A review of the current writing scene in Plymouth – by Pete Davey and Nick Ingram
Although Plymouth is sometimes seen by its own residents as being a little bit of an underdog, there are a many positives which can be talked about with pride.
The first one of these positive points is the contemporary art scene in the City which can be seen as being resurgent. There is a lot going on between the Plymouth Arts Centre, on Looe Street, to Studio 12, Common Five, Ocean Studios, Karst, Creative School of Arts, Flameworks, Radiant in the City Centre, on to Plymouth College of Art and Plymouth University and we have seen Union Street Party, The British Art show 7, Plymouth Art Weekender and groups form together made up from Artists, curators and key cultural organisations and community groups like Visual Arts Plymouth, CAN , Plymouth Culture, Time bank and Stone House Action just to name a few all providing a network for the scene to hold together.
Independently, beyond the official City establishment, people such as Sandy Wager, run Facebook pages such as Plymouth and Southwest Artists. This page provides a platform for individual artists, many of whom work independently of each other, to network, sell their wares, and generally share ideas and links to artistic activities around the Southwest and beyond.
She, also last year, via her Whitleigh Arts label, ran a rather successful Whitleigh Literature Festival over the summer, in an attempt to take something of the Literature scene out of the City Centre and the Barbican, where most of the action is based, and into the suburbs where events of this kind tend not to be happening on a regular basis. In the end the festival was a resounding success. Last summer poetry and literature were taken to a wider audience.
In a round-about way this is the same kind of attitude that is exhibited by Ian Hobbs, who runs the Devon Book Club. Although he comes from Barnstaple, he spent a good part of last summer traveling around independent Devon Book Shops promoting his idea of an online forum to promote published Southwest authors, getting people reading and talking about books, while at the same time supporting the independent retail book sector. His independent project seems to be becoming on quite nicely.
And this is the whole point. It is this spirit which makes Plymouth what it is. A place which does not normally need the stamp of approval from the establishment to produce great events. It is a City with an independence of mind. A place where events and happenings and readings and art push ahead regardless of what other people think of them or the place. It is here that we find one of Plymouth’s second great positive points, rooted deeply within its literary scene, this independence of mind.
A fine example of this independence of mind is best encapsulated by Michael Sullivan, who was the City’s first Poet Laureate. He may have been appointed by the establishment, but he was most certainly not of the establishment. By his own brief, he got out into the City and took poetry to places where poetry might not have normally gone.
He took poetry in to schools and factories. He took his work into hospitals and scout groups. Yes, he did his fair share of municipal evets over the past two odd years. But the important work was taking the passion of poetry and literature out to North Prospect and Devonport; Stonehouse and Plympton; Whitleigh and Plymstock. In fact, he would take it to all who were willing to listen to his poetry made up from the fabric of the city. And if they did not want to listen, he made them listen. Sometimes it was hard to avoid the fact.
One can only hope that the new incumbent of the position will be as skilled as he is in taking literature to a wider audience.
The literary scene in this City is mixed between independent and backed groups. A good example of this would be, Plymouth Language Club, run by Forward Prize nominated published poet Steve Spence, a regular feature of the city’s literary scene since 2000 and showing casing UK poets like Niall McDevitt, Peter Hughes, David Caddy alongside well know Plymouth Writers like Helen Foster, Spencer Shute, Marieluise Niehus and Julian Isaacs. Their Events have strong core of followers and fun attended evenings and have been a fixture at Plymouth Arts Centre and lately Plymouth College of Art.
One of the best events is run by Katie Tokus, a local jazz soul singer and ex-music journalist, runs Rhyme Warp on a quarterly basis from the B-Bar at the Barbican Theatre. These events tend to be far less austere incorporating spoken word material and other genres rather than just the mere formalism of academic poetry. Rhyme Warp is a powerful counterpoint to the other groups in the city, in the sense it adds breadth, depth, and diversity that you might find in Bristol.
On the other hand, there are others who are more than willing to take on a wider audience and move things in new directions and keep expanding the scene. Only recently a new event called Pucker Poets opened at Café Kiss. This is a spoken word event headlined by comedy poets such as, Robert Garnham and Jackie Juno. They’ve even introduced Plymouth’s first poetry slam – another performance direction for any willing Plymouth Poet to take part in.
Over the years we have seen Waterfront Writers, the organization started in conjunction with the Barbican Theatre and were running open mic nights until last year, have been around for about the same amount of time has the Plymouth Language Club and have published collections of work from Plymouth and Devon leading Writers like Martin Perry and have done performances in theatre, street festivals, libraries and for various other community events.
At the Athenæum Theatre there have over the years been several groups but the present Plymouth Athenæum Writers’ run a very round table critical sessions as Waterfront Writers do. It is a group where anyone can read out a piece they have written, or something by a favourite author, or even recite a poem or just tell a story and have feedback and last year Six of Plymouth’s leading women poets, Rachel Gippetti, Katy Richardson, Mairead Schwarz, Helen Foster, Melisande Fitzsimons and Marieluise Neihus, were featured at an International Women’s Poetry event the first in the city.
Then there is the Plymouth Writers Group which operates out of the Plymouth Arts centre, and are contemporary writers who publish an anthology of work once a year, and run an open short story completion. This group do not have a performance evening of any kind, but do run a round table critical sessions.
For the unpublished writer in the city nothing is better than open mic nights and being able to unleash their writing on the world, and to polish up on their delivery and style. As well as being a good way of reaching a wider more diverse audience than the writer would do otherwise. It’s this reason that Kenny Knight – a brilliant, published, autobiographical, poet has done with his set Cross Country Writers. These nights have led to a whole lot of readers of different genres dropping their work on the heads of their peers. Some fantastic, some good, some indifferent, some – well at least they paid at the door.
Cross Country Writers is not the only new boy on the block as it were. For less than a year at the Mayflower Bar on the very edge of Sutton harbour, an arts raconteur called Peter Davy and owner of WonderZoo started something called Blackbooks. This was a little different from most of the other groups in the City at the time. Blackbooks was about language, but it was also about music and fun and seriousness and the tragic.
At the time it was about the only place where you see Michael Sullivan reading his poetry, with the Macabre Cabaret of the delectable Miss Von Trapp in full flow on her cello, after being assaulted by the comedy of Miss Carol David’s, who always bought a new dress for the occasion; along with such brilliant Plymouth based novelists such as: Susmita Bhattacharya, Terri Nixon, Tom Vowler or Hip Hop from Cornwall with MCMC. This is a more rounded environment and at times a bit crazy. And Blackbooks goes from strength to strength. Now holding regular monthly events at the China House on the other side of the Sutton Harbour.
It is the kind of event which represents the introduction of new voices for the first time to a Plymouth audience. Blackbooks has always had mixed events, and has represented the local LGBT community and Plymouth History Festival among others. This is a Plymouth that has breadth, depth, and diversity, along with an independence of mind. A Plymouth of the people for the people, a Plymouth for the many and not just the few.
Over the past year the company which produces Blackbooks has changed its name from PCQArts to WonderZoo. Also gathered under this banner now is Michael Green’s The Word. His intentions with this event, which runs bi-monthly alongside Blackbooks in the same venue was to create a series of readings for both prose and poetry – but in a purist sense of the term. This being in a sense a complete opposite to the craziness of Blackbooks. In fact, the happening has gone from strength to strength and looks like it will have a lasting effect on the Plymouth Poetry Scene.
So what in the end do we have?
If the Plymouth contemporary art scene is the establishment and is resurgent, which it is, then the future of art in this city is guaranteed, and is a most positive thing. There will always be an audience for the work produced. Only recently a lovely new art space opened in an old warehouse, which was not long ago a market, called Comma Five. This can only ever be a good thing for the city. And is, as pointed out earlier, a good positive point.
Only in Plymouth if you really want a true independent sector then one has to turn to what is going on in literature here at the ground level. Almost all of the organisations and groups which have been discussed are non-profits just fighting for a little space to make themselves heard. Led by people just trying to make things work by putting on readings and events and happenings in the city.
In more than one way these people represent the best that Plymouth has. They are the independently minded people who don’t care what people think. They just want to get their writing and words and sounds out to an audience. And of course there is room for development in this area so it can truly embrace a sense of breadth, depth, and diversity; which would then carry the scene to greater triumphs and success. And this can only be a positive thing for the city.
The answer to this question of audience sits somewhere within the scene, and it sits in the hands of those that take their poetry and prose direct to the audience by ways of readings, happenings, and events.
Therefore, the future of the City’s literature scene has to be driven by the new Poet Laureate; Plymouth Language Club; Rhymewarp; Pucker Poets; Cross Country Writers; and WonderZoo Featuring Blackbooks and The Word and all the groups above and let’s hope more groups to follow in their footsteps too and in doing so moving forward and shaping new things and new ways of attracting audiences that will truly make this city great.
Have your say on the current literature scene in Plymouth by commenting on this blog – or get in contact HERE
And don’t forget – we want your story – click this LINK to find out more…