National Poetry Day 2011

It’s a little surprising to learn that National Poetry Day has only been with us since 1994. Given that verse can be traced back centuries you’d have thought someone would have come up with a reason to celebrate it well before then. But perhaps even more surprising is that the novel has only been officially celebrated since 1999 and typical of the bias towards fiction, this gets a full thirty one days of celebration each July in the form of National Novel Writing Month (which has the worst acronym of all time – NaNoWriMo). This internet-based creative writing project challenges scribes to pen 50,000 words, so I guess you could legitimately argue that the extra allotted time is more of a necessity than a bias.

On the other hand, the position of Poet Laureate has been afforded far more prestige and can be traced back to King James 1st when he created the position (as we know it today) for Ben Jonson in 1617. However, as is often the case with British history, there’s some ambiguity about specifics with evidence suggesting that Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 – 1400) was actually the first to receive the accolade when he was given ten shillings and an annual allowance of wine in 1389 to entertain King Henry 1st. Yet there is no such thing as a Novelist Laureate so this could be seen as another rare victory for poetry over fiction.

It’s also been a good year for poetry with regards to awards, with Mark Goodwin taking the inaugural East Midlands Book Award. It’s not often you see a poet usurp a novelist when it comes to prizes although having Ian McMillan on the judging panel would have helped.

So if you’d like to celebrate National Poetry Day this year, the theme set by Jo Bell – the NPD Director – is ‘Games.’ No big surprise here given that London (not Britain) is soon to benefit a massive cash injection from the Olympics. But forget sport and interpret this more widely, think of all the games politicians have been playing with our lives, that bankers have been playing with our money. Think of the games you have to play on the phone when you try to ring up someone at the bank and get held up in queues or sent from department to department. These are the kind of games I’d like to hear about so if you’re interested, then get down to Speakers’ Corner in Nottingham City Centre between 3-5pm. LeftLion have hooked up with The Nottingham Writers’ Studio to drag along as many poets as possible to have a poetical rant. Remember, we’re the only city outside of the Big Smoke to have this unique place dedicated to free speech so please join us.

Two other events going on locally include, ‘Breaking the Silence Open Mic’ at Central Library (11am 3pm). This is hosted by Mouthy Poets so expect something out of the ordinary. Rumour has it that they’ll be combining their poems with a DJ and if past performances are anything to go by, they’ll be expecting full audience participation. Alternatively, Mathew Welton has requested people bring six copies of their favourite poems to Trent Building, Room A46, University of Nottingham (68pm) to continue the celebration into the evening.

If you’ve read this blog early in the morning, then tune into BBC Radio Nottingham at 8.50am and you’ll hear Aly Stoneman roaring for LeftLion and explaining more about the Speakers’ Corner event.

Let down the tyres…

Aly Stoneman’s contract as coordinator of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio sadly came to an end at the beginning of August after 18 months in the role. In that time she has been responsible for many achievements that I won’t list here but instead focus on one aspect in particular; building connections. This was largely achieved through the events put on at the studio whereby a guest speaker or member would give an hour or so talk on their particular line of work.

When she asked me to come along to one of these I was a bit sceptical as I couldn’t imagine anything duller than a bunch of scribes in one room with no access to a laptop. How wrong I was. I learnt more about writing in Nottingham in those eighteen months than I’d known all my life and also discovered that writers don’t wear cravats and that they can be easily bought with cheap wine and peanuts. Always good to know if you need a quick quote.

After each talk, members would ask questions and then share information about similar projects they were working on or recommend people who may be able to help. All of this networking was done in a really relaxed manner. There was no one-upmanship and card sharing through illicit handshakes, instead a genuinely supportive network with a wealth of experience between them. The talks were varied and covered everything from magazine writing to blogging but my two particular highlights were an agent and arguably the most appropriate publisher for our region, Tindal Street Press. You wouldn’t get such intimate access to these people usually and so this was more than worth the yearly membership cost of £50.

Having attended lots of writing events with Aly I’ve seen firsthand the hard work and effort that goes in to sweet talking busy people to come up and speak for BFH. It’s a job that well exceeded the 20hours per week she was contracted for and something I suspect members were not aware of. I’ve found myself like the proverbial nagging wife on such occasions, pulling faces and trying to drag her away because we’re the last ones in the building and I want to go home and put my feet up. I’m certain that the subgroups that have emerged from these social events ( journalism and fiction) are a result of these socials as it broke down boundaries and gave members a commonality.

Aly’s post came to an end because the studio needed to create a new position with a greater funding emphasis. This was pragmatic, particularly given the harsh backlash the arts is feeling as a result of government cuts. However, will a role with such emphasis on funding mean that the development of writers will become secondary or will it lead to a hierarchy whereby established writers find more work and those starting out are left with nothing? If this happens it will no longer be about writer development but writer establishment. I guess this will be answered in time and is a dilemma that similar arts organisations will be facing.

The big question for Aly, other than worrying about bills and rent, is what to do next. In an incredibly competitive industry will she be able to find a similarly challenging role or will this city become too small for her? I hope we don’t lose her. I hope I don’t lose her. The queues heading south on the M1 are congested enough as it is with Anthony Cartwright the most recent departure. As is the infliction of my ilk, all I can do is rationalise this with words. Maybe I should just let down her tyres…

To say hello to Aly pop down for her latest spoken-word event Shindig! v LeftLion, Jam Cafe, 19th Sept