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February 2018

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Poetry Parlour with Imtiaz Dharker: Live Blog – Nina Lewis

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Nina reflects on the opening event of Verve 2018.

Launching with the Poetry Parlour, Verve got off to a stunning start. Introduced by Cynthia Miller the Parlour had a warm and inviting atmosphere, she invited us to ‘chill, lie back and listen’. A packed room enjoyed the first step into the weekend.

It started with an open mic section which saw established and up and coming poets as well as undiscovered local talent. This is exactly what Verve set out to do and it is always great to see newcomers at the festival.

Jane Commane and Imtiaz Dharker took to the stage, watching two Bloodaxe Poets in conversation was a real treat. Jane shared her love of Imtiaz’s poetry – after reading a poem in the paper over a decade ago, her mum bought her ‘A Terrorist at My Table’ and she has been a fan ever since. Following an insightful introduction, Jane encouraged us to make space on our Top 10 Poets lists and to make space on our bookshelves too.

IMTIAZImtiaz Dharker’s reading was magical. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the selection of poems. Her use of rhythm and language, her touches of gentle humour, the tales of where the poems had come from and how the writing evolved. Imtiaz shared parts of her childhood, growing up in Scotland, how using form (Sonnet) enabled her to finish a poem which had proved tricky. Those poems that are hard to write are something poets know all about. I watched a few people scribbling her ‘gold dust’ down. It was a generous sharing of knowledge and experience.

Following the reading there was a Q&A with Jane. These are always exceptional, Jane (and I don’t know how she does it… a mix of experience, wisdom and some magic of her own) composes the most brilliant questions and skillfully leads the conversation. There was talk of the thread running through Imtiaz’s work and what impact that had on compiling the collection. Imtiaz talked about the echo and how you naturally find connections between poems.

“The themes/threads come to your fingers, your mind and tongue.” – Imtiaz Dharker.

The Poetry Parlour closed with a final poem. Referred to by Jane Commane as a ‘poetry nightcap’. Imtiaz certainly writes end-lines to take your breath away. It is no surprise that she is the winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal and that Carol Ann Duffy suggests she would be the World Laureate, if such a title existed.

The end of it was like coming out of a meditation which you did not want to leave. I think we all agreed we could have listened to her poetry all night. Cynthia Miller got it spot on with ‘absolutely enchanting.’

Afterwards finding Imtiaz’s collections was easy, Verve are streets ahead with bookseller organisation, of course they are, they are based in Waterstones! The Festival books are all shelved together, right beside the till point and after you have your treasure in hand the book signing table is right next to the counter. Reading poetry after you have heard it from the poet is incredibly satisfying and Imtiaz’s voice will linger in my head for some time.

The Poetry Parlour was a pleasant, soft entry into what is sure to be another storming festival for the Verve Team.

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Hit the Ode Tech Special: Live Blog – Nina Lewis

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Nina Lewis, Verve’s in-house blogger over the festival, reflects on what the hell happened at Hit the Ode Tech Special last night (I was completely lost too, then I read this blog).

HTO is a much acclaimed night brought to us by Aliyah Hasinah, Apples & Snakes. From the soft sheen of the Poetry Parlour to the rampaging arena of Hit the Ode, where tech and poetry met sensationally in raucous union. Anyone who has been before (about half the audience), knows they’re LIVELY events, foot stamping and high emotion encouraged.

The atmosphere was set to ‘buzz’ straight away as host, Bohdan Piasecki led us through a roller-coaster of audience initiated emotions in the traditional ‘Emotional Warm Up’. Frenzied audience ready, standard comedic rants delivered (Uber Taxis and Football), the open mic section began. A mixture of veteran performers, new faces and one young poet who had NEVER performed before!

HTO has three headliners: Local, National and International. They have never had a poet from Japan. What was about to take place in Waterstones was something not many people had ever seen the like of and the only sound to come close to matching it was the collective noise of a room full of Festival goers having their minds blown simultaneously. I am of course talking about the powerhouse that is Tomomi Adachi.

I saw a bit of the tech rehearsal, had I not been privy to this experience, I am not sure what I would have made of Tomomi’s work. Incredible does not cover it, prodigious does. The audience were certainly mesmerised.

Tomomi’s initial poem, performed in Japanese, demonstrated amazing voice work as he sped through fast-forward rate, barely taking breath, inhalations disappearing as he performed at an Olympic speed. Something to behold. His second poem inspired from a theatre piece saw a fascinating treatment of cadence and inclination, testimony to the size of this man’s diaphragm! He made use of the pace, occasional comic timing – ‘I think we have met somewhere before’ and dramatic pauses. If you weren’t there it is hard to describe, imagine you are in a room with 100 TVs all set to a different advert playing at the same time and you will have an inkling of the layering involved in Tomomi’s exceptional sound masterpiece.

HIT THE ODEThen came the wearable tech! Every movement moderated his voice, we watched in amazement. The audience both shocked and transfixed by his work. At the interval, Bohdan invited us ‘to go and find a corner and think about what just happened!’ The audience was certainly divided into overwhelmed and dazed.

‘That was so new what we just heard.’ Festival goer.

Barely recovered, we were onto the second part of the evening, a collaborative work ‘Pluto’ with Hannah Silva and Tomomi Adachi. I was excited to see Hannah back at Verve. She was my first experience of Voice poetry (2015). She was incredibly nervous to perform with the best sound poet in the world. Tomomi has been using wearable tech for a decade compared to just over a week for Hannah. He agreed to the collaboration, proof he believed in her ability to work alongside him and he was not wrong.

What followed was a spectacle, a World Première of the 2nd red shirt and their work ‘Pluto’. A world of precise movement, tech, dance and poetry collide. A mime of insects crawling up an arm, little voices coming from nowhere, playing with pace, loops, singing and phonetics. The duets reminded me of a more fluid version of Robotic dancing (a big deal in the 80s). The way these two artists manipulated sound. Wow. An intense exploration with moments of pure play and if all this wasn’t enough, with wired shirts they even managed to swap places on stage!

Pluto: A masterful performance feat, superb!

More open mics started the third section, including the Birmingham University Slam Team Champions demonstrating why they won the recent competition with a piece inspired by Hannah Silva’s Verve workshop last year.

And then… Yomi Sode, who blew me away with his performance. A feast of words that I wanted serving all night. His performance took elements from his show Coat and involved a more familiar use of tech, the sound-scape with spoken word layered on top. He treated us to three poems and seemed to feel ‘unworthy’ of the tech element after what we had all just witnessed. In reality his set was the perfect ending to the evening. It left us wanting more.

I loved ‘What the Living Do’ and ‘The Void’. He talked about his show, the connection to his family and cooking. Yomi invited us to close our eyes and take it all in, feel the sway of poetry. His dramatic monologue had all the right ingredients.

His hip-hop vibe to conclude the evening was a high note to go out on. Usually I cringe at audience participation, but there was nothing wrong with Yomi’s call to respond. I thoroughly enjoyed his final poem ‘Okay, okay, okay…check the situation.’ echoing in my ears all the way back home.

Dead or Alive Final 2

Dead or Alive Slam!

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A preposterous, reason defying spoken word competition, pitting living poets against their dead predecessors, re-animated for this one night just for your entertainment. Watch Team Life, comprised of Genevieve Carver, Isiah Hull and Caroline Teague, take on Team Death, featuring Christina Rossetti, Forough Farrokhzad, and Djuna Barnes (brought to life by Tembi Xena, Lorna Nickson Brown, and Zeddie Lawal). Judges from the audience will determine who wins, assigning numerical values to poems in an entirely meaningless attempt to instill reason into an event challenging the order of things.

In other words, this is your chance to hear poetry from six incredible poets, interpreted by brilliant performers, all in an exciting and accessible format, as part of the altogether brilliant Verve poetry festival. Do yourself a favour and do not miss this.

The night will be hosted by the all-powerful Amerah Saleh.

Friday – 8:30pm

Tickets £6 / £4, available online and on the door.

JS at Verve

A few Words with Jacqueline Saphra

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We caught up with T.S. Eliot prize-shortlisted poet Jacqueline Saphra to ask her a few questions about poetry, music and Verve. She is performing on Sunday with Tania Hershman as part of Mad & [or?] Glow. She also came second in this year’s Verve poetry competition, so will be reading at the City Poems event on Saturday. On top of this, she will feature in the Verve City Poems anthology, which will include a selection of the poets who submitted to the competition and read at the event. I think it’s fair to say that we love Jacqueline and her work, and are furiously happy to have her involved with so many parts of this year’s festival. 

VERVE: Can you remember writing your first poem? If so what was it about?

JS: Yes, I vividly remember it. I was five or six years old. It was called ‘The Daisy’ and I still have it by heart. It was incredibly (now I look back on it) in blank verse and I remember how much I loved writing it, which should have been a sign! But after that I went on a journey through songwriting, prose, playwriting, screenwriting and even standup comedy before I rediscovered my love of poetry and realized that was where I had belonged all along.


If I Lay on my Back I saw Nothing but Naked Women has featured some musical accompaniment in the past. What relationship do you see between poetry and music and when did you first start reading your poems to a musical backdrop?

Poetry and music are blood sisters I think. But poetry is its own music so great care must be taken when it’s combined with music. My collaborator, the composer Benjamin Tassie, who loves poetry, is very sensitive to that and works very intuitively and smartly with the written word. He created musical ‘miniatures’ for live cello and piano to go with the prose poems in If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women and succeeded in enhancing them. It’s probably easier to do that with prose poems because although they have their own internal music it’s often less pronounced than the music of poem poems.

Still, Benjamin and I also created a show from All My Mad Mothers my new collection from Nine Arches.  Benjamin electronically looped the cello tracks from the ‘Naked Women’ and combined them with live piano. It helps that we know each other very well now, and that Benjamin can really get inside the poems and give them an extra dimension rather than distracting or competing. It’s a tribute to his musical intelligence! We employed Tamar Saphra, my daughter, (who is handily a theatre director), to help us and we performed the show at The Ledbury Festival last year. These are exciting times for poetry; collaboration and genre-crossing is happening more and more: poetry combined with dance, music, visual art, and film for example. This helps poetry to expand its audiences beyond literature lovers and enriches the art form – that’s definitely part of my personal poetic mission.


Where were you when you found out about your T.S Eliot shortlist?

I was sitting at the kitchen table doing something really boring to do with accounts and I received a message from Jane Commane, my editor at Nine Arches Press, asking if I’d had ‘an important email’. The prize was not even on my radar, so I had no idea what she was talking about. There followed a fairly protracted text message correspondence because she was in a reading at the time! Eventually, after she’d advised me to sit down and pour myself a glass of something, she told me the book had been shortlisted. I actually couldn’t breathe, it was so surprising and amazing.  What an adventure being part of that shortlist of exceptional poets! I’ve enjoyed myself hugely being interviewed on Radio London and Sky TV and I had the time of my life up on that huge stage at the Festival Hall in front of the biggest audience I could hope for. It’s been an honour and a privilege.


How has ‘Mad & Glow’ progressed since its debut in Swindon last year? Have you got anything special lined up for Verve 2018?

We have indeed. Tania Hershman (great Nine Arches poet and short story star) and I realized when we read at the Nine Arches Christmas party in 2016 that we have similar preoccupations although our styles are quite different. We both come from a theatre background and really love collaborating. We created a show juxtaposing and sharing our work (you may not be able to tell whose work you are hearing) with the help of Tamar Saphra again. So useful having a director in the family! It’s great to be onstage with another person; the chemistry is so different and the result is dynamic. We relished the show’s first outing at the Swindon Poetry Festival and since then we’ve worked on expanding and deepening the material, which goes darker now, but retains its sense of humour. There are sandwiches, a bit of audience interaction (nothing scary) and a few theatrical surprises. We’re thrilled to be performing at Verve; can’t wait actually!


What makes a good poetry reading?

I always think about the arc and flow of my reading and loosely plan my introductions. I rehearse. I mostly memorise my poems as that helps me feel confident and also provides new insights for me about my own work almost every time, which keeps it fresh. I think good preparation shows a respect for the audience, who are giving up their time and money to come and see me and I believe an audience knows the difference.

I went on a residential course called ‘Freeing the Poet’s Voice’ a few years ago, with the renowned voice coach, Kristen Linklater. It was revelatory. She was the one who taught me the benefits of memorising my poems. But more importantly, I finally understood the importance of the poet inhabiting her poems as she reads them. It’s an act of courage and faith to do that. I can tell if a poet is truly engaging with their own words at a reading, and if they are, they will always hold my attention. There’s nothing more thrilling than hearing a poet read their poems and really commit to what they are reading.


Who are you most looking forward to seeing at Verve 2018?

I can’t wait to hear my amazing editor and publisher Jane Commane reading from her debut collection from Bloodaxe, ‘Assembly Lines’. But there’s so much to love at Verve. Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf reading with her translator, the poet Clare Pollard from ‘The Sea Migrations’ will be so exciting. And what about the dream team of Pascale Petit, Hannah Lowe and Sandeep Parmar, three brilliant women? There’s an embarrassment of riches happening at the festival. It’s going to be wonderful.


Jaqueline will be performing with fellow Nine Arches poet Tania Hershman as ‘Mad and Glow’ on Sunday at 11:00pm. She will also read at the City Poems event, on Saturday. You can purchase tickets here.