This week’s blog post is an Asylum Gallery special. The Asylum is arguably the Overhear venue with the most to do in our collaboration with Wolverhampton Literature Festival. Not only is director Hannah Taylor the Overhear poet assigned to Tony’s Deli (look out for that blog post next!) but the venue is providing the inspiration for the work of two more Overhear poets. We sat down with Bones, who wrote some verses for The Asylum Gallery and Jeff Phelps, whose poem pays tribute to The Asylum Studios.
‘I’ve been writing poetry for about four or five years,’ Bones tells us, ‘pushing my career, getting to know other poets in the area – Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger, Dave Pitt – who have been directing me to different projects. They give my name to folks they think might want to work with me a lot of the time; they’re very generous, bless them. When Tom contacted me, it was the first time I’d heard of Overhear but it sounded like a good idea: one, to get my name out a bit more and two, to give something back – The Asylum Gallery is the place a lot of people heard me speak for the first time so I have a connection with it that I thought would be really good for Overhear.’
He tells us more about his history with The Asylum Gallery: ‘I work with Corin Stephenson (founder and curator) and Hannah Marie Taylor (director) quite a lot. Somebody introduced me to Corin because they thought he might be interested in my book – The Warrior’s Bible – and he bought a copy and sat down to talk to me about it. That’s when he invited me to read at the poetry event that was happening in his venue, where it all got started,’ Bones reminisces. ‘Emma Purshouse was actually MCing there, so that’s where I met her too, along with some other poets! All these people are folks who have been helping me out, pushing me to different things, telling people about what I do. If they hear anyone looking for a black poet they always direct them to me!’ He laughs.
‘The support I’ve been getting from these people since the first time they heard me has been kind of ridiculous to be honest,’ Bones says. ‘I’ve been searching for that support for a very long time but haven’t been able to get it until now – it just makes me appreciate it more.’
He tells us a little more about what he’s been able to do with that support in his hometown: ‘I’m from Wolverhampton originally and I’ll hopefully be moving back here soon. I got involved with Wolverhampton Literature Festival from the first year, when they were looking to get some black poets on the bill,’ he says. ‘Originally they just wanted me to go and talk but I said – well, I know so many artists, so many poets, rappers singers… I think we can do something different here. I can put together something that showcases all those different people’s talents; that’s where Bones Presents: A Lil Something Different came from, and we’ve done it every year since.’
‘The way I see it is this: I’ve been struggling – as I say – for four or five years now to get out there and people are only just now starting to know of me, starting to want to work with me. Why would I let other people have to go through that battle? If they’re coming to me now and I can open those doors for them (and they talk sense) of course I will.’ He pauses before continuing: ‘What I found out is that, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who as soon as the door starts to open for them, they shut it in everybody else’s faces. It starts to become about ego and about getting what you can for yourself – I’d rather help others where I can, like I’ve been helped by people like those at Asylum Gallery.’
Bones tells us his history with the venue wasn’t enough of a basis to write from. ‘I still had to do the research,’ he says, ‘I got in touch with Corin and asked him to send me some information to help me write the piece. I wanted to make it specific to them and the venue, for people to know their story and the story of what they’ve managed to do with Asylum. He emailed me a good essay’s worth of stuff I could use and I picked and chose and mixed it up with some personal things too, about what I feel about Asylum, and what they’ve done for me.’
We recite back one of our favourite lines and compliment Bones on managing to work so much history into the piece without it feeling dry.
"D place started out as a workshop to a stone Mason, they owned it fa 2 generations storin old fridges and gravestones, so I spose they were always accustomed ta workin wid Bones.”
‘Yeah, all that kinda comes naturally to me,’ he says laughing, ‘with the way that I write my lyrics. Somebody gives me a theme and it just starts to flow and unfold. It’s mad – in a good way. The verse gets a life of its own and I’m just hanging on asking where are you gonna take me?!’
‘This one is quite different to my usual thing,’ he says, ‘which is what I wanted. When I write it’s from a place of anger a lot of the time. I look around at how we’re living and what’s being done to us and it makes me angry. This one was coming from a different place. I just wanted to big up Corin and give something back to him and to Asylum – and I don’t want to be seen as writing the same kind of poetry over and over again anyway. It’s a new thing and hopefully it’ll be reaching a new audience.’
On what he hopes a new audience will get out of hearing his poem, Bones has this to say: ‘I hope people give Corin the kudos he deserves; for him to start what he did is a big thing and he deserves to get some credit for that. Hopefully people will go down and check out the art there because there are some talented artists that Asylum is giving time and space to. They do the same thing for artists that I’m trying to do for poets, opening those doors, creating that platform.’
He leaves us with this thought: ‘As poets, there’s no set route for you to go down. You’ve just got to do loads of different things in so many different places and hope that at some point you get to be known to the right people. I suppose it’s the same for artists, everyone’s making all this amazing work and going but who is going to see it? The support is lacking. That’s why it’s so good to meet people and work with people who have their hearts in the right place – it’s the most important thing.’
To hear Bones’ poem about the good work that Asylum Gallery do, and to see some of it for yourself, visit there from 30th January and open the Overhear app, available to download here.
The second poet we sat down with is Jeff Phelps, who wrote a piece for The Asylum Studios:
‘I was very pleased to be asked to work with Overhear,’ Jeff tells us, ‘I had an email from Tom that talked about the project – I had heard of it before but didn’t know much – about the poetry commissions and the walking tours and I thought it sounded very interesting. I like the idea of writing poems that fit into places; I’ve done this sort of thing before and it’s always rewarding.’
The local aspect of the project is also something that appealed to Jeff: ‘I know Wolverhampton fairly well, having worked in the city for a number of years, and I’ve been involved in the festival in the past too,’ he says. ‘I’m published with Offa’s Press and one of the things I do with them is run a poetry event called Paperverse. It’s a workshop where we write short bits of poetry and make and decorate little booklets for them. It helps people with editing and presentation – and people love the craft element. We’ve done a couple of years of that at the festival and then I’m also a founding member of Bridgnorth Writers’ Group, who have a slot to read during the Writers’ Hub events at the Lych Gate too.’
‘That said, I wasn’t familiar with The Asylum specifically at all when I chose it as my venue,’ Jeff admits, ‘but that was part of the reason it was interesting to me; it was something a bit new, a bit challenging. I also thought it would be really novel to write for somewhere where people were actively working and creating themselves.’
The idea of discovering something new comes across in Jeff’s poem, as the opening lines hint:
“In Darlington Street things are looking up. A door squeezed between shops is the entrance to a magician’s box of space…”
‘It’s hidden away right in the middle of the city. I didn’t initially realise that the Gallery and the Studio were two separate locations until the first time I tried to visit – and stood outside the gallery wondering why nothing was going on,’ he laughs. ‘When I eventually got in to see, it was all very interesting, especially when you arrive through that very unassuming door in the street.’
The team behind The Asylum played a part in this piece too, as Jeff tells us.
‘It was good to talk to Corin and Hannah, to hear what their vision for the place is. They want to occupy the city bit by bit with spaces for artists but because of funding they’re just holding on at the moment,’ he says. ‘I became aware of the fact that they were more than just people sitting there doing art, that everything had an intention behind it, that there was a political message – an agenda, if it’s not too strong a word – that they wanted to push beyond the work itself. I was surprised at how much philosophy there is behind it. They’ve got a little library in the studios of books relating to the city. They’re trying to do something in the world and that’s worth applauding, worth celebrating.’
The fact that The Asylum director Hannah Taylor is another poet involved in Overhear’s collaboration with Wolverhampton Literature Festival added another interesting element to Jeff’s commission, Jeff explains: ‘I was already looking at something that might reflect that political aspect when I talked to Hannah and looked at some of her writing. It had a very anthemic quality about it and I wondered if I could do something along those lines too. It isn’t quite how I would normally do it,’ he says, ‘I put a lot of little bits together in different ways, switched things around and tried again. It came quickly once I figured out what I wanted it to sound like: It was of the streets. I didn’t want it to come out sounding Poetic with a big P but quite raw and ready instead.’
‘What I’m hoping people get out of it is this sense that what you’ve got there is like a crack in the wall,’ Jeff tells us. ‘I don’t think many people know about it or would notice it if they walked down that road but when you get inside and go upstairs it just opens out into this amazing space. I want somebody to be standing there and thinking oh, yes. This could be more than just a couple of offices, more than a few artist studios. The idea that they could repeat this in different parts of the city is such an exciting one because this city needs that life. It’s something the people at Asylum were very passionate about and I was keen to echo.’
He goes on: ‘Place and the city especially is something that comes up in my work quite a lot. I’ve written novels set in the Black Country and in Merseyside (where I was brought up) and I often tie my poetry into place too. I live in Shropshire and that features a lot. I do feel that a city has a sort of vibrancy that needs writing about and that is as valid if not more valid as a subject for poetry as the countryside. I’m not a great fan of flowers and babbling brooks and that sort of stuff.’ He pauses before continuing, ‘I’m not knocking the countryside, mind you – there’s actually a surprising amount of poetry readings and festivals that go in those parts certainly in the Midlands – but the city is where the most collaboration can happen, I think. Wolverhampton Literature Festival is a great example of that, Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham is another.’
With his interest and knowledge of the city, it’s no surprise that Jeff is one of our Overhear poets to run a walking tour this year.
‘I worked as an architect in the Civic Centre in the middle of the city for twenty odd years, so I do know it quite well, although I’m not a native or even an inhabitant,’ he tells us. ‘That said I’m not banking on my architectural knowledge to be the basis of the walking tour. It’s more about poetry and where it happens, the fact that it can happen in some sudden and unexpected places. We’re going to be starting outside Beatties and following several squares and public spaces – some old, some new, some successful and some problematic. All interesting fuel for creativity, hopefully.’
‘It’s not an architectural tour,’ he clarifies, ‘more of a guided stroll, asking everybody to use their own expertise. It’s about people walking in familiar places and spotting things they wouldn’t ordinarily have done, seeing things that could be inspiration for writing poetry, stories or even articles. My real aim is just to get people to go slow and notice things that maybe we don’t as we whizz through the city on a daily basis. Unplanned, it links quite nicely to the piece I wrote for the Asylum,’ he laughs, ‘that there is something more going on in this city, more creative inspiration to be had, than first meets the eye.’
To get a glimpse into the hidden world of artists and creatives in Wolverhampton (and beyond), visit The Asylum Studios and collect Jeff Phelps’ poem using the Overhear app, available to download here.
To hear more from Jeff, click here.