by Matthew Magill
“From the rap lyric to the advertising slogan, poetic language will outlive us all and it is the poets’ responsibility to utilise that tool for the common good.”
Hippodrome Young Poets (HYP) is a Birmingham-based writing programme established “to support young poets in developing their writing style and performance techniques”.
It is the second instalment of programmes established by Jacob Sam-La Rose, following the London-based Barbican Young Poets. Formed in collaboration with Apples and Snakes and local poet Jasmine Gardosi, the programme’s aims are to “nurture Birmingham’s writing community and connect young poets to national opportunities and perspectives.”
Following the conclusion of the programme - a performance launching their pamphlet ‘30 Synonyms for Emerging’ in the Birmingham Literature Festival - I asked HYP poets Adrian B. Earle, Afrah Yafai and Emma Thompson how their style has changed with the course. We also discussed what poetry’s place is in our current society, particularly in a time of isolation and social distancing.
What does the Birmingham poetry scene mean to you?
ADRIAN: “The Brum poetry community is an extended family. There’s a lot of love. We might not always get on and we don’t talk to each other nearly as much as we should, but we are there at every event, book launch, and slam night supporting each other and writing together”.
AFRAH: “It’s a place free from judgement and a place for community, support and growth”.
EMMA: “Birmingham is where I cut my teeth as a poet. The community has such a wonderful combination of compassion and constructive criticism that you’re pushed to continuously develop as an artist, but with the knowledge that a warm blanket of support is waiting for you if you need it. I think the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Power Lines’ really sums up a lot of the brilliant things about the scene. We’ve got grit but it’s a gentle sort.”
JASMINE: “Everything. It’s the skin I live in. I wouldn’t be doing anything I’m doing right now if it weren't for this community. It’s where I draw my strength, inspiration and motivation. When I graduated in English from Exeter Uni and retreated home to Birmingham I’d supposed that the next step would be to move to London and get a job in, I dunno, publishing. Performing the first couple of times at open mics like Hit The Ode changed all of that. Six years later, I’m a full-time poet and my social life is rooted in this scene, too.”
How has being a part of this community changed your writing style or process?
ADRIAN: “It’s made me realise how many different paths to poetry there are: breath- taking performers who barely write things down, next to ‘academically credentialled’ scholars who can lineate the way through the canon, and self-taught transcendentalists whose theories of poetics have been developed on stage and in sharing a ‘via practice’ process and unguided reading. Each of these kinds of poet working and writing together to generate solid work. It was a wonder to be part of, but also showed where the gaps in our community knowledge and expertise lay”.
AFRAH: “I’ve gained a lot from other people and how dedicated they are to their craft. Writing exercises and meditation are things which I’ve gained as well as the love of creating for the sake of creating!”
EMMA: “I came into the programme, somewhat naively, believing I would emerge as ‘A Poet’, with a capital “P” and all the bells and whistles that come with being ‘A Poet’, but what the process has taught me is that, although it may seem like it sometimes, ‘good’ poetry doesn’t have to look a certain way. Industries will go through their trends, but that doesn’t invalidate other ‘good’ poetry."
"Being placed in a room of such incredible wordsmiths was intimidating at first, and I was tempted to contort to fit my poetry into what looked like perfect moulds in their hands. Unfortunately, and fortunately in a way, it doesn’t work like that. Instead of the collective becoming an echo chamber, I think our own individual voices were strengthened. We managed to end up with a space where we respected one another to shine a light on our individual talents when appropriate, and draw people out of their comfort zones where needed”.
JASMINE: “As a facilitator it's made me more appreciative of others’ writing processes, and particularly aware of collective writing [or] group writing. Jacob Sam-La Rose is a ridiculously rich source of inspiration, information and ways of thinking - as are the HYP poets who are my peers as much as they were participants. So there’s been plenty to learn from them - new perspectives, poets I’d never heard of, and writing processes.
I'm also gently learning that poetry’s a bit of a weed of an art form - how it can grow anywhere, but definitely thrives in more nurturing environments, like ones that are richer in provision, access, inspiration, [and] support. It's been wonderful to see how different members of the collective have started to bring their own gifts to make it not so much a bunch of weeds, as an ecosystem - mental support, peer feedback, visual design skills, morale boosting, personal encouragement, group meditation, lifts home after sessions, food…”
Related: 'It's hard to think on your own' - by Hippodrome poet Shaun Hill
Following your experience of HYP, what importance do you believe poetry
holds in our current climate?
ADRIAN: “I have always believed that poetry is vital. Not just in the “art will save us” sense, though that might well be true, but in the way that poetic language is a mode of narrative delivery. The crystallisation of reality via language, to something beyond the banality of imperical truth, that will be the aspect that defines our age. From the rap lyric to the advertising slogan, poetic language will outlive us all and it is the poets’ responsibility to utilise that tool for the common good.”
AFRAH: “[It’s] extremely important - we should share in each other’s loves, worries and hopes. Finding people who share your views, visions and experiences is important for wellbeing”.
EMMA: “[I saw] something really interesting recently which talked about how a lot of poetry is a medium for people who don’t necessarily have much financial security, because it’s an easy way of being creative and letting your body breathe out its worries within a limited schedule. It’s the haiku you pop off during a bathroom break on shift, the free-write on the bus between jobs etcetera…Given how much inequality has already been highlighted by present circumstances, I think poetry has incredible power right now”.
JASMINE: “Kind of in the spirit of the second bit of my answer to question 2 - we're already seeing how poetry is blossoming between the cracks (do weeds blossom? let’s say they do.) in times of need, like the current one we’re in right now - digitally. How amazing is this? Not one week into self-isolation and I was drowning in invites to join online writing groups, virtual workshops and events.
"Also… as Bethany Slinn pointed out over a video chat not too long ago, we’re living through history in the making. History is being made as we speak. One of the roles of poets here (aside from you know, staying alive) is to be honest in our writing with what we're experiencing. We’re one of its primary documenters.”
While a programme such as Hippodrome Young Poets may be expected in its birthplace of London, the ‘Second-City Syndrome’ of Birmingham means that the city's stellar reputation for poetry and spoken word is often overlooked. The appearance of HYP in the Midlands is not it’s crowning accomplishment but another welcomed jewel in Birmingham’s bedazzling scene. Some of these many events exhibit a wide range of styles, including HYP Jack Crowe’s jazz-fused Funkenteleky (at The Edge, Digbeth), Grizzly Pear run by University of Birmingham’s Writers’ Bloc (at Bristol Pear, Selly Oak), and Rick Saunders’ Whiskey Words (at The Birmingham Whiskey Club, Jewellery Quarter). With so many events, but to name a few, and with young poets emerging from schemes like HYP, Birmingham continues to impress.
Is there an art or writing collective in your town that deserve a hearing? Email us via radicalartreview [at] gmail [dot] com
Matthew Magill is a Birmingham-based writer.