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."
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.
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”.
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.
Write Club transformed into a twice weekly meet up for poets to start and end their week. It’s a place for writers to set intentions, flex our pens and then regroup to share our progress. Over the course of the week we attempt to write to a theme. Themes are put forward by group members on a weekly basis and voted on by the collective. They range from “dancing in a thunderstorm” and “wormholes” to “breakdown over branflakes” and “fuck this”, depending largely on the state of the nation, the mood of the group and how much caffeine they’ve had to drink that morning. The themes are a space to explore writing outside of your comfort zone, or to sink into the solace of shared experiences.
I remember the first week of lockdown, I couldn’t look at my inbox as cancellations flooded in. I had just booked some of my biggest gigs yet, I worked hard to get them, and then suddenly they were no longer my achievements to claim. Overnight my schedule went from fully booked to empty.
I wasn't alone in this: creative communities were devastated. Write Club member Ann Atkins told me “just before lockdown I was booked to do a feature set, a headline gig, a festival and a quite prestigious slam, and everything just shut down, so I was left feeling a bit gutted”. When the gigs disappeared, Write Club gave structure and purpose to poets, it became a place to put your creative energy, to develop your writing, to treat lockdown as a time to gently work on craft.
The end of the week session can only really be described as a group therapy session: officially it’s where we meet to share our progress. Did we meet our targets, did we write any poetry, or create anything to the theme? But there's no pressure to do any of this. What you think your week will look like first thing Monday morning is often very different to how it pans out. Priorities shift as meetings pile up, restrictions change and energy levels fluctuate. The end of the week session is more of a space to vent about how your boss piled so much work on your shoulders that you’ve barely had a second to think about poetry, how isolation got too hard and you've spent the last 5 days crying, how you were meant to visit your dad this week but new restrictions meant you couldn’t, or that you just didn’t have the energy to do anything other than get through the week. It’s a space to celebrate the wins of other members, big or small, to laugh and cry together.
In a literal sense, Write Club is what it says on the tin. It’s a place to develop your writing and to motivate yourself for a productive week, but this is a cruel oversimplification of a group which, to its members, is so much more. The writing tasks and provocations are what brought us together, but the friendships and support network that have built up during turbulent times is what we are all grateful for.
When I asked three members of the group what their highlights were, I expected their answers to be about a certain theme that they enjoyed writing to, or an exercise that had been particularly fun, but what came out of each answer was how important the community is to all of us.
“To be honest, I don’t come to Write Club looking to write anymore, I come to be around people that I care about”. Gary’s favourite moments were seeing how different members of the group had grown throughout the time we’ve been together, particularly referencing how far Louis Gershon had come with his rapping. Louis is our youngest member; an English Lit/Theatre Studies student, and the confidence in his delivery has grown so much since we first heard him perform, that when he last read to us, our jaws all dropped.
Ann Atkins noted how important the community was to her, “I’ve met some really nice people through it, lots of different people drop in so there’s always new faces, but then we’ve got a nice little core group of people that all really get on well. We get inspiration from each other, as well as friendship.”
Host Mark Grist referenced how he loved seeing the group take ownership of itself. “All my favourite moments have been when I’ve let go of aspects of the club, or when someone else has stepped forward to lead something”. Members have lead their own workshops over the last couple of months, as well as exercises where individual members' creative practices have been the source of inspiration.
Write Club is a sanctuary for a pretty dysfunctional family of writers, people who span across different ages and different parts of the globe. It’s a place of comfort for the shared trauma we’ve lived through together over the last few months, and the joys we’ve celebrated. The group has formed a bond that extends beyond lockdown. Founder Mark Grist described the group as “a safe, welcoming space where we care about each other, we encourage each other to grow, to be creative and to make the most of each week during such a difficult time.”
While UK members are still in lockdown, we listen to friends from the Isle of Man talk about the joys of in person performances again, when one of our members Jackie Morrey-Grace won the Manx Litfest Slam! and of course, our delight in hearing about their return to the pub. But even as parts of the world ease back out of lockdown, they still show up, twice a week for Write Club.