Culture Writer Nicole Haynes finds the Birmingham Literature Festival to be an insightful and exciting take on many poets’ famous work

Written by nicolehayness

I celebrated this year’s National Poetry Day by attending Birmingham Poetry All Stars, a staged poetry event kicking off Birmingham Literature Festival 2022. Hosted and curated by last year’s Birmingham Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey, the event show-cased three other UK artists: Roy McFarlane, Jasmine Gardosi and Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa. Each poet brought their own original work and individual flair to their performances, providing an insight into the exciting landscape of contemporary poetry.

Casey Bailey opened the evening with a tribute to Leon Priestnall, a Birmingham based poet who founded Howl (a spoken word night in Birmingham), and sadly passed away in 2021. This tribute was a reminder of the community within Birmingham’s poetry scene, and the ways in which poetry and art can help cultivate friendships. This theme continued with Bailey’s ‘Dear Brum’, which took listeners on a tour of the city through a poetic lens, referring to the many landmarks of Birmingham. Bailey concluded his introduction by featuring his rap skills, demonstrating his versatility as an artist and a performer. Bailey has a great presence on stage; his charm and warm demeanour shines throughout his work. He combines page poetry and stage poetry with a fluid tenacity that makes onlookers smile with joy and nod in agreement.

Bailey has a great presence on stage; his charm and warm demeanour shines throughout his work

The first “All-Star” to take the stage was Roy McFarlane. Former Birmingham Poet Laureate and current Canal Laureate, McFarlane’s works critically interact with themes of colonialism, empire and cultural appropriation. His opening poem featured Safiya Kinshasa’s breath-taking choreography, in a collaboration established only 20 minutes before the event. Kinshasa’s movements effortlessly mimicked and expressed McFarlane’s sentiments, providing a rich, multi-sensory experience for viewers.

McFarlane showcased his poignant use of imagery and masterful observations on the theme “unresolved history”. The religious images in both ‘Act of Remembering’ and ‘In Praise of My Father’ commemorated centuries old cultural traditions and provided a dynamic depiction of McFarlane’s own life. Throughout this, McFarlane remained witty and socially sensitive, with a particular example of this being the stand out line: ‘In praise of a Higher Being / But I won’t give Him blue eyes’. 

Gracing the stage next was the incredible Safiya Kinshasa, a poet, dancer and PhD student exploring the black bodies and voices in her debut collection ‘Cane, Corn and Gully’. Kinshasa’s work incorporates movement within the poetry itself, visible both on stage and on the page through dance notation. Kinshasa is the first artist to explore black enslaved bodies in this way; she focuses on the scrutiny of black enslaved bodies and the ways in which movement can be used as a form of communication for these voiceless individuals. Kinshasa’s set balanced these ground-breaking themes by demonstrating her complex wit and sense of humour in other poems. Poems such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘I am Holding the Mona Lisa Hostage’ offered snapshots of quick-witted relief between comparably harder-hitting poems, like ‘Hereditary’. 

Kinshasa undeniably stole the show with her final poem ‘Gully’. This phenomenal poem about enslaved women’s voices utilised physical movement, creating a beautiful rhythmic combination of words and dance. You could hear a pin drop once Kinshasa finished, before an erupting applause; many people, myself included, were applauding on their feet in tears.

Being the one poet I had actually heard of entering the evening, I had high hopes for her work

The evening ended with the current Birmingham Poet Laureate herself, Jasmine Gardosi, performing some exciting work. Gardosi is a veteran slam champion and showcased this through her dynamic set. Her opening poem ‘Be Poet’ incorporated beatboxing to create the effect of a nervous heart beating. Being the one poet I had actually heard of entering the evening, I had high hopes for her work. I greatly admire her skills as a poet and enjoyed her relatable topics of interest, (with ‘my therapist said so’ being a particularly entertaining line).

However, I would say that her genre of poetry is not quite in line with my own personal preferences, although I found her methods of using specific forms and “spines” intriguing. Gardosi ended with a song extract from her current live-show ‘Dancing To Music You Hate’, called ‘Gender Euphoria’. This poem exemplified the ways in which artists are redefining what it means to be a “poet”, noticeable in her use of music and beatboxing as mediums.

Overall, the evening was thoroughly enjoyable. I left feeling inspired and excited to see what the future of poetry, art and performance has in store. I highly recommend checking each of these poets out and seeing their live performances; it was truly an extraordinary evening.

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