Nottingham hosts a large, often hidden, poetry community bringing people from every walk of life together; along with classical poetry, people come forth with spoken word, storytelling, creative writing, slam poetry and soetry (sung poetry).
By Miles Van Allison. Images by author.
“You look like you’ve got some poems in you,” a stranger behind me said. These were the very first words Anne Holloway said to me – the person who went on to show me how incredible Nottingham’s poetry community is.
It was the first poetry/spoken word event that I had ever been to; a Grenfell Tower fundraiser event at the Maze. I had arrived with no plans to perform any of my own poems, of which I had already written hundreds. However, after seeing me, Anne had other ideas, and quickly coaxed me into signing up to perform. I happened to have a notebook of poems with me. “Fuck it”, I thought.
Sadly, The Maze has now closed, after over 15 years of entertaining the bohemian crowd in Notts with bands, DJ’s, rappers and spoken word artists. But that hasn’t stopped Nottingham’s poetry scene from thriving: ‘Poetry is Dead Good’, ‘Big White Shed’ and ‘Nottingham Poetry Society’ are among Nottingham’s many poetry groups that reach out to a wide community, hosting workshops and events all around the city, with the proceeds often going to charities.
The community has hundreds of participants, but despite its size it remains close-knit, with many being able to network through it. Anne is undoubtedly one of the most dedicated members in this community.
In 2015, Anne was trying to find a publisher for her novel, “Korakas”. Fed up by trying to find a representative, she took things into her own hands. “Setting up Big White Shed came about through wanting to publish my own novel, nobody was prepared to represent me as an agent, or to publish me, and nobody had said it was rubbish and to give up!” So after inspiration whilst in Germany from Florian Arleth (who published spoken word artists as ‘Brot und Kunst’) and an old friend who had previously set up a publishing company called ‘Whistling Cat’ to publish children’s fiction, the seed for Big White Shed was planted, and further decided after she had a “resonating conversation” with Simeon Hartwig of ‘Bantum Clothing’ (a niche clothing line), who had said to Anne “it was better to have 100 followers who were really behind you and your brand than 100,000 who were ‘meh’ about it”.
Big White Shed, is now an independent publisher that supports poets in Nottingham. Alongside her novel and a book of her own poetry, she has published numerous poetry anthologies by local artists such as Akor Opaluwah, Chris McLoughlin, Milla Tebbs and Hazel Warren.
Aside from publishing and supporting others, she performs her poetry, organises events, and runs groups and workshops. “I think I’m a better poet for drawing on inspiration from other artists and art forms, and working with drag queens is an absolute blast!” says Anne, as she teamed up with ‘Unnamed Drag’ to deliver a series of workshops and performance nights based on the discovery of each person’s ‘drag persona’ and subsequently bringing up themes of sexuality and gender. This concept was Anne’s idea, as she explained; “I had been fascinated by drag for years, the way drag queens dressed, in a way I felt I couldn’t”, this gave her, and others like her, a chance to experiment and try it even just for one day.
The four events were called ‘learn drag’, ‘do drag’, ‘write drag’ and ‘share drag’. However, ‘do drag’ was limited to 12 people, each paying £30 to be in an environment they could “explore and develop [their] own alter ego” as well as being provided with a wig and makeup. All of these events were well received by many, and she hopes they will happen again in the future.
“Working with other creatives is vital to keeping my own work fresh“ “There are parallels between a poem and a picture and often a picture is a starting point for a poem for me” Anne not only supports poets, but also emerging artists and photographers, using their skills to help poets craft an aesthetically pleasing book. Additionally, she is involved with the organizing of book launches, many of which take place in the oldest taverns, independent bookshops and tea rooms in Nottingham; a nice touch in an ancient city where storytelling has been a prominent vice within the community for centuries; a flagon of ale often still accompanies the spoken word and sometimes the poets even hideaway and perform in caves as they would have in the era of Robin Hood.
If this all sounds overwhelming, don’t worry: you don’t have to be a serious, permanent or consistent participant. In order to give people of all abilities a chance to perform, and often to help individuals to decide whether or not performing is for them, many events have open mics. Which is how I suddenly found myself on stage.
That night at The Maze was my first experience of standing in front of a room of people, performing my poetry – and it was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced. It was just me, a microphone and a piece of paper, captivating over 50 people, all silent and eager to listen to me despite knowing nothing but my name. Since then I have engaged with the community, both learning and teaching many things through attending workshops and performing. This has become an important part of my life as I am able to vent my feelings out creatively, meet like-minded people and learn from others; whether that’s from a poem or a workshop. Many people, including myself, allow themselves to be vulnerable on a stage, or in a cave, in front of a mic or just in front of a room of people, and that is what makes Nottingham’s poetry community so beautiful; the vulnerability, the acceptance and the willingness to learn.