In the lead-up to Wolverhampton Literature Festival, we at Overhear spent a lot of time wandering around the city talking to people about poetry and place. We can say with some authority, then, that there were few people there more excited about the upcoming festival and the work that writers in the Black Country do than the first of our featured poets, Laura Jane. We sat down to talk to her about her love of her hometown, the festival and how it all came together in her Overhear poem ‘A Reading at the Lych Gate’.
‘I got involved with Overhear when Penelope from the Wolverhampton Literature Festival got in touch.’ Laura tells us, ‘I’d been thinking about the fact that when I graduate, I’m going to be cut off from the community in Liverpool –‘ where she studies ‘– but there’s also a really rich and diverse writing community here in Wolverhampton that I didn’t even know about until I’d moved away! It’s important to me to get in touch with people who are doing work here and make connections.’
‘That’s one of the reasons I was so excited about Wolverhampton Literature Festival and wanted to get involved so much the last two years. Not just that it’s close to home but also…’ she draws a comparison between her hometown and the of her university, ‘…in Liverpool, there is the problem of gentrification but it has definitely reinvented itself since the docking industry went bust. I feel like in Wolverhampton we’re still in the stages of the industrial revolution has petered out, what do we do next?’'
‘This place is very important to me,’ she says. ‘At university, my end-of-year projects have been almost exclusively about Black Country poets. I really feel like we don’t get enough recognition in the Midlands. I had a lecturer once who called it “the middle of nowhere”. I was like we do live here, you know. There are so many people here, so many stories!’
‘Most people can pinpoint when they first came to the Black Country,’ she tells us, ‘a lot of them came here looking for work and it just ended up with a whole bunch of people jammed together – which wasn’t always good – but it grew into something amazing. It’s a strange area but really fun.’
She goes on: ‘I also just really like hearing original dialect. I’ve got a bit of a weird accent, myself. I used to have a really strong Black Country accent and then people tried to train it out of me. Instead of it going away it just went weird. So now I’ve got a wonky Black Country accent. I get people asking if I’m Welsh!’ She laughs. ‘It doesn’t help that I use a lot of Romani slang too – which I didn’t realise was the case until I started using it in conversation with people who weren’t my family. It’s a mess, basically, especially for a performance poet.’
Laura tells us a little more about her experience performing as part of Wolverhampton Literature Festival: ‘I came last year and the year before that. Emma Purshouse put me in for an open mic slot at the Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists night at the Light House and that was really fun. They’re so supportive. I performed my first poem from memory there – a very short one!’
We ask Laura to tell us about working with her Overhear venue, Lych Gate Tavern:
‘I took a chance when I chose Lych Gate because they hadn’t definitely said yes to being part of the project yet, but luckily it did pay off – they said they’d love to be involved,’ she says. ‘They’re lovely people. I know a lot of Wolverhampton students who have their political meetings in the Tavern, in the upstairs room. I don’t go as often as them but I’ve been there a few times on visits back to Wolverhampton.’ ‘It’s such a lovely building. You’d never know it hadn’t been a tavern for very long. It was a typewriters’, a dressmakers’ if I remember correctly – and then Black Country Ales bought it,’ she tells us. ‘Most of what I learnt came from the landlord – Hayley – who does this kind of research in her spare time. I asked her if she had anything she could send along to me and ended up with a dossier’s worth of information.’ Laura laughs.
‘Of course, then the poem started to sound more like a TripAdvisor advert. I wanted to bring a bit more personality into it so I asked the students I know what the Lych Gate meant to them… and I didn’t get much response because it was finals week. Then I thought, time to get self-centred; what had I been to there, what was it for me?’
‘I went to the Lych Gate when they were doing some readings there last year,’ she goes on to say, ‘I was on my own, just drifting through Wolverhampton and I decided to go to the open mic night there. I couldn’t get through the door because there were just so many people in the room, listening to poetry. It was amazing. That’s what I wanted to write about.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, the research was great and definitely informed the writing. I think you can read between the lines that this is a place with a lot of history. There’s a way to work that in without it sounding like a Wikipedia article! I just decided to do something more recent – and of course, it made sense to do something related to the literature festival.’
Laura leaves us with this thought: ‘Overhear is a project on a bigger scale than what I’ve dealt with before, so I wanted to get it right,’ she says. ‘I think part of the reason it sounded a bit TripAdvisor-y in the beginning was because of the pressure to do right by the Lych Gate as well. I wanted to tell people about how great it was, put the place in the centre of the poem, rather than myself. Hopefully, I’ve got the balance right in the final piece.’
To hear it for yourself, head over to Lych Gate Tavern to collect Laura’s poem ‘A Reading at the Lych Gate’ using the Overhear app from 26th January.
You can find more from Laura at https://www.clippings.me/users/laurajaneroundwriter and follow her on Instagram @laurajaneroundwriter.