Online Yes We Cant

None of us want to be under lockdown, of course (pubs, remember them?) and we’re really missing our regular poetry events (that’s pubs again, if you weren’t sure) but if there is one delightful glimmer of light in the coronavirus darkness, it’s the advent of the online poetry shindig. What a revelation!

Maybe such things existed before, we don’t know. And why would we have cared when we were knee-deep in real-life poetry events, with real people there in the same room, probably in a pub, in a world where social distancing was nothing more than a measure of how un/comfortable you got round others (not unknown at poetry events).

Needs must, however. And, it would appear, needs sometimes come up trumps. With both PASTA and Yes We Cant kicked into the long grass until who knows when, we decided to hold online editions, held – on our group page on Facebook – at the very time the actual event would have taken place, and invited people along.

It worked. Boy, it worked. Last night’s Yes We Cant – Clive Birnie as ‘Alf Ender, Hannah Swingler headlining – had a full house of open-mikers, and over seventy people joining in by commenting on or reacting to the poems. Over seventy people!! From all over the UK!! We had poets from Belfast, Swindon, West Yorkshire, the Potteries, and Worcester, as well as our Black Country regulars, and that made for an electrifying mix.

If you run a regular poetry night and haven’t given this a go, we recommend you try it. Yes, the cool kids are using Zoom, but if you haven’t got broadband or you don’t quite feel up to the challenge of having a bunch of folk stare at you from your computer screen, the Facebook option is worth exploring (get in touch if you want to know more). We’ll definitely keep doing this, and learning more as we go along, no doubt.

Who knows, we may even keep it as a thing once the pubs have re-opened…

and breathe…..

One week on from Wolves Lit Fest, and we’ve just about caught up on our sleep. What a weekend! Our thanks to everyone who came along to the poetry slam (see previous blog) and kicked off the festival in grand style! Thanks, too, to the folk who filled the Fringe Room at the Lych Gate, and packed out Yes We Cant at the Lighthouse, where Wolverhampton poet Michael Southan joined our 100 club as we launched his pamphlet into the world, and John Berkavitch wowed us with his headline set.

We love what we do, but we’re also enjoying taking it a little bit easy for a few weeks. Our next event will be Yes We Cant on March 1st, when we return to the Pretty Bricks in Walsall. Manjit Sahota headlines, while Welsh poet Pat Edwards travels in – aptly, on St David’s Day – from Welshpool to take the ‘Alf Ender slot. All that and our usual open mic spots, too. We can’t wait!

Oh, our fund-raising rabbit (who offers a home for your loose change) will be collecting for a new charity this year. Partly in response to BBC Radio DJ Liz Kershaw’s ill-considered comments about period poverty, our rabbit will be raising funds to help supply sanitary products to women in need. Read about that here.

Who knows, we might just drop Liz a line and see if she fancies contributing to the cause herself.

back of the net

This photo is of a fully sold-out Arena Theatre. A photo of 150 people waiting expectantly for the start of the Wolverhampton Literature Festival poetry slam last Saturday.

feel the excitement….

That’s 150 people. For poetry. In Wolverhampton. On a mizzly Saturday evening in January. Not bad going, eh? When poetry has a great night like that it’s only right to make a song and dance about it, so yes, we are blowing our own trumpet, just a little. Because – from start to finish – we’re chuffed to bits with how the night went.

Any one of the fifteen poets could have won it, and there was some truly excellent work for the audience to savour. And some truly difficult decisions for our judges to make. And some truly heroic galumphing round the theatre by NOFB Pitt as he collected the scores. Sterling work, that man. He deserved that mid-show pint.

Our thanks to everyone who came along to cheer and applaud the poets who took part, to our judges for their vital contribution to the evening, and to the Arena Theatre for being a perfect venue. Scores were close all the way through, with just a point or two separating poets who went through to the next round from those who didn’t. Our final was a contest between Ben Davis, Clive Oseman, and Colin Wells, with Ben’s hilarious poem just pipping the other two to the winner’s podium.

By winning, Ben has bagged himself a paid gig at the 2021 Wolves Lit Fest. This Friday, Nick Lovell – who won the slam last year – will be taking up his paid gig by supporting the sublime nonsense of The Antipoet at Wolves Art Gallery. Those of you who’ve seen them before will know you’re in for a treat. As for those of you who haven’t seen them… trust us, you should. You really, really should. Tickets are on sale here. Get ‘em while you can!

You did good

In the two and a half years since we set up Yes We Cant in the upstairs room of a backstreet pub in Walsall, we’ve had some sparkling nights of poetry. We’ve been entertained by Elvis McGonagall, Roy McFarlane, Nafeesa Hamid, and Johnny Fluffypunk among others, and every single event has been something we’re proud to say has brought top-notch poets to our part of the West Midlands.

Last night was something else again.

Yes, we had the usual mix of experienced open-mic poets and folk who were reading at Yes We Cant for the first time (all of whom were greeted by the Poetry Mexican Wave™ as devised by Dave NOFB Pitt) and we had our usual ‘Alf Ender slot, filled this month by Nick Pearson who’d travelled in from Shropshire. And we had a packed house. So far, so normal.

What made last night extraordinary was the set from our headline poet, Liz Berry, whose reading was never anything less than spellbinding, and whose work is utterly compelling in its beauty and its craft. We’re well aware how very lucky we were to be able to bring her to Walsall.

Liz had asked that all the money collected in the hat at the end of the night should go to support the work of Black Country Women’s Aid. Last night we collected a remarkable £280.66. Added to this are the donations made to our fundraising rabbit (who collects spare change and shrapnel) through the autumn, which amount to a further £44.92, giving a grand total of £325.58. We will be paying this over to BCWA in the next few days.

Our heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you for your generosity. In a world which seems to be falling apart, it’s wonderful to be reminded that poetry can be a force for good.

P.S. If you’d like to give but haven’t yet, the donation page for BCWA is here.

Liz Berry at Yes We Cant.

Finding Our Funny Roots

Brendan Hawthorne (Centre) demonstrates his “sot nev”. Watched by, from left to right, Steve Pottinger, Dave Pitt, Emma Purshouse and Alex Vann. Photo by Gary O’Dowd.

Since March volunteers have been poring over archives and interviewing people for the Finding Our Funny Roots project. . The Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists were also running around finding things out, shooting vlogs and wondering what the shows would consist of.

During September Emma Purshouse locked herself away with all the research and produced an excellent script. Dave Pitt then burnt out a laptop or three making the videos and audio transcriptions make sense. Steve Pottinger kept us all together. Balancing everything like a plate spinning diva. We brought along to the party Dr. Brian Dakin for his insights into Black Country dialect and his very close friendship to Billy Spakemon. We brought in Brendan Hawthorne for his skits, comedic timing and loafers. We brought in Josianne and Paul from the University of Wolverhampton for their academia. We, of course, brought in Alex Vann because Alex Vann can do everything. He can communicate in sign language, play a guitar, write songs and help caption videos.

We emerged in the middle of October with something which made sense. We had a hectic day of rehearsals in the University powered on hope, coffee and a desire to share the work.

On the 17th October Creative Black Country and the hard working volunteers (and a few special guests) got to see a preview of the show. Would Pitt’s laptop survive the tech onslaught? Would Alex’s guitar stay in tune? Would Brendan’s loafers become self aware?

The show was a success. When the audience should have laughed, they laughed. When they should have listened, they listened. At the end of the preview people didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay and discuss the show.

That is always a good sign.

On the 26th October, we performed the show again as part of the Funny Things Festival programme. Guitars stayed in tune, laptops survived and loafers stayed non-sentient. There were more big laughs, lots of entertainment and a warm, appreciative audience. And it was a sell out. It all came together wonderfully.

Yet we didn’t end there. Now the show has been reworked for other audiences and venues. The tech has had to be cut down because not every venue can project video; this also gives Pitt’s laptop and much needed rest.

On Thursday December 12th the show was performed for people at Verona Court in Wolverhampton. It was a splendid afternoon. We had heckling, we had folks beating us to the punchline, we had singing and percussion. After the show we stuck around and had a natter to residents and visitors about their memories of Black Country Comedy. One lady had been a singer and toured with a comedian, another recalled comedy monologues her mother had performed in church. The afternoon was fun and festive, giving an extra seasonal oomph to the Black Country version of the nativity that features in the performance. There were mince pies too!

slam dunk

We’ve run some wonderful poetry slams over the years – it’s something we get a huge buzz out of doing – and yesterday’s slam in Shrewsbury was up there with the best of them. It was the third slam we’ve co-ordinated for the Shrewsbury Literature Festival, and possibly the first one we’ve ever put on where any one of the fifteen poets who took part had a genuine chance of winning. The standard was incredibly high, we were treated to work which was thoughtful, honest, impassioned, and hilarious by turns, and the scores were very, very close. On another day, poets who didn’t make it past the first round would have sailed into the semi-finals, while the three poets who got knocked out at the semi-final stage could just as easily have been contesting for the winner’s prize. This was an afternoon of poetry at its best, and everyone played their part.

At pandemonialist slams, all three of our finalists go home with a scratchcard, an incredible work of literature, and some of Poundland’s finest confectionery. Yesterday was no exception. It’s entirely possible that all three poets have woken up this morning £100,000 richer, in chocolate-stained bedsheets, still weeping over the emotional impact of devouring the biographies of Lewis Hamilton, Posh & Becks, or Vera Lynn. We know how to treat our poets. Oh yes, we do.

Our congratulations to Nick Lovell (who came 3rd), Manjit Sahota (2nd) and our overall winner Colin Wells, who bagged himself a gig at next year’s festival as part of his prize. Each of you was a joy to listen to. Thanks.

P.S. Our next slam is the hometown poetry extravaganza. Wolverhampton, 25th January 2020. This one is huge, and we’ll be putting out the call for slammers in a couple of weeks.

Bostin, wor it.

Thanks to all of you who came along to the Finding Our Funny Roots show at the Arena Theatre last Saturday and helped make sure it sold out. We’d been working hard on this project all autumn, and sharing the results of that work to a full house was everything we’d hoped for. The laughter at the time and the positive feedback we’ve had over the weekend has made all our graft worthwhile.

Those of you who were there will know the show explored the work and the impact of Black Country comedians, as well as looking at Black Country humour, and the role of our dialect in it, which is why Emma Purshouse and Brendan Hawthorne are playing the roles of a modern-day Aynuk and Ali here…

and why everyone in the room will always remember seeing Dave Pitt dressed up as local comedy legend Dolly Allen. A sight that’s too good not to share, so fill yer boots.

The curtain may have fallen on Dave’s career as a Dolly tribute act, but the Finding Our Funny Roots project still has work to do. Over the next few months we’ll be helping create five short films based on the show, as well as taking a version of it into care homes. For now, though, we’d just like to thank all the people who’ve been part of the FOFR team. Brendan Hawthorne, Brian Dakin, and Billy Spakemon for their comic contributions to the show; Alex Vann for his BSL interpreting, and for writing and performing the closing song; and Gary O’Dowd for his advisory role and for the photos we shared in this blog.

We’d also like to thank all the volunteers who trawled through Wolverhampton Archives, travelled the Black Country recording anecdotes and memories, and collected oral history interviews; everyone who agreed to give their two penn’orth – on where the Black Country is, what our humour’s about, and what makes us special – when we pointed a camera at them; Dave Pitt for making sense of the footage we brought back afterwards, for turning it into funny, madcap, and coherent video clips, and making sure all the tech worked. Sterling work, all of you. And finally, our thanks to Creative Black Country for securing funding for this project from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and trusting us with it. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and we hope we’ve done our region proud.

Funny roots found

As you know, through the summer and autumn we’ve been busy working on the Finding Our Funny Roots project. It’s been a huge and complex piece of work, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and managed by Creative Black Country, and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Our job has been to create a show which looks at the boom in Black Country comedy from 1950 onwards, asks just where we are (spoiler alert: no-one’s really sure) and explains just why – wherever we are – we’re so special. We’ve listened to oral history interviews recorded by our team of volunteers, looked at the material they’ve found in Wolverhampton Archives, spoken to experts in comedy, and chatted with people we’ve bumped into at libraries, markets, and festivals. Then we’ve sat down and distilled this mountain of material down into a single one-hour show.

So we were honoured to be asked to do a special preview of our show for invited guests as the curtain raiser to the Funny Roots comedy festival. We were a little bit nervous, too. Would this show sink? Or swim? Would it be a success, or not?

Last night was the acid test. And we’re happy to say the show passed with flying colours. The audience listened attentively, and laughed in all the right places. Which meant they laughed a lot. And that meant all our work has been worth it. We’ve created a show which will make you think, hopefully tell you a few things you didn’t know, definitely put a smile on your face, make Black Country folk proud of where we’re from, and make other folk see our region in a more positive light. And it does all that in just sixty minutes. Pretty good going, eh?

Tickets for the show on the 26th are still available. They’re £5 a pop, and you can get them here. Go on, treat yourself. You know it makes sense.

Congratulations

We’ve been in a run of busy weeks of late – projects to finish, poetry nights to run – which we hope explains why we hadn’t got round to writing a blog congratulating our fellow pandemonialist, Emma Purshouse, on her appointment as Wolverhampton’s first ever poet laureate.

Let’s sort that out right now! Emma’s appointment is great news, for her and for Wolverhampton. Anyone who knows her will know how passionate she is about our region and the people who live here, and we’re proud as punch for her. We can’t wait to see what she does with this new role. 🙂

We’re looking forward to more poems like this one. Wolverhampton a winning city. Sounds about right to us. Nice one, Emma!

Funny Roots

For the past few months, Poets, Prattlers, and Pandemonialists have been working hard on the ‘Finding Our Funny Roots’ project (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund) for Creative Black Country. As part of it, we’re creating a one-hour show for the ‘Funny Things’ comedy festival which takes place in Wolverhampton at the end of October, and over the summer we’ve been incredibly busy pulling together the various strands which will go to make up the show.  

Our aim is to give the audience a sense of Black Country comedy from 1950 to the year 2000.  To this end, Creative Black Country’s willing band of wonderful volunteers have been doing oral history interviews with folk across the region to uncover the comedy gold stored away in their collective memories, we’ve also been out and about in the Black Country chatting to folk, and we’re working closely with Josiane Boutonnet and Paul McDonald – lecturers at Wolverhampton University – whose academic understanding of the nature of comedy has been absolutely fascinating.

In August we held a preview show with the lovely people from Wolverhampton Friendship Centre 050 group.  We had a performance by a Black Country comedian, imparted some interesting nuggets of facts about our region’s comedy, told jokes, shared memories, held a quiz, and – most importantly – had a lot of laughs. All the elements from that event will be in the Finding Our Funny Roots show at the Arena Theatre on Saturday 26th October (tickets for that are available here).

Our biggest problem …AARRGGHHHH!!!… has been choosing what to put in and what to leave out of the show.  AARRGGHHHH!!!! For example, did you know there were Black Country nights that happened in Australia and Canada?  No, nor us.  Did you know that chapel services in the Black Country were sometimes comedy heavy?  Nope, neither did we, but Black Country historian Ned Williams put us straight about that.  Most crucially, do you know where the Black Country actually is?  No? Well, it doesn’t look like anyone else does either.

Oh, and did we mention that we only have one hour to fit all this in – and give a sense of the awesomeness of our region – while making sure our audience is entertained? No pressure! 

Next week, we begin rehearsing the show.  Dave (our tech genius) has been working his magic, and Steve and Emma have drafted and re-drafted the script ready for the first read through and blocking in just over a week’s time, when we will be joined by our special guest artists who’ll help knock the show into shape. 

By the time the curtain raises on the 26th, we hope we’ll be ready to amaze you with facts, tickle your funny bones, and fill you with pride for the wonder which is the Black Country. To whet your appetite, we’ll be posting some of our out-takes on social media. Follow @pandemonialists and @CreativeBCuk and keep your eyes peeled!

See you on the 26th. Arena Theatre. 5pm.