Spoken Word Column: Chelping in libraries and windows with WKD

It’s safe to say that poetry can do many things. It could be a complete stranger, providing a razor-sharp perspective on something that’s been lurking in the back of your mind for as long as you can remember. Or it could be a complete stranger providing a window into a world which until this point had been a mystery to you. The poets aren’t always complete strangers, obviously, but you get my point. And also, poetry is where people say things that they wouldn’t otherwise say in everyday conversation. It’s like taking a mask off, and at the risk of sounding massively pretentious, the person under the mask may well be a complete stranger even if you know the person wearing it.

Anyway, both of these examples are valuable in their own right. The first example ignores geographical barriers; it’s shared human experiences which can occur on a beach in Aberystwyth or at a bus stop in Aberdeen. But it’s the second example that I’m going to talk about, because it’s something that I’ve specifically been seeking out with my spoken word programming of late.

One of my main projects in the last few years has been Chelping at The Leeds Library. Chelping is a semi-regular night which we originally launched to celebrate the library’s 250th anniversary, and fortunately it went well enough so that the folk at the library were happy for it to continue in 2019 and again into 2020. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, “chelping” is Yorkshire slang for speaking out of turn or gobbing off. Some very outdated definitions specifically attribute it to women or children, but seeing as 75% of our guest artists in our first year were female, we’re subverting any unsavoury interpretations.

Chelping is a unique night for several reasons, and the stunning 251-year-old setting is one of them. But I also believe it’s because all of the headline artists have come from different parts of the UK. Now this is nothing against Yorkshire-based poets, obviously – I just wanted to take the opportunity to programme people from all over. I’m lucky enough to have built up contacts around the country and I spend more time on trains than I do on my sofa, and on top of that, we all know that the UK scene is enjoying a major resurgence right now. So, naturally I wanted to make sure that part of that resurgence was felt in Leeds.

Quite a few of the performers so far had never been to Leeds before. So, on the one hand I’m enabling a West Yorkshire audience to see them for the first time, but on the other hand, I’m enabling them to experience Leeds for the first time. And by pairing the out-of-town artists with the best Yorkshire-based talent, not to mention the open mic, it ends up being a reyt good event by all accounts.

Our first headliner was Joelle Taylor, who’s currently travelling the world with her words. She’s based in Walthamstow but has recently toured Australia and South East Asia, for example. Sabrina Mahfouz is a British Egyptian poet from South London who has also travelled the globe; capturing experiences and stories in verse like nobody I’ve ever seen.

Sabrina Mahfouz

And it’s not just London-based poets. Kevin P. Gilday and Cat Hepburn are major names on the Scottish scene and were gigging in England for the first time at Chelping, which is ridiculous. Leicester-based Jess Green is touring the UK extensively and won last year’s BBC Slam up in Edinburgh.

And this month, we’re proper lucky to have Hannah Lowe in the headline slot. Hannah is from Essex, and started writing poetry when her Jamaican-Chinese father died in her late 20s. Writing about her father led to her d├ębut collection, ‘Chick’, which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize and led to Hannah being named as a Next Generation Poet in 2014.

Her work is absolutely incredible, and it’s a window that we’d never have been able to look through unless she’d opened it for us. Which again, I realise sounds pretentious, but you get the gist.

The following night after Chelping, another Essex-born poet is on stage in Leeds. Maria Ferguson opens her UK tour of ‘Essex Girl’ at Seven Arts and whilst those who know me personally know of a fairly obvious bias, I can’t recommend this show strongly enough.

Maria Ferguson

It follows the story of Kirsty, who is 16-years-old and growing up way too fast in ’00s Brentwood. And whilst I’m right there with the UK Garage, blue WKD and underage drinking, I’m also confronted with the harrowing reality of being a young woman or girl living under the Essex stereotype. I was 26 when I first visited Essex, but even though I grew up hundreds of miles away, I always knew about the stereotype. And obviously I’ll never be able to fully appreciate what it’s like living with that, but seeing this show had a huge impact in terms of laying bare the unspoken reality.

A writer using their words to provide you with a window into their world is just as important for awareness as it is for escapism. We’re all on a journey when it comes to understanding and empathising with our differences, or at least we should be, and words are by far the best tool.

We’ve heard stories about the East End of Glasgow. Council estates in Derby. Cottages in Norwich. Classrooms in Cairo. We’ve had all kinds of windows opened up for us. And whether it’s at Chelping, or LIVEwire, or any other spoken word event, it’s the windows revealing mystery that I’m most excited to see.