Sunday, 18 December 2011

My Poetry Top 20 of 2011

So, how was 2011 for you? I’ve had a great year in terms of performances and writing but from a personal point of view it was tinged with sadness as my father passed away towards the end of the year. After a time of concentrating on family matters, I’m now gearing up for next year.

I’m really optimistic about the future of poetry in spite of the continuing funding difficulties for artists and events. 2011 has been a year where new events and initiatives have continued to pop up as a result of individual’s passion to do something and it’s wonderful to see that infectious enthusiasm.

So looking back, here is an “end of term” report from my perspective. They say “write about what you know” so although there are many fantastic artists, festivals and events out there I’ve only included poets I’ve personally seen or events I attended. If I didn’t see you this year (and compiling this has made me realise who I didn’t get to see) please forgive me and I hope to get to more stuff next year.

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. I have also listed my personal choice of Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year and Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year.

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 and as its Olympic Year, let’s run faster, jump further and soar higher!

Keep writin’ and recitin’

Mark x

Mark Niel’s Poetry Top 20 of 2011

Aisle 16
Aisle 16 continues to stage excellent collective events but many of their individual talents have had a great year too. Tim Clare took his Poetry Takeaway to various festivals and one his man show “How to be a leader” did really well (Rapping as Maggie Thatcher was a particular highlight). Luke Wright had a standout show (Cynical Ballads) which garnered great reviews and award nominations and John Osborne made his mark on Edinburgh too. Look out for “John Peel’s Shed” on Radio 4 soon). Aisle 16 seems to have the difficult knack of penetrating the quality media to gain coverage which I think is great for poetry as a whole. They are setting the standards for progressive. challenging and entertaining spoken word shows.

Allographic/ Fay Roberts
Allographic is a new initiative from Fay Roberts. Fay is a Welsh-born poet who started performing poetry in Milton Keynes. Alongside poetry dynamo Danni Antagonist, they have made Poetry Kapow! essential events in MK presenting a unique blend of music, poetry, competitions, art installations etc. Fay now lives in Cambridge and has managed to keep all her links with MK alive. Fay has started Allographic (meaning other writing) to be a small press and support for writers who don’t get the attention of bigger publishers. As well as staging regular events , Fay is keen to record or video poets and offer support to the less techie to get their work out there. As if this wasn’t enough, Fay is a wonderful writer and performer often using song or rhythm to accompany her softly-spoken verse which greets you like a warm, velvet-gloved handshake.

The Antipoet/Rrrants Collective
The Antipoet must be one of the leading contenders for the title of “Hardest working people in poetry”. They gig, they play, they entertain, they organise they turn up, they publish, they put contemporary poetry books in school and most importantly they offer a home in the Rrrants collective for spoken word artists who don’t feel they fit in anywhere else. They are a poetry powerhouse combining the talents of Donna, (organising, front of house, merchandise) Ian (Double Bass, occasional vocals, perpetual roadie) and Paul Eccentric (writer, performer and wearer of Adam Ant’s back wardrobe). I’ve yet to see a gig they didn’t lift with their bass-backed beat poetry and for this reason I name them The Antipoet as one my Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year

Brewers’ Troupe
Brewers’ Troupe are Emma Purshouse and Heather Wastie and occasionally other people. Working in and around the Midlands, these two are poetry forces in their own right, frequently seen published, winning competitions and Slams or doing gigs. They seek to take poetry into venues that don’t usually host it and they have staged a few gigs under the “Three poets go into a pub” banner which also gives some open mic opportunities to locals poets. They also wrote and staged “Snug” a theatrical piece based in a pub bar that incorporated poetry into the text as it explored the lives of six regulars. As well as all that, they host workshops and are jolly nice people to boot.

Cabaret Clandestino/ Pete the Temp
Pete Bearder (aka Pete the Temp) ran a fantastic late night cabaret once a month in Oxford. He then filled a day at Truck Festival with the same formula. Pete plans a great mix of music, comedy and always highlights poetry. The audiences were fantastic and Pete is an excellent host. He can judge how “warm” an audience is and he works hard to get them to a state of readiness for performers. This is very important as spoken word can be difficult in a cold room and I’ve seen other events (which shall remain nameless) where the first act has been thrown on while the audience is still settling. Invariably they have struggled. This never happens with Pete. On top of all this, he is a lovely feller and a warm and engaging artist packing his sets with humour, energy entertainment as he educates about the environment.

Express Excess/ Paul Lyalls
Paul Lyalls has been producing shows with Express Excess for fifteen years now and he has hosted a great stable of talent the over the years. This includes Simon Munnery, Will Self and he has the distinction of giving stand up comedian Reginald D Hunter his first ever paid gig. Still going strong in his own right with material that works on and off the page, Paul is another excellent host and poet in his own right. He always brings warmth to the stage whether it be his one-liners, banter with the audience or performing his poems. Paul knows how to put together a great programmes for a good night’s entertainment.

Farrago Poetry/ Fran Landesman
John Paul O’Neill has been organising Slams in the UK since 1994 and is another leading candidate for the “hardest working person in poetry” tag. He teaches, organises and turns up to gigs to flyer as well and somehow finds time to write and perform. He’s given so many artists a stage and I have great respect for promoters with longevity as I know how tough it can be to keep events going. John Paul gave Fran Landesman a regular platform for the last ten or so years and what a talent she was. A lyricist featuring on top albums right through her career, she was also known the Poet Laureate of Losers. Fran became Farrago’s Poet in Residence and she sadly passed away this year. The memorial hosted on the Farrago stage in her memory was a triumph and John Paul managed to put it all together and host the event when emotions were running high. This was a fitting tribute to Fran and one of my favourite poetry nights this year. The first of my Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year.

AF Harrold
Probably the nation’s most talented beard, I have seen Mr Harrold quite a few times this year and he has never disappointed. He has such fantastic range: from tender and moving love poems that work well on the page to comic verse in the best tradition of the English eccentric. One of my favourite moments this year was tuning in the radio just before I went to sleep to hear him on Radio 4’s “Wondermentalist Cabaret”. He writes for children, adults and all types of animals and I wish him continued success. If you haven’t seen him yet, this is probably your fault. Please try harder next year or we’ll have to have words! AF Harrold is another of my Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year.

John Hegley
What can you say about John Hegley that hasn’t been said many times over? He is a poet who has achieved that difficult crossover into the mainstream conscience and sustained it for many years which I believe is great for poetry overall. Whenever I see John perform, it is a master class in audience interaction and crowd control. John can take quirkiness, humour, wordplay and poignancy and get them to blend and rise, like a poetry soufflĂ©: light yet with a depth of flavour (Sorry for that imagery. I may have watched too much Masterchef this year!). John’s sets are a joyous collective experience. His words are inspired and after a gig he always has time to talk to people which underlines his generous nature. John Hegley is the third of my Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year.

Richard Tyrone Jones
Another “hardest working person in poetry” contender and given he almost died from a heart condition who would begrudge him the title? Richard Tyrone Jones turned his experience of discovering a fir 30 year old had the flabby distended heart of an old man into a one man show which debuted in 2011 and he is taking on tour in 2012. Richard Tyrone Jones has a big heart won great reviews and a nomination for best spoken word show at the Buxton Fringe which is a solid foundation for an excellent tour. RTJ will be handing the reigns of Utter over to Cat Brogan but he will no doubt turn up at workshops and events over the year too. Richard has been a committed promoter who provided opportunities for others and people like him make the scene what it is. *Standing Ovation*

Latitude Poetry Tent
Bravo Luke Wright! Luke curates the Poetry programme for Latitude and he managed to bring together an awesome collection of poets from up and coming talents to Perrier award-winning acts. This just shows how closely he has his finger on the pulse of contemporary poetry. The range of poets and contributions couldn’t be rivalled anywhere else. It was great to play a small part in it and see an enthusiastic crowd welcome a non-stop line up of poets from midday to past midnight. This is another of my Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year.

Ian McMillan and his Orchestra
I saw Ian with his Orchestra for the first time at the Wenlock Poetry Festival (more of that below) and they completely blew me away. Ian McMillan (the Bard of Barnsley) by himself is funny, engaging and an excellent communicator but the addition of folk instruments and sympathetic musical arrangements elevated his words to a whole new level. They had the sold out audience in the palm of their hands from the first to last note. One of the many highlights was an improvised poem with music based on audience suggestions. This was poetic alchemy at its best as Ian wove a tale of humour and intrigue featuring Beards, Doncaster Rovers and the Alternative Voting System. It had flow, rhythm and rhyme and brought the house down. I can’t recommend Ian highly enough if he’s near you and particularly with his talented orchestra. No surprise that they are another of my Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year.

Nuneaton Poetry Day
Warwickshire Arts Team facilitated a day where poetry was literally taken out into the market place. With the support of the local Market Traders and the council, various poetry stops were posted around the market and lots of different events and activities took place. We also included (what we believe to be) the world’s first outdoor Sixty Second Slam competition. Mal Dewhirst blogged poems that he wrote throughout the day and the day ended with an Open Mic session in a local pub. We left with a warm afterglow of having succeeded at bringing an idea to fruition in a short space of time with support from many quarters. This was a wonderful idea, smartly executed by a great team.

Poets and Promoters Forum
Now this may be seen as a hugely egotistical move naming one of my own events but I genuinely enjoyed running the Forum. The idea was simple: to bring together poets, promoters, small presses, producers and others interested in poetry outside of the confines of a gig. We delivered updates from organisations in bite sized pieces and let the delegates meet, mingle, network and put dates in diaries for the year ahead. It included “Speed dating for poets” organised sessions but people could also network naturally. I was thrilled the pilot worked and I will be taking the idea forward for funding to make it bigger and better in 2012. It was a pleasure to see performances, collaborations and support for events and projects as a result of contacts made at the Forum.

Rum Punch
I had the honour to play the Rum Punch birthday gig in July run by Saran Green and Comfort Cydelle. The packed basement crowd in Rudy’s Revenge in Holborn were treated to a great line up and they loved it. “Partnas in Rhyme” have established a great event here over the last three years. The audience are enthusiastic and welcoming and know how to show their love to the singers, poets and comedians that take part. They make this event special and the atmosphere generated is second to none. So thanks to them and Comfort and Saran for making this another of my Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year.

Scribal Gathering
Scribal need to careful as they keep outgrowing venues in Stony Stratford and soon will have nowhere to go! Now a regular fixture in the town calendar, the team have established this as a great night out for poetry and music artists and fans. Richard Frost expertly hosts an Open Mic format featuring two special guests (one music based, one spoken word) and the night is filled with lots of local talent and goodwill. They also managed to win backing from the Town Council to inaugurate the “Bard of Stony Stratford” and at the first annual competition in January; Ian Freemantle emerged as the winner. They have gone on to host stages at other festivals and venues and they continue to give opportunities for musicians and poets.

Spiel comprises the talents of Marcus Moore and Sara-Jane Arbury. They run a full programme of slams, workshops, writing retreats as well as schools work and performances. Their poetry slams at high profile events such as the Cheltenham Literature and other Festivals are always immaculately organised, expertly hosted and great entertainment. I haven’t seen as much of them this year as I would have liked but I hope to put that right next year.

Wenlock Poetry Festival
Wenlock held their first poetry festival in 2010 and this year they built on that success delivering a wonderful weekend of poetic goodness. The line up included Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott, Ian McMillan and John Hegley to name but a few. Workshops, events, reading, slams and performances all made this (in my opinion) the best poetry weekend available in the UK this year. Praise is due to the organising committee and the Friends of the Festival who deserve enormous credit for pulling the whole thing together. I was there for the whole weekend this year and saw how many people played their part from front of house to hospitality and made this Festival so special. Next year is a special year for them because of their association with the Olympics and the dates for your diary are 13 to 15 April. You will no doubt have guessed I name Wenlock Poetry Festival as another of my Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year.

Indigo Williams
I have only seen Indigo Williams once this year at Rum Punch (see above) but boy, did her electrifying set live long in the memory! Indigo is a true spoken word artist and her slight frame belies the stage presence, passion and impact her poetry brings to the mic. As I sat amongst the audience they were at times, literally breath-taken. Gasps greeted the strength of her message and her eloquence and poise allows her to finesse the points she wants to make. The audience were absolutely absorbed in every word. Indigo has great range to her poems and though her stand out piece of the night used necessarily strong language it was entirely appropriate and this was as fine an example of a poem bringing a message home with pure artistry as I have seen. Indigo is the last of my Top Five Poetry Acts of the Year

Word 4 Word (Newport News, Virginia, USA)
On holiday this year in the US, I was determined to seek out an opportunity to take the mic. This has been the first time I’d tried doing such a thing and I enjoyed the experience of making new friends through poetry. I was keen to see how my poetry would be greeted by an American audience; would the humour and cultural references translate and would the poems have the same impact? I have to thank Ann Shalaski, the audience and the poets for a taste of a US Open Mic night and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and their hospitality. This night was more reading than performed and I can’t thank them enough for their generosity, company and above all laughing in the right places! Word 4 Word completes my Top Five Poetry Experiences of the Year

That's it. Have a great Christmas and New Year

Mark x

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Radio Silence Broken

You may well have noticed that I’ve been quiet for a while. I’ve had a period of silent running on social media and updating the blog and website etc. My father fell seriously ill toward the end of the year and sadly his condition deteriorated rapidly and he passed away on 1 November. Arrangements, legalities and being with the family have naturally taken up a lot of my time and attention but I’ve honoured most of the gigs I had in my diary. I’m starting to get back into planning mode for next year as I’d like to make 2012 a year that counts.

So I haven’t made it to as many gigs as I would have liked and I’ve not seen as much of my poetry friends. I hope to put that right next year. Apologies to you for the gigs I missed and the events I had to cancel. I am in the middle of compiling my Poetry Top 20 for 2011 and I hope to post that next week. In the meantime, here’s a little poem for Christmas which I’ve written in my capacity as Poetry Laureate for Milton Keynes and I hope you enjoy it as well.
Love and best wishes

Letter to Santa

Dear Santa, I don’t want an X box
Kinnect or DS2
DVDs or MP3s
Are not what I want from you

Tell your elves to take a break
Their list is one name short
But I’ll still leave Rudolph a carrot
And you a glass of port

I promise I have been good this year
Don’t think this my confession
It’s just the commercialisation of Christmas
Seems perverse in times of recession

And I’m really not bothered about presents
That’s not what Christmas means
So keep your Ben Sherman and Ralph Lauren
And even True Religion jeans

Give your gifts to the more deserving
The poor and homeless and needy
I’m blessed with most things a man might want
And any more would just be greedy

Instead please send me patience
And love and understanding
Help me be a better person
In days that are so demanding

Give me time, to spend with family
Goodwill, to share with friends
Peace and compassion for the human race
And charity that never ends

You see, presents in the absence of love
Bring only short-lived cheer
So help us all take the spirit of Christmas
And make it last all year