Spoken Word Column: the LIVEwire x Lockdown project

Saili Katebe (Thom Bartley)

I remember it clear as day. Saili and I were being served at a hotel bar just outside Birmingham city centre. Earlier on, our ‘LIVEwire’ event had brought Verve Poetry & Spoken Word Festival’s Saturday programme to a rousing finale. Spirits were high: all five poets involved were in the hotel bar and were staying overnight. One of those magical nights when ideas fizz around, and plans are (sometimes literally) scribbled on beer mats.

This was February and little did I know that it’d be the final physical ‘LIVEwire’ event for a long time. It was event six out of eight in our biggest and most ambitious series to date. And we’d all heard of COVID-19, but we had absolutely no idea what awaited on the horizon.

Either way, a conversation with Saili that night planted the seed for what would be Nymphs & Thugs’ next project. Fortunately, this was a project that was easily adaptable to the COVID-19 world. If anything, it showcases what we’re capable of digitally, and certain key elements wouldn’t have appeared otherwise.

I received the green light from Arts Council England towards the end of September and then work began. All of this culminates in an online première on Thursday 10 December, followed by four simultaneous single releases the following day. And what’s incredibly exciting for me is that it sees four new artists signed to the Nymphs & Thugs label.

Kirsty Taylor (image: Karol Wyszynski)

Saili Katebe is joined by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Kirsty Taylor, and Sean Mahoney. Since our formation in 2015, we’ve never added more than two artists to the label in a single year. I released alongside Louise Fazackerley at the beginning. Toria Garbutt and Salena Godden signed in spring 2016. Kevin P. Gilday signed in 2018 and then Luke Wright signed in 2019. So, to leap from six artists to 10 in one fell swoop is a massive step for us.

The project has seen each of the four poets paired with an underrepresented community of their choice. They delivered free online poetry workshops to members of these communities. I then commissioned them to write a poem in response, whilst also collaborating with an artist from a different discipline.

Saili delivered workshops for young black writers after noticing how many youth centres were closing in South West England. His poem is called ‘Inheritance’, and he’s collaborated with movement practitioner Deepraj Singh to create a piece in response.

Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan (image: Idle Work Factory)

Suhaiymah delivered workshops for refugees and asylum seekers. Without COVID-19, these workshops would’ve taken place in Leeds. But as it happened, some participants were as far away as France and Pakistan. Suhaiymah wrote her poem ‘An Island of Sirens’, to which artist Alaa Alsaraji has illustrated an animated video.

Kirsty delivered socially-distanced workshops with care experienced young people in Bradford. For safeguarding reasons, we didn’t feel as though these could take place online. Kirsty then wrote her poem ‘Go Safe’ and has teamed up with renowned musician and producer SOULS to create a song.

Sean Mahoney (Izzy Offer)

Finally, Sean delivered workshops for boxers and boxing enthusiasts. As a former boxer himself, he already has strong links with the community. He toured his critically acclaimed theatre show ‘Until You Hear That Bell’ around boxing clubs a few years back. Sean’s poem ‘A Vulnerable Place’ is sound-scaped by Ize and accompanied by an illustration from Sadie St. Hilaire.

All four tracks will be released by Nymphs & Thugs on Friday 11 December and are available to pre-order here. The purchase includes all associated visuals, plus a little PDF booklet containing the artwork and the lyrics to the tracks.

The online première event on Thursday will feature short interviews with each of the poets, followed by a world exclusive sharing of their commissioned pieces. It’ll stream live on the Nymphs & Thugs Facebook page from 8-9pm UK time. It’ll then be available to watch back on IGTV and YouTube shortly afterwards.

It’s become crystal clear in 2020 that art and poetry must be used as a force for social change. Previously, my primary aim with Nymphs & Thugs was engaging people with spoken word poetry in general. To be fair, I’ve always programmed diverse poets and looked to empower underrepresented voices. But now the social change aspect will be ramped up even further. Our first project of 2021 is in the final stages of the planning process and I can’t wait to announce that one at some point in the new year.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these singles. Months of hard work has gone into this project, largely behind the scenes. From organising the workshops, recruiting participants, delivering the workshops, planning with collaborators, and then actually creating. It’s been all hands on deck for everybody involved since the end of September. And I couldn’t be prouder of the outcome.

Saili, Suhaiymah, Kirsty, and Sean are four of the brightest and most innovative poets, writers, performers, producers, and activists in the UK right now. It’s a real honour to bring them on board into the Nymphs & Thugs family and I can’t wait to see how our relationship develops.

We were dead keen to use Nymphs & Thugs as a platform and a resource during the lockdown: to continue championing poets and to provide engaging content for poetry lovers. Our weekly Insta sessions have been running since the start of May and they’ve been an absolute joy to produce. And now this ‘LIVEwire x Lockdown’ project is the icing on the cake.

I never could’ve even begun to contemplate how much the world would have changed since that night at the hotel bar in Birmingham. Didn’t realise how much I should’ve cherished that freshly pulled pint or the company that I was in. Five of us squeezed around a table: clinking glasses and hugging and chatting without a care in the world.

But what I do know is, everything I believed about poetry before COVID-19 only rings truer now. And if I’d not had poetry during lockdown, I don’t know how I’d have coped.