The fourteenth annual Birmingham Book Festival was launched on Thursday by a series of central figures in Birmingham’s literary and cultural development. Namely, the festival director, Sara Beadle, the chair of Writing West Midlands, Philip Monk and Birmingham’s director of culture and the exciting new library project, Brian Gamble. Sara Beadle told the audience that the festival is about ‘more than books (…) it is really about ideas.’ This seemed fitting, not only with the diverse content of the festival itself, but also in reflecting Birmingham’s vision for literature and culture in and around the city.
As always, the Custard Factory provided a comfortably sociable and airy setting; the launch was held in the appropriately named Yumm café and the adjacent indoor courtyard. As a regular attendee of spoken word events and writers’ meetings in Birmingham, such as Apples and Snakes ‘Hit the Ode’ and ‘Poets’ Place’, I recognised many of the faces at the launch party. However, due to the prestige of the long-standing annual festival, the event attracted a varied audience and by no means was it a ‘writers-only’ crowd.
Before the featured act, and after the speeches made by the organisers of the festival itself, the new Birmingham Poet Laureate was announced. This role has proved vital over the past seventeen years in reaching out to communities and schools. We were also reminded that Birmingham was the very first city in England to have a laureate. Jan Watts, the now former poet laureate, read some of her poetry which reflected upon her experiences over the past year. She claimed that she would not be able to rest as a poet due to being ‘too busy with the vibes’ she is constantly surrounded by in Birmingham. I assumed this was a reference to the highly interactive and energetic literary scene driven by many of the city’s accomplished writers, readers, editors and general arts organisers. The new poet laureate, Stephen Morrison-Burke, introduced himself with an accomplished spoken word piece about what it is to be young, uncertain and to have embarrassing moments on the streets of Brum. It is exciting to consider what he will bring to the role. Jan Watts was very much a mother-figure to Birmingham’s poetry scene, whereas the young Stephen Morrison-Burke will perhaps stand as an innovative source for poetry in the city.
After all of the informative and surprisingly inspiring formalities, the featured poet and comedian, Elvis McGonagall, took to the make-shift stage. He informed the audience that he had ‘been suffering from his poetry’ and now it was our turn. In a booming Scottish accent, and a fetching tartan blazer, his politically mis/informed poetry certainly entertained the entire audience. He moved his head slowly and fixed his eyes in one place as he spoke about stygian gloom and Wallace and Gromit. A particular favourite, partly due to an unsettingly accurate impersonation, was a poem composed of a series of words and sayings too-often used by David Cameron.
The evening was a unique and captivating way to kick off the next eight days of the festival. The festival line-up this year looks fascinating (if I could go to everything, I would); for example, talks by various and extremely well established writers, such as Simon Armitage and Jackie Kay, an eclectic mix of writers workshops, a spoken word play and an evening of story telling. In addition, this year the literary festival seems to have embraced a political and digital edge. A talk to be given by a group of Libyan bloggers and the launch of a collection of poetry/essays set in Palestine are definitely one of a kind and therefore not to be missed.
For a full list of events: http://www.birminghambookfestival.org/events-2012/full-festival-programme/