Spoken Word Column: Insta sessions have kept me afloat

Nymphs & Thugs’ weekly Insta sessions

As with most of the best ideas relating to my career, it wasn’t mine. My Nymphs & Thugs record label had just staged our fifth birthday party gig over Zoom, which marked our first ever virtual event.

It coincided with what should have been the final night of our ‘LIVEwire’ tour, taking place at Colchester Arts Centre. Instead, it saw all six of the label’s acts sharing a bill for the first time ever, and it proved beyond doubt what could be achieved with virtual spoken word poetry events.

Jack Simpson, my right-hand man with the label, suggested that we do something weekly. I didn’t want to try and programme a two-hour Zoom extravaganza every week, but I liked the idea of trying something. So, I decided on 30-minute Insta sessions. Extremely laid-back one-on-one sessions over Instagram Live, with some of my favourite poets dotted around the UK.

First guest Nafeesa Hamid

Birmingham-based poet Nafeesa Hamid agreed to do the first session on Tuesday 5 May. We agreed a time of 7.30-8pm BST, I suggested a loose format, and away we went. Nafeesa was awesome (as always) and we both really enjoyed the session, so I was clearly onto something. But truth be told, I didn’t expect to do much more than a dozen or so.

This week’s session was number 38. It featured Mariam Saeed Khan – based in Lahore, Pakistan – and by now, I genuinely can’t imagine my life without these little poetic escapes on a Tuesday night. A few weeks back, I was joined by Tobi Abiodun – based in Lagos, Nigeria. In the summer, Joshua Idehen joined me from Sweden, and in a few weeks, Cat Hepburn will join me from Berlin.

I’m far from being the only poetry promoter to have welcomed featured artists from around the globe. But this weekly window into people’s lives and cultures – not to mention their poetry arsenals – has been one of the main things keeping me afloat throughout the whole ordeal.

One thing that strikes me is the instant rapport that I manage to build with poets who I’d never met in person, which accounts for at least a dozen of the guests so far. I guess to some extent we’re guaranteed to get on because we’re both poets. But having said that, some of the fiercest levels of despair I’ve ever encountered has been between two poets. I actually don’t think you can get a more visceral level of hatred.

Somebody sharing their poems with you one-on-one over Instagram is a very intimate experience. Particularly when you’re almost complete strangers. Poems are often a person’s most vulnerable inner thoughts. Not to mention the fact that we’re both sat in our respective homes. And that’s what’s made these Insta sessions so special for me.

The half-an-hour always whizzes by, and the laid-back interview-style chats usually take up at least half of that time. But the sessions are just as enjoyable from a human perspective as they are from a poetic one. How are other people coping? What’s their daily life been like during lockdown? Has it completely transformed them as a writer, or simply allowed them to focus in on what they were already doing?

All of this could seem like an elaborate advert for the remaining 12 sessions. Maybe deep down on some level it is. But they’ve provided some of my favourite experiences of late, and I hope that in years to come, I’m able to watch a few back and remind myself of how mad this whole thing has been.

It’s entirely coincidental that the 50th (and supposedly final) session falls on 22 June. A day after we’re apparently able to abandon all forms of social distancing and just go about our days like we’re at Woodstock ‘69. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but hopefully, the timing will be perfect.

If you fancy getting a flavour of what I’m talking about, almost all the sessions are available to stream back in full on our IGTV, YouTube and Facebook channels. And you can watch the remaining 12 live from the comfort of your home every Tuesday from 7.30-8pm BST over on our Instagram page.

I’d like to say a colossal thank you to Jack for giving me the nudge to do this when, quite frankly, I had no idea whatsoever how the label would somehow navigate through the pandemic. And I’d also like to say a whopping thank you to the 38 artists who’ve featured so far. I’m not able to offer fees for the Insta sessions, so everybody’s given up their time and agreed to appear free of charge, but isn’t how I usually like to do things, but was the only way I could make the sessions work straight off the bat.

Join us next week when Charlotte Lunn is the guest poet. And continue enjoying virtual poetry for as long as it lasts…which may well be longer than we think.