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How Poetry Stayed Afloat During Lockdown

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

by Georgia Preece

 
"In a time when we are yearning for connections, there's an intimacy to spoken word, the act of just taking in another person's story, their voice."
Say It Louder (2020)

Lockdown 3.0: monotony builds irritability, as creativity slowly disappears. Remember in lockdown 1.0 when we gathered (virtually) to watch National Theatre Productions streamed on YouTube? We danced through the latest TikTock trends, got lost in virtual galleries and collectively baked more banana bread than ever before.


But now, almost a year on, the doors of galleries and theatres remain shut, community spaces gather dust and redundancies overwhelm already struggling creative workforces. But what about the creatives who didn’t ever really fit into those spaces, the ones who performed wherever would have us : cafes, pubs and conference rooms? Where do the poets go when the pubs are shut?


Perhaps it’s the poet's etiquette that has allowed spoken word to transfer so well from in-person to online. There’s a respect between poets, a willingness to listen to each other - you won’t find Handforth Parish Council style bickering here. There’s an intimacy to spoken word, the act of just taking in another person’s story, their voice. In a time when we are yearning for connections, spoken word has the power to fill the void that we are all experiencing.

 

Related: The Poetry of Black Lives Matter

 

Spoken word poetry has not only continued to exist during the pandemic: it’s thriving, and it makes sense. As a performer you're working alone, making it safer and easier to replicate online than theatre, you don’t need any real tech other than a working webcam and access to the internet.


Fine art is seemingly reliant on a tangible presence. We’ve always been able to view art online, a swift google and you can look at all of Van Gogh's masterpieces, but its not the same as gazing awestruck at the real thing on a gallery wall. Poetry just needs a story, and a person who wants to share it.


It has also lived on the internet for a long time pre-pandemic. My first introduction to spoken word was a teenage me poring over Sarah Kay videos on Button Poetry, and we’ve all seen viral poetry videos such as Neil Hilborn’s OCD flooding our social media feeds. So consuming spoken word in an online format, doesn’t feel as out of the ordinary as watching pre-recorded theatre.

Say It Louder: Expanding communities


Spoken word communities can be a little cliquey: different communities seldom interact outside of their own bubbles, partly because of the nature of spoken word, short set times at open mics, and late night performance times, which make it impractical for many to perform outside of their town/city, unless you have a headline slot. While the claim that Zoom cures all accessibility issues is far from truthful, moving open mics online has opened up a global poetry community that would have never before had the chance to share a stage.


“I’ve been to events virtually, that I would find it very difficult to access in real life” Write Club member Ann Atkins, who is based near Coventry, told me. “I’ve become a regular at York, Cambridge, plus I’ve dropped into events in Scotland, Ireland, and I’ve been as far away as Australia”.


Ann also notes the potential to create more diverse and interesting events online than in real life. “People are hearing a wider range of voices than you would at your local open mic, where you’d tend to hear the same core people every time. Events can also attract bigger headliners, because they don’t have to travel to perform”.


Gary Huskisson, based in Peterborough, says that poetry is thriving right now. Referring to the new global network of poets, he said “because of this (covid), for the first time ever, you’re beginning to see the people behind the poetry. You’re not just hearing the poetry, you know the trauma that we’re all going through”. Lockdown has enabled Gary to take chances that he otherwise wouldn't have have the chance to, to “try out new ideas, and gain new experiences”.


Gary Huskisson (2020)

Creating Say It Louder - a poetry event focusing on Black Lives Matter which came to life during lockdown - was one of these dreams. Comparing the traction of these events to real world conversations and celebrations such as Black History Month, and the prominent relationship between poetry and activism, Gary talked about the power of online spaces. “It's empowered me to do other things, to ask the questions I want to ask. We are making things change around the world”. Without lockdown, having this conversation, on a global scale, might not have seemed possible, but now Gary is taking Say it Louder (virtually) around the world, platforming black poets on a global scale and raising awareness for BLM.


Write Club: Sanctuary, Therapy, Poetry

“If you’ve had a bad week, you need the group. If you’ve had a good week, the group needs you”

When the first lockdown was announced, one Peterborough poetry event decided they needed to adapt to support creative individuals in their community, but they had no idea what it would grow to become.


Write Club existed before the pandemic in a different form, created by Charley Genever, Keely Mills and Mark Grist. When the pandemic hit the group had a role to play. They wanted to create a space for poets, with co-founder of Write Club and host of Mark Can't Rap, Mark Grist describing it as “an attempt to support people’s mental health, and to give people a chance to write”. But as the months have rolled by, what’s become apparent to everyone involved is that Write Club isn’t about the targets and the writing: it’s about community.