Spoken Word Column: Back where we belong

Tony Walsh

It’s a moment that I keep fantasising about, time and time again. It’s just about vivid enough so that I can kid myself it’s a memory. But also feels utterly out of reach – pulls out of focus at the crucial time, warps into something else. Stepping out onto a real-life stage, in front of a real-life audience, at a poetry event.

To think that this will become a reality next week still hasn’t quite sunk in. I feel like I’m a teenager again – gearing up to be the compére at a West Yorkshire indie night or do a turn at an anti-racism rally.

I reckon it’ll be the first time in years that I’ve written a poem specifically for an event without having been commissioned. Which sounds terribly mercenary, but it only reflects the reality of performing for years on end. Sure, gigs are exciting, but not exciting enough to merit a brand-new poem every time they arrive.

So, when the curtains open at Leeds’ Carriageworks Theatre on Thursday 10 June. And the house music fades down, and the microphone waits faithfully on its stand. I’ll take a deep breath, stride out onto the stage, and deliver the poem. To people. In front of me. And I can’t bloody wait.

Kayo Chingonyi (credit: Naomi Woddis) and Maria Ferguson (credit: Matthew Thomas)

Anyway, enough about me. The real attraction of the night is the guest performers: Tony Walsh, Kayo Chingonyi, and Maria Ferguson. Three of the most talented and enthralling poets on the UK scene right now. I’ll merely be on hosting duties – pulling the night together and revelling in the response.

It’ll be the first in-person ‘LIVEwire’ event for 16 months. The last one, much as we had no clue at the time, was part of Verve Poetry Festival in Birmingham in February 2020. When I was offered the chance to programme something at Carriageworks, I was absolutely buzzing. It’s a cracking venue in the heart of Leeds city centre that I’ve always wanted to perform in.

We were three quarters of the way through our most ambitious series of ‘LIVEwire’ events to date when the pandemic slammed the brakes on. So, there’s an extra added incentive to make this one our best yet – go the extra mile to show what poetry is capable of.

Don’t get me wrong, the virtual events over the last year or so have been immense. I’ve watched people reading all over the globe and been introduced to a tonne of poets as a result. But there’s nothing quite like hearing somebody read live, in person.

Originally, Nymphs & Thugs was supposed to be a record label that showcased Northern voices. The name “nymphs and thugs” was a slur that I’d heard used against Northerners, and I wanted to subvert that with alternative Northern poetry. However, it was at a Philosophy Football event at Rich Mix in East London, in December 2015, that I saw Salena Godden for the first time. That night changed everything, and when Salena joined the label, it grew into what it is today.

It was at Glastonbury Festival in 2013 when I saw Kae Tempest perform in the Poetry & Words tent and had one of those cinematic epiphanies. I was 24 years old and having an identity crisis – I’d just gone from managing a small-sided football venue in Leeds to managing a vintage shop in Sheffield. I was drifting, with Skint & Demoralised fading out, and had no clue who I was.

Kae’s performance at Glastonbury that summer made me realise that poetry was what I wanted to pursue. Please don’t let that be mistaken for me thinking I watched Kae and thought, “I can do that!” Far from it – it just sparked up a passion that I knew would come to define me. Cheesy as that sounds.

December will mark 15 years since I first performed poetry on stage. That I’ve not done so for the last chunk of that period means that I’ve caught the buzz again. And I don’t mean to make this all about me. I’m just trying to convey how much it means to us, to the poets, to be back on stage in front of an audience again.

Tony Walsh has wowed crowds around the globe over the last few years. From standing ovations at the BAFTAs to gigging with Bono – he’s on a one-man mission to prove that poetry can take centre stage in any arena.

Kayo Chingonyi has a huge list of accolades for his work. A winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize, he’s also been shortlisted for awards including the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, the Costa Poetry Prize, and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Poetry Collection Prize.

Maria Ferguson is a multi-award-winning poet and theatre-maker from Essex. Her latest one-woman show ‘Essex Girl’ sold out the opening night of its UK tour at Seven Arts in Leeds. Commissions include the Royal Academy of Art and BBC Radio 1, and her début collection ‘Alright, Girl?’ was highly commended by the Forward Prize for Poetry.

It’ll be a top night. I’ve no doubt about it. And for those of you who are slightly nervous about coming – full social distancing measures are in place, and it’s a limited capacity of 105 in the theatre’s main space. For anybody who’s reading this and isn’t based in Leeds, my apologies! We’ll gradually start touring the UK again as soon as we can.

For now, though, it’s all eyes on God’s Own County. It’s a moment that I keep fantasising about, time and time again. And on Thursday 10 June, it becomes real. Tickets are available here.


Matt Abbott is a poet, educator, and activist from Wakefield. His début one-man show ‘Two Little Ducks’ earned 5* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and on a 2018 UK theatre tour. The show’s poems were published as his début collection by Verve Poetry Press in 2018.

Matt’s début kids’ poetry collection ‘A Hurricane in my Head’ was published by Bloomsbury in 2019. It was a selected title for National Poetry Day and features on Empathy Lab’s Read for Empathy Collection 2021.

He founded Nymphs & Thugs in 2015, fronts indie band Skint & Demoralised, co-presents Roaring 20s Radio on Soho Radio, and also works with Write Out Loud.