Looking forward to the Verve Poetry Festival: An Interview with Cynthia Miller

Cynthia MillerThe first ever Verve Poetry Festival takes place next month in Birmingham (16th-19th February). It’s set to be an exciting weekend, with a strong emphasis on spoken word performance, as well as the usual poetry readings and creative writing workshops. I interviewed Cynthia Miller (Co-Director of the Festival and a poet herself) to find out more. She began by explaining how it all started…   

Where did the idea come from, to create a new poetry festival in Birmingham? And how did you become involved?

In the spring of 2016, I attended a few poetry readings and festivals, both around the country and in Birmingham, and was buzzing with ideas. There were already so many incredible poetry events happening in the city, but nothing on the scale that you’d see at Wenlock or Ledbury – no one big festival to really put Birmingham on the poetry map. And that seemed crazy to me.

At the same time, the team at Waterstones had been quietly making the beautifully refurbished city centre bookstore a welcoming literary hub in the area, with more readings, book signings, author events and open mics than you could possibly imagine. Just stepping into the store, there’s a feeling that something exciting is happening there.

proof

“A photo of us examining a printer’s proof of the programme days before the final thing was sent to print. Nerve-wracking!”

All good things start with Twitter. I tweeted Waterstones Birmingham with some ideas and, a week later, was having coffee with Stuart Bartholomew, the regional manager, who listened patiently as I chewed his ear off. Not long after, I got a message that simply said, ‘The festival is happening. Want to be part of the steering committee?’ And it snowballed from there!

Our tagline – “A Birmingham Festival of Poetry and Spoken Word” – is key. Birmingham is one of the youngest and most diverse cities in Europe and we wanted Verve to reflect it; the city’s spirit, diversity, energy and community is absolutely critical to its success. Being an urban festival (within minutes’ walk to three train stations) also means that our events are more accessible – no need to trek into the countryside to see world class poetry, as you would with some festivals.

We didn’t just want to bring the best UK talent to Birmingham, we also wanted to shine a spotlight on the city’s hugely underrated poetry scene. Bottling that Brummie magic for a national audience, in a sense. As a result, local poets feature heavily throughout the four days.

That includes the delightful Luke Kennard, Nine Arches sensation Roy McFarlane, three talented performers from youth engagement agency Beatfreeks, readings by members of our local Brum Stanza group, as well as all four Podium Poets, Amerah Saleh, Jasmine Gardosi, Geraldine Clarkson and Helen Calcutt. And of course, Birmingham-based The Emma Press is a festival partner and has lovingly curated the children’s programme.

Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard performing at the launch party

Was it your intention to have an equal mix of page poetry and spoken word events?

Absolutely. At most festivals, spoken word happens on a side stage. Not at Verve. Stuart consulted two spoken word luminaries in Birmingham (Amerah Saleh of Beatfreeks and Bohdan Piasecki of Apples and Snakes) to ensure the programme was packed with the absolute best of the best spoken word poets from around the country.

Amerah Saleh

Amerah Saleh performing at the launch party

As it’s our debut year, there was a wonderful freedom to realise our vision the way we wanted. No expectations, no ‘this is how it’s always been done’. This blank canvas was as terrifying as it was thrilling, and has resulted in a wonderful, ambitious line up.

We are also really keen for the festival to be a platform to established, as well as up-and-coming poets. But it’s not just about balancing poetry and spoken word, or established and new poets. What is really important to us, and to me personally, is that Verve is a truly diverse festival. Clive Birnie (Editor in Chief of Burning Eye Books) pointed out that our programme has 40 poets, with a male to female ratio of 13:27.

We’ve really tried to ensure that Verve creates a space for women, writers of colour and events for all ages. I’m a young woman of colour and, well, this matters.

What has been the most difficult part of the process?

The learning curve of running a festival! Once we nailed the dates, our vision and our line-up wish-list, it was onto figuring out funding applications, speaking to partners and sponsors, nailing down a marketing approach as well as the little bits, like wrangling with InDesign and website back-ends. Although the team has a lot of combined experience organising poetry events, pulling something together on this scale meant a lot of learning as we went along.

Things that made it happen: A very clear shared vision. Wonderfully supportive friends. A healthy disregard for the impossible. Photoshop skills. Trello. A bit of elbow grease.

poetry line upWhat are you most looking forward to?

The performances, of course, but the energy of the whole festival I suppose. I’ll be lurking at the back of as many events as I can, taking in not only the performances but seeing audience’s reactions. It’s been such an honour to help plan this incredible event and I’m keen to see the response we get. Specifically, though:

I think Khairani Barokka‘s performance of Indigenous Species will be very special (her first reading outside of London, I believe). She’s definitely one to watch; her debut poetry collection is being published by Nine Arches Press later this year.

Verve Poetry FestivalI recently fell in love with Fran Lock – her new collection comes out February 13th, a few days before the festival, which is thrilling. We’re unbelievably lucky to have a whole showcase of Out-Spoken Press authors.

I think Jane at Nine Arches is planning to weave readings by Isobel Dixon, Roy McFarlane, Robert Peake and Abegail Morley into a really interesting performance/discussion around themes of ‘Bearings and Loss’.

Amerah Saleh, one of our Podium Poets and a good friend of Verve, has powerful verse unlike anything you’ve heard before. She performed at our launch party and simply stunned the room. The lovely and prolific Geraldine Clarkson will dazzle and delight for sure.

No Map Could Show Them was one of my favourite collections this year, so hearing Helen Mort, Sarah Howe and Kayo Chingonyi read in one event will be fantastic.

Everything, basically. It’s going to be a very special four days. And a very special year for poetry, too! Roll on 2017.

Click here to see the Verve Poetry Festival line-up and buy tickets.

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