'll provide a link when I can.

Meanwhile, here's an appalling example of what can happen when HIV is stigmatised... and, unbelievably, it happened last year. Shocking!  


7 - Unwriteables

at Anna's wedding

at Thea's place up in't Midlands

I've mentioned them before, I'll mention them again. These guys keep me writing prose; they also keep a sense of consistency and sanity to my writing. We're all Birkbeck alumni, we all come from different walks of life but we all keep in contact and most of the twelve of us meet in an office or lecture room in Bloomsbury and workshop the projects we're working on. 

Last year, there's been some major success. Not all of it is public yet so I'll post more when I can! In the meantime, cheers guys - you inspire me! (And I will finish this novel, if it's the last thing I do...)


8 - Black History Month

I don't want to repeat myself too much. This month gets me paid. I'm black, innit? And I get to write my own history on stage. Libraries open themselves up in the evenings and we're all happy to celebrate some diversity in this city, which can be pretty divided the rest of the year.

Every year I rant about the oddities of this month but every year I also learn something new and go somewhere new and write something new. Lewisham, Lambeth, Waltham Forest and Brent libraries have been particularly welcoming. I was glad to meet Andrea Encinas in particular, and Winston G James. The Brixton Library event was organised by Ajamu X and I'm looking forward to being involved in a project of his next month. More info to come!  

9 - Human Rights Slam - Bloomsbury Fest



This was just pure fun! A court case style slam with some of my fave poets - among them, three colleagues from the Spoken Word Educator programme (we all rushed to get there on a train from Goldsmiths). It reminded me why I enjoy Slam poetry in the first place.

10 - Spoken Word Educator programme

This has already been the biggest change in my life for years. I'm now simultaneously studying, working in a school and collaborating with a team of "Superstar" poets (not my own words!). We're working up to a showcase in February and will have our website up by then, so stay posted. We're also looking to connect with schools for next academic year, so get in touch if you feel you may be interested. I shall write much more about this over the coming days as we're beginning a new term! All in all, very exciting!


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