The two poets featured in this week’s blog post are pillars of the poetry scene in Wolverhampton and beyond. We sat down to talk to two thirds of the brilliant collective Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists about the arts in the Midlands, the inspirational qualities of architecture and how they managed to write their Overhear pieces for Light House Cinema and The Posada alongside all the other amazing things they do with Wolverhampton Literature Festival.
‘The literature festival approached me for this because I’m currently City of Wolverhampton Poet Laureate,’ Emma tells us, when we sit down with her in the Café of Light House Cinema, ‘I had heard of Overhear because a friend of mine – Willis the Poet – was involved at an earlier stage.’
‘I like anything that takes poetry out of the normal places,’ she says, ‘I think people sometimes sit back and expect people to come to poetry, and they’re not going to – this takes it out to folk instead. It feels like something that might appeal to younger people too – that you can go around town and collect the poems, I like that’s engaging people in a different way; it’s Pokémon Go!™ but for poetry!’
On the subject of bringing poetry to the masses, Emma tells us a bit more about her involvement with Wolverhampton Literature Festival:
‘I’ve been involved with the festival in some form or the other for the last three years. The arts collective I’m a part of – Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists – we run quite a few events: the Slam at The Area Theatre on the opening night, a fringe room in the Lych Gate and we bring an open mic night to Light House on the last evening.’ All three of those venues have a poet writing an Overhear piece for them, we’re pleased to point out. ‘It’s a pretty collaborative thing,’ Emma says, ‘Wolverhampton is a city, and there’s a massive population but the town centre itself is quite small. Most of the creatives and venues do know each other and link up.’
Emma goes on to talk about her chosen venue, Light House Cinema, in more detail: ‘Light House is an independent cinema with two screens and a lovely café,’ she says. ‘It’s been going for about twenty-five years as a cinema, in this really beautiful building – Chubb Building. It’s very industrial architecture with a smashing courtyard. There’s two exhibition spaces too, so you can often take in some art while you’re here and they’re just really friendly, nice people.’
Having spent a decent amount of time there in the run-up to the festival, we can confirm this sentiment.
‘It needs supporting. Quite often people say oh, Wolverhampton doesn’t have a cinema but It does – and it’s here and it’s great. I come here to see films, of course, but I was also a volunteer usher here years ago, so there’s some history there. I’m often in here working because the café is good and it’s a lovely space – and they let me plug my computer in.’
‘For this, I spent a whole day – from when it opened – just sitting here and watching, listening. I didn’t tell people what I was up to, making notes and just thinking about the space and what went on with it,’ Emma tells us. ‘Some of the stuff that happens in my poem are things that I really saw on that day, some of the phone call bits that appear in the poem are things I overheard being said. It’s a nice way to work – not how I always do it but if I’m writing about a certain place, that’s what makes sense. To immerse myself in it and get under the skin of it. It was lovely to be able to take time out to be able to do that here.’
Emma worked closely with the manager of Light House – Kelly Jeffs, who became integral to the piece in more ways than one.
‘Once I hit on the idea of writing it as if it was a film, I was away with it, but it took a while to get that angle. I took it to Kelly – she’s featured in the poem as our plucky heroine – to make sure it was appropriate and made a couple of amends on the back of our conversation. It was quite interesting, working with someone who isn’t another poet or an editor but has a different perspective on it. You don’t get that chance a lot, being a poet – and it was great because she got what I’m trying to do.’
She goes on to say more about what exactly that is: ‘If people don’t already use the Light House, I’m hoping that the fact that they have to come here to collect the poem means they’ll see it and might see how lovely it is and go oh, I might stop here for a cup of tea – I like that. The poem also does a bit to explain how difficult it is for places like this to keep going because they’re not funded – if it encouraged people to use the place, that would be great,’ Emma says. ‘Unlike in films, there are no guarantees of a happy ending here; if we want it to stay open we’ve got support it as a community.’
To hear Emma’s poem ‘Lighthouse, Camera, Action!’ and to support the wonderful Light House Cinema, head over there from 27th January to collect the poem using the Overhear app, available to download here.
Steve Pottinger was also familiar with Overhear through hearing about another poet’s involvement, he tells us when we meet him in his chosen venue of The Posada: ‘I knew Rick had been a part of it but I don’t often go into Birmingham so I hadn’t downloaded the app or collected anything,’ he tells us. ‘Next I heard of it, Penelope from Wolverhampton Literature Festival mentioned they were going to be doing something with it here.’
‘I’m part of a collective with Emma Purshouse and Dave Pitt, and I think it was Dave who said in the first instance I’ve been asked to do a poem! I said brilliant, what is it? And he went I’m not sure!’ He laughs. ‘Then, of course, Tom got in contact with Emma and then me and as he explained it and told us about what they’d done before, it became clear that it was just a brilliant idea. It’s one of those things where, now that he’s done it, it’s so obvious – why hadn’t anyone done it before?’
‘I’m so pleased that Wolverhampton Literature Festival went for it,’ Steve tells us, ‘the first year it was very small – they just wanted to see if it would work, if it could attract an audience. It was all local, they were basically going right, anyone who’s around, do you fancy being involved? And we jumped at it.’
‘At the same time as being passionate about doing poems, we’re all really passionate about Wolverhampton,’ he says, ‘It’s very easy for people from other parts of the country to drive straight through here. It all looks like one big sprawl and they don’t really differentiate us from Birmingham – whereas anyone who lives here would go what?’ He makes a suitably offended face. ‘So, we’re really excited about Wolverhampton having its own literature festival. It’s grown each year as they’ve tried new things, figured out what works and what doesn’t. Every year we’ve come to them with a wish list and every year they’ve let us have a couple more things from it.’
He goes on to tell us a bit more about what Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists are doing this year: ‘One of the things we always do is the poetry slam which opens the whole festival. We do it a week before so we’re not fighting for audiences and this year it looks like it is going to sell out. On the same day, we’re doing Postcard Poets which is a chance to get out and bring poetry to people in the streets.’
‘The problem in areas like this,’ he says, ‘is you get a lot of people who think the arts isn’t for them. It’s theatre, it’s Shakespeare, it’s dull, it’s boring, it’s just got nothing to do with their lives, why would they be interested? We quite enjoy going do you know what? You might be surprised. Try a bit of this. Of course, you’ll get some people who are still not into it,’ he laughs, ‘but then you get people who go oh, right – this is something different. Or people who didn’t even know the festival was happening and are now interested.’
‘There’s some really great stuff that happens here. There’s a lot of talent,’ Steve tells us, ‘I like the mix that the festival have; they try to make sure it’s diverse so they’ve got something for everyone. They give us free reign with the fringe room, for example. We went, we’ve got these shows that we saw in Edinburgh and we’d like to bring them down and they just said alright then. Because it’s upstairs at the Lych Gate pub, and it’s free to come in, we get people who just came in for a drink and end up staying there all day to enjoy the shows. That always feels like a victory – and maybe the next year they’ll come back with a few friends!’
‘You have to take things like this out of the usual contexts or you end up with a little niche of poets all just talking to each other. It’s boring,’ he says. ‘I’ve never wanted to be part of some exclusive club, I just want people to enjoy the arts in whatever way they can. Just about everybody has some way in which they’re creative, whether it’s poetry, or doing rooms up or painting watercolours. If you find that and make it a part of your life, your sense of wellbeing is absolutely transformed. Giving people more ways to access that – through events in their local or poems in an app – has to be a good thing.’
We asked Steve to talk to us about the work he has done for Overhear this year.
‘It’s always lovely to be asked to do a commissioned poem – what poet doesn’t like that – and it’s an excuse to come in, sit somewhere and just see what comes to mind: what you notice, what you pick up on, what connections you come up with… it was superb. I love the idea that people will be able to come here, visit a pub they might not have otherwise come to and pick up on all those things too.’
‘When the list of venues was sent to us, The Posada was one of the ones that drew me in straight away,’ he tells us, ‘I don’t come in here all the time but I used to walk past the outside road and see those beautiful bronze-coloured glazed tiles and think what a gorgeous building. They’ve got all these original features, the leaded glass the tiles. In a lot of places, this all got ripped out so they could be modernized but here, the history is just oozing out of the walls – although funnily enough I couldn’t find that much about its history online.’
‘One thing I did find out was that the first ever automated traffic lights were those ones there, the black and white painted poles – ‘ he points out of the window to the street outside ‘– I thought, I’ve got to reference that. You can imagine that would have been a good day. It’s November, a guy comes out of the pub, sees that and goes ah, that’s newfangled rubbish.’ He laughs. ‘Other than that it was a bit of a blank slate, which is in itself a creative gift.’
Steve tells us about the inspiration behind his poem ‘If These Tiles Could Talk’.
‘The look of the pub is one of the things I always enjoyed, the glazed tiles outside and in here. I found myself going what have those tiles seen over all this time? Imagine if they could tell you. I started daydreaming about who might have come in here over the years, what might have happened. So I used the tiles as my way in, imagining they could talk.’ Steve’s poem is another with a cinematic feel: ‘From there, in my mind, it unrolled a bit like a film. The different characters would come in: the ones that were pretending they were somewhere else, the ones that drank their wages and went home to get strips torn off of them, those keeping themselves to themselves…’
‘I do like place poems that are very specific,’ Steve tells us, ‘I got second prize in the Prole Poetry Competition last year for a poem that was set on the 529 bus that I get on to take me home. It came from one incident where there was a guy – Eastern European, I think – on the top deck who had headphones on and was singing along to his music. There were about six of us there and we were all just finding it amazing because he was so emotive and it was so wonderful and hilarious and sweet.’
‘In my poem, the singing guy is homesick,’ he says, ‘and because of that the bus doesn’t stop, it just keeps going overnight, all the way through Europe and takes him home. So it was very specific, with reference to that bus route but in the end it connects to a much wider human experience, that sense of just sometimes I really miss where I’m from. This poem for The Posada does the same – I hope – it is about here but it’s also about people, which might be the more important bit.’
To experience a people-watch-along with Steve, head over to The Posada from 26th January to collect his poem ‘If These Tiles Could Talk’ using the Overhear app, available to download here.