Part one of this interview is here
From what I have seen, the standard of the people who read at your events is very high. Is that a starting point?
I think a diversity in standard is important. We don’t want to intimidate newcomers, while keeping the more established writers engaged. I do believe that if people are exposed to a high standard however, their own work will improve and grow. It’s an organic process, and we don’t censor people or influence what participants are going to read. There’s an unspoken, two-way sense of respect. I can barely remember anyone having ever caused offense, just once or twice on the open-mic.
Many attendees who read tend to return because they feel they have improved through both the act of reading and of being exposed to a variety of voices and what else is possible in poetry. There is certainly a sense of that within writers who attend regularly. We also aim to create a space where criticism is kept constructive. There is often an element of engaging discussion about the work people present.
Is there always an open mic section?
Yes. There has always been an open-mic where anyone can bring a new piece of writing, or even read a poem written by someone else. The opportunity to read in front of people for the first time can be an attractive proposition for new writers, a right of passage perhaps, at the very least a confidence boost and the encouragement to try again. Many become addicted!
Everyone who wants to can read at least one poem, possibly two or more. We do need to be out of the venue by a certain time, but we do our best to ensure that everyone gets their chance.
We’ve hosted over 1,000 guest poets so far, many of whom have been winners of the big poetry prizes, are highly acclaimed, etc, while we also try our best cover the wide spectrum of experience and background. Many poets see this as a space where they can try out new work. I think that is very important, that sense of development.
Where to now?
Just prior to the pandemic, I had to give an ultimatum to our major funding bodies that we were very close to closing the event down, due to lack of support. It was becoming difficult to maintain the weekly event and pay the rent.
Things are much better since we moved to a monthly fixture. We still maintain our two international competitions. The Winter Warmer festival and Poetry Film elements of our work are very exciting because they connect poets with other art forms which allows avenues for even further collaboration and development.
We went completely virtual during the pandemic and in doing so, built up a significant new international audience. In order to keep them, we have recently evolved into a hybrid format, where now guests and attendees can participate either in person or online.
The digital age has been good for poetry. For a number of years I have sensed poetry’s entrance into its own new age, perhaps a golden one, a resurgence, and that is vitally important to poetry and the arts in general.