Spoken Word Column: Celebrating Yorkshire poetry
I know what you’re thinking. How is it August already?! I know. It’s madness. But at least we can take some comfort from the fact that the start of August is also Yorkshire Day. A county that’s so much more than flat caps, whippets and dodgy Plusnet adverts. And a county that’s contributed far more than a day’s worth of cultural and sporting icons.
So, to celebrate Yorkshire Day 2020, I’ve chosen some of my favourite Yorkshire-born poets to share with you. As a Wakefield-born poet myself, I cut my teeth on the Yorkshire spoken word poetry scene in my mid-20s and am lucky enough to count some of these poets as close friends. Have a listen and a read, and if you can, buy some of their merch! Ta.
Toria grew up in Knottingley: a deprived ex-mining town in West Yorkshire. The rapid and brutal dismantling of the coalmining industry left towns like Knottingley in a void of unemployment and drug abuse. Knottingley itself suffers from severe heroin addiction, which Toria confronts in her heart-wrenching and brutally honest poetry.
Her debut spoken word album ‘Hot Plastic Moon’ was released by Nymphs & Thugs in 2016, followed by her debut collection ‘The Universe and Me’, published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2018. On both, Toria unapologetically narrates in distinct Yorkshire dialect: stories about her world, in her voice and on her terms. For me, that’s exactly how poetry should be.
I first heard Toria in a workshop at Holmfirth Arts Festival in 2014. It now feels like the poetry equivalent of the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976, except, unlike the Pistols, Toria’s the real thing.
Kirsty grew up in Bradford, on the other side of West Yorkshire. Heavily influenced by hip-hop and grime, Kirsty’s delivery is unique and enthralling, and brings a powerful musicality to subject matters which are often delicate and hard-hitting. Her experiences as a care worker shed a light on stories which are largely untold, and Kirsty’s poetry always promises vital answers to questions that those in charge never bother to ask.
Kirsty was one of three writers selected for the New Voices scheme by BBC Radio 3’s The Verb in 2017 and is one of five poets on this year’s Apples & Snakes’ Poetry in Performance scheme, supported by Jerwood Arts. In short, she’s a poet to look out for.
I first had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Kirsty at Wakefield’s iconic Red Shed in 2013, and since then I’ve never ceased to be amazed by what she delivers.
Andrew grew up in a small town outside Barnsley, down in South Yorkshire. His poetry masterfully navigates the theme of masculinity, both in a physical and psychological sense, as well as exploring homosexuality, coming of age, and pondering what might have been. I don’t know anywhere near enough about poetry in a technical sense to be able to do his work justice, but his two collections, ‘physical’ (2015) and ‘playtime’ (2018, both Jonathan Cape) are two of the most imposing and breath-taking I’ve read.
Andrew is the only poet on this list whose work I fell in love with on the page. Usually, I fall in love with someone’s work on stage and am compelled to buy it in print. ‘physical’ was the first book that my fiancée Maria leant me when we started seeing each other in 2017 and it wasn’t long before I was hook, line, and sinker
Nadine Aisha Jassat
Also native to West Yorkshire, Nadine is a poet whose work champions social justice whilst also exploring themes including family, voice, heritage, and resilience. Her storytelling is visceral and illuminating, and her poetry boldly confronts some of the most difficult and complex issues in the world with phenomenal skill.
Amongst many other accolades, Nadine was featured in Jackie Kay’s International Literature Showcase Selection of ten BAME writers working in the UK. Her debut collection ‘Let Me Tell You This’ was published by 404 Ink in 2018.
I first saw Nadine perform in the back room of a pub as part of Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2019. The microphone wasn’t very loud and there was noise spill from the smoking area, but the audience were hung on every single syllable and you could’ve heard a pin drop. It was a stunning and unforgettable performance, and I’ve been a huge fan since.
Helen grew up in Chesterfield but was born in Sheffield and is currently based there, so I’m cheekily claiming a result for Yorkshire. In fairness, Helen’s debut collection ‘Division Street’ (Chatto & Windus, 2013) is named after a road in Sheffield and contains many poems based both in the Steel City and elsewhere in South Yorkshire. Specifically, her long poem ‘Scab’ – about violent clashes during the miners’ strike in the 1980s – is one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever read, in any form.
Helen’s second collection ‘No Map Could Show Them’ (Chatto & Windus, 2016) is another stunning collection. Featuring tales of trailblazing women and mountaineering, it’s a million miles from the hazy comfort of The Grapes and is every bit as hard-hitting as the stones launched at Orgreave.
I first saw Helen perform in a café in Pudsey in 2014, which inspired a highly transformative period of my career.
Matt Abbott is a poet, educator, and activist from Wakefield. His debut collection ‘Two Little Ducks’ (Verve Poetry Press, 2018) explores the working-class Leave vote against the backdrop of his eyewitness accounts from the Calais Jungle. Originally a spoken word stage show, it earned a string of 5* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 and on a UK theatre tour in 2018.
Matt’s debut kids’ poetry collection ‘A Hurricane in my Head’ (Bloomsbury, 2019) was a National Poetry Day selected title in 2019, which led to a live appearance on ‘Blue Peter’ and his patronage for this year’s prestigious Foyle Young Poets award. Matt runs spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs and fronts indie band Skint & Demoralised.