Friday, 17 December 2010

My Poetry Top 20 of 2010

As we come to the end of the year, it seems like I’m finding my feet on the poetry circuit. I feel I can call myself part of the spoken word scene without feeling a fraud, so here is an “end of term” report from my perspective. I’ve had a wonderful time where positive experiences have far outweighed the negative or indifferent (though inevitably, there have been some less pleasant episodes) and I’m excited about the now and the future of Spoken Word. It has been a pleasure to meet new people who are dedicated to either the craft or the promotion of poetry and I am delighted at the warmth and camaraderie that exists between so many practitioners and promoters.

By the end of December I will have performed at 95 gigs this year as a poet in England and Wales from North Shields to Plymouth and from Brecon to Suffolk. If I didn’t get to you this year, please excuse me and I’ll do my best to get there next year (or better still, please invite me). Obviously, no one can get to everything and see everyone so please don’t take offence if you disagree with my list and feel free to make your own. I work in the medium of performance poetry so naturally my list is slewed towards that niche in the broad church of prosody.

So, here is my top twenty(ish) poetry people, organisations, events and experiences of 2010. I say twentyish as I’ve grouped some people and activities together as they were so closely related. Listing them separately might have meant compiling a top 50.My heartfelt thanks to everyone who has written, edited, published, sold, bought, read, performed, promoted, watched or championed poetry and spoken word this year. Have a great break over Christmas and New Year. Come back refreshed and inspired next year and let’s run faster, jump further and soar higher.

Keep writing and reciting and here's a poem for you.



This is merely a moment’s rest
To savour kisses the muse has bestowed
A chance to wonder at the stars
And watch angel’s wings unfold

To let our pens try and catch their breath
To search our soul and tend its fire
To reflect on the good friends made and
Those who have entertained and inspired

To learn from the wrong turns taken
To chart our course from fresh readings
And gather our courage to take the less worn path
No matter where it’s leading

Mark Niel's Top 20 of 2010

Aisle 16
Most of my contact with the Aisle 16 collective this year has been with Tim Clare, although I recently attended the launch of Ross Sutherland’s new collection “Twelve Nudes”. I have also enjoyed listening to Luke Wright on Radio 4’s Saturday Live. Aisle 16 are an outrageously talented collective of poets/comedians/writers producing excellent and interesting work. Their shows seem to have the difficult knack of garnering quality media coverage. I envy them this knack but I am pleased whenever spoken word makes an infrequent appearance in the national media.

Apples and Snakes
This leading spoken word organisation has delivered an excellent programme year with inventive shows and development opportunities for artists. I will declare a personal interest in that I was selected as one of the poets for the Public Address tour alongside Saran Green, Matt Windle, Hannah Silva and Mike Edwards. Taking part in such a tour was an honour but I also gained a new found respect for A&S’s programming skill. The five poets were so diverse in style, content and delivery yet made a great complementary night. This didn’t just mean there was something for everyone but the show themed around “Home” was so much more than the sum of its parts. It showcased the invention and diversity of the contemporary spoken word scene and allowed artists the opportunity to perform to new audiences. As well as this, the All Star Tour continues into the New Year featuring Kat Francois and Kate Tempest among others in another high quality, high concept show.

Bang said the Gun
Huge, huge kudos goes to the “Bang Said the Gun” posse. Dan. Robert and Martin were brave enough to stage a show a week in 2010. They have featured a stellar line up of spoken word stars and managed to retain an audience and do the odd “Away-day” or poetry exchange. We loved entertaining them at Tongue in Chic and we took eight poets down to their gaff in the return fixture. A lively, fun, buzzing atmosphere enhanced by glow sticks, shakers and Martin knocking the hell out the bar top has earned them plaudits from poets, promoters and the press too.

Bristol Poetry Festival
The Poetry Can quietly go about their work promoting poets, events and producing two Poetry Festival seasons a year in Bristol, centred round the Arnolfini. My involvement this year was as Captain of the Oxford Slam Team (The Dreaming Liars) as we went head to head to head with teams from Glasgow and Bristol. Everything about this event was a delight from Colin Brown’s precision administration to a wonderful and appreciative audience. Expertly hosted by Glenn Carmichael and Claire Williamson an exciting night saw The Oxford team triumph (my fellow poets were Pete the Temp Bearder, Tina Sederholm and Mac McFadden) but in the end (lapsing into sporting cliché) poetry was the real winner!

David J
In this top twenty and I will be naming three individual poets who I regard as the best of British artists I’ve seen so far. These poets are uniquely different and they each entertain, inspire, captivate and make me want to be better at my art. David J (Vocal Pugilist) is the first of them and the quality his work and performance is in my opinion and without hyperbole, brilliant. He is so good; he almost makes me want to give up. Combining vocal acrobatics, an awesome stage presence, rock solid material and delivery, it is a crime he is not better known, lauded, applauded and rewarded. How about a special rate of tax on the outrageous sums earned by rap acts and X factor style producers so that talents such as David J can flourish? The sad fact is that where Britain has got real talent, it is ignored. If you have the chance to see David J perform always take it. Forget having a night in. Clear your diary, book a sitter or do whatever you have to, but go see him.

Farrago Poetry
John Paul O’Neill has been organising Slams in the UK since 1994 and is one of the leading candidates for the “hardest working person in poetry” tag. Farrago base their events around the RADA Foyer Bar and the nights are a skilful blend of experienced feature acts, emerging voices making debuts and of course a Slam. Farrago was the scene of my “light bulb moment” in 2008 when at my fourth ever appearance as a poet I was blown away by an amazing night (in spite of being narrowly pipped to the Slam win) and thought “Why can’t we have nights like this in Milton Keynes”? The seed for Tongue in Chic was sown. JP works tirelessly and the feature line ups are always solid and frequently spiced up by an international artist.

Jo Bell/ National Poetry Day
Jo Bell is a wonderful poet and writer in her own right and does so much to promote poetry. Jo is the Director of National Poetry Day which would be enough work for anyone to take on but not Jo. This year she was a driving force behind the “Bugged” project which encouraged writers of different disciplines to find inspiration by eavesdropping on 1st July. This was such a simple, yet inventive idea and the submissions poured in. The anthology featured ten guest writers but the majority of the pieces were from writers selected via open submission. It’s been a pleasure to meet Jo and watch her perform at various Poetry Slams and Festivals this year.

Kat Francois / Word 4 Word
I first met Kat last year at a weekend of poetry in Southampton. Like you do when you’re networking I got her details, became friends on Facebook and made a note to try and get to one of her events. I eventually got round to entering one of the Word 4 Word Slams at the Stratford Royal Theatre bar in East London. I was not prepared to be exposed to the force of nature that is Kat’s personality let loose on a stage where she in her element! Kat is a poet and comedian and took no prisoners and she did fifteen minutes of material demanding the audience’s attention and telling those who wanted to chat to “Go outside, it ain’t raining”! She set the scene brilliantly and only when she was satisfied the room was no longer “dry” did she start the slam. I will never forget her pre-match talk to the Slammers in the competition. If England had taken her to South Africa, surely we would have won the World Cup. Watch out for Kat in 2011.

Mab Jones
Mab is another poet who also promotes. Mab is based in South Wales and her poetry is engaging, humourous and unafraid to address serious issues. Mab has performed at events as diverse as literary festivals and burlesque nights and it is testament to her that she does so with aplomb. Mab seems to work tirelessly organising workshops, gigs as well as performing wonderful witty (and sometimes rude) poetry. She is a gem and a wonderful ambassador for Welsh wordsmiths.

Mark Gwynne Jones
Mark is another of my choices for one of the best three poets I’ve seen this year. Mark seems to have been around for ages yet still seems to be Performance Poetry’s best kept secret. I had the pleasure of seeing Mark with his band Psychicbread which was a wonderful experience in itself but it is for his solo appearances I name him here. I have always admired poets who can captivate an audience with just their words and a microphone and when Mark visited Tongue in Chic in September, I felt I had just watched a master class in how Performance Poetry. Mark draws audiences in and speaks at his own pace giving enough background to a poem without giving the poem away. He can be softly spoken or dynamic and he is always entertaining whether the subject is serious or flat out funny. For me the key thing is Mark is the same off stage as on. He brings his own energy, rhythm and world to the performance space and it’s a world I would love to live in.

Milton Keynes Poetry Scene (Poetry Kapow/ Monkey Kettle/ Scribal Gathering/ Speakeasy/ Structo Magazine)
Yeah, it’s a home town plug but what of it? I am confident that if more of you came to MK events (and you should) there’d be on your list on merit too. What can I say about poetry colleagues? They are brilliant, talented and committed. Monkey Kettle is a cottage industry poetry and other stuff magazine that this year celebrated its ten year anniversary. matthew michael taylor has encouraged and supported many of us by giving us our first taste of publication. Poetry Kapow has gone from strength to strength with wonderful themed shows, dressed sets and full houses. Fay Roberts and Danni Antagonist are talented and busy poets in their own right and they run these nights as a labour of love. It has been great to see them blossom as talents on the poetry scene and share their company on the way. Scribal Gathering is run by Richard Frost and friends. Richard is another wonder MK based poet and he has created a perfectly judged mix of music and poetry each month in Stony Stratford, a town with a string folk music tradition. On top of getting a great event off the ground, he has got the local council to endorse the position of Bard of Stony Stratford which will be elected in January next year. Speakeasy continues to support and encourage writers as it has done for over 25 years and Structo magazine is a recent addition to the MK scene but produces quality magazines filled with poems, short stories and essays of incredibly high quality. All this and there’s no culture in MK?

The One World Club (London and Milton Keynes)
One of my aims is to take poetry to spaces and audiences who would not normally experience poetry. Although they are mainly music based nights, the One World Club has been a lovely discovery that both audiences have welcomed poetry to their stages. The nights run a combination of open mic spots, invited artists and sometimes feature “Showcase slots” of 15 to 20 minutes. I had the honour to be the first poet to be allocated a showcase slot and found that the audiences although seeing something new quickly embraced Performance Poetry. The OWC stages nights with excellent music performers and I very enjoyed the gigs at Stony Live and Hither Green this year.

Rum Punch
I had the honour to play the Rum Punch gig in September run by Saran and Comfort. It is amazing to keep finding gigs with devoted followings. In the basement of Rudy’s Revenge in Holborn you will find a packed crowd (and I do mean packed, I made the mistake of sitting at the back when I got there early and had to literally force my way through to get to the microphone) giving their love to singers, poets and comedians. I appreciated how warm
and receptive the crowd were and thanks goes to the “Partnas in Rhyme” for their skills in compereing and putting together a great programme.

Spiel / Cheltenham Literature Festival
Spiel are Marcus Moore and Sara-Jane Arbury and they run a full programme of slams, workshops, schools work and performances. I always feel in safe hands when competing in a Spiel Slam. They are well produced and organised and I thank them for staging poetry slams at high profile events such as the Cheltenham Literature Festival. As well as their work in Slams they are talented poets giving polished performances and it is a treat when they get to fill a gap with a poem. Playing Cheltenham this year was a pleasure and I will cherish the memory of the audience reaction this year. It also helps that they are lovely people.

Steve Larkin / Hammer and Tongue
Steve Larkin is another unsung hero of Performance Poetry. I include him in this top twenty not just for his performances and Hammer and Tongue gigs but for taking the bold step of running for the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. This highlighted Performance Poetry and put it firmly at the centre of the debate about contemporary poetry. Intelligent creative moves such as this will help move poetry forward and Steve is another poet who deserves to be better known.

Rrrants / The Antipoet
I first met the Antipoet last year when we gigged together in St Albans. They have been a breath of fresh air on the circuit and feature Paul’s witty verse underscored by Ian’s smoking double bass riffs. Funny, entertaining (and sometime ranting) they light up any gig they play. Not content with that, they (along with admin and management powerhouse Donna) run Rrrants who have organised dozens of gigs in and around London and given stage time to a plethora of poets, musicians, story tellers, comedians, parodists and ranters. I thought I was busy but they have burned the candle and both ends and in the middle and on top of that are the loveliest people too. I’m always pleased to share gigs with them and I’m proud to call them friends

Tongue in Chic inc Buxton Fringe and other travels
Okay, no surprise in naming my own gig here but let me make my case on the quality of guest poets: David J, Tim Clare, Dizraeli, Mark Gwynne Jones, Gerry Potter, Jo Bell. As well as the MK gigs, we took a showcase to the Buxton Fringe where we covered our costs and got a nice review as well as an Poetry exchange with Bang said the Gun in London (They brought three poets to us; we took eight down there, so we win! We look forward to a re-match next year) We also published an anthology “Reflections from Mirror City” featuring most of our guest poets from 2009 and twenty-four of our open mic poets. I’m pleased to day the initial run of 500 books has just about sold out and we managed to cover our costs plus a little bit. We also ran the first Midlands Poetry Slam at the Newhampton Arts Centre and we’d like to go back to that brilliant venue.

The thing I’m most proud of is the catalytic effect on local poets. They have been motivated to travel and perform around the country from London to the Edinburgh Festival and it’s been a pleasure to see them win slams, commissions and be picked up by key organisations. We have started the invasion and we’ll be back in 2011.

Utter / Richard Tyrone Jones
Utter has run a programme of events in London including themed gigs, writing workshops etc. As well as that he managed a full run of Edinburgh spoken words gig allowing many poets to perform there who couldn’t have done so under their own steam. RTJ has done an outstanding job and has continued to do so even in spite of serious health issues this year. He is a committed writer and promoter who provides opportunities for others, giving so much of his time for little personal gain.

Wenlock Poetry Festival
Wenlock held their first Poetry Festival this year hosting Carol Ann Duffy and Roger McGough among others and put on a weekend of various activities. This is all credit to Anna Dreda and her co workers who deserve enormous credit for pulling the whole thing off in a Shropshire village with a population of less than 3000.

Zena Edwards
Zena is the last (but by no means least) of the top three poets I’ve seen perform in 2010. Zena brings such presence to the stage and she can effortlessly move from humourous character studies to lyrical pieces and song. Zena’s singing voice is so beautiful and mellifluous it should be available on the national health for sufferers of stress. It is a joy to watch someone who has worked at their craft and like many of the best poets it is a crime Zena is not better known, valued and rewarded. Zena’s closing piece sung in Zulu to her own kalimba accompaniment has stayed long in the memory. Another example of a poet at the top of their game.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Ledbury and Buxton (What a difference a week makes!)

Well, last week I died a death and this week I have the honour to be crowned Ledbury Poetry Festival Slam Champion! Many thanks to Marcus and Sara-Jane from Spiel for running another excellent Slam and to my fellow poets. This was an excellent night of poetry with a real variety of styles from character-based work to lyrical verse. I think this is probably the strongest line up in a Slam I've seen and no wonder as Ledbury is a leading Poetry Festival in the UK.

I have to apologise to my good friend Mac McFadden as we faced each other head to head in the final but there was some great stuff from Adrian Mealing, Heather Wastie, Cat Brogan and Kess Tamblyn (look out for her!) By a very narrow margin, I won out against Mac and brought home a collection of prizes including cider, jam (Prince Charles' Duchy original jam no less) and other lovely bits and pieces.

After a gig in London this Thursday (Bang Said the Gun! at the Roebuck pub in Borough) we get ready to take Tongue in Chic to the Buxton Fringe from 16 to 18 July alongside our sister comedy show from Milton Keynes, "The Bright and Shiny Radio Show". We're at Nat's Kitchen in Market Street and we're looking forward to a great time.

Keep writin' and recitin'


Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Curate's Egg of a week

To balance out my last post (The Poet as Piñata) I really should put that one gig in context because it had been a terrific week up until then. This was because, not only did I play some lovely gigs (details below) but I had also been booked for a couple of really great events later in the year. On top of this, the launch of the Tongue in Chic anthology “Reflections from Mirror City” had gone well and the feedback from poets, librarians and other interested parties has been great. I’d also just come back from a brilliant little holiday so I started the week feeling particularly well chilled out.

The Gigs

On Thursday, I did a set at Jamboree in London, a stone’s throw from the Limehouse DLR station. It was at Cable Street Studios, an artistic community huddled together just off the A13. The space has a wonderful atmosphere of faded decadence and offered a unique method of recording a gig. An artist painted the gig! Swear to God! He painted on cantilevered glass sections which he folded away as each section was done. All the acts’ likeness are captured as they performed and at the end of the night, the glass is placed in front of a light box to give a church windows effect. This is officially the most bohemian gig I have ever played! The shame was I had to leave at 11pm to catch a train home and missed the headline act and the unveiling. I hope that photos were taken so I can see the finished work.

Jamboree is a comedy gig and I played alongside Tony Dunn, Rachel Parris, Gary Coleman, Ariadne the Greek WAG and Kate Smurthwaite. Because of train issues, I missed half of Gary’s set and all of Kate who was headlining so apologies to them. For me the revelation of the night was Rachel Parris, a jazz singer and pianist now turning her hand to comic songs and poetry. The reason her comedy is so effective is she plays and sings so well and is so at ease. The twists when they come are snappy and unanticipated. The fact I’ve been singing “My feelings for you are tepid, but tepid is better than hate” all week is testament to her work.

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of performing at a Fund Raising event for the Wenlock Poetry Festival as I was the winner of their inaugural Poetry Slam in April.This was held in the idyllic surroundings of the Dower House Gardens, Morville Hall. This was a day of sunshine, strawberries, chilled fizz and readings from poets and actors throughout the day.I had two readings. One concentrated on readings from Reflections from MirrorCity. This is a collection from contributors at Tongue in Chic, both professional and amateur. John Hegley, Paul Lyalls, Zena Edwards, AF Harrold and Niall O’Sullivan sit side by side with local poets from Milton Keynes (and a little further afield but they have all been part of the TiC events). I’ve been very pleased with how the book turned out and sales are steady so I’m hoping that it won’t be long before costs are covered. It’s been a pleasure to read work from some of my favourite poets and picking poems that suited so I read Fay Robert’s “I hope I’m in Clover” which was appropriate to the Garden setting and Paul Lyalls’ “Anatomy of a Bookshop” as the organiser (the wonderful Anna Dreda) owns a book shop.My second set was all my own work which featured mainly my Performance Pieces but with some page poems as well. All in all, it was a lovely day which supported the Poetry Festival and nourished the soul.

Next up I have the Ledbury Poetry Festival Slam on Saturday and Bang Said the Gun! in London next week when I’m doing a feature set. Then attention will turn to Buxton as we prepare to appear at the Fringe. More about that next time!


Monday, 28 June 2010

The Poet as Piñata

I knew it was a bad idea. I was guilted into it because it was for“Charity”. Just how bad an idea it was only became apparent when I set foot on stage. For every second of my two minutes or so, a drunken, howling, baying mob heckled and jeered my every word.

The “it” was a local version of Britain’s Got Talent (I know!); staged in a pub/night club at 10pm on a Sunday (I know!!) on the night that England went out of the World Cup 4 -1 to Germany (In my defence, that hadn’t happened whenI agreed to help out). I gave into the pleas of a pretty film student by taking part in the show so she could shoot some footage for her end of year project.I knew they were no chance of winning as one of the other acts was an eightyear-old break dancer. There were two singers, two dancers, a Spanish guitarist and me. The guitarist was first up and the crowd talked loudly throughout his piece. The half of the crowd that listened started the inane clapping that seems to accompany programmes like BGT and Strictly Come Dancing. I knew this was not a good idea for two reasons. Firstly, audiences don’t clap together: instead of a crisp handclap bang on the beat, it becomes a slow crunch that surrounds but never quite hits the mark. Secondly, the acoustics were appalling and I knew it would be difficult for the guitarist to hear. He lost his timing and as the disinterested half of the audience grew to three-quarters and the chatter crescendoed, he finished the piece early as he knew the game was up. He was given a sympathetic round of applause which was a standing ovation compared to the reception they had in store for me.I had the misfortune to follow the 8 year old break dancer who was cheeredto the heavens.

The MC introduced me apologetically: “Now we have a er..,a er.. stand up poet. He goes by the name of Mark Niel. Some polite clapping accompanied me as I took the Microphone. I tried to engage the crowd in a call and response to try and control the background chatter, “Give me a cheer if you’re having a good time tonight”! “Yeah!” they answered and that was the last time they listened to a single thing I said. Barely a word into my first poem the jeering and cat-calling commenced. They had been pissed about England all day and here was a man in a black suit who would be a surrogate for their frustration and disappointment.

They set about me as if they were a bunch of fat kids armed with crowbars and baseball bats and I was a piñata stuffed with Play Stations and Marsbars! They hurled derision and disgorged their bile. No one could hear what I was saying. It only mattered to them that I was a boring, talking person when they wanted music or dancing. For two minutes that bent the laws of physics, I smiled, recited and performed my heart out in the face of an alcohol-fuelled lynch mob. Not everyone was like this. A few were sympathetic souls but mob mentality is very hard to overcome. The shouting, booing and drunken chanting quickly overcame any sense of order. I finished and invited the MC back. We went through the charade of a post match interview and feedback from the three judges. I nodded, smiled, and even managed a joke when asked how I felt that it had all gone. “Well actually, that was one of my better gigs”. One or two quietly acknowledged my brave face with a smile or quiet laugh. Very few were listening at this point and I let the final scene play out. In spite of this, I strangely found this a positive, life-affirming experience. I was proud of myself. I walked on with confidence and in spite of not being given a chance, I performed, didn’t lose it and finished my set. I walked off with my dignity in tact. But the most important thing is, I didn’t crumble. A year ago ,this would have been a crushing experience but not now. Even though I was being jeered, I was standing in front of an audience, doing something I love: performing poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I hope it’s a very long time before I get such a receptionagain (if ever!) but I learned something about me, about who I am and what I want to do with my life. This is no passing flirtation with poesy. I am committed to reaching people, to try to win hearts, minds and a little more of everyone’s time for the written and spoken word. If that means a two-minute humiliation from time to time, I’ll pay that price.

That’s because these bruising encounters are off-set by obverse experiences: the woman who last week told me it wasa privilege to be part of my audience; the man who wandered into the CrossKings pub for a drink and nothing else then sought me out to say he’d never considered poetry before but thought I’d been brilliant. He bought some of my work and said he was going off to read more. Opening the mind of the woman and man in the street is addictive stuff and I need another hit.

So my poetic colleagues, some of whom I’ve met but the majority I haven’t: Keep the faith. Keep fighting the battles and by degrees we’ll get there. Thanks for reading. This has been my turn to share. It’s been two years, one month and three weeks since my last day without verse.

My name is Mark Niel and I am a poet!