Category Archives: Literature

Lionel Shriver @ Birmingham Literature Festival

LionelShriverFrom a few days after my GCSE English teacher thrust a worn out copy of We Need to Talk about Kevin into my hands, promising me that it would be the best thing I had ever read, I have loved Lionel Shriver’s work; so the fact that I was able to be in the same room as her around five years later is something that I am still coming to terms with.

Lionel Shriver was at the Birmingham Literature Festival (formerly known as the Birmingham Book Festival) to speak about her new novel, Big Brother, which follows the turmoil experienced by Pandora, a middle-aged woman who makes speaking dolls for a living, after her once near-perfect brother turns up a few-hundred pounds heavier.

I must admit that I haven’t actually got round to reading Big Brother yet, and probably won’t get to for at least another year (I have a self-enforced ban on all reading that is not related to my degree or dissertation), but this session with Shriver made me want to throw everything aside and read then and there.

As one would expect, Shriver’s novel is concerned with the political and personal. On one level, the novel is concerned with responsibility: to what extent should healthcare services be responsible for looking after the obese; and to what extent are our friends and family responsible for us? Where do our loyalties truly lie? Of course, the layers of the novel are wonderfully complex, with Pandora juggling the roles of sister, wife and step-mother; her brother’s presence causes severe conflict between Pandora and her husband, Fletcher.

Another of the novel’s most interesting concerns is fame, a topic Shriver had a lot to say about. Shriver claimed that anonymity is a blessing, and appreciates the fact that she has never been recognised in Tesco and can still buy reduced fish without being judged. That is not to say that she loathes all recognition: ‘I’m here, after all,’ she quipped. What Shriver claims is that it’s healthier being appreciated for one’s talent and work, rather than an obsession with every detail of a celebrity’s lifestyle.

Shriver has learnt this the hard way. Big Brother is inspired by her brother’s obesity-related death, but her ultimate aim was to protect him. To do so she wrote an article for The Financial Times explaining her motivations. She subsequently sold the article to The Daily Mail, on the proviso that it would be printed exactly as it was. The latter publication made significant changes to the article, using a headline somewhere along the lines of: ‘My brother ate himself to death’. During these moments Shriver was incredibly honest, admitting that this was her biggest regret.

What was most striking about Shriver was her eloquence. When the evening proceeded to the audience Q&A, Shriver paused to consider her responses and was able to articulate her ideas exceptionally well; my favourite point of the evening was Shriver’s defence of her work: ‘My novels are not cynical. My novels are dark – yes. But they are not cynical.’ This is what makes Shriver such a presence: she is articulate, funny and serious – somehow all at the same time. She is also incredibly self-aware and has an astute understanding of personal relationships.

Then the typical but much-anticipated question was asked: what is Shriver working on next? A novel that is at bit Orwellian, by the sounds of it: ‘Let me tell you, we have not experienced financial ruin yet,’ Shriver said darkly. ‘I’ll be writing a near-future novel,’ she admitted. ‘I was thinking that I could still be alive in 2040 and that scared me.’

One of my greatest fears (which has been realised) is that when you meet your hero, they will be a mere shadow of the person you had hoped they would be. Fortunately, Shriver was exactly as I had hoped, and so much more. Should she ever return to Birmingham (or wherever I live in the next few years), I’ll be on the front row.

By Jenna Clake
@jennaclake

Writers’ Bloc Presents: Inter-University Poetry Slam

Writers’ Bloc hosted a multi-team inter-university poetry slam against Pembroke College, Cambridge, and an array of poets from Birmingham (non-university affiliated), who were charmingly dubbed ‘COW’ (Coalition Of Wordsmiths) by Chazz Redhead, the compere for the evening. COW saved the day after Cardiff University pulled out of the competition.

slam review
For those who are not familiar with slam etiquette, the format of the evening was as follows: we began with the ‘Sacrificial Poet’ round, in which a poet from each team performed, in order to display how the voting system would work (audience members held up a red ‘C’ for COW, a blue ‘P’ for Pembroke or a yellow ‘B’ for Birmingham, depending on who they thought performed the best poem). The votes from the Sacrificial Poet round did not contribute to the final scores. This round was then followed by four rounds in which a poet from each team would perform one poem, with a strict time limit of three minutes; this process would be repeated in the second half. The audience voted after every round; the poet with the most votes would win a point for their team.

By pulling slips of paper from his shoe, Chazz announced the running order of the first half: COW, Pembroke, Birmingham.

892515_10152662468525092_2108589660_oCOW’s Sacrificial Poet was Bohdan Piasecki, who is a renowned Birmingham-based poet from Poland, and also runs popular poetry night Hit the Ode. Bohdan quipped that he was going to perform something that was ‘really about the performance, rather than the meaning’ and launched into a fast-paced poem written entirely in Polish. While most of the audience had no idea what Bohdan was saying, his poem showed that slam poets need to concentrate on their performance, as well as their writing.

He was followed by Phoebe Power (for Pembroke), winner of a 2012 Eric Gregory Award and the 2009 Foyle Young Poet of the Year. She gave a very confident delivery of a poem in the voice of Dido (not the singer, the one from the Aeneid). The last Sacrificial Poet was Ben Jackson, who read a beautiful poem called Write Me in Your Diary. He took his performance to another level by interacting with the audience, which was evidently popular, as he was named winner of the round.

Now that the audience was clued in on how to vote, it was time for the main two rounds. James Walpole was up first for COW. It was quite evident that James was not used to slam poetry, as he read from the page (typically, slam poets are meant to have memorised their work) and also ran out of time. At times it was difficult to hear James, but considering the short notice he was given to be involved in the slam, he did well and the poem was very funny. A poet called Tristam was up next for Pembroke. He had a charming slam review 4stage presence, and had the audience in stitches with his poem about not being able to ride a bike until the age of nineteen. Writers’ Bloc’s Lily Blacksell concluded (and won) the round with a poem about unrequited love. It’s a topic that is frequently written about, but Lily brought something new and personal to it. Her performance was also first-class, as she used her experience in acting to make her poem completely relatable and humorous. There were also moments of beautiful poignancy, however, especially created by a line about an ‘undeniably single bed’.

It would be impossible to give you a play-by-play of the evening, so instead I shall focus on the remaining highlights. Tiffany Kang from Pembroke College quite simply stole the show. Her soothing, hypnotic voice was used fantastically in her poems. As an American poet, she brought something completely different to the competition, showing that British and American styles of poetry are completely different, but equally entertaining.

Elisha Owen’s (UoB) poem about her relationship with her father was a personal favourite. It was touching without being too sentimental, and captured the difficulties of how growing up can affect such an important relationship.

Ben Norris (UoB) performed two great poems: Disaster Sex and Dismembered Voices. He had clearly focused on the delivery on his poems, which was infallible and energetic, but his poems were also great in their own right. All of this is even much more impressive when one remembers that Ben was also organising the entire evening, and was actually responsible for the formation of COW.

Lorna Meehan (COW) dealt with comic and serious subjects in her poems, but really shone with her poem about Michael Bublé. She was engaging, entertaining and truly likeable. All the women in the audience could relate to her, but her poetry was so well written that everyone was won over.

Finally, James Grady showed that you don’t need three minutes to impress an audience, you just need a little over one. His poem Crossword was full of hilarious innuendo and was undeniably catchy. It was a short but sweet way to win the support of the audience.

Mention must also be given to the wonderful compere, Chazz. He was funny, irreverent, sarcastic and very self-aware, which helped toslam review 3 move the already entertaining evening to new heights. Some poetry nights can be a little slow-moving, but this slam was filled with boundless energy, and left the audience wanting more.


At the end of the evening, the University of Birmingham was announced as the winner of the slam, with only one point between them
and the runners-up. However, as Chazz reminded us, the night wasn’t about winning; it was a celebration of poetry and talent.

By Jenna Clake

@jennaclake

Tell Me On A Sunday: Strange Encounters @ Ikon Gallery

Tell me on a Sunday is a series of storytelling events held at the Ikon Gallery, where selected tellers go up on stage and tell their anecdotes relating to a set theme. Before the event commenced there was a chance to socialise with other audience members, in the gallery’s cafe that serves tea, coffee and soft drinks and even muffins.This week’s Tell Me on a Sunday was based around the theme of ‘Strange Encounters’.

The dim-lit, small and social audience make the sharing of stories an intimate event. It is hosted by Cat Weatherill, one of Europe’s tell-meleading performance storytellers who set the theme after being inspired by Valentine’s Day. She responded well to each seven-minute performance, drawing us in and out of each teller’s life. Some of the storytellers told their story in a very conversational way, using hand movements to express themselves, which further added to their performance. The comedienne Naomi Paul, however, crafted her story with a performance perfect structure instead of a conversational anecdote. Her story provided a neat beginning, middle and end.

The stories range from humorous to tragic and ‘all with truth at their heart’. This just goes to show how far the theme can be interpreted. One story, by a retired teacher-turned-writer touched us all as he told us how his failed attempt at resuscitating a person has had a lasting effect on his life. Furthermore, the idea of not knowing the young man’s name still stays with him today.

Journalist William Gallagher enticed us to his story with his love of Sci-fi; he made us believe that he had actually witnessed, in his own blogfest picwords, a ‘shiny glowing disc’. Not only a shiny glowing disc, but that a woman was abducted by aliens. This ended with the humorous realisation that the woman possessed the car keys.

Through the variety of funny and emotional stories, we were able to relate to some aspect of the tellers’ experience. What I really loved about the event is that it goes back to the oral tradition of storytelling, where the teller is not restricted by the barrier of pen and paper, allowing the teller’s story to flow and touch us in an authentic way.

By Malia Choudhury

The next Tell Me On A Sunday is at the Ikon Gallery Cafe on Sunday 17th March. To reserve call the Ikon Gallery (0121 248 0708). The facebook event is: https://www.facebook.com/events/150196501798295/

Birmingham Visiting Writers Programme: Simon Armitage

On Tuesday 29th of January, renowned poet Simon Armitage appeared in the Bramall Music Building as part of the ‘Birmingham Visiting Writers Programme.’ It was the first event that the English Department had held in the new building and the turnout was remarkable. Every seat on the lower tiers was filled, and the balconies were even opened for surplus spectators. It was clear that this visitor was popular, and a huge number of people were eager to see him.

Simon Armitage reading

After a short introduction, Armitage took to the stage with welcoming applause. To many, this literary figure will be remembered as a favourite from GCSE English Literature, as a number of his poems featured in the Anthology course book. He has had 10 volumes of his poetry published, and has been awarded a CBE for his contribution to poetry. But he is a humble man in every attribute; from afar, with his faded jeans and a baggy suit-jacket, he looks like your best friend’s Dad. But peer a little closer and his brothel-creeper shoes and gold pirate earring give away his eccentricity.

From the start of his lecture, it was clear that Simon Armitage’s well-known stage presence and charm were still very much intact as he regaled us with amusing anecdotes from his childhood and his home-county of Yorkshire before getting to the serious stuff. His first poem ‘The Shout’ recalled a science project from his school days. After this, a reading of ‘Zoom’ – one of his first published poems about a cartoon show’s credits – left everyone in the room a little bemused but completely hooked. Following this, Armitage read some of his translated pieces, including ‘The Green Knight’ (which, incidentally, Disney approached him about to use for a new animation). Next, we were treated to one of his ‘Flash Fiction’ pieces titled ‘The Net’ – a slightly longer poem with a prose-like structure.

Forty-five minutes flew by, and soon it was time for some discussion. With some great questions from the audience, we were delighted with a number of quick-witted one-liners and amusing stories – in particular, a hilarious recollection of an embarrassing misunderstanding about ‘cashback’ in Huddersfield Sainsbury’s that left everyone laughing out loud.

Photo by William Fallows

Photo by William Fallows

However, Simon Armitage isn’t just an entertainer – he proved that beneath his showman exterior lays an extremely passionate and pensive mind, and his ponderings were both informative and thoughtful. Upon being asked whether his consideration of his readers affected his writing he profoundly responded: ‘There are only 26 letters in the English Language. But if you put them in the right order, you can explode something in someone’s mind, thousands of miles away, hundreds of years apart, in complete silence.’  And after just an hour in the same room as him, it would be safe to say that he had enthralled and impressed every member of his captivated audience.

By Megan Evans @mkevans92

The Gentlemen Press presents: Poetry Espionage

The event is held downstairs in the Six Eight Kafé, Temple Row, Birmingham. There are small tables with small chairs and small candles. Cosy and kooky; your perfect location for a gathering of new musicians and poets.

six eight kafe

Joseph Sale is hosting. Humble as ever, he recites just two of his marvellous poems tonight and only picks up a guitar during the interval. His warmth and buoyancy creates an atmosphere of genuine intimacy and unity between performers and audience.

Max Merrick-Wren is my new favourite musician. He wields guitar and harmonica as if they’re extra limbs, for the most part with his eyes closed. His voice is soothing; his passion consistent throughout. I prefer his own songs to the Dylan cover, especially the gently powerful ‘High Horse’, with its climactic ending. The only constructive point I have is for him to inhale more quietly. I can’t wait to get hold of an album.

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Joseph Sale performs ‘The Necromancer’, a haunting piece about raising the figures of history, listening to the ‘silence that became their voice’. Like the mysterious woman I am ‘wonder-morphed’, both by the ideas Joe evokes and the words with which he (appropriately) brings them to life.

Carl Sealeaf gives us two-and-a-half poems, due to an endearing bout of memory loss. The first half of ‘Growth’ is wonderful, expressing his fear of ‘acting out someone else’s definition of growing older, broader at the shoulders but still shrivelled at the heart’. His last piece about macaroni, festivities, ‘stale air’ and ‘oil-smeared hands’ culminates beautifully with a sad and simple point about family. I am left uplifted by his art but saddened by the things it says.

Next is the Italiano Duo, playing for the first time together in this country. Their covers include ‘New Shoes’ by Paolo Nutini, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse, and ‘Warning Sign’ and ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay. Their nerves show a little but their gift is undeniable; Winehouse is obviously their favourite since their attitude and the volume are cranked right up. They shouldn’t be shy; their talent deserves confidence.

Elisha Owen offers us six poems in a voice perfectly suited to recital. She carries us with a quiet pensive joy through the vivid Spanish landscape of ‘Handprints’ where ‘the water creates a rhythm that foreigners dance to’. She reads ‘Prostrate Shadows’ where Muslim men are ‘sentinels beckoning the sunrise’, ‘Racing’, ‘Long Jump’, ‘Origami’, in which a seven year old boy  tries to sell her his art, and finally, ‘In the Days Before They Made Them Biodegradable’, where one plastic bag is transformed into a family treasure.

Sean Neil performs three songs; solemn, honest and touching. His strumming could flow better and he needs to use his diaphragm more, but bearing in mind that I can’t sing and play to save my life, that he wrote all of his own songs and that they’re very good ones, I hardly have a right to comment. His work is reminiscent of Damien Rice without the Irish accent, which suits me fine.

386765_299333770097854_1784160791_nNext is Giles Longley-Cook. We flit through dreary rooms in ‘Reflections in Jordan’ and the joys of alcohol in ‘The Budweiser Gita’, while he drinks pointedly from a bottle. After a disturbing piece on the politics of the Holy Land, Giles pauses to let us listen to the whirring of a fan and the sounds of the café above before stating, hauntingly, that ‘I have never fully known silence’. This poem strikes me in a fresh and thought-provoking way before he thunders on into a mock Christmas carol for his finale.

Aliena and Peter follow up with a few covers as well as some of their own compositions (lyrics by Chris who sits bashfully in the audience). The guitar is a bit too loud but Aliena uses this to her advantage and blows us all away with her vocal power; Peter is both talented and utterly unassuming. My favourite song is ‘Avenue of Cosmonauts’, sullen and gripping and very bass-y.

Ben Norris reads a delightful poem derived from his lecture notes on the European Novel. It is sharp and witty, diving from humour to seriousness and back again. The wonderful twist is that although lecture notes in poetry is an innovative idea, the piece insists that nothing is ever truly original. ‘Meaning is contingent’, he claims, ‘his name is Echo’. Ben proceeds with a touching poem ‘Southern Hemisphere’, and then reads ‘After Babel, After Pisa’ concerning theories of the University Library’s reconstruction, and a lovely piece about keeping hold of somebody by collecting physical memories.

Joe rounds the night off with ‘Circles’, a farewell poem that reminds me of Bilbo’s ‘The Road Goes Ever On’. Profound and heart-warming, it weaves in circles of thought about this little gathering of artists and the common desires that brought us together.

‘We must not shake,’ he encourages us, ‘we must not fear, to seek the dream that brought us to this place’.

The-Gentlemen-Press-1

A special thanks to The Gentlemen Press for running this event. We hope to see more from you soon.

For more information, visit www.gentlemenpress.com

By Danielle Bentley

Hooky Street Press at Eastside Projects: Seriousness and Humour in Art Writing

In the second gallery of the Eastside Projects building, hemmed in by wooden panels and abstract grey portraits, Hooky Street Press hosts a symposium upon humour and seriousness in art writing. Alternative youths sporting chunky knitwear, piercings, hair dye and dreadlocks are scattered in the audience, amongst their more sophisticated elders.

Gavin Butt begins the talk with a straightforward dissection of the humour-seriousness dilemma, using a quote from Charles Ludlam: ‘Now the whole idea of seriousness is awful to me – it sounds like something imposed from without. It doesn’t really imply gravity or profundity; it implies decorum, behaving yourself.’

Butt explains that society views ‘significant’ things through the lens of seriousness because we believe it is the only way to attribute value and prove our commitment. However, this has become so common that it now sounds more like ‘bloated pronouncements of value’ than genuine feeling. He asks whether we can separate ‘gravity and profundity’ from seriousness. Exampling Joe Brainard’s art, Paul Morrisey’s film Women in Revolt, and performance artists Kiki & Herb and David Hoyle, he demonstrates society’s confusion when faced with blended solemnity and comedy.

David Burrows proceeds with the point that ‘there’s a seriousness to humour’, recalling a performance artist who dressed as a soldier and lay ‘dead’ in the streets of Birmingham for a whole week. According to Burrows, ‘he points out the fact that the whole world is wrong’, underlining the irony of the show as criticism of war itself.

Andrew Hunt’s talk on Jacques Lacan has me utterly lost. He dons a mask that makes him look like a cartoon psychopath, and launches into a complex rant about the ‘discourse of the university and the master’. Milkshake by Kelis plays during an animated slideshow. I don’t quite know what to make of it, but the basic point I gather is that one’s unconscious desires are barred by the rules of society; a hysteric will show the ‘truth’ of these desires by denying ‘knowledge’ of culture.

An interesting but unnecessarily extravagant ‘symposium’, and appropriately enough by the end, I’m not sure whether to laugh or frown.

Danielle Bentley

Grizzly Pear @ The Bristol Pear

Writers’ Bloc, University of Birmingham’s Creative Writing Society, has managed to make a name for itself off campus. The society’s previously low-key open-mic night has been transformed into a dynamic and varied night called Grizzly Pear, set in the upstairs room of the Bristol Pear in Selly Oak. The night is the brainchild of Ben Norris, the society’s Literary Events Officer, who knows a thing or two about the open-mic scene in Birmingham – having started his foray into spoken word at this very kind of night. To complement Grizzly Pear’s new identity, the night has been given an entirely new format. There are now ten open-mic slots available to anyone; these are free of theme. The open-mic performers are then followed by five Writers’ Bloc members, who have to perform or read a piece that has been influenced by a subject. Finally, the night is concluded by one top-class headliner.

The theme of the night was ‘Loot’, which was introduced by Ben, who was also the evening’s compere. In a form true to his energetic style, Ben performed a middle-class parody of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ (with Joe Sale on guitar) to a delighted crowd, who responded with roars of laughter.

Grizzly Pear showed that it has the potential to become something much bigger than just a University-based open-mic night, as several poets from the Birmingham spoken word scene attended and performed. There were performances from Lorna Meehan, Jaden Larker and Carl Sealeaf, all of whom have performed at other well known spoken word nights. Lorna stuck to the theme by giving a brilliant performance of a poem based on lyrics from Florence + The Machine, Jaden performed a humorous poem about greetings cards, and Carl Sealeaf left the audience in awe with a beautifully honest poem. There were also several other highlights from the open-mic section. Joe Sale returned to the stage to perform ‘Ulysses Returns’, a powerful poem based on his father’s return from a life-threatening illness, in which Joe’s evident admiration was touching. Ben Jackson, who has previously performed at Hit The Ode, performed an inventive poem in which he experimented with sound and voice leaving the audience wanting more.

However, Grizzly Pear doesn’t simply cater to typical spoken word. Jess Hanson read a hilarious poem about surviving awkward family parties in a witty and confident style. She was followed by two special guests. Founder of the society and former Writers’ Bloc President, Sean Colletti, returned to impress once more. He read a touching poem about a good friend, in which he effortlessly captured the banter of friendship. He took the audience on an emotional journey which left the room devastated, and some audience members in tears. The final open-mic slot went to Luke Kennard, who is a lecturer of Creative Writing at the university and a renowned poet. His hilarious introduction to his sentimental poem, which will be appearing in his forthcoming collection, summed up the dynamic sense of the night perfectly.

The focus of the night then shifted onto Writers’ Bloc members. The standard of performances and readings was consistently high, showcasing the talent that the society has to offer. Among many highlights was Elisha Owen’s reading of ‘Radio Voices’. Elisha shifted her focus from spoken word (in which she has had many successes, including representing the university in a poetry slam against University of Edinburgh) to a more literary poem, which contained some strikingly beautiful images. She was followed by James Dolton, who first delivered a poem in rap-battle style, flawlessly integrating references to literature in every line. His second poem, ‘To’, was extremely honest and very well written, showing that his style has continued to mature. The final Writers’ Bloc member to perform was current President Alana Tomlin, who shared some of the poems she has written for her dissertation. Taking a witty yet simultaneously thought-provoking look at the failure of communities, Alana successfully looted parts of political speeches and was encouraged to continue by a riveted audience.

What is most original about Grizzly Pear is that it welcomes all disciplines of writing with open arms; page poets, spoken word performers and prose writers are all equally encouraged to share their work, providing the audience with a varied and thoroughly entertaining evening.

Grizzly Pear’s major success, however, was headliner Clayton Blizzard, who performed at Shambala Festival this summer. The highly talented folk singer and rapper travelled from Bristol to share a set for the first time in Birmingham. He initially captured the audience by singing a capella and wandering through the crowd, whispering in unsuspecting people’s ears. With witty rhymes, a strong vocal performance and some excellent guitar-playing, Clayton played a set which was full of black comedy. Highlights included ‘Sleep Tight’, in which a relaxing guitar piece was juxtaposed with sharp satire, and the infectious ‘Don’t Send Me Flowers When I’m Dead(I’ll Never Be on Top of the Pops Now)’. His varied set was a perfect end to the evening.

Thanks to its creator, Ben Norris, Grizzly Pear has firmly placed itself in line with some of the other open-mic nights that Birmingham has to offer, far exceeding previous events the society has held. Undoubtedly, everyone cannot wait until January when Grizzly Pear will return.

Follow @uobwritersbloc for more information on future events.

Words by Jenna Clake    @jennaclake

Pictures by Anita Baumgärtner