INTERVIEW: Poetry Pioneers – 35 Years | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Jean Binta Breeze, whose work is exhibited as part of Poetry Pioneers

Across the entire UK, Apples and Snakes organise, promote and champion spoken word and performance poetry – the only organisation to do so nationwide. This year they turn 35, and to mark the occasion, they have delved through their archives to retrieve stories, videos and audio files to create an exhibition detailing their history, back to 1982.

I met Apples and Snakes Co-Ordinator for the North, Kirsten Luckins, at ARC Stockton, where the exhibition begins its UK tour, to talk about the history of spoken word’s involvement in community building, activism and protest, and its current social role:

“When we look back, we have protested, we have been activists,” asserts Kirsten. “A lot of the big names that we continued to work with through the years like Linton Kwesi Johnson, like Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (pictured on the front cover of the exhibition) – you know, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze is an MBE now but when we first worked with her she used to get up at demos and protest!”

This history of politicisation runs throughout. From small details such as a photo of an early flyer from 1982 listing a ‘UB40’ ticket price, to a video from a 1984 event Miner Poets, in which a poet called Joolz, complete with big 80s hair, delivers a telling warning – “if they beat us, they’ll break the backs of everyone like us – nurses, teachers, dockworkers, everyone!” – this exhibition offers a look back through recent political history. There’s even a telling interview with founder Mandy Williams in which she describes having gone on the dole to give more attention to Apples and Snakes as it grew, “back when you could do that”.

So does spoken word and poetry still have an anti-establishment role today?

“Yes,” says Kirsten, “otherwise you wouldn’t get Kate Tempest proselytising at Glastonbury. Me and Sarah were talking about how Tony Walsh’s poem about Manchester has had an enormous impact, and also all the poetry that came out around Grenfell and how it seems like things are bad enough again for the poets to be needed again. Spoken Word artists still, by and large, have a political motivation to their conscience.”

Spoken Word artists still, by and large, have a political motivation to their conscience

But this political role extends beyond direct involvement in protest. Poetry, it seems, also has a history of building communities and communicating directly. Sarah Crutwell, poet-in-residence for the exhibition while it’s at ARC, has been commissioned to lead writing workshops with local communities, some with a previous interest in poetry and some without, asking them what their own words of protest would be: “I’m working with one group called the Moses Project, who are men over the age of 25 who have issues with drug and alcohol abuse,” she explains. “I went to a meeting with them and one of the guys there was saying that it was interesting having a woman coming in and running the sessions, because they felt they could open up a lot more than with other men. I’m also working with Into Theatre which is a theatre group for adults with learning difficulties and we’re doing some improvisation work on the theme of protest and some writing.

“Then the TWP – Tees Women Poets – who were wonderful to work with because you just have to say, ‘right, what are we unhappy with?’ and they’re all ideas flowing. And then Staying Out which is a group for elderly members of the community who can’t get out much to have a place to come and craft. We’ve been collecting stories of their protests on the board you can see at the end of the exhibition – the things they’ve been involved in and what protest means to them.

“It’s been great getting to meet people and see what they come out with,” she says. “It’s not often that they get asked what they would protest. They even often reacted negatively to the word ‘protest’ at first, but I’ve tried to stress that all I’m asking is ‘what are you unhappy about?’ Or is there something you want to call out, is there something you have an opinion about?”

This close inspection of particular words and terms is a strength of poetry – perhaps its main strength. I suggest that, for me, one thing poetry can do well is to un-shortcut languages, to go the long way round, through the back alleys, to find meaning, rather than just saying, ‘this is what this is, and we all know that’.

Is that the main job of poetry? “If you think of everything that’s happening with the move for more rights for transgender people, language is a huge part of that,” says Kirsten. “We definitely have a part to play in articulating really significant shifts in what it is to be human and be alive. We definitely don’t have the right language for those truths. A lot of friction and violence is coming about, I think partly through semantics. We don’t have the right words! So we need the people who care about words and can use them.

We definitely have a part to play in articulating really significant shifts in what it is to be human and be alive

“It makes me think of Jo Bell’s collection Kith,” she says. “In the very first poem – I can’t remember the exact words – but it says imagine a crate, and she describes different kinds of crates that you might be thinking of, like a milk crate, a packing crate, what have you, they’re all very different but you can see them all very clearly and then at the end she says, ‘right; now let’s talk about love.’

“And that’s the poet’s job. What do you mean by love, what do you mean by politics, what do you mean by rights, what do you mean by sex, what do you mean? That’s what we’re doing – striving towards articulation of meaning, in a way that other art forms can’t or don’t or maybe do differently.”

Whether performance poetry is better at this, would of course be a bigger debate. But one thing it does have going for it and delivering a message perhaps, is its directness. “We always come back to the fact that the primary goal is we want people to stand up and speak words and we want other people to hear them,” says Kirsten. “Because there is something in the transaction that happens face to face, person to person, out into the air. It is different. And it is a different art form from page poetry. And it’s one that we think is capable of important commentary and change.”

This feels like a constant in spoken word but given the historical nature of the exhibition, I wonder how it’s changed over the last 35 years. “One of the things we noticed going through the archive,” says Kirsten, “was that for the first four years of Apples and Snakes operating, no one thought to take a camera to a gig and take a photo. There were no mobile phones. It didn’t even occur to anybody to take photos, because you just go there to do the thing. Now everything’s digitised. It’s available much more widely, and outside of the live events. Just within the last year, just being able to live stream events really easily over your phone has completely changed the production of who you can think about as an audience and how you might interact with them and when. So you have live interaction with an audience in the room, but then there’s somebody interacting via chats, so it’s quite complex! Those layers of relationships between who’s performing and who’s then listening, listening later, you know, there’s a lot to navigate that I think wasn’t there in the 80s, when it literally was that you wrote on a piece of paper, ‘come to this at 7 o’clock’ and you photocopied it and put it around and then people showed up or they didn’t and you did some poetry and then nobody took any photos, and then you all went home again!”

Despite these changes though, Kirsten asserts that “there’s still a real desire to collectivise and co-operate and be a force for change. I think we’ve come full circle with that.”

And it is this desire which this exhibition, gathered from 35 years of archive material, really brings home. It is a fascinating look back in time, through a specific lense, at art, community, protest and, of course, language.

The exhibition continues until Monday 12th February at ARC, Stockton.

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