Spoken Word Column: National Poetry Day 2020

Casey Bailey

For a small group of curious sorts who devote themselves to the art-form, National Poetry Day is a bit like Christmas. I know what you’re thinking, though: “every day’s a national something day.” Which is true: according to Twitter, today’s also National Coffee Day. But we won’t let a rival hashtag spoil the fun.

Like Christmas, most of us would usually be up at the crack of dawn on National Poetry Day. Except we’d be travelling to a distant classroom to wear a lanyard, as opposed to the living room to wear a garish jumper. There’d be a blend of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. We’d hope that what we had planned would bring a smile to people’s faces. And that by 4pm, there won’t have been any tears or tantrums.

I can’t say that the food on National Poetry Day ever quite matches up to Christmas. And as far as I’m aware, Period 5 has never clashed with the Queen’s speech. But you can’t have everything.

And then as the sun sets, we’d crash for an hour or so before dusting ourselves down and getting ready for the evening. It’s commonly understood that if you can’t get yourself a gig on National Poetry Day, you may as well pack it in.

On last year’s National Poetry Day, I appeared on a live special of Blue Peter. I worked with some pupils from Webster Primary School in Manchester to write a poem live on air using prompts from the viewers.

On NPD 2018, my debut collection ‘Two Little Ducks’ was published by Verve Poetry Press. I taught in a school on Canvey Island, raced to do a gig in Nottingham, and then embarked on a 22-date UK theatre tour the following day.

On NPD 2017, I wrote personalised poems for members of the public with The Poetry Takeaway. We were based outside East Ham Library, which is now a stone’s throw from my home of two years. I wrote a poem for a woman about her relationship with her brother and she broke down in tears when I read it back.

And then on NPD 2016, I was sat on a beach on the island of Formentera, trying to convince a production company in Cheltenham to send some Salena Godden CDs to the Town Hall in a taxi for her gig with Lemn Sissay in the evening. To be fair, they ended up delivering them by hand.

I won’t go back any further than that, but you catch my drift. It’s a magical day when all kinds of things happen, and poetry enjoys centre stage. And this year, as with everything else, is completely different. But, as I spoke about in my April column, spoken word poetry has flourished online since the lockdown.

There’s a whole heap of stuff happening online as you read this: workshops, performances, talks, the lot. Follow the NPD Twitter account, use the #NationalPoetryDay hashtag, and check out key accounts like Apples & Snakes and Spread the Word, and my label Nymphs & Thugs.

Also, if you can afford to, send some love to the heroic poetry indie publishers out there! Bad Betty, Burning Eye, Verve, and Out-Spoken, to name just a few.

One thing that I’d like to shout about, which chimes with the unique nature of this year’s NPD, is Write Out Loud’s ‘Beyond the Storm’ campaign. They launched a free-to-enter competition back in the spring, which saw 2300 poets enter. There was no cash prize: all proceeds from the project are going to NHS Charities. But instead, the chance to be one of 100 poets who feature in this anthology.

The competition was judged by highly acclaimed poet Andrew McMillan, who donated his fee to the cause. To date, they’ve raised over £7,600 for NHS Charities: both through anthology sales and this JustGiving page.

But aside from that, it just demonstrates how powerful poetry is in times like these. The sheer volume of people that turn to poetry both for something to consume and for something to create. Its alternative language that somehow attempts to make sense of the world and say things that you wouldn’t say in everyday conversation.

I’m at risk of covering old ground here. But in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this ‘Beyond the Storm’ campaign really has demonstrated how poetry is a tool for good. It’s a lot more potent than most people give it credit for, and the poems in this anthology will be read for decades to come as people try to get a sense of what it was like living through 2020.

Write Out Loud are an outstanding organisation who’ve been volunteer-run for nearly two decades. What they’ve achieved with ‘Beyond the Storm’ is remarkable. Whether you check out their anthology or something entirely different, either way, take the time to enjoy some poetry today.

We might be on the brink of another national lockdown. The EU are suing us over Brexit. Trump might be about to win a second term. These are terrifying, frustrating, upsetting, and unnerving times. Poetry won’t cure any of those things. But it could well help you to get through them.

I’d like to finish by congratulating Casey Bailey on becoming Birmingham’s new poet laureate, and Cecilia Knapp for becoming the new Young People’s Laureate for London. Two absolute gems who deserve everything that comes their way.

Right, I’m off for a mince pie…

Matt Abbott is a poet, educator, and activist from Wakefield. His debut one-man show Two Little Ducks earned 5* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 and on a UK theatre tour in 2018. It was published as his debut poetry collection by Verve Poetry Press in 2018. His debut kids’ poetry collection A Hurricane in my Head was published by Bloomsbury Education in 2019.

Matt runs independent spoken word record label Nymphs & Thugs and fronts alternative indie band Skint & Demoralised. He’s an ambassador for Eureka! The National Children’s Museum and Trinity Homeless Projects.