Posts Tagged 'Jo Shapcott'

Strange girls and poetry challenges

Really, I have no idea

This strange girl, at least, was born to tell YOU what you missed this year in the world of poetry. Stand by for a mammoth blog, as I announce the Bell Jar awards for Lovely Poetic Things, 2011. Drum roll…… no, make that a cheese roll….

Ledbury: Jean Binta Breeze, Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay

Best festival of the year? Well, you might think it was Ledbury Poetry Festival - which I had the honour of programming with Jonathan Davidson – but I couldn’t possibly comment. So it must be StAnza, whose format, location and family feeling make everything very lively. Equally welcoming was the tiny West Port Book Festival, run on sealing wax and string with no loss of quality or friendliness. The Strokestown Festival was a great experience of Irish hospitality and poetic companionship.

Best reader of the year? I must have seen two hundred headline poets this year, and the best is….? Hmmmm. Step forward William Letford, and get your hands out of your pockets. You can read his work in a new Carcanet anthology, or wait for his first collection Bevel next November. The poems are strong, simple and true; he reads them beautifully.

Which reminds me – yes, William’s readings are powerful: he harnesses the strength and audience connection that good performance poets take as… er…. read. So please understand that I mean no discredit to him in saying that I find it unsettling to hear that style praised as ‘unique’. It’s great – but it’s not unique. Performance poets across the UK deliver their work from memory every night of the week. Page poetry has such low expectations in terms of delivery, and is so astonished when anyone does it well as William. So here is the Bell Jar challenge. Poets of all persuasions; let us Raise Our Game in 2012. If you think you’re a page poet, please make the effort to learn three of your poems by heart. It’s easier than you think and it will make an immense difference in connecting with your audience. If you think you’re a stage poet, please make the effort to write one poem that follows a particular structure – the sonnet is a good place to start. Sometimes we say we are writing free verse when we’re just too lazy to give it a form.

At the Roebuck, Southwark every blooming Thursday

Best spoken word evening for my money is London’s Bang Said the Gun. Friendly, immensely energetic and with a constantly changing roll-call of brilliant performers, on a budget of 30p and limitless enthusiasm, this is consistently the best spoken word night I’ve seen. The similarly youthful but immensely competent Bad Language night is also in the top league. The production values are high, the editorial/ MCing eye keen, the welcome warm and the venue (the Castle in Manchester) perfect. For the same reasons I recommend Bohdan Piasecki’s Hit the Ode at the Victoria in Birmingham which brings European spoken-wordists to the UK.

Best books? Oh dear, so many to choose from and of course one remembers the most recently read. But I’ve loved Rachael Boast’s Sidereal, Matt Merritt‘s Troy Town,  Bloodaxe’s Being Human, Roddy Lumsden’s Terrific Melancholy and Andrew Phillips’ The Ambulance Box; Anne Carson’s Nox for its beautiful format and for the same reason, Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf.

Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al is a brilliant, tightly-written and faithful take on Catullus; a hit, a palpable hit. Perhaps my favourite of all, Sidekick Books’ Birdbook I for its lovely production values and interesting selection.

The rest, as Hamlet says, is solipsism. A recap of some favourite projects this year: collaboration and boating for a new poetry-and-story show Riverlands with Jo Blake Cave (we’ll hit the stage in April 2012). Seeing my poems for Royal Derby Hospital come to life as a lovely booklet and sound files was smashing. Programming Ledbury was a great pleasure – bringing to the stage talented writers like Ian Duhig and Anthony Thwaite, Stuart Maconie, The Antipoet and Tony Walsh, Luke Wright with his coruscating Cynical Ballads and fresh talents like Paul Stephenson.

Arvon courses – two of’em! at the Hurst and at Lumb Bank – were as usual, life-enhancing and showed me new directions for work. Blessings upon Patience Agbabi, Michael Laskey, Colette Bryce and (especially) Philip Gross, whose comments on writing sequences had all sorts of unintended consequences and have spilled over into new projects. A guest reader at Lumb Bank was Heather Phillipson whose work was subtle, skilled and touching.

Photo by Paul Atherton

Reading from the pulpit, Macclesfield

I loved reading at Strokestown, and at the Royal Festival Hall with luminaries like Jo Shapcott and Simon Armitage: but had cracking gigs closer to home. Reading with Jenn Ashworth for our show Too Much Information was a pleasure in Blackpool. At Shangri La in Prestwich, an audience member said my reading was like ‘getting a blow job from Princess Diana’ (that’s good, right?). At King Edward’s chapel in Macclesfield, we got the audience stomping till plaster fell from the roof; and at the Storm Brewery, our Brewing Up a Storm poetry cabaret was a gas. Thanks, lovely hosts, at these and many other venues including the dozens of public libraries that hosted readings, workshops and events.

It’s been a year of modest success in competitions – commendations in the Wigtown, Hippocrates, Enfield and other prizes, and that shortlisting at Strokestown – and also of collaborations with Jo (above) and with Alastair Cook on his filmpoem project. Have a look at the film here or turn up at StAnza in March to hear me read live alongside it.

If you’ve enjoyed any of my work this year or if I’ve done you any small favour, the best way to repay it is by following the Bugged blog. David Calcutt and I are cooking up a new version of our mass writing project for spring 2012 and we want it to be HUGE; something that writers all over the UK can share and enjoy. Once again we will be forming a community of writers, united by a creative challenge. Last time it resulted in many people being published for the first time. Bugged graduate Calum Kerr now has stories being broadcast by Radio 4 on Christmas Eve! So please help by following us at the blog, on Facebook or on Twitter @buggedproject.

Keep lighting fires, dear poets

I don’t usually mention my day job here, but running National Poetry Day continues as the ever-fixed mark in my working life. It’s a privilege to provide a focal event which so many of you support, use and fill with poetry events across the UK. Poetry is not a glamorous, lucrative or fame-filled field. We do it because we love words; because we are doing our best; because we are trying to tell each other the truth. Even in these darkest nights of the year, poetry lights its little beacons on the hilltops to see us through. Long may they burn.

Pride comes before… ouch!

A heap of sleepy chums

And why wouldn’t I be? If you didn’t notice that it was National Poetry Day (NPD) on Thursday…. then go and watch this film to make up for it. Or this one. Since my day job is to run NPD, this is the biggest event of my year – so forgive me a long blog. This time I was in That London, and it was truly cockle-warming to see the scale and variety of things going on. The evening before, I was at the Forward Prizes ceremony – gutted that Famous Seamus was not there to collect his award, but delighted to discover the wry poetry of Hilary Menos, and more delighted still to stay with dear friends including Iggy of the Unbelievable Lashes.

National Poetry Day started ridiculously early at Poet in the City‘s breakfast event with Jo Shapcott. Afterwards I spent a happy hour in a cafe, secreting Poetry Found booklets for later discovery (eg by this lady, below) and setting up the new NPD blog.


Poetry Found!


Please sign up to the new blog and help to make it a success: it needs to be a reliable source of poetry information, year-round, for all of us. Onwards, to the Southbank Centre for an afternoon of brilliant readings – Simon Armitage,


Daljit Nagra


Lemn Sissay, Jo Shapcott again, our poet in residence Daljit Nagra and another favourite of mine, Ian Duhig (who- stop press – will be poet in residence for Ledbury Poetry Festival 2011). All over the UK, poetry events were lighting up the map. One of my favourites was this (mostly) Scottish Patchwork Poem from North Carr Light; but there were open mic nights in Caerphilly, a Poetry Booth on the high street in Gateshead – literally hundreds of poetry activists across the UK, bringing poetry to tens of thousands of slightly bewildered people. Bless’em all…. including the Foyle Young Poets who made it through 20,000 entries to win prizes, and enjoyed rearranging the coins on the magnetic sculpture outside the Southbank Centre.

Blessings too upon the writers who took part in our Bugged project this summer. After the mass overhearings of July 1st, and the mass panic that followed as everyone wrote and submitted their work, the mass marketing begins. The Bugged book is here – and it’s beautiful, at least in the special edition that you can buy at our launches (or from me afterwards). Thursday will see the first launch at Manchester Literature Festival, and next week brings a second launch at Birmingham Book festival. Please join us or send this Bugged launch invitation to anyone else who might come along.

Bear with me, while I squeeze in a bit more pride and happiness. This weekend my short play First Person opens in Ellesmere Port. Next weekend it shows at the Chester Literature Festival. First Person tells the story of Edwardian explorer and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, who was frightened of nothing – except sex. Mine is one of four short plays showing in a single event called Four for the Port. These are your only chances to see it for the foreseeable future, so catch the plays while you can in this production by Action Transport Theatre.

And finally…. I’m delighted to find that this blog is shortlisted for the Manchester Blog awards. It would be a really marvellous thing to win, so if you’d like to vote for me please go to the website here and vote for The Bell Jar in the ‘personal’ category – but check out the other blogs while you’re there!

All of these proud-and-happy things are projects which I’ve had a hand in, but which depend on others for their success. To the production team and actors in my play – to the readers of this blog – to the many writers who contributed to Bugged, whether they made it into the book or not – and above all, to the thousands who took part in National Poetry Day simply for the love of poetry – to all of you I say thank you, from the heart of my poetic bottom. Now go and read some poetry….

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