As any local taxi driver will doubtless confirm, Birmingham is currently experiencing an era of unprecedented development. Yet with a truly unseasonable hot spell in February (fun for our students on the green heart; disconcerting for the world’s meteorologists) this cusping spring has also been a time to think about how locality breathes into geography – how seismic changes wrought in the wider world are being reaped here in this urban habitat, and vice versa.

Therefore, for this collaborative ‘People & Pages’ event at Wayland’s Yard café, it seemed particularly timely for a (truly) hot arsenal of Midlands poets to offer up readings tacitly concerning this theme – locality, geography – and how Midlands identity can be approached from diverse, and intentionally surprising, angles. Indeed, since the news from the Birmingham Mail last year, that the number of homeless people in the West Midlands has now increased by 2,500 – with a shocking 23,800 people recorded in November as sleeping on the street or in temporary accommodation – it also now feels apt for individuals to meditate on who is included, and who excluded, by our communities and urban sprawl. Showcasing a stunning diversity of voice and style, poets Roz Goddard, Casey Bailey and Roy McFarlane all lyricised and ruminated after what it means to be both a Brummie and a human being in this extraordinary, and pitiless, landscape.

The evening opened with Roz Goddard, former poet laureate of Birmingham and project manager for the West Midlands Readers Network. Goddard is intimately tangled with both the civic and literary worlds of Birmingham as both writer and teacher, and as a poet who offers feedback surgeries at a local Buddhist centre. Just as one of the city centre’s new (pink!) trams rumbled by, Goddard spoke about the ‘city transforming before our eyes, every day something new’ just as at once, ‘in so many places around the world, there is disintegration’.

Goddard has a reputation for melding the traditional and the pop-cultural in both playful and poignant fashion, with collections like The Sopranos Sonnets and Other Poems (Nine Arches, 2010), but in tune with her most recent collection Spill (Flarestack Poets, 2018), allusions to water and fluidity coursed through Goddard’s reading on this occasion. From ‘diamonds big as raindrops’ in the whimsical, changeable Birmingham of ‘A Falling’, to ‘silver drops exploding’ and a ‘wide glowing river of fury’ in ‘Spaceman’, listeners could be moved inexorably by the current of poems which explored both grief and exuberant pleasure. A host of recognisable settings popped up, from Brindley Place and the ‘gallery steps’ to a nostalgic Black Country, back when, as Goddard explained, it was still a ‘novelty to have a phone installed’. Feeding from the rich heritage of other poets who wrote on Birmingham such as Louis MacNeice, Goddard’s ebullience and adoration of her home city were infectious – as was the sorrow of her poem for the recent #MeToo anthology (Fair Acre Press, 2018), which nurtured ‘a long quiet such as you might find in a seam of coal’. Submerged amid changeable currents, Goddard’s emotional expansiveness – her ‘specks of brilliance’ – shone brightly.

The second reader was Casey Bailey – poet, rapper and educator – originally hailing from Nechells. As even a cursory google will corroborate, Bailey is a confident wearer of many creative hats – from his recent collection Adjusted (Verve Poetry Press, 2018), to his residencies as #GrimeBoy and hip hop and grime EP on Soundcloud, to his participation in numerous TEDx events, to his teaching and outreach. On his website, Bailey professes that ‘We can never allow the injustices of our present to become excuses for our future’ and it is evident from an exploration of Bailey’s work that it is the people in particular – often marginalised and unheard, sometimes known to Bailey but frequently strangers – who drive the musicality of his verse and populate his pages. It is also clear from Bailey’s introduction of himself and his poetry, that for Bailey, each person or object possesses an extrapolate-able back-story, a vital context… from his attire (‘forgive… I came straight from work’) to the colonial booty adorning the National Trust sites Bailey visits (Somalian artefacts still colonised by signs which jarringly order, DO NOT TOUCH). In every walk of life, we are products of our history, and we can drown in the fact if we don’t seek to navigate its weirs. Bailey tells us, ‘out the window, is the Midlands’ and ‘inside the Midlands is me’.

Waylands Yard

Bailey’s understanding of the complex nature of historical inheritance is knit into the poems he performed, such as ‘The Old Man’ (‘your past is the longest’, heavy with ‘recipes for their unborn children’), yet Bailey also explores how ‘history’ is also intentionally warped and repurposed as a tool to abuse the most vulnerable. In his poem about suicide, ‘Multiple Choice’, with thrilling directness Bailey tells us: ‘Stop killing those who already killed themselves / like they haven’t suffered enough already, / carried enough already, / died enough already.’ Bailey appreciates how appropriate context is often wrested from those who need it most, who are constrained by factors even those closest to them cannot gloss: ‘The most difficult multiple choice questions / are the ones where you feel like none / of the answers can be right, / but you must choose one anyway.’

The final reader of the night was Roy McFarlane – also a former Birmingham poet laureate – born in Birmingham, and now living in the Black Country. McFarlane is another poet with a history of enthusiastic involvement in his community, from his work in the nineties as a Detached Youth Worker, to delivering anti-racism training across Birmingham in the noughties. McFarlane has also worked for the Birmingham Partnership against Racial Harassment and later for the Birmingham City Council, and his poetic practice has seen collaboration in the worlds of theatre, music and dance. McFarlane cites one of his chief poetic inspirations as Langston Hughes, particularly ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, but co-host Dr Rona Cran also compared his work to the bristling, often urban-oriented prose and poetry of James Baldwin – for similarly, McFarlane explores how mechanisms of wider injustice are refracted through interpersonal relationships, and the individual (often lonely) psyche. Pulling the audience in with his intense and sonorous delivery, McFarlane mentioned Zygmunt Bauman and his famous exhortation to ‘See the world through the eyes of society’s weakest members, and then tell anyone honestly that our societies are good, civilised, advanced, free.’

As with Goddard and Bailey, recognisable landmarks of the Midlands proliferated – from ‘A Love Song to Smethwick’ to McFarlane’s fleeting vision of a ‘Rasta’ performing from the top of the BT Tower. McFarlane calls Birmingham ‘a city of a hundred tongues’, but on the micro level, McFarlane also explores how Brummies might use their individual agency to transform local lives for the better, through ostensibly trivial acts of kindness. In McFarlane’s poem ‘Patterson’s House’, the audacity and generosity of one father figure rescues a whole lost generation of young black men: ‘young men drowning in oceans of puberty… found in him a lighthouse for all seasons’. Their ‘baggage, basketballs and bicycles’ are accepted without protest… ‘we had the freedom of his house’.  In other works, McFarlane uses powerful, haunting visual images to impress a sense of corrosive ‘macro’ orders – from poems flooded with the colours ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘grey’, to the extended cinematic horror of a death at the hands of police seen ‘over and over again in slow motion, frame by frame’. We hear the tale of a young black girl trying to scrub her skin clean.  

McFarlane’s recent collection, The Healing Next Time (Nine Arches, 2018), explores the deaths in custody of black men and women, perpetrated in prisons and mental health institutions. The awesome strength required to evince subject matter like this was echoed in McFarlane’s unapologetically robust poetic delivery in person. McFarlane presses listeners not to turn away from an appalling spectacle of bigotry… happening, and continuing, within and without us.

We thank the lovely Wayland’s Yard (city centre) for hosting. Dr Lila Matsumoto unfortunately could not attend due to illness. Her bio is as follows:

Lila Matsumoto writes and teaches in Nottingham. Her book ‘Urn & Drum’ was published by Shearsman in 2018.