Like many aspects of Liverpool’s cultural offer, lockdown delivered a blow to the poetry community within the city. With the cancellation of events, poets and performers have had to instead make a space for themselves online. Locating their rhyme and meter in the digital sphere, Mary Olive speaks to those within the community to see how the challenges of the last four months affected their art.
Poetry is a raw and spellbinding art form. Poets, wielding pens as swords, have been tearing down social injustice for years, not only reflecting but preserving the time where their work is written. But when faced with a global pandemic, the erasure of tangible togetherness, does poetry lose any of its power?
Writing on the Wall’s annual WoWFest is one of the largest literary festivals in the north. Usually taking place in venues across Liverpool, this year, due to lockdown, WoWFest had to take their entire event online just over a month before taking place.
Running throughout May, WoWFest: Lockdown welcomed writers such as Irvine Welsh, Amrou Al-Kadhi, Levi Tarfari and many more onto the virtual world of Zoom. The organisation’s project manager Ciarán Hodgers explains how the initial drive for the online festival was to give people something positive to hold on to. “We as an organisation felt we needed to serve our community” he explains. “I think creative writing is the most accessible art form. You don’t need any equipment, or rules, it’s just pure language including non-verbal languages.”
Moving the festival online was no easy feat, the team having only six weeks to organise everything. “But it was easier in some ways,” Hodgers reflects, “you don’t have to deal with the logistics of travel or expenses, people only need to take out an hour and a half of their day to get involved from home.”
The festival served as healing, empowering and supportive space for both local and international writers. “As organisers we need to make sure we are actively supporting our community,” Hodgers says. “Access is not just opening up the door and saying welcome. We work hard to make sure everyone has the same access to the same opportunities.” Writing on the Wall was born from the 1980s docker’s strikes in Liverpool and continues to serve as a platform for social justice. “We come across as a politics festival sometimes,” Ciarán explains, “because we are so connected to social justice and activism. Writers are not serving us by writing their work, it is us who are serving them.”
As public spaces begin to reopen, it is possible we will see online events fade away. Accessibility is a huge concern within the poetry world in Liverpool with many spoken word events taking place in listed buildings without wheelchair access. Spoken word artist and poet Lyndsay Price shares these feelings. “When I used to run Rhymes & Records [spoken word event], it was in a listed building which didn’t have a lift and that meant people using a wheelchair or with mobility issues could not come to the event.” In terms of accessibility, online events do seem to help eliminate this issue. “I’d love to see online events continue once lockdown lifts,” Price adds, but also mentions the benefits of Zoom to the timid first timer. With the pressure of mic technique and an expectant audience minimised, poetry events suddenly become much more easygoing. “There’s more focus on the quieter performers on Zoom,” she notes, “it’s easier to hear the softer voices.”
On the other hand, the lack of stage presence can eliminate the experience of adrenaline, connection and fun for some performers. I spoke with Dan Cullinan, founder of Give Poetry a Chance! who has decided to stay away from the virtual world. Give Poetry A Chance! is a spoken word event running for just over one year. The event has already been seen to fill out venue spaces and release its own anthology. Give Poetry A Chance: The Anthology is out now with all proceeds going to Scouse Kitchen to support the homeless in Liverpool. It is an event built on love, mutual respect and community.
“Although it is much more accessible, there isn’t the same sense of therapy on Zoom” Cullinan says. Deciding instead to spend his time preparing for future events, Cullinan explains how “creative people and especially writers are expected to be flourishing with so much time to focus on it. But I think that creates a pressure, people can forget about your mental health. People just need a breather sometimes.” There is a risk of virtual event overload and a pressure for artists to deliver performances.
Poet Louise Evans is a local writer who has been affected by this shift in circumstance. “I miss the events [in person],” she says, “I realised signing up to so many events at the beginning of lockdown wasn’t actually helping me, and once I took a step back, I actually began enjoying writing a lot more.”
Struggling to constantly produce performance poetry throughout lockdown, Evans’s relationship with writing began to shift. “Poetry is what I use to look at my life head-on,” she explains, “I found it’s been good for me to instead just write for writing’s sake, to write for the enjoyment of it rather than for someone or something.”
Published poet friend of Give Poetry A Chance! Laura Ferries experienced a similar feeling. “Lockdown has given me the luxury of time,” she says, “I actually have the time to think now.” This is not to say lockdown has been without times of hardship, experiencing personal loss and low moments, but Ferries continues to touch on the experience in a creative sense. “All the creativity just stopped,” she recalls, “but I’ve received so many kind messages through social media.” This highlights another benefit of taking poetry online. “It’s empowering to connect with others in this way,” Ferries shares, “I get so much inspiration from looking at what other writers are doing online and applying it to my own work.”
While online poetry is undoubtedly different to intimate, in-person gigs, many writers have found their poetic voice strengthen within lockdown. Rapper, poet and spoken word artist, Blu Boy is one of these people. From an artistic stand-point, Blu Boy has grown during the past few months. “I’ve taken part in a few Zoom gigs and poetry nights where I’ve performed new material and been able to get some constructive feedback,” he explains. Personally however, this has been an exceptionally trying time for the performer. After an incident where Blu was stopped and searched, unprovoked, by local police he began an extremely emotional journey, “A few days later, I watched eight minutes and 46 seconds that will never leave me,” he shares solemnly.
It’s important here to acknowledge the other global issues impacting not only the poets of Liverpool, but people of this earth. Blu talks of the impact of the most recent events within the Black Lives Matter movement. “I was angry,” he says, “so angry all I could do was write, either raps or poetry. A majority of my writings during the first week or two were about police brutality and that was my way of protesting because I couldn’t physically go out and protest at first.”
Using social media and poetry to amplify black voices, his own included, Blu Boy felt the power of the people. “It feels like people are truly listening now,” he says hopefully, “I can see more ally-ship, awareness and self-education on anti-racism happening.”
Local rapper and spoken word artist Blue Saint has also found taking poetry to social media incredibly empowering at this time. “This time [the movement] feels different and I think lockdown has helped with that,” he explains. “In our normal, everyday lives people are busy and easily distracted but because you can’t escape it right now.”
Blue recently released a poem about police brutality, a piece he began writing in 2015 and finished in 2018, incorporating the phrase “I can’t breathe” and recordings of Rodney King. “Because I posted the piece,” Blue tells me, “people ended up doing more research and learning more about black empowerment.” This is one of the biggest benefits to social media, with artists such as Blue able to connect to a limitless audience and begin implementing social change. “Poetry is a powerful tool,” he explains, “I realised, after attending the BLM protest in Liverpool that I needed to use my voice more, and poetry helps me to do that.”
Blue uses the term “artivism” meaning to use art for activism. “It is not just a trending hashtag,” he says, “this history runs deep and has been happening for many years.” Blue’s poetry is both empowering and beautiful, highlighting the undeniably important role poetry plays in the fight for social justice.
Activist, poet and performance artist Amina Atiq speaks out for the Yemen crisis and women’s rights, combating islamophobia, racism and sexism within her work. “I use my lived experiences to make an impact on society,” she shares, “I use my passion to make changes.” Not only an artist, but an educator and activist, Amina is an exceptional light of hope within Liverpool’s writing community. “Poetry is the most empowering thing because people are completely listening to you,” she explains.
Throughout lockdown, Atiq has had to adapt her writing process and find new ways to sustain her freelance career as a writer and poet. “Sometimes, when we want inspiration we look everywhere,” she says, “but I have started zooming in on one moment instead.” She explains how after watching a funeral procession outside her bedroom window she began to take notice of the life happening around her and used this is fuel her writing. “I have learned to slow down. We all need to slow down, the whole world needs to slow down. Why are we in such a rush to deliver? Why are we in such a rush at all?” Atiq has taken this time to “build bridges” with wrong doings in her life, to empower others and make those social changes we so desperately need right now.
Art is a powerful tool to connect people and to create a sense of community through the virtual poetry scene is not easy. For curators Aiden Brady and Dean McMillan this has been a new challenge, with the launch for their debut zine Hippo Soop taking place through Instagram Live back in June. The new zine aspires to be a multidisciplinary celebration of art. Initially intended to be a “purely physical, word of mouth based project” Soop celebrates art for the people. “You don’t have to be ‘an artist’ to make art,” Brady states, “everyone is entitled to it and everyone should feel comfortable contributing to it.” Their online launch created a warm welcoming space for poets both established and emerging. “We just wanted to get the people involved,” says McMillan. “It was kind of like being in the pub with people just chipping in whenever they want to.” The pressure to go online can be overwhelming for artists. “There’s a pressure to be polished on social media, but that just doesn’t embrace the stinky-ness of life!” Brady laughs. “It makes everything too clear-cut and filtered and I think people are getting tired of that – I know we are.”
The pair seek to go against the grain of Instagram expectations, creating a space for the creative process, self-expression and opportunity for social commentary. “Art can feel intimidating for a lot of people, and it shouldn’t be like that” McMillan shares. Attempting to help eliminate the pretension surrounding poetry, the pair have opened up possibilities for the future of poetry in Liverpool. Not only do they celebrate “funny doodles and daft words” giving light comic relief during these anxious times, but they have made poetry more accessible for people perhaps not usually inclined to attend a spoken word night. There is potential for this new zine to discover new poets, set new boundaries for armature creatives and take poetry back to its roots.
Refusing to accept boundaries and boxes, poets explode freely from conformity and unleash their firecracker rhymes upon the world in their wake. Painting with words, poets harvest a craft which exists without limits, free from the burden of equipment expenses or professional training poetry will always be an art for the people. With such a deep and rich history, it will surely take a hell of a lot more than a global pandemic to stop the army of poets out to change the world. As Amina Atiq says, “The beautiful thing about human beings is that when we want to do something, we absolutely do it.” And this, I believe is what is at the heart of poetry.
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