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At university, I was learning how to write poetry, and learning that poetry wasn’t just this outdated form of expression written in the eighteenth century.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.