Coronavirus Update

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Commonword office will be closed until further notice.

With respect to our programme:

  • All events are postponed until at least the end of June.
  • All face to face workshops are cancelled – we are, however, exploring options for continuing these online.
  • The rest of our work, including the Archive Project, Mentoring, and Publishing, will continue as normal.

We will provide more information on how you can participate in our programme digitally in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, should you need to contact us, please do so via our social media, or email:

info@cultureword.org.uk

Take care and look after each other.

Commonword

For up to date information on government guidance re. funded organisations in the Arts, please visit the Arts Council England information page here: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/covid19

Writer of the Month: Joy France

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

All my life I’ve been aware of the power of creativity to inspire individuals and bring about positive change in wider society, but believed I had no artistic ability myself. I was extremely shy with no self-confidence. In my mid 50’s that changed. I discovered performance poetry and found my voice. Since then I’ve become an extreme example of how creativity can change a person. I’ve found my voice and won’t ever stop using it!
Whilst most of my “art” involves words in all its many forms, I have also created other art, for example, installations for exhibitions.

I believe that my ability to build and develop creative communities is an art in itself. It’s certainly personally satisfying enabling people to discover their artistic ability. I love to see the magic that can happen when very different people, who would never meet in normal life, come together and break down barriers through creativity.

 Back in 2013, you won Cultureword’s Superheroes of Slam. How do you feel both you and the slam scene has grown during these seven years?

It took me a long time before I could say “I am a poet” – instead I’d casually say “I mess about with words” or “I dabble with poetry.” I guess after a lifetime of having no confidence, I was experiencing imposter syndrome.

Winning the Warrington heat gave me a huge confidence boost but it was taking the title that proved to be a pivotal moment for me – especially as I was the first woman and first older person to win it. Having the spotlight on me was both uncomfortable and exhilarating at the same time but I met many inspiring people linked to Cultureworld/Commonword and eagerly took every opportunity that followed.

I have ambiguous thoughts about slams. On one hand, it feels intrinsically wrong to judge and score poetry and yet a good slam can be a wonderful event where poets support each other to raise their bar. I went on to win lots of slams and competitions (including an anti-slam where the worst poet wins which was so much fun) and I’m happy to see that slams still have a place in the current vibrant poetry scene.

Note: I’m sad that I never met Dike Omeje whose name is forever honoured through the Superheroes of Slam but discovering his work was a delight. I regularly dip into a book of his poetry.

 You’ve recently started participating in rap battles and been dubbed Manchester’s ‘rapping granny’. How did you find your way onto the rap scene? How do you feel it’s influenced your work/performance style?

Explaining how I got involved in the rap scene would take a very long time.
I certainly didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a battle rapper! It was more that a whole series of coincidences and weird events led me down that path. Last year a short documentary about this was premiered in London and was screened at the National Documentary festival. A longer version is due out in spring.

Turns out I’m the “one and only” anywhere in the world. As a short fat grey haired woman in my 60s I’m certainly breaking the stereotype of what a battle rapper looks and sounds like AND many of the stereotypes associated with women and aging.

Last year I did a Tedx Talk which tells a little of my story into battle rap (how I became the rapping nanna panda).

Some of my early battles can be found online but be warned, they are not for the easily offended. It’s important to realise that the battles take freedom of speech to its limit. Whilst they are brutal, away from the battles it is a gentle world where young people are honest about their feelings and mental health.
A good starting point might be this Guardian article or this footage from a LadBible Mental Health rap battle event as it demonstrates that rap and poetry are not so different.

You’re currently a Creative in Residence at Affleck’s Palace, Manchester. How did this opportunity come about and what do you enjoy most about it?

Like most things I sort of “fell into it”. A chance conversation led me to meet with the manager.  He asked me to explain what being a Poet in Residence involved (at that time I had 3 residencies). Instead of answering his question, I heard myself saying that Afflecks shouldn’t have a Poet in Residence but a Creative in Residence. Someone who would record, celebrate and promote creativity in all its forms. I rambled on and was shocked when he asked me whether I would do it. Of course I agreed immediately. Afflecks has for decades been at the heart of Manchester’s indie scene after all.
I was given a shop space and had no idea whether my idea would work. Within days it was clear that something very special was happening. Four years on it continues to thrive. It’s an amazing unique place. It has been shaped by the diverse people who use it. I go in whenever I can but it more or less runs itself.
It’s not funded, not advertised and can’t be explained in words. People will just have to go and “get a hug from the room” to understand it. It’s a hidden gem in a corner of the 3rd floor behind StarWars Man’s stall that confirms the fact that there are many lovely people in this world.

 If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger self about being in the poetry industry, what would it be?

I’d say what I tell young people who ask me. You don’t have to be part of the “poetry industry.” It can sometimes be limiting or can even destroy your creativity. Instead just be involved in work that excites you wherever you find it. Mixed art forms are a good way to go, as is taking poetry into new territory. It will help you discover your uniqueness and help you find your own voice.

 Where can we find your work?

There are many links to my performance poetry on the internet.

A recent article in Manchester’s Finest magazine contains links that might be useful for people unfamiliar with my work.

I have never been interested in doing a book of my poems, but as a result of some work I did with the Manchester Universities and Manchester Museum, I’ll soon be bringing out a type of pamphlet or zine, but it’s going to be unlike any other. Less of a poetry collection, more a bizarre adventure in words and pictures.

  What does the future hold for you in your writing career?

I’m always on the lookout for new opportunities / collaborations. Anything that challenge me or takes me into new territory. I rarely have a mapped out plan. I’ve recently started doing stand up comedy so maybe that may something I develop more. Who knows? I am certain that writing and performing will be continue to be a huge part of my life. 

 Sum up your experience thus far in one word

 EXHILARATING.

Writer of the Month: Paula Ethans

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

I am a writer, poet, and spoken word artist. My medium is language. My art is an assembly and positioning of words, punctuation, and intonation used to create experiences.

When I craft a piece, be it an article critiquing the patriarchy or a spoken word piece bemoaning heartbreak, my goal is to take you on a linguistic journey so you can experience something, feel something.

I use writing to speak truth to power and to foster empathy. I want my audience to see an issue from a new perspective, or learn a new way to articulate a problem with which they are intimate. I want people to lean in to comfortable topics, and find solace in the common threads of personhood. I want people to engage with uncomfortable topics, and interrogate themselves when they squirm. I make art that rocks the boat, because the waters aren’t steady for everyone.

I define art as any experience that activates your senses. The drop of a roller-coaster, the swipe of a paintbrush, the bend of a dancer, the beat of a march. Art makes you feel.

Congratulations on winning Trans Europe Expression 2019. Why did you choose to enter the competition?

I chose to enter the TEE Slam (way back in August) because I had just moved to Berlin and I was eager to insert myself into the poetry community. No matter where in the world I go, I find the poetry community is always warm and welcoming and helps me ground myself in new surroundings.

Tell me a bit about the poems you performed in the Berlin heat and the final. Why did you choose those particular poems?

In the Berlin heat, I performed four poems, three of which were brand new. It’s not ideal to compete with new poems, as you have no idea how the audience will receive them, but the TEE Slam time limit (90 seconds) was very tight and none of my poems are that short!

I ended up performing: i) “when we built the walls,” which is about the global rise of xenophobia and the feeling of not doing enough to counteract it, ii) “another poem about you,” which is a love/anti-love poem about an ex of mine who I can’t help but to write about, iii) “pro-‘life’,” which uses the analogy of a gardener to critique pro-life people who advocate for the rights of foetuses but don’t care about the quality of the children’s lives, and iv) “she tried to leave,” which examines the ways in which women are uniquely and disproportionately impacted by climate change.

In Manchester, based on how the audience had reacted in Berlin, I changed up my set a bit. I performed “when we built the walls” again, and then I performed “womanhood,” which is an older piece of mine that addresses femicide that I trimmed down. For my third piece, I performed a new poem, “annual general meeting” which satirically critiques white feminism.

Almost all my pieces in Berlin, and indeed all of them in Manchester, were political. While I can’t deny a good love poem, I think it’s important to use the privilege of a stage to address current issues. Winning is great, but sharing a message is more important to me.

How did you feel when you found out you’d won the title?

Shocked! Very shocked. I am relatively new to spoken word – only performing for about a year – so I don’t expect too much from myself. I also can’t dedicate as much time as I’d like to poetry, as most of my time is tied up by my day job (which, thankfully, I love).

But beyond being shocked, I was eternally grateful. What a wonderful feeling it is to know that your work is acknowledged and appreciated. I often struggle with imposter syndrome when it comes to poetry, so receiving this kind of recognition was very reaffirming.

Do you have any upcoming performances?

I’ll be competing in the Wicked Slam in Berlin on December 7th. It’s a political slam – every piece performed must address a social issue connected to that month’s theme – so I’m excited to showcase some of my longer political poems. I am heading home for the holidays, to Winnipeg, Canada, and I’ll be performing at show there too.

What was your highlight of the whole experience?

For me, as with any slam or open mic, the highlight is seeing other performers. As artists, we can get so wrapped up in our own work (thinking it’s either the best or the worst in the world) that we can forget about all the amazing work already out there, fully formed and existing, within other artists. I love seeing other performers because I learn from them, I feel myself grow from their words.

Would you encourage others to participate in the competition?

Definitely! The TEE is great because you meet wonderful artists from across Europe and you push yourself as an artist. The 90 second time limit is really challenging for poets – how do we say anything of substance in so little time? But it forces us to get to the point, pull no punches, and share our truth without droning on. Any poet that wants a fun, challenging experience should participate in the TEE.

What’s next for you in your writing career?

People keep asking me where they can find my poetry, and where they can buy my book and/or audio CD. Unfortunately, my answer to date has always been ‘nowhere!’ So I am thinking about publishing a book – a chapbook of my spoken word pieces, or a full collection of my written poems.

I also work as a freelance writer – examining culture, law, and politics from a critical intersectional feminist lens – and I am hoping to produce more content in the new year.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

For my hot takes on all things feminism, human rights, migration, and gender equality, you can follow me on Twitter at @PaulaEthans. If you want some longer reads, you can check out my articles at Kaur. Space and The Tyee. For my poetry, hopefully it will be coming to bookshelves near you soon!

Sum up your experience thus far in one word.

New.

Writer of the Month: Kevin Otoo

Can you tell me a bit about what you chose to write about and why?

The answer to the first part of the question is… Anything and Everything. And as for ‘why’ I write… I really don’t know, even after several days of thinking about little else! What did occur to me though is that one way of answering the question might be as follows –

ME AN’ SHIRL.

I take the first album
From where it sits in the rack
And I lower the needle
Onto the next to last track

I pretend-tip-my-hat
She pretend-curtseys back
We go around to the sound
Of The Best of Take That

The way the world goes around
Locked in its dance with the sun
The way the world goes around
Yet never seems to move on

We had a friend who’d call ’round
He’d bring a weed and some rum
He mostly liked to expound
On what the world has become

One day a kid knocked him down
He wore a red base-ball cap
He knocked him down to the sound
Of take this and take that!

(He knocked him down to the ground
Outside the door of this flat)

And still the world whirls around
While me an’ Shirl twirls around

The way the cat curls around
Its own warmth on the mat.

(September 2018.)

In essence, probably everything I’ve ever written has just been a variation of what is contained in the above poem and maybe somewhere in there too is the reason ‘why’ I write. I guess one might say that I write about that little bit of the world I know and the people who live and have lived in it with me. About how we sometimes struggle to make sense of it all, how we occasionally hurt one another (intentionally or otherwise): and how eventually we learn to adapt and find some way to move on.

How did you find out about Commonword and why did you start coming to the writing group? Can you remember what it was like?

The first time I heard about Commonword was in 1978 when I attended a writers group that had been set up by a woman called Fran Kershner in the library in Hulme. (If you are reading this Fran, then many thanks). Sometime during the following year (and at Fran’s suggestion) I attended my first Commonword Monday Night meeting in their offices on Bloom St. in the City Centre – and had continued to do so on a regular basis until the end of 1982. Mostly what I remember of those meetings is a wonderful sense of warmth and friendliness, and an informality and togetherness which extended to the time that we would spend in the pub afterwards. Meetings always felt relaxed, comfortable: someone or other would read and then there would be a bit of discussion or comment and then it would be somebody else’s turn. Occasionally a room would be hired in a nearby pub: once it was the Britons Protection for example and another time it was The Millstone. And then of course there was always the satisfaction of seeing one’s work in the group’s quarterly magazine, the ‘Write On’. All in all it was a happy and rewarding time in my life and I remember those days and the people who were there with real fondness.

Can you tell me about Another Moss Side Night? How did it come about? How was it received? How did Yargo’s version come about?

Another Moss Side Night was written in 1982 but is set mostly in and around the year 1970 when I had been spending more or less every night between twelve and six in the morning living in a world identical to the one portrayed in the poem.

All of the characters, the places and the incidents that feature in the poem are, for the most part, real and true, including the petrol-bombing of the Western club, which was not really a club at all but just a rather dingy shebeen on the first floor of the same building as the much more conventional and far more popular ‘Nile’ and ‘Reno’ clubs.

The poem originally appeared in print in issue number 19 of Commonword’s quarterly magazine the ‘Write On’. And then, a couple of years later, it also appeared in the ‘Octopus’, a community based magazine produced locally here in Hulme. And finally, in 1986, it found its way into the first issue of a somewhat short-lived though really well-produced magazine called the ‘Fly’ which was created and distributed by a group operating out of Chorlton.

And that should have been that: but then it re-invented itself… as a song!

It’s probably fair to say that in my younger days I had quite liked to drink a bit… and one night whilst doing just that in the Reno club in Moss Side, I got to talking with a guy who asked me if it would be okay for him to put the poem to music and to perform it with his band, ‘Yargo’. I said ‘Yes, go ahead’, and the following year, after having been to see the band at a couple of local venues (and really liking what I had heard!) the song was released as one of the tracks on their debut album, ‘Bodybeat’. Basically it was just as simple as that… until I approached him for payment. Which is when it got very complicated indeed. But that’s another story altogether!

Another Moss Side Night was interesting in that almost everyone seemed to like it. (Or so it seemed to me at the time). And yet lately I have been wondering about just exactly who ‘everyone’ was back then? I only ever read the poem publicly once and that was to just a handful of Commonword regulars in the Millstone pub, so the only other people who could have liked it were those who had either read it in one of the 3 magazines mentioned earlier or who had been fans of Yargo. My feeling is that almost all of those people would have been white, that the majority of them would have been young and that they would have been from outside of the area, though not exclusively so.

What was it like being “brought up in a white world”? (This is what you said to me when we spoke in October last year). Would you consider yourself an outsider? What was life like for you growing up?

From the age of 9yrs to 20yrs, with the exception of two 6 months long interludes and the time spent in a Family Group home, my life was lived in institutions, so although I say I was brought up in a white world it was not the same white world as my contemporaries were living in.

Yes, I do consider myself an outsider and have done so since the age of thirteen when I was relocated from Manchester to a residential school in the South East of the country. The geographical disconnect felt like the last straw and I refused to adapt. It wasn’t an issue with colour – it was more a case of being older by then and beginning to feel that I’d had enough.

And as for what life was like for me growing up, well that would take a long time to tell. Suffice to say that I didn’t suffer racism, I was not treated unfairly or unkindly (at least not in any way that was apparent to me at the time) and my first heroes were The Rolling Stones and The Who… white pop/rock star rebels!

Nb. I never did become a pop/rock star, I was only ever ‘half’ white and as for being a rebel… it’s probably more accurate to say that I was simply someone with a skewed way of seeing things who found it somewhat difficult to conform.

Have you got anything else you wanted to add?

Just this…

REBIRTH.

And then I had been born again


Only this time it was to a different woman
And it was to some other man
And it was on a different continent
To where that other life began

One where the sun was a disc of silver
In a clear and unending sky
And life was heart-breakingly simple
And the fields bone-breakingly dry

And I had grown beyond the reaping
Beyond the man that the child became
And the threshold of that understanding
Of why we dream we might be born again.



(Kevin Otoo. 2017).

Writer of the Month: Mandla Rae

Tell me about you, as an artist. How do you define art? What art do you make?

Whenever people ask me what I do, I always instinctively reply “I’m a poet” but even getting to that point took years. I’m starting to feel like more of a ‘storyteller’ – that sounds pretentious but essentially, I feel like what I do is I get to play around with different ways to tell stories. I guess I’d say for me, art is an attempt to seek and understand truth. My poetry is very personal, I write to reclaim an inner power that I misplaced or gave away. It’s mostly feeling. Writing and performing have been survival.

Performance is a really cathartic experience, I have a really complicated relationship with it as every time I perform it feels like I’m opening my soul and demanding it to be seen, telling people things about myself I wouldn’t usually tell them, it’s not the idea of judgement that scares me, it’s a fear of being open.

There’s a lot of trauma in the world and there’s been a lot of repression in my mind, my work is an attempt to work through these things. This year I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “In order to survive, we were taught to forget” which I saw filmmaker and director Campbell X write on social media and I really felt it. That’s popped into my mind a lot while I’ve been writing this year. I’m terrified of one day forgetting my life, but there’s so many events that I push as far back as I can in order to just about survive, so I suppose it makes sense that my work has always had a confessional aspect, even a poem like ‘to the Slaughter’ which is so grotesque and seems so far away from reality where my body is being chopped away, takes me back to a very specific, very real moment.

You’ve recently been co-commissioned by Commonword and Journeys Festival to produce a piece of work in response to our Displaced Words brief. What was your initial inspiration for the piece Letters to our Mothers and Fathers? What do you hope audiences will gain from experiencing this work?

There was something I wanted to say, I didn’t know what it was but I knew I wanted to say it. I have a bit of a weird relationship with my parents. I was raised by my grandmother; my dad’s mum and I haven’t seen my mum since I moved to England as a child. My dad’s always vaguely been around but I think because he didn’t raise me, there’s a distance between us. I think we don’t really know how to talk to each other. My mum feels more like a new friend and not so much a mother figure. I wanted to explore that, to communicate with both of my parents. I started writing letters to them about a year ago, letters I’m never going to send, sometimes I keep them, sometimes I don’t. There’s a lot of things we don’t say in my family. Family dynamics are often complicated, I’m obsessed with trying to figure them out.

I wanted to see what this experience feels like for others who, like me, are far from their home countries. I wanted to try and bring to the surface a snippet of what that feels like, to be trying to stay connected to people who are so far away, who you haven’t seen for years, maybe even decades, when you can’t just…make the trip to see them.

You are the curator of Queer Contact: Outspoken. How did you get into curating? How do you feel curating compliments your work as a writer?

I was on the National Student Pride committee when I was at university and I think I caught the curating bug when I was there, for two years I saw the festival start as vague ideas and then I got to watch and be a part of its becoming.

During Temporary Monument, Permanent Protest – a project myself, Nasima Begum, Ali Wilson and Isaac Rose produced for Contact to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Section 28 protests in Manchester, I got the chance to work with young LGBTQ poets. I facilitated poetry workshops with them and worked with Nasima to curate their performance at an event at the old Free Trade Hall to launch an image we’d commissioned by Manuel Vason. We also commissioned new works from local artists Louise Wallwein and Leo Hermitt. We’d been inspired by the Never Going Underground exhibition at the People’s History Museum when we’d come together for Re:Con, we couldn’t miss the chance to celebrate this beautiful moment in Manchester’s history where 25,000 people had marched across the city in anger at the government’s anti-gay proposed laws.

I was over the moon when Contact asked me to work with them to curate Queer Contact’s Outspoken! I think being a writer can feel very isolating at times, so I always jump at the chance to collaborate and showcase the brilliant work happening in Manchester right now, particularly by queer artists. I love that you don’t have to look very hard to find someone in this city who’s doing something fantastic, I regularly go to see performances so the Outspoken line up was performers whose work I’d been admiring over the past few years.

You’re a seasoned spoken word performer, what do you enjoy most about the spoken word scene? What advice would you give to first time performers?

I love the support from other poets, particularly in Manchester. It really does help to have a community of creatives otherwise you’d just be practicing your craft alone in your room (in my case anyway). To have friends like Nasima Begum who demand to see drafts of your new ideas, to regularly have a show or a performance or exhibition to support a friend in is really important in just keeping me going.

If you’re thinking about performing or have just started, show people your work – especially if the thing doesn’t feel finished (will it ever feel finished?), do it! Performance doesn’t just happen on the stage. Ask for advice, ask for help, find your community.

Over the summer you’ve been working at Edinburgh Fringe and you’ve previously participated in the Royal Exchange’s Writers of Colour group. What are your plans for delving further into theatre land?

I’ve always thought of myself as being in a long-term relationship with words, and I’m really excited by theatre and spectacle. Before Fringe, I was working at Manchester International Festival so working amongst two brilliant festivals for showcasing theatre and art, seeing shows back to back throughout the summer, it just made sense to look into writing about theatre. I applied for the Greater Manchester Critics Scheme as soon as I got back from Edinburgh and was really pleased to get accepted! There are some great programmes in and around Manchester this Autumn/Winter at theatres like Contact, the Royal Exchange, HOME and the Octagon and I’m really excited to dive into theatre reviewing and learning from some top names in the field.

What have been the key milestones in your development as a writer?

I joined Young Identity when I first moved to Manchester and I’m really thankful for those workshops and the amount of support I gained from being part of the performance collective. I’ll always love YI. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants was a stunning show to be part of, three generations of artists came together at Contact – Speakeasy, Inna Voice and Young Identity, that was a great moment.

Shadowing Keisha Thompson and watching her spectacular show Man on the Moon bloom and grow. That was really special, to be invited by Keisha into the space and watch a show become.

Performing on Nima Séne’s Beige Bitch with Contact at Stun. Nima really encouraged me to take control of the poem I performed, to play around with its presentation. To take up space.

Chatting to, laughing with, getting words of wisdom from one of my favourite playwrights ever – Debbie Tucker-Green during a Writers of Colour workshop(!!!!)

Chronologically, it’s interesting to see how my choices and opportunities over the past few years have kind of been leading me into making theatre.

What’s next for you in your writing career?

I used to find solo shows so terrifying and always thought I’d never have the nerve to do one. When I was shadowing Keisha,I remember thinking I’d never want to get on stage, as myself in a solo show and tell people things about my life as they happened. I always thought I would just write plays and have nothing to do with the performance. I guess there’s been some growth somewhere down the line as I’m now trying to learn as much as I can about how to do just that. There’s a story I want to tell and obviously there’s poetry involved but I want to see how much further I can push it. Until this year, I had only told a handful of friends in my whole life that I’m a refugee. I’ve always shared that I wasn’t born here, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to correct people when they’d assume that I had British Citizenship. Sometimes things would happen and I’d just keep them quiet instead of telling the story and having to answer the inevitable questions. I’m picking apart that shame, while trying to figure out if there is such a thing as ‘becoming British’. This story is more than three minutes long. I’m terrified. I’m excited.

I pitched the idea to Mother’s Bloomers and I’ll be workshopping a ten-minute part of the script at their next event at the Royal Exchange on the 16th of November with Lisa and Tim’s support. It’s a completely different performance to anything I’ve ever done before.

Where can we find out more about you and your work?

Later this year in December, a small collection of some of my poems –Slaughter –is being published in the new anthology from Lungs Project. The anthology’s called New Landscapes and is now available to pre-order at lungsproject.org!

You can follow also me on Twitter – @mandla_rae – I post all my upcoming gigs and news there.

I had a chat with Nuria López de la Oliva, curator and Journeys Festival Assistant Producer for the Journeys Roots to Fruits Podcast where we talked about Manchester and I shared a monologue from the solo show I’m currently working on developing. That will be on the Journeys Festival website in October.

Also happening in October are the Letters to our Mothers and Fathers performances. The first will be at Longsight Library on the 5th of October and the second will be at Cathedral Gardens on the 12th. I’ll be part of the festival’s activities on those days too, you can come and write a letter with me so please do!

But I’d say the best way to find out about my work is to come and see me or book me to perform! I’m performing quite a bit in October actually, at the Journeys Festival Launch, Creatures of Catharsis and the Devils Dykes Network Festival in Brighton.

Sum up your experience thus far in one word.

Thrilling!