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Weeds That Blossom: Introducing Hippodrome Young Poets

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.”
Credit: Thom Bartley

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.

Credit: George Reiner

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 Linesreally 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”.

Credit: Thom Bartley