By Kibriya Mehrban
If you needed proof of the universal truth that cafes are vital to the creative work of a city, you can take it from us: We headed to Yorks Cafe to catch up with one poet and spotted two more (planning a workshop for Birmingham Literature Festival) before we even got through the door. So what does Nellie Cole – the Overhear poet who has chosen to write about Yorks – have to say about coffee, creativity and how it links to Birmingham’s industrial past?
‘I first heard about Overhear a while ago, when they first started doing recordings,’ Nellie tells us, ‘people popping up, writing poems for them and talking about their ethos. The geotagging sounded really interesting. I like to write a poem that’s connected to place but this is slightly out of my comfort zone because it’s about businesses and organisations rather than natural settings.’
Nellie talks to us about the role place plays in her earlier poetry, describing her debut collection Bella (Offa’s Press, 2018) as ‘a true murder mystery that’s based in a very specific location. Everything that links to the story links into that place.’ She continues: ‘Quite often when I’m writing, I do have a specific place in mind where I’d be stood as I was writing the poem but obviously that doesn’t always come across in the final piece.’ Perhaps the perfect candidate for working with Overhear, then – what better tool for a place-preoccupied poet than the ability to pin their work to the location it’s inspired by?
Yet there are some aspects of this commission that are very different to Nellie’s previous work. ‘The places in my poetry are usually more in the countryside – less about the landmarks and more about the landscape,’ she admits, ‘I was wondering how to approach it, so I did some research on the Yorks website.’
‘One thing I found early on was that they roast their own coffee beans; they wanted to do it all in house. The way they spoke about it was that instead of seeing it as a “scene”, they actually wanted to treat it as an industry, pulling together the passions and expertise of their staff to run it as a business.’
‘It was the word industry that sparked my interest,’ she says, ‘because of Birmingham being an industrial region. You know – we used to make X and now we make coffee!’ Nellie goes on to tell us that this is the basis for her poem: an exploration of the differences and the (somewhat surprising) similarities between what Birmingham has been and what it is now.
A poem in two halves, it talks about the natural process that produced coal here so many years ago and the process that makes coffee now. ‘The beans are burnt like coal was, here in Birmingham, to create a new kind of fuel,’ she says, gesturing to the people sipping from mugs at tables all around us.
Taking a commission about a central cafe and making it relevant to her own interest in the natural history of the environment isn’t the only twist that Nellie has managed to pull off with her Overhear poem. As she reveals with a flourish of her first draft, she has also made the decision to write her piece as a concrete poem in the shape of a coffee bean, the two halves of her poem sitting side by side separated by the split in the centre. Naturally, we were delighted. But how does she feel about her poem being delivered in audio rather than visual form?
‘It will lose its shape, obviously’ she concedes, laughing, ‘but it will still be two distinct parts, and I’ve tried to have a lot of echoing and internal rhyme within the stanzas – it does still tie itself together into a very neat, condensed little thing. I think the shape was as much to give me a way into the poem as it was for readers. It’s cool if people can see how it’s written – and I’ll be able to show them on the walking tours – but it was really my structure. It made it fun to write.’
‘The idea that popped into my mind after doing a little sketch of a coffee bean – two stanzas, two sides of the split, mirroring the production of coal with the harvest of coffee beans. I go from a very rural prehistoric time through the industrial revolution and all the way up to our present day by the end of the poem. It’s a little bit of starting with what I know and going on from there.’
Nellie leaves us with this thought: ‘Birmingham is a very different city to what it was back then, and Yorks kind of represents that. It’s very hip, it’s very modern but it does have that old tradition as well. That’s what I’m hoping to get across with my piece.’
Nellie Cole’s poem is available to collect from Yorks Cafe using the Overhear app.
Nellie can be found at https://nelliecole.com/