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February 2017

In case you missed it (Verve Day 1)

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Couldn’t make it to Birmingham for the kick off day of Verve? Our fab photographer Thom Bartley was there to capture all the action. The very first event was Poetry Parlour, hosted by Jane Commane, with special guest Daljit Nagra. In addition to the open mics, we also had Susannah Dickey, the winner of our Verve Poetry Competition who read a selection of her fantastic, dazzling poems.

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DSC_5083Hit the Ode, which normally happens at The Victoria, took over our rolicking Festival Bar stage. Hosted, as always, by Bohdan, it was a two hour treat of slam/beatboxing/freestyle rap/guitar/saxophone by Dizzylez, Jemima Foxtrot and Soweto Kinch (not all at once though).



Don’t miss out on Friday’s events: Kim Moore, Mona Arshi and Katrina Naomi at 7 PM and the Dice Slam at 9!

Shazea’s special Verve cocktail

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Guest blog by Shazea Quraishi

For the past few weeks, I have selflessly dedicated myself to inventing a cocktail to celebrate the inaugural Verve festival.  My first attempts were heavy on concept: that it must be blue; made with vodka because it’s winter; it must be fresh like the language of poetry, with a metallic tang to suggest the taste of ink, and with notes of cardamom to reflect Birmingham’s multicultural character.

A friend stopped by with her little boy and I roped her in as a guinea pig. 4 hours and 5 (or was it 7?) versions later we agreed it was an interesting concept and a terrible drink.  After pouring Rachel and Lucas into an Uber, I started again.   My finger turned blue, but I continued undeterred in my determination to perfect this poem in a glass.

Verve 11

Version 11 was the charm!   It’s fresh as the best language, deceptively simple as a haiku and blue as ink.  Also delicious.  Come and see for yourself at the Verve after-party on Sunday 19th.  I’ll be there and so will the Verve 11.


5 reasons to take a chance on the Dice Slam

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You Have No Idea How It Works
Look, it’s a poetry competition, and they are all more or less the same. The poets perform. After they get off stage, we roll some dice, and whatever comes up is their score. Then, we turn to our judges, who do their best to explain why that score is correct, and reflects the true value of the poem. At the end of the night, the audience votes for their favourite judge.  Simple!

Or, to put it another way, we created a mock contest which allows us to provide breathing space and comic relief in between sets from five incredible poets from across the whole country.

You Have Never Been to a Dice Slam
Festivals are a good time to try new things, and you’ve never been to a Dice Slam before, have you?  Unless you were in the Netherlands when Bernhard Christianssen experimented with the format for the first time, that is. There has only been one Dice Slam in the UK before, here in Birmingham, six years ago. It was a resounding success; we’ve only waited so long to bring it back because we wanted to give the city a chance to recover. You want to be there when it happens.

Incidentally, if you are one of the lucky hundred or so people who attended the first one, you can skip this blog post. We assume you already have your ticket. It’ll be great to see you again.

We Have Not Seen Our Headliners
The five featured poets are all ridiculously talented writers and performers, and will converge on Birmingham from every corner of the country. It will be the first time Sky Hawkins (the North), Toby Campion (the Midlands), Kareem Parkins-Brown (London), Charley Genever (the South East), and Vanessa Kisuule (the South West) share the same stage. You may have seen some of them individually, of course, but the Dice Slam at Verve Festival really is a rare opportunity to check the pulse of poetry on a national scale at a single event. And to stop you feeling homesick, the local touch will be provided by our host, Birmingham’s own poetry powerhouse Amerah Saleh.

You Have Not Met Our Judges
The judges would make for a fantastic poetry line-up in their own right, but they will be there in fate’s corner on the night, scouring their twisted wits for convincing explanations and justifications of random dice rolls. We will hear from Luke Kennard, the widely acclaimed poet and novelist, and Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham; Anna Freeman, a novelist and lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, as well as a multiple slam-winning performance poet; and Paula Varjack, a writer, filmmaker and performance maker and the creator of the infamous Anti-Slam. Each of them is a bona fide star of contemporary literature and performance – and it’s rare to see those so far out of their comfort zones…

You Have No Love for Competitions
Many people have a strong dislike for competition in the arts. That’s a separate discussion, but the Dice Slam provide an answer: we keep the pomp and circumstance, we keep the appearances of scoring, winning and losing, whilst making it blindingly obvious that not of it has any real meaning beyond providing audiences with space to breathe and laugh in between sets of fantastic poems. There is an argument to be made that this makes the Dice Slam one of the most faithful manifestations of the original poetry slam spirit, as devised my Marc Smith in Chicago in the early eighties. Of course, we’re biased, we have an agenda, we would say that – so don’t take our word for it. Come see for yourself. Book your tickets here.


Our headliners and host
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Hit the Ode Banner New

5 Reasons to Hit the Ode

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You Like Bad Puns (and Believe in the Global Reach of Art)
Yes, let’s get this out of the way: Hit the Ode is a groan-worthy play on “hit the road”.  Hopefully it sets the tone for an event which does not take itself too seriously, and helps the poems shine in comparison. But the name also points at the unique nature of UK’s only regular poetry night which features international guests every month as part of its format. We’ve had guest from five continents so far, and we’ve discovered that even for poets – especially for poets? – language is no barrier at all. Come and find out for yourself.

It’s A Really Good Time (And We Have Proof)
Just watch this, will you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtOJOGkyz-c&t=84s

We Have Three Incredible Guest Poets (Who Are Also Musicians)
From the Midlands, Soweto Kinch: the man who embodies the Brummie renaissance, a lyricist, playwright, poet, rapper and saxophone virtuoso in one tight package. http://www.soweto-kinch.com/

From outside the Midlands, Jemima Foxtrot: writer, theatre-maker, performer and musician, Jemima’s makes the distinction between song and poetry irrelevant. https://jemimafoxtrot.co.uk/

From beyond these Isles, Dizzylez: rapper, poet, percussionist, loop-pedal master, this French jack-of-all-trades creates layered narratives in front of your very eyes. http://www.dizzylez.com/

You Can Perform Alongside Them (You Know You Want To)
The open mic at Hit the Ode is one of the best things about the night. A mix between experienced pros and talented first-timers, it is an unpredictable quick-fire poetry roulette – and it is also, for everyone’s protection, time-limited. Best of all, it is really, really open – so for your chance at a slot, email Bohdan Piasecki (bohdan@applesandsnakes.org) and you might just get the chance to share your work with the world.

We’ve Been Around for a While (So We Know What We’re Doing)
Hit the Ode is now well past its sixth birthday, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say we’ve become a bit of a name here in Birmingham. With good reason: over the years, we’ve refined the formula. We know exactly what track to play to interrupt those who would test our time limits; we’re familiar with emotional health and safety procedures, and apply them liberally; our instant poet kits make for coveted raffle prizes. But most importantly, we know when to stop messing about and let the poetry speak for itself. We have good poems. Come hear them.

Myths and Monsters

Emma Wright on the importance of poetry for children

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Back in 2014, when Rachel and I decided to start publishing poetry for children, our general reasoning was that we’d always wanted to publish children’s books and that young readers of poetry were more likely to become older readers of poetry. We also conjectured that if young readers kept enjoying poetry into their teens then they were more likely to be able to transition into reading poetry for adults, instead of baulking at the jump between simple, straightforward poems aimed at 6-year-olds and more complex, knotty poems for adults. We felt politely passionate about it.

Since 2014, we’ve published three collections of children’s poetry (aimed at readers aged 8+) and run dozens of readings and workshops for children, including our Arts Council-supported nationwide Myths and Monsters tour in 2015. We’ve got our first collection of translated children’s poetry coming out in July, and Rachel is about to start teaching a course on writing poems for children at the Poetry School.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 20.47.51And now I want to scream passionately into everyone’s faces: ‘Poetry is REALLY IMPORTANT for children and we NEED TO TRY HARDER to get children reading and writing poetry.’ I’ve learned more about children’s literacy and I’ve seen first-hand the empowering effect that creating a poem can have on a child. I’ve also thought a lot about who literature ‘belongs’ to, and how sad and unfair it is that some rich, wonderful areas of human endeavour might be ruled out for some people because they feel it isn’t ‘for’ them.

If we learn how to read and love poetry while we’re young, and we continue to have access to poetry which feels ‘ours’ all the way from childhood through school, we might just retain into adulthood the feeling that poetry is something we enjoy and can turn to when we feel like it or need it. I can’t say ‘Poetry will ease your way into positions of power and privilege’ or ‘Poetry increases the chances of home ownership by the age of 25’, but I can say that reading and writing poetry enhances our understanding of the possibilities of language and the nuances of human expression and communication, all of which feels very important for success and happiness in life – too important to be reserved for the privileged few.

I’ve programmed some fantastic free readings and poetry-writing workshops at Verve next weekend (18-19th February), in addition to an open mic event for children (reserve places here!) and I hope that the children who attend will come away with the feeling that poetry is, or continues to be, for them.

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Calling all bookworms and budding poets!

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If you know of any know any children aged 6+ who love books, reading and writing, Verve Poetry Festival is the place for them this February half-term. We have a lively programme of children’s writing events at Waterstones Birmingham on 18 – 19 February.

On Saturday, 18 February and Sunday, 19 February, the best local and national children’s poets like Emma Purshouse, Rachel Piercey, Kate Wakeling, Sarah Crossan, Brian Conaghan and Richard O’Brien will dazzle, delight and inspire all those young Shakespeares and Byrons.

Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 20.45.32They can listen to brilliant poetry performances, bring a poem to read at our Little Tyke Open Mic or join one our lively writing workshops and write a poem about space, aliens, myths or monsters, with plenty of prompts and feedback from our poets.

The best part? All children’s events are free! What better way to spend your weekend with your family? Places are limited, so book your tickets here.

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All events will take place on the dedicated children’s floor (Floor 3) of recently refurbished Waterstones Birmingham, a bright and cosy space perfect for curling up for a reading or scribbling away. The new Children’s floor opened in November 2015 and is chock full of children’s books for every age and taste. It has its own café and plenty of seating so you can drink and read to your heart’s content! Have you visited yet?

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These children events have been lovingly curated by The Emma Press, a poetry publisher that delights in making poetry fun and accessible to children of all ages. Verve Poetry Festival is Birmingham’s first poetry and spoken word festival that features a range of poetry, spoken word, unique performances, lively workshops, open mic opportunities and more.

There’s a new look to Sunday at Verve

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We have made some changes to our programme for Sunday 19th Feb at Verve.

Most notably, Melissa Lee-Houghton has had to pull out of the festival for personal reasons. This has left a hole in the programme, as Melissa was due to run a workshop in the afternoon as well as reading at the evening headline event alongside Penned In The Margins stable-mate and Birmingham based Luke Kennard, and excellent Bloodaxe poet Shazea Quraishi.

It is a hole we have been working hard these last few days to plug, and plug it we have. Shazea Quraishi was thrilled to be asked to run a workshop in Melissa’s place from 1-3 PM. While Melissa was going to be getting her workshoppers to focus on the idea of writing to, Shazea will instead focus on writing as.  Here’s the blurb…

Writing what you don’t know
In this workshop we will explore the endless possibilities that open up when the I in the poem is not you. Taking inspiration from persona poems by Carol Ann Duffy, T.S. Eliot and others, you will be encouraged to slip into someone else’s skin and imagine their truth. New poems will be generated through writing exercises.

We think this sounds like an phenomenal workshop and are so pleased that Shazea has come to our rescue.  There are still a couple of places left, so grab one while you still can.

For the evening headline event, we decided to ask to excellent Ruby Robinson to read for us in Melissa’s place, and we have to say we were thrilled to bits when she agreed. Ruby has had an glorious year on the back of having her first collection, Every Little Sound, published by Pavillion Poetry – being short-listed for the Felix Dennis Prize for best first collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Collette Bryce wrote, ‘Every Little Sound is an extraordinary first collection from a very gifted young poet.’ We are so excited to hear Ruby read and feel she has added something to our evening headline event that it didn’t possess before. It will be a wonderful reading.

Ruby Robinson

Here’s a little more about the newest poet joining our Sunday headline event: Ruby Robinson was born in Manchester in 1985 and grew up in Sheffield and Doncaster. She studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia and has an MA from Sheffield Hallam University, where she won the Ictus Prize for poetry. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Review, Poetry (Chicago) and elsewhere. Her debut collection ‘Every Little Sound’ was published this year by Pavilion Poetry, an imprint of Liverpool University Press (edited by Deryn Rees-Jones) and was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection and the T.S. Eliot Prize.

These changes, we feel, have had a minimal impact on the calibre of our Sunday programme. We still have excellent showcases from both Burning Eye Books and Nine Arches Press; Podium Poets slots from slam genius Jasmine Gardosi and poets’ favourite, Geraldine Clarkson; workshop opportunities with Clive Birnie and Jane Commane and a drum and beats poetic happening with Antosh Wojcik. Not to mention our Brum Stanza breakfast and a morning performance from some local up and coming poets courtesy of our friends at Beatfreeks. There are great value Sunday passes still left, but they are going fast – why not grab one and come and see it all!?  

One last change on the Sunday to mention is our decision to replace the 9-11pm Anti-Slam event with a Verve Poetry Festival after party. We have done this for a number of reasons, the main one being that for many such a late final event on the Sunday was proving difficult to attend. We learned this lesson and have taken action accordingly. All who are still with us after the Kennard, Quraishi and Robinson reading are welcome to join us in the store cafe bar for an hour or two to toast what we hope will have been a successful festival, listen to some music and have a good old poets’ chin-wag. We hope you are keen to join us.

Verve is less than two weeks away. We can hardly wait!


Jenna Clake on Verve

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I’ve lived in Birmingham for about four years, during which the ‘poetry scene’ in the city has grown exponentially. When I moved to Birmingham as a student, there were a few spoken word events around the city, and they mostly drew regular crowds. I grew up in a small town in Staffordshire, so poetry events were a completely new experience for me, as were open mic nights.

At university, I was learning how to write poetry, and learning that poetry wasn’t just this outdated form of expression written in the eighteenth century. At spoken word events, I was learning that rhyme could be used elsewhere, not just in rhyming couplets, and that there were people who were passionately trying to make modern poetry exciting for everyone (not those just studying it). And so things continued to tick over in a way, with spoken word being Birmingham’s primary focus, it seemed.

And then came along the new Waterstones. Poetry fans across the city (and nearby counties) had been waiting for their bi-/monthly events, but Waterstones has made poetry readings and open mics available at least every fortnight. That means poetry lovers can actually, at last, have a calendar full of poetry events. I’d been commenting that having the new Waterstones and its events was like living in a constant literary festival, and then Verve was announced.

Birmingham’s own poetry festival has been a long time coming. The city has its own literature festival and film festival, so why not a festival for the medium we’ve been championing for years? But what can Verve offer? Rather than a nod to spoken word with poetry slams or the odd spoken word performer, Verve is equalling the playing field between ‘traditional’ or ‘page’ poetry and spoken word. I’ve long held the opinion that a good poem is a good poem, so it should be written and performed well, whether you wrote it to be performed or on a page. Being a poet means that you have to do both. I’m hoping that Verve will help to blur the binary between spoken word and poetry.

Combining the two is undoubtedly part of Verve’s aim to bring poetry to the masses in an exciting way. I was at a poetry event the other week and another attendee said that she had been in Waterstones earlier in the day, had seen a sign advertising the event, and despite the difficult logistics of getting home and back again, had told herself she couldn’t miss it. I find it difficult to contain my enthusiasm when I think of several people doing that during Verve, the people who might wander into Waterstones and take their children to one of the children’s poetry events, or discover poetry for the first time, or continue to support Birmingham’s poetry scene.

I’m very fond of Birmingham and the opportunities it’s given me. I hope that Verve attracts a large audience like other poetry festivals do. I also hope that the audience that attends Verve is different. It’s inarguable that Birmingham has a diverse population, and a part of that population already loves poetry. The point of another poetry festival isn’t to just have another poetry festival: it’s to attract new audiences, make more people love, buy, write and see poetry, and make people feel that poetry is for them.