Birmingham: City of a thousand poets?

Roz Goddard reports

Anyone who's passed through Birmingham recently will have noticed the city going through something of a transformation. New buildings are blossoming all over and the Bull Ring's shiny new department store will be Brum's own Guggenheim, apparently, – so there's a good strong pulse about the place. Ditto the City's lively poetry scene.


The biggest literature event of the autumn is the Birmingham Book Festival running between 10–25 October, at venues across the city. Linton Kwesi Johnson opens the festival on National Poetry Day and as part of Black History Month with one of his renowned electric performances at the CBSO centre. The book fest will also feature a host of local, national and international voices, book launches from local poets, a live broadcast of 'Poetry Please' on Sunday, 13 October, and a recording of Radio 3's 'The Verb' with Ian McMillan at the Orange Studio on Friday 18 October. Rhubarb and Digbeth return for a fourth year with a platform at Waterstone's in the High Street for local writers to read their work without the need of a big name visiting poet. The festival has become a must in the diaries of literature lovers across the city and beyond – it's run by Jonathan Davidson, Helen Thomas and their team at Book Communications who are responsible for a host of excellent literature related initiatives across the region, more of which later.


Back in 1997, Birmingham was the first city in Britain to launch the Poet Laureate initiative and to date six poets have held the honorary post. It's been an excellent way of raising poetry's profile in the city and each laureate has put their own mark on the position. The first, Brian Lewis, published an elegant collection, The Waters of Birmingham leaving us some evocative poems about the city's landmarks. If you come to the city soon put a visit to Victoria Square on your itinerary, you really need to see the "floosie in the jacuzzi", so named by Brian after one of the city's most celebrated features, a majestic stone woman reclining in her bath. The current holder, the Trinidadian poet and drummer Roi Kwabena, is due to hand over the mantle in October after a memorable year, in which he was commissioned to write a poem to be included in Birmingham's bid to become the Capital of Culture in 2008, along with poems for the Queen's Jubilee and Children in Need. Roi is also writer in residence at The Drum, a vibrant venue in Aston which holds its 'Spoken Word' event every second Wednesday of the month, where local writers get to meet and discuss their work with writers from around the world.

Live poetry is also alive and kicking at the Midlands Arts Centre, in Cannon Hill park, programmed with some flair by Sybil Ruth, herself a former laureate. Sibyl sees poetry as a key element in a programme featuring storytelling and prose. The 'Poetry Bites' event where local and nationally renowned writers read on the same bill has been a huge success. The autumn programme includes Jo Shapcott, Sean O'Brien and Dannie Abse, with novelist Jed Mercurio. A National Poetry Day celebration features 'Poetry Without Borders' in collaboration with Sampad.


Birmingham gears itself up in a big way for National Poetry Day. This year the library service will be unveiling Birmingham's biggest poem, 'It comes to this'. Written by David Fine and stretching for over 120 metres, it will be suspended from the central library and visible to everyone passing through Paradise Forum. Anu Singh, Literature Development Officer for Birmingham Libraries also tells me that within two years every library in the authority will have a poetry place – that means a dedicated place to sit and read and write, a venue for reading groups, access to new work and a programme of live literature – in every library, right across the city. Impressive stuff.

The West Midlands Arts region has been particularly good at nurturing the next generation of poets and writers. In the south of the region, at Ledbury, Dr. Charles Bennett runs "the best poetry festival in the country" (so says Andrew Motion). As well as the star spangled two weeks in July (4–13 July 2003, featuring Jo Shapcott as poet in residence), there is a year-round programme of schools work, reading groups and workshops. Young writers get valuable performance experience when they read and perform their work in a gala event at the end of the year. While in the city, the highly successful 'Write on too' project places poets, playwrights, journalists and novelists in primary and secondary schools, from Bordesley Green to Longbridge, on six-week placements. The innovative two-year programme conceived by Birmingham Education Department and delivered by Book Communications, now has a dedicated website and anthology due for publication later this year. Children really are having their say and they're now on level terms with adults with their own book festival in the city in May/June 2003.


For poets who want to get published there are opportunities in the region. Raw Edge magazine is the well-established twice yearly mag of new writing, which only publishes work from the midlands. Editor Dave Reeves has steered the mag over six years and never compromises on quality of work or splendid design for which the publication is well known. The next issue is out in October 2002, pick one up (it's free) from any library in the region.


If you want some professional feedback about your work, West Midlands Arts run a reading service. You send in a selection of work, and for a small fee (which WMA subsidise), you get a report from a professional writer. I used it seven years ago, it was honest and encouraging, and is to be recommended.


The recently re-vamped lit-net, the dedicated literature site for the West Midlands region, will give you up-to-date listings and events and poetry performance spaces, including a new one in Wolverhampton for the autumn, and details of Spouting Forth, the Black Country's poetry-in-the-theatre venue in Langley, as well as the thriving Wednesbury group which meets at the Library in Walsall Street. Happy surfing.


Roz Goddard's second collection of poetry, Girls in the Dark, was recently published by Dagger.



Book Communications: Tel: 0121 246 2770  [email protected]
The Drum: 100 Potters Lane, Aston Birmingham. Tel: 0121 333 2400
MAC: Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston, Birmingham. Box Office: 0121 440 3838
Literature Development: (Birmingham Libraries) Tel: 0121 303 4606
Ledbury Poetry Festival: Tel: 01531 634156
Raw Edge Magazine: PO Box 4867, Birmingham, B33HD
Lit-Net (literature site for the Midlands):
West Midlands Arts: 82 Granville Street, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 631 3121



Poetry News, Autumn 2002