In this week’s blog post we celebrate community and creativity with poets Ian Henery and Leanne Cooper as they tell us about their work for The Arena Theatre and Newhampton Arts Centre. Not only that but, in the spirit of collaboration, we are also joined by Sam Fleming, Education and Outreach Manager at The Arena, who gives us a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be part of a venue working with an Overhear poet. We begin then, sat with Sam and Ian around a table in the café of The Arena Theatre…
‘I applied for the position of Wolverhampton’s first ever poet laureate,’ Ian tells us, ‘and while I wasn’t successful (congratulations, Emma Purshouse) I did get shortlisted. Penelope Thomas – of Wolverhampton Literature Festival – got in touch and told me there was an opportunity to work with the Overhear project and I said what in God’s name is that?’ He laughs. ‘I’d never heard of the project before. So I had a Google and read about the excellent work Overhear had done with Birmingham Literature Festival and Verve and I was immediately intrigued. I replied to the email Penelope had sent and the rest, as they say, is history.’
‘I’ve done a lot of commission work in the past,’ he says, ‘I’ve done a lot of workshops, been a poet in residence; writing to a brief is something that’s very familiar to me. The guidance from Overhear was to work collaboratively, make contacts in your chosen venue and talk to them. Find out ways you can work with them to create a piece that’s useful to them as well as a creative output for you.’
Ian already had some connections with The Arena and the connected University of Wolverhampton, as he explains: ‘I was a student here, I was poetry editor for the student union publication, I was commissioned by the university for the 2012 commonwealth games and Neil Reading – Artistic Director for Arena – has seen some of my work. Last year, I was very grateful to The Arena for providing a venue for an event with an organisation I head up here in the Midlands called Poets Against Racism. We performed during the second day of Wolverhampton Literature Festival and it was absolutely rammed with people from all sectors of the community – which was brilliant.’
‘To do this project right, it seemed clear to me that I needed to visit The Arena, get in touch with the people who work here and have a conversation. I had a meeting with Sam, who is part of the outreach team at the theatre, had a chat with her about the work she does and her view of the place and that was when I started to get to the heart of what The Arena is.’
We asked Ian to elaborate.
‘In simple terms The Arena is a building,’ he says, ‘but it’s more than bricks and mortar. To say a bit more, The Arena is a former gymnasium which has become a multi-million pound state-of-the-art community hub that deals in all sorts of things,’ he holds up a printed brochure of the Arena’s Programme, ‘from films to theatre to dance to poetry – but it’s more than that too. For me, The Arena is a philosophy, an ethos, a way of doing things. It’s a set of values that Neil and Sam and the team all hold dear. It’s a mission statement, to provide a platform and an opportunity for the whole community here in Wolverhampton to have a chance to come together and celebrate the culture that is here.’
Uniquely, we have the chance to ask Education and Outreach Manager Sam first-hand about how she would define the venue:
‘The Arena is really important to the community,’ she says. ‘We’re the community theatre of Wolverhampton, I think. We do a lot of great work with so many different groups – disabled communities, refugees, the local LGBT and BAME communities – as well as putting ourselves at the heart of the university. All of that is reflected really well in the poem Ian has written, I think.’
We ask her to tell us more about what her job at The Arena entails and the outreach work that the venue does.
‘Most of what I do is community engagement and schools engagement. I work quite a lot with primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and students at the university,’ Sam explains. ‘We’ve got quite a few local companies that come along as well. There’s a local artist group that meets up every second Tuesday, where people can present and get notes on scripts that they might have been sitting on for six weeks, six months or six years and a local poetry night run by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists.’ Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger and Dave Pitt, who make up that collective also have Overhear poems pinned to venues in Wolverhampton, which you can read more about here. ‘Their night, PASTA (Poets And Storytellers Assemble), is for local writers to share their work and get some feedback too. It’s all about setting up those safe spaces for local artists and communities.’
Sam continues: ‘At the moment we’re doing quite a lot of work with the refugee and migrant centre. The centre itself is very well hidden for the obvious reasons of protecting people from hate crimes and such but we’re now on a touring map that marks us a safe place for those folks to come when they first come to Wolverhampton,’ she says. ‘We want people to see our theatre and café as somewhere safe that they can come to with their families and embed themselves into the culture. The Light House Cinema down the road are doing something very similar too – which is a real testament to the kind of community we are.’
Ian tells us what this community means to him: ‘I owe so much to Wolverhampton. I was conceived here, my first married home was here – and not very far away from my parents’ corner shop. When I was a student at the University of Wolverhampton, I used to look out of the window and think I haven’t travelled very far. I’m nothing more than a well-developed embryo.’ He laughs before continuing. ‘I was able to convert my (next to useless) philosophy degree into a law degree here, I met my wife here… Wolverhampton means a lot to me. I wanted to give something back through poetry – the only way I know how – and Overhear was a perfect way to do that. I’m very grateful and humbled that I’ve been able to contribute to the amazing work The Arena is doing.’
He goes on to tell us more about the poem itself.
‘To write the piece, I needed a frame into which I could place all these wonderful ideas we’ve been talking about,’ Ian says. ‘The form I chose was a rondeaux, which consists of fourteen lines across three stanzas with a repeating refrain. Probably the most famous rondeaux is the WWI poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae but the problem with it (if there can be a problem with it) is that it’s a bit of a dirge. If you go back to the rondeaux’s origins in the 15th Century, it should be a piece of celebration, a piece of joy. I wanted to reclaim that for Sam and for everyone else at The Arena.’
“The Arena host’s first class shows: Performing arts, seats row on row. Champion of community, A venue where theatre grows...”
‘I was the first person to see the finished piece, which was quite an honour.’ Sam tells us, ‘I’m really happy with it. I think it reflects what The Arena does and what we’re all about really well. I believe that first meeting we had, hearing each other’s opinions, was something that really helped. It was clear pretty quickly that we valued the same things – diversity, equality, accessibility, inclusion – and that we were both keen for that to come through in the final piece.’
Ian agrees, saying ‘I think it’s important, with all the challenges that face us now, to find good people to support, good people to collaborate with, good people to stand by. There’s a lot of negative spirituality going around and it’s important for us to come together with a common cause. If this new decade is going to be defined by damaging populist politicians, we need to form an equal and opposite force for good. Creative collaboration is vital.’
To listen to the result of Ian’s creative collaboration with The Arena Theatre and Overhear, collect his poem from the venue from 25th January using the Overhear app, available to download here.
To see more from Ian, visit his website Ianhenerypoet.com
To find out more about The Arena and their work visit their website http://arena.wlv.ac.uk
Our second poet was also put in touch with Overhear after applying to be Wolverhampton’s Poet Laureate.
‘The literature festival emailed me to say that they had another opportunity I could get involved with if I was interested. Of course I said yes,’ Leanne says, ‘it sounded interesting and different, like nothing I’d seen before in any other poetry projects. I’m trying to get my name out there at the moment and it sounded like a really cool thing to try out. I’d heard good things from other poets too – Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger and Dave Pitt. It was nice to be involved with Wolverhampton Literature Festival too; I came to a few things last year and the year before I performed as part of Poets Against Racism which Ian Henery heads up locally.’
We asked her to tell us about her chosen venue, Newhampton Arts Centre.
‘I was really excited to get Newhampton Arts Centre,’ she says, ‘because it’s a creative space, I really felt like I could get a lot out of it. I’d never been there before so it was all new to me. Unfortunately, I got quite ill right after I’d signed up to be part of Overhear, so I ended up having to do a lot of my research online – it was only in the final few days before I was booked in to record my poem for the app that I actually managed to go down to the venue and have a look around.’
‘The community they have there is really inspiring. When I was looking at their website, reading about what they do and looking at the reviews, it was really clear the support they had for other artists and it’s even more evident when you actually go to visit the place,’ Leanne says. ‘I saw that they had a resident choir called The Howling Wolves, and that was what really sparked the poem for me, that idea of creatives being like a pack of wolves – and tying it all to Wolverhampton being the home of the Wolves, of course.’
“The strength of the beast is in the pack with which it runs. Members supporting members, Picking up slack And watching each other’s backs. We are as wild and as curious as wolves - Artists that is...”
This project was a departure from her regular style, as Leanne explains: ‘My poetry is usually very personal. It’s about things that have happened to me for my partner or my children whereas this was a request to write about somebody else. I sort of managed to find that personal angle with it anyway, though,’ she laughs, ‘because those same themes of family and love come out again, this time about a community of artists. That’s what I’ve found in the poetry scene in the West Midlands, anyway – everyone acts like a big family. I’m part of the Walsall Poetry Society which is headed by Richard Archer, but poets from as far away as Stafford and Cannock embrace us as part of their family too. It’s pretty wonderful.’
‘I think part of it is we’re all underfunded,’ she says, ‘which means we have to stick together, but it’s also a case of… we’re all a bit weird and a bit different. I like that. I’ve got a soft spot for people who are misfits and underdogs and I like to see them get their chance to shine.’ She continues, ‘I really hope that my appreciation for artists and for Wolverhampton comes across in this poem. I spent a lot of my teen years in Wolverhampton – it was the place to be, growing up – and I’ve loved supporting and being supported by other poets in this area.’
She leaves us with this: ‘It feels like this project is a great way for poets in the city to collaborate with venues and with each other. The walking tours sound like a really great extension of that community spirit. I like the idea of having a group of people walking around the city led by poets involved in the project and I like the idea of unofficial groups getting together to collect the poems from different venues. I can’t wait to collect them all!’
To collect Leanne’s poem ‘Howling Wolves’, visit the Newhampton Arts Centre from 29th January and open the Overhear app, available to download here.
To see more from Leanne visit her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/LeanneCooper.Author/