This week’s blog post is a tasty treat with two very different poets talking about how they approached writing for two of our food and drink venues, Zuri Coffee and Tony’s Delicatessen. We sat down with Kuli Kohli and Hannah Mary Taylor to talk about connecting over coffee, creating community spaces on the High Street and the best places to get lunch in Wolverhampton…
‘When Overhear first got in touch I wasn’t sure how you’d found me!’ Kuli tells us. ‘It wasn’t until later that I figured out it must have been Emma Purshouse who put my name forward. I had heard of the project before but didn’t know too much about it. When I got that first email I downloaded the app straight away to have a look. It sounded like such an interesting idea – I’d never done anything like it before – so I thought, yes, go for it!’
She tells us a little bit about her history with her chosen venue: ‘I’ve known and been a regular at Zuri’s for two or three years. The Punjabi Women’s Writing Group I run have been meeting here to write for the last year and a half. I like it because it’s Indian, so there’s some familiar food here – and of course, chai. The atmosphere is always good and the staff are really friendly. The owner, Sham, is someone who is really present here so you feel like you get to know him as part of the place when you visit – so of course, he gets a mention in the final lines of my poem.’
“Come in… you’re welcomed into timeless beauty and calm, to experience the art of India for nashta, roti with Sham.”
‘Because I already knew the place well, everything started ticking away in my head as soon as I’d chosen it. Usually my brain starts working everything out long before I try to put anything down; then when I do sit down to write, it all flows out of me,’ she says. ‘At first I wasn’t sure how to begin but once I’d settled on the form of a mini-ghazal, it all fell into place. A ghazal has a refrain, which for this poem was Come in… you’re welcomed, the line repeated at the beginning of every stanza – for me, it really captures the relaxing, inviting atmosphere I feel when I come here.’
‘It was also a great opportunity to mess around with language. The menu items I mention are already in non-English languages – as they’re non-English dishes! – so I used Punjabi and Hindi words throughout,’ Kuli tells us. ‘For me it was an important part of capturing the environment here – even the musical sound of the poem is a kind of reference to the Bollywood music that’s always playing in the background here! It really does feel like a little bit of India is meeting you in Wolverhampton, and that’s something I hope comes across in my poem.’
We ask Kuli if her work is often influenced by place.
‘I’ve lived in the Black Country since I was a child and it’s a part of me. I think the landscape, canals and streets, the cultures and dialects within the different languages all play a big part in my writing. I’m really proud to have made a space for myself and my voice in this area.’ She goes on to talk about the space she is making for other writers in Wolverhampton too: ‘Starting the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group has been wonderful and I am so excited to have a reading event at Wolverhampton Literature Festival, where my ladies can showcase the great work they’ve been doing in our sessions. I’m really looking forward to people seeing what we’ve been able to do.’
‘For me it goes both ways,’ Kuli says, ‘place inspires my poetry and my poetry has taken me to so many amazing places. I’ve performed in Wolverhampton, Liverpool, London, Germany and India. As a disabled, Asian woman, my message has always been that every human deserves to be heard and to express themselves; everyone has a story and those stories deserve to be told and to be listened to. The fact that my work is so well received by so may different audiences and that I’m able to contribute my story means a lot to me.’
To hear what Kuli has to say about Zuri’s Coffee, visit there from 27th January to collect her poem using the Overhear app, available to download here.
To see more of Kuli’s work visit her website http://www.kulikohli.co.uk/.
The second of today’s featured poets has the double privilege of being involved in Overhear both as a poet and as artistic director of a venue:
‘Tom got in touch with Asylum Art Gallery and Studios as venues,’ Hannah tells us, ‘and asked Corin – who co-runs the spaces with me – about local poets who might be interested in getting involved. Corin put my name forward, sent him my website and that was that.’ As Hannah co-runs an Overhear venue as well as being an Overhear poet, she has more than one reason to be interested in the project, as she explains: ‘The geo-tagging aspect is something we’re really interested in as a venue too, especially as we’ve got a massive art show coming to Wolverhampton next year. It’s important to get these sorts of things integrated into the city. It’s not something that’s been done here before so it was just a really interesting project for me to be able to understand.’
She tells us about her dual role in the arts: ‘I started as a performer first, and that’s how I got involved with the gallery. I fell into organizing events from that. When you’re performance-based, you’re not exactly inundated with opportunities to share your work so you end up organizing a lot of things yourself,’ she laughs. ‘It was a natural progression of oh, no one else is doing the work so I guess I’ll just get on with it.’
Hannah gives us a little more insight into what it’s like to be involved in Overhear from the side of the venue. ‘Asylum Art Gallery had Bones and Asylum Studios had Jeff Phelps,’ she says. ‘I know Bones really well because he’s another person who takes the initiative and gets on with arranging his own events. Wolverhampton is quite small so if you’re a poet you do end up working with a lot of the same people a lot of the time. I think you can see from his poem that he’s got a lot of history with us.’
‘Jeff, on the other hand, I met for the first time on one of the dry-runs for the walking tours. That was quite nice because we had a chat and walked to the Studios and I gave him a little bit of background on the space and what we’re trying to do with it. He seemed to really get it and we were really chuffed with his poem – it was perfect.’ Click here to read about their work for Overhear.
Hannah returns to talking about her own creative practice and the challenges and opportunities that come with writing a commissioned piece.
‘As poets, you can get a bit stuck within your own perspective and your own perception of things,’ she says. ‘You rarely get asked to work on behalf of someone else, so I thought that was really lovely and a challenge too. One of the most valuable lessons I learned while I was doing my degree was that boundaries and restrictions are some of the most helpful things when it comes to getting focused and forming the work you’re doing.’
So did the guides of this commission have an effect on Hannah’s writing process?
‘What I tend to do is just wait until I feel angry and then write from that. None of my poetry is very pleasant,’ she laughs. ‘I have to feel impassioned and committed to something before I can write it. So this piece wasn’t about the sandwiches I’ve had a Tony’s – although they’re lovely – because that’s not what I feel strongly about. What it is about are the chats I’ve had with Tony in the street, the struggles I know he’s been having, and that I relate to.’
Hannah draws comparisons between the venues she co-runs and Tony’s Deli: ‘With Asylum and the Studios, the whole idea is to take space that’s derelict and not being used and try to make it interesting, add back to the High Street in the city centre. That’s what Tony’s doing too. He’s set up his own business and he’s trying to make it a community space. He comes up against a lot of the same obstacles we do, trying to survive in what is pretty much a dying High Street. Talking about that and fighting for Tony felt authentic and honest and worthwhile. I felt like I was standing up for him.’
She talks about how the piece gave her scope to talk about broader issues too.
‘Tony deserves championing as an individual, but it also feels like he’s an example, a representative to hold up for every single independent businessman that as a community, we should be supporting. We’ve lost a lot of them in Wolverhampton recently and that’s a bit tragic.’ She goes on: ‘Obviously, I want people to buy stuff from Tony’s café. I don’t think I could have been more overt with that in the poem. But I also hope that it sheds light on the wider context, that it’s not just Tony’s Deli but every other independent businessperson trying to set something up and trying to rebuild the High Street – essentially, rebuild the community.’
‘This is where people meet up and talk and share. Corporations and franchises and brands aren’t going to support that. They’re not going to know your name or care what’s happening with the kids but places like Tony’s do. If we want to promote cohesion and community, especially when things are so tense politically, people need to be going into cafes like that, sitting and talking with your neighbours. Otherwise it’s all just going to disappear.’
“You wonder why these empty shops reflect a community’s identity that’s breaking, As you avoid the streets of boarded up shops that used to house a poor man’s dreams of moneymaking, And as meeting places get torn down and Metro banks replace our spaces meant for sharing How do we justify our responsibility to our cohesive community slowing fading?”
‘That idea of making spaces where people can meet and share and create things is something that is vital to my work,’ Hannah tells us. ‘It’s about having a little bit more control and autonomy over the city – which is why it was so great to get involved with Overhear too. It’s a project that’s encouraging people to go outside and actually engage with the people and places around them. I did a walk two years in a row for International Women’s Day, where we walked around the city in silence, stopping at places affected by women’s right to vote. Those were really intense experiences of both remembrance and hope as a community, and hopefully the Overhear walking tours do something similar.’
She leaves us with this thought: ‘I think it’s a really great project and I hope that the concept gets integrated more fully with the Council long term. I think it’s a really fantastic starting point to what could be a really fundamental change to the way we see our cities and engage with them.’
To experience a new way to engage with the city and hear Hannah’s poem by visiting Tony’s Delicatessen from 29th January and opening the Overhear app, available to download here.
You can see more from Hannah on her website https://www.hermasks.co.uk/.