Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

zqNews Apr 2015: Texas 2 London Skype poetry + Word’s a Stage poetry impro

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

In this issue of zqNews, find out about two forthcoming events using Skype and poetry improvisation to make connections, and check out a couple of videos recently uploaded to YouTube.

Texas 2 London

Texas 2 London, my next Skype event, is happening this Friday, 10 April, in Colliers Wood, London. We’ll be linking up with a parallel event at the Austin International Poetry Festival (AIPF) in Texas with three featured poets either side of the Atlantic sharing their work. There’ll also be a chance for three open mic participants to perform in front of the Austin audience via the video link.

One our side we’ve got Matt Black, Agnes Meadows, and Kayo Chingonyi, and in Austin we’ll be hearing from three AIPF poets: Element615, Teresa Y Roberson, and Mr Dave.

I’ll be presenting alongside electro-pop poetry duo Project Adorno, and the Texas event will be hosted by Thom the World Poet. Thom is a gloriously spontaneous, unpredictable, and inspired poet and also committed to the principles of democracy in the arts. Check out his appearance at a previous Skype event on YouTube.

The evening kicks off at 7pm with the open mic (first come, first served), then we’re online with Austin from 8 to 9.30pm. For more details about the programme visit

Friday 10 April 2015, 7–10pm
Colour House Theatre, Merton Abbey Mills, SW19 2RD (near Colliers Wood underground)
£3 on the door. Enquiries to 020 3730 8039.

Let us know you’re coming on Facebook.

Word’s a Stage Improvisation Project

Word’s a Stage

The last couple of months I’ve been working with four poets—Becci Fearnley, Sean Wai Keung, Andrea Queens, and Zahrah Sheikh—on putting together a performance using poetry improvisation techniques. We’ve got one more workshop to go, then the final event, where there’ll also be a collaborative performance from Apples and Snakes’ GasWorks group, will take place on Tuesday 14 April at Free Word (Farringdon) from 7.30pm (Free).

It’s the first chance I’ve had to work with a group over a sustained period on a poetry improvisation project, and the first time I’ve used improvisation to put together a performance rather than recordings, so it’s been an exciting and new experience for us all. The group has been amazing, fearless, and eager to rise the challenge, and I’ve learnt a lot from them myself during the workshops.

Our final piece is provisionally entitled ‘You are not the voices inside my head’ [later changed to ‘Grey Parrot Singing’] and circles loosely around the idea of ‘search’ and what happens to our voices in the age of social media. YouTube has been a significant source of material, from trolling to cat videos, self-hypnosis and political rants. The performance includes several improvised scenes, including free improv, pair work, a human-generated Apostrophe poem, and a warm-up that surprised us all by uncovering the poetry of numbers.

The project is coordinated by Apples and Snakes, and you can see the event page here:

NWS in London

Andrew Kells at NWS in London

It’s been a busy few months what with Texas 2 London and Word’s a Stage coming up, and the Nottingham Writer’s Studio’s London showcase, which I hosted on 21 March 2015.

When I was Development Director at NWS we’d been talking about a London showcase to help bridge the gap between the London-centric publishing world and the strong writing communities in Nottingham and other regions, so all credit to my successor Pippa Hennessy for taking the first step in making this happen.

The readers were all contributors to one of NWS’s new ventures, a literary journal that has so far covered ‘crime’, ‘secrets’, and ‘a sense of place’. You can get hold of the journal in electronic form for free on Issuu:

It was great to hear the stories and poems I’d read in the journal straight from the writer’s mouth and to feel the enthusiasm in the room from both audience and readers. One of my favourite stories was Lynda Clarke’s rather gruesome tale ‘Stealing from the Dead’, and Andrew Kells and Liz Hart in particular electrified with their energetic performances.


Reuben da Cunha Rocha Skyping Nottingham, Oct 2014

I’ve been uploading videos to YouTube recently. Here are a couple you might enjoy.

  1. Brazilian poet Reuben da Cunha Rocha mesmerising the audience at Skype Me! Nottingham and the World, 18 October 2014:
  2. ‘Frogger’, a poem that started out with dual origins in a 1980s computer game and an attempt at a perpetual cycling accident, but which ended up in the twisted fairground of the imaginationl, read here at Word of Mouth in Nottingham, November 2012:

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Poems from the Road: Bonus Material

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

Seven additional tracks that I selected for the Poems from the Road podcast but wasn’t able to include in the final edit for reasons of time are available to listen to on SoundCloud for a limited time.

You’ll find poems there by River Wolton, Luke Wright, Rochelle Potkar, Jo Roach, Hilary Mellon, Andrew Sclater, and Nick Toczek. They’ll be up from 1 December 2014 to 28 February 2015.

Listen out for Andrew Sclater’s A1 incantation, Luke Wright’s day in a transit, Rochelle Potkar’s evocation of the road to the mountains, and River Wolton’s ‘Language of Lorries’.

Later in the month, I’ll also be posting a fascinating interview with Michael Bartholomew-Biggs about John Arlott‘s poem ‘Death on the Road’, where you can hear all about Arlott’s journey from poet to cricket commentator.

To listen to the poems, go to, then click on the Poems from the Road playlist. You’ll find a few other tracks there that are part of my Poems from the Road project as well, including ‘Little Spaceships’, a poetry improvisation on poetic tweets from the A-roads, and a couple of my own poems recorded with the M1 in the background.

More about my Poems from the Road project.

The Poet on the Road: A Kaleidoscope Equipped with Consciousness

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Minzu UnderpassThe road is many things to many people. Mostly, I suspect, it’s a bit of a blank. A place that eats up substantial chunks of our lives, yet largely ignored as we focus on getting from A to B, the destination rather than the journey.

For me, the road has always been a hostile place. As a child with severe asthma and ecological concerns growing up in London, I was hyper-sensitive to traffic pollution. I felt I could smell the fumes the moment I stepped out of the house in the morning, even if other people didn’t seem to notice.

As a cyclist, I’m very aware of the perils of the road and the state of hyper-alertness that I enter when negotiating city traffic on my bicycle. The effort of continually responding to the flow of stimuli around me injects passages of adrenalin into my day when I seem to live rather than experience reality.

This reminds me of a passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ in which he discusses the experience of traffic in a big city:

Moving through this traffic involves the individual in a series of shocks and collisions. At dangerous intersections, nervous impulses flow through him in rapid succession, like the energy from a battery. [Illuminations (Pimlico, 1999), p. 171.]

In the words of Baudelaire, one becomes ‘a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness’. While the shock of the road was for Benjamin something modern, I also see it as an encounter with a very raw and primitive part of ourselves, as it is perhaps the only place in modern life where we regularly encounter a fight-or-flight mechanism.

I think this holds true for driving as well. We tend to think of drivers as encased inside a protective bubble, not always aware of the danger they are exposed to or pose to others. But when I started driving, I found that I often experienced the same state of hyper-alertness I was used to on the bicycle, sometimes just for moments of emergency, other times for prolonged periods, as when driving at night down unfamiliar country lanes or on a dual carriageway in a foreign country. I also noticed periods of abstraction, especially at night, when you can lose your usual sense of spatial relations as lights and other road objects start floating about in the rearview mirror.

These were the things that attracted me to writing about the road—alienation, danger, and abstraction—but I wanted to see how other poets wrote about it as well, which is how the Poems from the Road podcast was born.

In it you’ll hear poems from twenty-six poets journeying up and down the country. Yes, there’s death, there’s roadkill…Michael Greavy’s sheep that ‘splits like dropped shopping’, James Caruth’s ‘battered blue Ford’ that strains like ‘an old man fighting for breath’. But there’s also the road as a place of intimacy, memory, and homecoming, as in Matthew Stewart’s ‘Dad on the M25 after Midnight’ and Julie Burke’s ‘Angel of the Road’. There’s optimism and satire in Andrew Freeman’s story of a community takeover and Mark Gwynne Jones’s imagining of the Sherman tank as the next SUV. We see how the road both divides and connects us in Luke Wright’s ‘A12’—‘England’s crude appendix scar’, and the road as a place of dreams that sometimes takes us outside of ourselves. ‘I’m from the fog’, says River Wolton, to which the 1970s Polish pop musician Tadeusz Wozniak replies (in my fantasy podcast world where poets and scraps of road become detached from their historical locations), ‘One day near dawn cars fell from the sky’.

Home Cooking: Poems from the Road is a podcast produced by Robin Vaughan-Williams and commissioned by Apples and Snakes. It will be broadcast 5–6pm on Hive Radio every Thursday in December 2014, and will subsequently be available to listen to on SoundCloud. For more about the project, visit the Poems from the Road webpage.

poetry-art collaborations and improvisation

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Several exciting things have started happening recently. I’ve got a couple of poems, ‘Frogger’ and ‘Eating Ghosts’, included in the Jawspring Poetry and Art Exhibition, which will be showing at The Village Hall Gallery in Wimbledon (SW19 4QD) 19–23 March. My poems have been sent to two artists, Siobhan Tarr and Phil Deed, so I look forward to seeing their responses, interpretations, or reactions. There are twenty-five artists taking part, and seventeen poets from Merton Poets, who work will all be shown during the exhbition. There’ll be a launch, with drinks and readings, at 7pm on World Poetry Day, Friday 21 March 2014.

Trevor Tomkins, by Alban Low

Trevor Tomkins, by Alban Low

Jawspring is organised by Alban Low, who has a line in producing some lively jazz sketches and album art. Check them out on his blog: We’re talking a about some live poetry-jazz sketching, and producing a film-poem, and I’m sure something is going to come of this. Here’s a short film he produced a couple of years ago, a walk through London streets…and here’s one of my favourite film-poems, ‘Door’ by Lawrence Bailey, based on a poem by Merton Poets’ own Patrick McManus.

On Friday 28 February I’ll be running a group poetry improvisation workshop as part of the Apples & Snakes Powerplant series. It’s FREE and runs from 10am till 3pm (with a break for lunch) at the Free Word Centre on Farringdon Road, London. Full details here. If you’d like to book a place, get in touch with Apples & Snakes on 020 8465 6154. We’ll be using a mixture of structured and freeform approaches to explore how poets can create spontaneously and collaboratively. If you’d like to hear an example of improvised work, check out this piece I produced for my radio show back in 2008, with Sarah Thomasin and Adele Geraghty. It’s called ‘Are You My Friend?’.

This can be a great way to shake out some fresh ideas, create work for recording and performance, and get some writing done that doesn’t involve sitting on your own staring at a screen for several hours. You should try it!

Poetry, Landscape, and Radicals

Monday, February 11th, 2013

It was an elegant start to the Nottingham Festival of Words on Saturday with a day of poetry and storytelling at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral home. Poets travelled from Oxford (Nigel Thompson), Middlesborough (Andy Croft), Derby (Mark Goodwin), and Sheffield (Chris Jones and publisher Brian Lewis), and it was great to see how many people had made the journey to see what was going on.

In the early afternoon our 7-week-old baby had her first experience of a poetry reading, sitting quietly through 30 minutes of CJ Allen (not a difficult thing to do, as she can’t laugh yet) with just the occasional appreciative squeak. Newstead Abbey will be an amazing place to take her when she’s older, with winding paths, waterfalls, and a rockery…loads of places to run around and explore.

At tea time it was Poetry, Landscape, and Radicals, a triple-bill featuring ‘Outskirts and Outposts’ from Longbarrow Press, Christy Fearn on Byron the First Rockstar, and three poets from Smokestack Press.

I’m not sure if that’s the way we planned it, but it was a coherent as well as varied programme, with each part of the programme picking up on the location in some way—the landscaped environs, and Byron’s legacy in terms of the culture of celebrity and political radicalism. I was also struck by how all three used these different threads to draw together the contemporary and the historical.

In Russian there are two different words for ‘landscape’. Peisazh is borrowed from the French and refers to the landscape painting—landscape as representation. Landshchaft is borrowed from the German and refers to the landscape in nature—landscape as object. The Longbarrow reading took the landscape poem (peisazh) and stuffed it with a contemporary urban and semi-urban landschaft, giving the genre a social dimension that we perhaps often forget about.

Produced by Brian Lewis, the performance brought together the contrasting voices of Chris Jones, Mark Goodwin, and Matt Clegg (in absentia, via audio recording). While Chris’s reading suggested a coherent voice, Mark’s did the opposite, with bold line breaks that cut into the middle of words breaking up the conventional rhythm and syntax. The effect was to dehumanise the voice, creating the impression of a speech made up of lots of little packets of data and lacking an underlying intentionality. It reminded me of those digitally produced announcements you get in railway stations and on call centre menus where oddities in the spacing between words indicate the synthetic nature of the announcement—that it’s been stitched together from samples—creating a sense of disembodiment, of a voice that has no speaker (unless we want to admit a system as a speaker), of a corporation masquerading its personhood.

This seemed very fitting, given that while a human presence in the landscape genre is often absent or neglected, in these poems, as Brian explained in his introduction, there is a persistant social presence, derelict landscapes rarely truely vacant.

Later on, Andy Croft introduced a raucous reading from himself and Smokestack poets Mike Wilson and Nigel Thompson. It was interesting to hear Andy’s explanation of how his approach to publishing has changed over the years. Whereas Smokestack started out focusing on leftwing, leftfield writing, now he’s looking for comedy, rhyme (music), and anger, qualities he feels are in short supply.

We heard a few snippets from their contributions to Donny Johnny, a modern satirical take on Byron’s Don Juan that I’m looking forward to when it comes out from Five Leaves Publications in the next year. In it we’ll see DJ in various guises, as a food critic, prisoner, creative writing tutor, and retired rockstar, among other things.

Nottingham Festival of Words—here it comes!

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

After around nine months of planning and preparation, Nottingham Festival of Words is nearly upon us. Next weekend we’ll be at Newstead Abbey for a day of poetry, landscape poetry from Longbarrow Press, glimpses of Donny Johnny, a modern, irreverant take on Byron’s Don Juan coming out from Five Leaves Publications in 2014, Christy Fearn’s talk on Byron the First Rockstar, spooky storytelling, a book launch, and more.

The weekend after that (16–17 February) will be the Festival hub at Nottingham Trent University’s Newton building, where we’ve got readings, talks, workshops, a book fair and fun activities for people of all ages to get involved with from across the literary spectrum. With around six simultaneous events on at a time, everyone will get their way with words. Over the Festival fortnight (9–25 February) there are also events taking place around the city and its environs—Alice Oswald at Lakeside Arts Centre (one of the things I really hope to get to), talks on Scottish and Irish writers, Rachael Pennell’s play Byron Beloved at Thrumpton Hall, several literary walks, and Love, Lace and Bedtime Poems at the Flying Goose in Beeston, to name just a few.

If you’d like to attend the Festival, you can browse the programme at the nottwords website, where you can also sign up to the newsletter to receive updates. Tickets can be bought online and by phone from our partner Experience Nottinghamshire, and in person from Nottingham Tourist Information Centre. Follow us on Twitter (@nottwords) or Facebook.

Although I’m spending most of my time on organising the Festival, I’m still working on a couple of individual events. The Speaking Space is a room in the Newton building that people will be able to pop into to get away from the Festival bustle. I’m putting together a spoken word playlist of work by Festival participants and Nottingham writers, so visitors will get a chance to listen to some of the writers that they might have missed, and there’ll be a bookswap there too.

I’m also working with John Lucas of Shoestring Press on a jazz and poetry night at the Hotel Deux Guitar Bar on Wednesday 20 February from 8pm. We’ve got Derbyshire Poet Laureate Matt Black, always a captivating performer, as our guest poet, and there will also be sets from Alyson Stoneman, Wayne Burrows, Zayneb Allak, and I’ll be doing the first part of ‘Time Is Running Out! (restart your system now)’. The band includes bass, guitar, cornet, and clarinet. If you’re thinking of coming, let us know of Facebook.

Additional content added December 2013.

Here’s a recording of Stephen Lowe’s stirring speech at the Festival of Words launch on 12 September 2012 about Nottingham as a city of literature:

Fishing for Words poetry booklet

Friday, June 15th, 2012

The booklet I produced for Aphasia Nottingham finally arrived last Friday. It was a bit last minute—the printers delivered it fifteen minutes before the end of the session—but they’ve done a fantastic job. The cover (below)—which I scanned from some of the painting the art group had been doing—has come out really strong, even bolder, I would say, in print than on the screen.

Fishing for Words front cover

The booklet contains poems produced during the Fishing for Words sessions organised by Aphasia Nottingham in the past year, with poetry workshops (run by me), art workshops, and singing sessions.

You can find one of the group poems we wrote in my blog post Making a Collaborative Poem.

Extra Notes on This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

I’ve just finished a review for Sphinx of Ian McMillan’s Smith/Doorstop pamphlet, This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps (2011), but it’s only 400 words and I’ve got more to say! So here are a few extra notes.

There’s a lot of everyday experience here, what the Russian Formalists would have called byt. Byt, derived from the same root as byt´, the verb ‘to be’, was usually placed in opposition to art. For Viktor Shklovskii, art was a means of refreshing our everyday experience by defamiliarising patterns of experience that had become habitual. By ‘making it strange’, it makes us look again.

These days, however, the everyday has more going for it. In contrast to the artificial construction and simulation of experience through the mass media, the everyday is seen as a refuge of genuine experience. So in addition to the opposition of art vs life, we’ve also got what might be called hype vs life.

One of my favourite poems from this collection is ‘The Evening of the Day Pavarotti Died’. The very first line, read after the title, primes us for an art/hype vs life showdown:

I poured some Carnation Milk into a cup of coffee

We appear to be confronted with two irreconcilably different cultural artefacts here; can there be any overlap between the worlds of Pavarotti and Carnation milk? A couple of verses later, however, it turns out that this showdown is itself a construction, as Pavarotti enters the back gardens of a South Yorkshire neighbourhood, replete with sheds and squirrels:

[…] from Mr Lowe’s house next door
And from Steve’s house up the street we heard
The last note of Nessum Dorma rising and hanging

There like light on a tree.

Admittedly, Pavarotti has made his entrance via the radio, so maybe what we’re witnessing here is an instance of the mechanism by which mass media phenomena install themselves in the fabric of our lives, yet at the same time this is clearly also a moment of genuine and universal pathos. Pavarotti might have become an over-familiar and automated icon for artistic experience—to the point where you didn’t have to actually listen to Pavarotti, because you knew you were listening to Pavarotti—but this poem shows Pavarotti doing, even if just for a moment, exactly what he’s supposed to do: transforming the perception of our everyday environment.

Happenstance: Deleted Scenes at States of Independence

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

It’s time for States of Independence again, the wonderful book-fair-cum-festival at De Montfort University in Leicester, now in it’s fourth year.

Last year I ran a Happenstance stall, which I enjoyed so much I ran another at the Lowdham Book Festival and States of Independence West in Birmingham, though neither quite matched the buzz of the original, so I’m back for another go. There were stalls from all kinds of independent publishers—Nine Arches, Five Leaves, Shoestring, Templar, to name but a few—and panels, readings, and talks throughout the day. I somehow ended up on one entitled ‘Show Me the Money’, where I talked about applying for funding for community writing programmes.

This year we’ve got a 45-minute Happenstance slot to go with the stall, which will feature readings from Sally Festing, Tim Love, Peter Daniels, and myself. I’m calling it ‘Deleted Scenes’ because I’ve asked each of the readers to include one poem that was not included in their Happenstance pamphlet, whether it was discarded during the editing process or perhaps written later on as a sequel or something that could have gone into the collection. I hope this’ll encourage a bit of reflection on the process of putting together a collection, working with an editor, and the afterlife it can have.

There’s tonnes of other stuff happening on the day, including Aly Stoneman and Mulletproof Poet launching their debut collections from Crystal Clear, and a reading from Mark Goodwin and Chris Jones of Longbarrow Press. You can find the full programme on the States of Independence website.

Can Actors Read Poetry?

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

I was just listening to a programme about the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle on Radio 4, which was interesting but spoiled by terrible readings of the poet’s work. Why on earth does the BBC repeatedly air acted readings of poems that tend to smother the poem beneath a veneer of theatricality? So often the voice comes across as pompous, precious, and suggestive of a nervous, agitated disposition. Are they deliberately trying to reproduce a stereotype of the poetic psyche?

It’s not so much that the BBC hires bad actors. In this case the actor was Sara Kestelman, who has a distinguished career behind her. Poets themselves are often not the best readers of their work, though in many cases they are, and actors are in possession of an array of techniques that would help many poets improve their delivery. So actors ought to be able to do poetry a service. If they don’t manage this, it must be something to do with the approach they or their directors take, rather than with their ability.

In this particular case, Hilda Doolittle’s poems were read in a breathy, dramatic whisper that was probably supposed to sound atmospheric. But I just sat there thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing? Nobody reads poetry like this!’. I was unable to focus on the words. Any atmosphere the poetry might have conjured up was obscured by the atmosphere of the voice. And whatever accents and tones the words might have possessed were squashed by the reader’s tone of voice.

It’s as if actors are more concerned with exhibiting their performance skills than with conveying the material they are supposed to be delivering. Or are directors perhaps not convinced that anyone is really interested in poetry, so instruct their actors to compensate for what they perceive as the lack of content in the words?

This is something I’ve been wondering about for years. My main theory is that actors are used to acting dramatic dialogue, where conventionally every line belongs to a character, i.e. it is the product of a unified personality. Moreover, when scriptwriters write dialogue, they will often be thinking about things like the situation in which the lines are uttered, the objectives of the character, and their relation to the character they are being addressed to.

While some poetry is characterised by these features of dramatic dialogue, very often it isn’t. It’s not always clear who the speaker is in a poem, what the context of its utterance is, and who it’s being addressed to. A lot of the time poetry is multi-accented, that is, its meaning can seem to pull in several different directions, and much of its effect may come from the tension or play between those different orientations. If someone tries to read poetry as dramatic dialogue, they are likely to end up fixing the context and meaning, and therefore lose this kind of tension or play.

This reminds me of Valentin Voloshinov’s discussion of ‘quasi-direct speech’ (nesobstvennaia priamaia rech´, a Russian translation of Gertrude Lerch’s uneigentlich direkte Rede) in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. In quasi-direct speech a single linguistic construction conveys the meanings of two differently oriented voices. An example might be a sentence in a novel that seems to convey the meanings of both the author and a character, and where neither is dominant over the other.

In a discussion of the use of this form of speech in Russian modernism, Voloshinov describes quasi-direct speech as a linguistic phenomenon that is specific to the written word and which cannot be effectively conveyed through speaking:

In the majority of cases, and namely there, where quasi-direct speech becomes a mass phenomenon in the new artistic prose, the acoustic transfer of evaluational interference is not possible. What’s more, the very development of quasi-direct speech is connected with the transition of the major prose genres to a silent register. Only this silencing of prose made possible that multi-levelled and orally unconveyable complexity of intonational structures, which is so characteristic of the new literature. (Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka, 1929, p. 377, my translation. See Part III, ch. 4 in the English edition.)

If you believe Voloshinov, then you might conclude that the reason the BBC broadcasts such terrible acted versions of poems is that it simply isn’t possible to read a lot of poetry out loud properly; oral reading fixes the voice one way or the other, and loses what isn’t fixed.

I disagree. Poets have been finding ways of performing their work in ways that do manage to preserve the lack of centredness and multiple accents their words sometimes carry for decades, possibly centuries (although it’s more of a modern phenomenon). It doesn’t necessarily mean reading in a straight, uninflected way at all, and the more acting skills a speaker has the better they’ll probably be able to carry it off. But it does mean ditching the notion that poetry should be uttered as if spoken by an individual character.