Sunday, 5 January 2014

Another Arbitrary List: 2013 (part 1)

(links added... and stay posted for Part II....)

HNY! I'm back again, the glass is nearly half full and it's back to school tomorrow. Xmas holidays have whizzed by and I'm starting with an action-packed few weeks, just to wake me up from the post-Brussel sprout slump I seem to have got into.

It's only fair I welcome a few traditions into the 2014 - and one of them to list some of my writing-related highlights of the past year. But this time I'll keep it brief(ish). So here goes:

1, Spoken Word Educators project

I have to start with this project as it dominates most of what I do. We started the year with Raymond Antrobus, Dean Atta, Pete Bearder, Cat Brogan and Indigo Williams, with Peter Kahn doing the work of three people: project managing, applying for funds and supporting our training. Sadly, he had to return to Chicago from his sabbatical in July; and, happily, we gained three new project directors  

...And we keep getting bigger! 3 more educators are currently training to take on full-time posts this September. They're great poets/people! - and there'll be more on them soon.

Meanwhile, in the summer term, my number one highlight of the programme was our June showcase, which really showed up the transformation of our Spoken Word Club attendees. Following on from this, end of term performances (one commented on by Baroness Jones) and an event at the Southbank Centre were the icing on the cake.

Winners of the 'Power of Poetry' Competition

Since then, individually, we've been helping establish a culture of writing and performance in our schools. This has already led to poet-pupils winning competitions (see above), taking part in borough festivals, London showcase with worldwide links  and performing at the Houses of Parliament during Parliament Week. 2014 promises to be even bigger for the young poets and for the education programme. It will also be challenging - but the fact that we've managed to start this creative endeavour in a "difficult" time (or "austere", or however you choose to phrase it) within the politically-hot domain of the education system is a triumph. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

2, Capturing Fire

Wow wee! This was such a wonderful experience, which I wish to repeat again this year. I made new friends - most notably in the form of Sophia Walker - met some wonderful people in DC and I also faced some of my reservations/fears, with surprising reactions.

I was concerned about being labelled - particularly by family and possibly by schools I've worked at (a quick Google search for "Keith Jarrett" can bring up all sorts of early recordings!) - by performing a lot on the LGBT poetry scene. I mostly write about cultural identity and sometimes about personal/political conflict, and sexuality rarely comes into it in any overt way. To have people I've never met before question my sexuality within the first few minutes of speaking to them - simply because of one or two poems they saw on Youtube - can be wearying.

That said, I can't believe that nearly put me off... Because to be part of an amazing few days, with workshops, seminars (with donuts), readings, random conversations in bookshops, late-night cyphers and chilli dogs and an international Slam - and to place 3rd in the Slam - and then to fly back with a head full of ideas (and a bag full of books - which my bookcase is still groaning about) and a load of love for the international poetry community and those fighting to find a place within a sometimes homophobic - sometimes extremely hostile - environment, was worth it.

Back home, I've also used Capturing Fire's recording of 'Gay Poem' (see above) in schools to talk about how we tackle homophobic attitudes - both our own and others'. Overwhelmingly, the young people I've worked with have been mature, sensible and respectful to each other and I'm really privileged to be in this position (and to get so much mileage out of a three-minute poem!)

3, Fierce

Similarly, having a portrait for the Fierce exhibition alongside some pioneering people has been a massive confidence-booster. Back in December 2012, Ajamu asked to take my portrait for Fierce. The project is a bold one - a fierce one - and much-needed, and it's inspiring to see his passion.

The Guildhall Art gallery is full of imposing paintings charting British history; like many art galleries in London, few of the portraits look like me and few of the visitors look like me. Yet, outside - in the real world - London happens to be one of the most ethnically-diverse places in the world, featuring people of all ages, sexualities, abilities. It was a real honour to be asked to be part of this, doing a little to balance representation. And it was great visiting Guildhall in the Spring and seeing black, young and LGBT faces lining the walls, all known in their different areas for what they do.        

As part of the funding campaign for Fierce II, my picture was also alongside some of the other Fierce people in a pop-up gallery in the West End for a few days. And who knows if it will pop up again in the future. I'm looking forward to see where this project will go next. Meanwhile,

4, Identity Mix-Up

See 'Capturing Fire' above. I was conscious about being labelled, and conscious that most of my interests concern identities and political conflicts. And as I started putting together my Edinburgh show, I realised that something was missing. Me. So I re-wrote most of it by running through my own life in terms of different identity markers (Race. Religion. Gender. etc). And I covered myself in sticky labels. And I added in the bits that I'm most embarrassed by (at least 50% of the show makes me feel uncomfortable - and half again for the parts that are so personal I dreaded performing it in front of people I know for the first time, and nearly canned the whole thing).

I had a wobbly outline with most of the writing done and just two weeks to spare when I put on my first ever show. All these years where I've written, taught and performed and I'd never designed a poster, never hosted an event and never written anything longer than fifteen minutes! All that considered, I did pretty well - but I was devastated it didn't all go to plan the first time round. So I re-jigged and scripted and memorised everything. Then I reassessed why I was doing the show in the first place. I'd told myself that I wanted it to be interactive, to learn from the audience and share my own experience, and so that's what I came back to. I did learn from the audience, and I did feel connected to them and I'm so glad I did the show!

Being a part of the Utter! Team, and spending the week with James McKay, Caleb Beissert and Rosie Fitzmaurice was a wonderful thing. Our Dalry recording session in itself was a massive highlight

Grandbabies Dalry Session
click photo to listen

and getting great feedback and reviews was a (very welcome) bonus ...All that said, I'm definitely giving it a miss this year. I'll be needing the summer holiday!

5, Transport for London

Another battle that turned out to be heaps of fun. Despite really enjoying performing to a captive audience, I'm not comfortable drawing attention to myself. I thought I was done with that for a while, after Edinburgh, but no! Another madcap idea that had me reeling off poetry, this time to an unsuspecting public at various tube stations in London. Some of the passengers were bemused, some rude (understandably, thinking I was mad) but many really connected with the energy of the campaign, to make their journeys more inspiring, and to have us all think more about basic etiquette on public transport. I had a lot of fun with Amy McCallister (see her page on this) and Emma Jones and learnt a lot about the possibilities of the public address system, and the service update board. Mwahh ha ha! [my evil laugh]

(Coming up later this week... Part II, including Tongue Fu, Chill Pill Xmas and the Unwriteables)

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