By Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead
Guest Journalist from PW Copy for What’s On Hub
The BBC’s new poetry festival ‘Contains Strong Language’, settled into the City of Culture, for a four-day feast of the spoken word last week.
With the forlorn demise of once thriving shipping and fishing industries, Hull was defined by its most famous poet son Philip Larkin, as being “in the middle of the lonely country, and beyond the lonely country there is only the sea.”
Today, this once impoverished and isolated city, stood on the north bank of the Humber estuary, is being reinvented as a metropolitan mecca of culture, described by a Larkin contemporary as “the heat and soul of my Cultural City.”
Hull’s vivacious regeneration is owed partly to its reign as the City of Culture, which began on the 1st January 2017 and has gained in momentum and dynamism all year round.
True to its title, something infectious was in the air in Hull last week, something that pulled on the heartstrings of all who observed it.
Celebrating the poignancy of poetry in all its guises, last week’s poetry festival roused both the young and the old, the established and the new, the traditional and the contemporary, with one common motivation – to represent and celebrate the power of poetry.
The festival’s pop-up stage, at the BBC Radio Humberside building, attracted an energising mix of poets, whose diverse set of poems movingly captured the essence of the festival, to excite anyone with a passion for poetry and to reach new audiences.
Setting an enlivening tone for the open mic poetry session at BBC Radio Humberside were members of Manchester-based poetry collective Young Identity. Formed in 2006 by Shirley May and Ali Gadema, Young Identity is devoted to giving youngsters the opportunity to perform their written work.
The talented young poets that took to the stage in Hull, performing expressive poetry with insatiable passion and unnerving poise, Young Identity is without doubt doing an astronomical task in finding, encouraging and promoting young wordsmiths.
Enriching the youthful talent on the pop-up stage was 21-year-old Laura Potts, from West Yorkshire. Laura is one of the Verb New Voices, a writing development programme, aimed at discovering and commissioning bold new writers from the North to make exciting work for the BBC’s Radio 3 programme, the Verb.
Laura read out her poem titled ‘Friday’ about the final hours of her grandfather’s life, whom Laura cared for during her teenage years. ‘Friday’, says Laura, is probably the most poignant and honest poem she has ever written.
Laura noted how the festival is Hull is “the place for the known and the new, the script and the act, the poets and the playwrights who will write tomorrow’s world.”
“As one of the Verb New Voices this year, Contains Strong Language made me feel the weight, as a rising writer, of my own emergence. It is a bright, singing page of new talent unlike any other,” said Laura.
Throwing some generational miscellany into the talented mix of poets on the pop-up stages was local poet Roy Heath. 66-year-old Roy struck a chord with the audience, reading earnest poetry enthused by patriarchy towards his city and the pride he feels about Hull’s response to its accolade as the City of Culture.
Since performing at some of the many welcoming local written word events in Hull, at which he was well received, Roy was inspired to write some of his best poetry, moving from ditties inside greeting cards and lavatorial odes on toilet walls to poems he is very proud of.
Roy’s ‘Mud of the Humber’ poem was met with a rapturous applause on the pop-up stage, rousing poetry about the place where the River Hull and the River Humber meet. ‘Mud of the Humber’ was inspired by Roy’s memories from his younger days when Hull was a hive of activity with barges transporting goods along the river.
“The Contains Strong Language festival has brought to Hull a host of brilliant poets; the number and variety of events has been mind-blowing. The pop-up open mic stage featured some of the country’s best young talent and showed how young people are embracing spoken word. I felt privileged to be on the same stage,” said Roy.
Sharing Roy’s appreciation of performing with such a talented group of poets, is Chris Whitehead from Manchester.
Chris, 61, read out three poems on the stage, ‘Autumn Sunrise’, ‘Glass Black Lake’ and ‘Butterfly’. The poems are of hope, rebirth and sadness, following the death of his mother Isabel and father Don, last year.
“I found writing and reading poetry helped me deal with my parents’ deaths. Pouring my outlet into the poetry was a way of letting go my grief,” said Chris.
Chris said it was eye-opening to see how many great poets there are around and he felt proud to have been part of such a talented line-up of artists.
“Before I saw it and heard it, I have to admit, I would have been dubious that our youngsters were capable of such original spoken art. Well done to all of them,” said Chris.
A world apart from its former reputation as a rundown city, surviving in the shadows of a once buoyant fishing industry, Hull, with its chic waterside setting, trendy vintage streets, inimitable cultural past matched by an escalating powerful cultural presence, is a city to rival anywhere.
The refreshingly diverse range of poets that flocked to Humberside to take part in the BBC’s Contains Strong Language festival and the City of Culture celebrations, is testament to the renewed sense of glamour a city that was, not so long ago, consigned to a future of penurious isolation, is witnessing – such is the power of poetry.