Kevan Manwaring: creating a spoken word peformance to promote a new book

I began performing at the same time I began writing in earnest – back in 1991 – and so it is second nature to me to create a spoken word show based upon my latest publication, Northamptonshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2013). When I started out I quickly learnt getting folk to read your poetry was like asking them to do your Tax Return (and my early efforts were probably as excruciating), and so I realised that to ‘get my work out there’, I literally had to step up to the mark (or the mic). I started performing at ‘open mic’ events in my old home town, Northampton – badly to begin with, making all the classic beginner mistakes (reading from a text; speaking too low or too fast; avoiding eye contact with the audience; apologising, etc). In a live performance you quickly ascertain what works and what doesn’t. Instant feedback is visceral (clapping, tears, laughter), useful, but nerve-wracking. I learnt (the hard way) that the more effort you put into a ‘reading’, the more the audience appreciate it. Take the effort to learn it by heart, and the audience will generally give you the time of day. Suddenly, your performance has gone up several notches: there’s no paper-barrier between you and the audience; you can make eye-contact; you can use both hands for gesture… All you have to do is remember it!

Fast forward several years – I became Bard of Bath after winning the local eisteddfod in that city back in 1998. I started trying my hand at storytelling – even more terrifying, it seemed, as there’s no ‘script’, no safety net. The storyteller performers extempoire, or completely improvises. I became a professional storyteller in 2000 when I went freelance, getting bookings in schools, libraries, art centres, museums, and so on. I have since performed across Britain, live on BBC TV, and abroad.

After moving to Stroud in late 2010 I worked on a commission for The History Press – a collection of folk tales, as part of their county-by-county series. I opted for Oxfordshire – the ‘bridging’ county between my East Midlands roots and West Country home. For that I collected (and rewrote in my own words) 40 tales – the idea is that each has to be ‘performable’, that is not a verbatim performance script, but written with a sense of orality and aurality. This is where my experience as a spoken word performer cross-fertilised with that of my writing practice. To ‘test’ the material I performed it, whenever possible, to a live audience, before committing it to paper. After the book came out I toured it in venues across Oxfordshire to diverse audiences (Woodstock Bookshop; Alice Day, Guildhall Oxford; Beatnik Albion Bookshop; Oxford Folk Weekend).

Encouraged by the success of Oxfordshire Folk Tales, I wrote a second collection, drawing upon tales from my old home county of Northamptonshire. This was published in October 2013. I am now gearing up for performances based upon this latest book, but I also wanted to offer something different. Looking at my two books I decided I wanted to create a show based upon both. What could link them, beyond the folk tale genre? Earlier this year I took part in a project for Bath Literature Festival – based upon the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (Roud; Bishop 2012), local storytellers were asked to re-interpret them as narratives. The show I performed in was entitled rather memorably as ‘Tales of Lust, Infidelity and Bad Living’. Inspired by this, and by the many theme-based shows I have helped co-create with my Bath-and-Stroud-based storytelling group, Fire Springs, over the years, I decided to find a thematic link for the show, and thus was born ‘The Rose and the Snake’, partly inspired by the flowers associated with the respective counties, but also by the sexual politics which run throughout the material (as symbolised by my leitmotifs). Some stories are based on what are called Murder Ballads – and so love, death, revenge, and bizarre magical shenanigans are common tropes. This new show would be a collaboration with folksinger Chantelle Smith, who would complement my stories with ballads, thereby providing sonic texture, i.e. different registers of voice. Previously, when performing solo, I have achieved this by switching from story to poetry (I am no singer, but I am an experienced performance poet). Working with a musician widens out the appeal of the show tremendously. It is hard work, even for a word-junkie like me, to sit through a whole evening of poetry; or long stories, without variation. At sixty minutes, our show is intentionally lean and mean. With over 80 stories and countless ballads to choose from, the different configurations of material are vast – thus offering the possibility of numerous ‘sets’, differentiated according to the time of year, venue, and nature of the event. The Rose and The Snake is now available for ‘weddings, barmitzvahs and christenings’!

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Mike Johnson’s visual poetry displayed

I recently had a couple of visual poems displayed in a Swindon Art Gallery, under the auspices of ‘Domestic Cherry’ magazine and Swindon Artsite. Sometime before that, I had a number of poems displayed,  for a month, in Corsham Library, under the auspices of the Corsham Poetry Society.  A selection of three of these displayed poems are discussed here: I thought it would be interesting to explore their informing principles, which directly led to their process of composition, with you.

Poems are an interplay of linguistic and additional semiotic elements e.g. white space, varying where lines start and end, sound  echoes and so on. This entails that meaning, shape and sound all contribute to a poem’s spectrum of effects. I like to aim at quite minimal pieces, to allow the reader maximum imaginative freedom.

I am attracted to poems, then, that stretch the spectrum of elements i.e. when the shape goes beyond  linear norms, making an instant impact, when the sounds move into the realm of noise, including  onomatopoeia (less prevalent in these examples, perhaps, but there). Finally, foregrounded kinaesthetics is usually present my poems – reading a poem, you move along and down in a rather different manner to that in which you read prose and I try to extend this fact. These verbivisivoco effects, then, underlie much of my work.

Sadly (or, alternatively, happily!) children’s poetry has embraced such techniques rather more than adult poetry, though I do feel that the above poems exist in a crossover space, one in which both adults and children can find equal pleasure. I  certainly got interesting responses from adults, when the poems were on display. Additionally, both adults and children like the poems, judging by responses when I have performed them. All three poems have appeared in publications for children and ‘Dad, the amateur hypnotist’ won  the Thynks adult poetry competition in 2012.

To stop this brief exploration becoming too long, I would  briefly like to point out some factors in the above poems, which helped me to realize them.

PHASES OF THE MOON 

In this poem I have used punctuation symbols and the letter O to visually represent phases of the moon, in the order in which they occur. The kinaesthetic element of reading  across and down the page is added to by the visual representation of the moon changing shape. The use of blank space as an element of meaning  completes the action of the poem.  I love the idea of nothing meaning something.

There are also quite conventional elements here,  of course, such as alliteration on ‘g’ and full rhyme. 

 

 

 

THE ICEBERG THAT SANK THE TITANIC

The visual element here is foregrounded i.e. the poem is set out in the shape of an iceberg, with h being included, to suggest the sea. Both these elements add subtle degrees of kinaesthesis, not to mention the notion that the iceberg and the Titanic have collided. However, the poem could also be set-out in a more conventional manner and, thus, become amenable to more traditional analysis: 

 

 

 

 

 

and so on.

DAD, THE AMATEUR HYPNOTIST 

This poem takes the kinaesthetic element further still, in that you have to mimic the swinging of the hypnotist’s watch, as you read the poem. There are onomatopoeic elements too, in both ‘click’ and ‘miaow’. When I perform this poem, I actually click my fingers for the ‘click’. Many children and adults have actually supplied it for me, unasked, at performances. 

I hope this very short exploration has been appealing and I would like to end with one final visual poem, which I always send my students, as inspiration, when they start the poetry blocks.

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Hometown tales – forthcoming from Kevan Manwaring

Kevan says: I am excited about the forthcoming publication of my second collection for The History Press, Northamptonshire Folk Tales. This has been a very special book for me to write – as I retrod my old stomping ground, revisiting my childhood haunts, and discovering new treasures in my original home county. I will be touring a set of the tales over the next few months and will be looking for venues and events in Northamptonshire to bring it to.

Publicity from The History Press describes the book as follows: ‘Take a walk through this county in the heart of England in the entertaining company of a local storyteller. Kevan Manwaring, born and raised in Northampton, regales you with tales ancient and modern. Learn how the farmer outwitted the bogle; how a Queen who lost her head; the Great Fire of Northampton; and the last execution of witches in England. Along the way you will meet incredible characters from history and myth: Boudicca, St Patrick, Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake, Captain Slash, Dionysia the female knight, beasts and angels, cobblers and kings. From fairies to wolves, these illustrated tales are ideal to be read out loud or used as a source book for your own performances.

Northamptonshire Folk Tales is a great companion for any visit to the area, for fascinating days out and for discovering exciting treasures on your doorstep. The ‘Rose of the Shires’ will open before you!’ 

http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/index.php/northamptonshire-folk-tales.html

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Emily Bullock’s novel to be published by Myriad Editions

Emily Bullock’s début novel, The Longest Fight is to be published by Brighton-based independent publisher, Myriad Editions, in early 2014.  It is the first signing for fiction editor Holly Ainley, who acquired world English rights from agent Ed Wilson at Johnson and Alcock.

Set in pre-and post-WW2 London, The Longest Fight ‘expertly interweaves the gritty, violent world of boxing with a startlingly poignant exploration of love and family loyalty.  Drawing on influences as diverse as Graham Green, Sarah Waters and F X Toole, this is the story of one man’s struggle to overcome the mistakes and tragedies of his past.’

The Longest Fight is a beautiful and brutal début,’ says Ainley of her first acquisition.  ‘Hailing from a family of South London boxers and inspired by her bare-knuckle fighting grandfather, Emily Bullock’s voice rings with authenticity.  She proudly shines a light on the strength of relationships formed in this violent, ambitious, male-dominated world.  A careful combination of historical research and a natural desire to open readers’ eyes to this moment in time make her an irresistible new talent.’

Emily has an MA in Creative Writing from UEA and teaches creative writing modules A215 and A363 for the Open University.  She has been writing The Longest Fight as part of her PhD with the OU.

http://www.emilybullock.com/index.html

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‘Tweet’ by Joanne Reardon Lloyd

Found Plays was part of the Royal Court’s ‘Open Court’ season which ran throughout June and July this year, taking mini plays developed from overheard conversations, images, magazine stories and putting them on the theatre’s website or scattering them all over the building to be ‘found’ by the casual visitor.   The only proviso was that the short script had to fit on to the back of an envelope – a great challenge then for a writer’s editing skills!  

I wrote a short script developed from a conversation I overheard not that long ago one Bank Holiday weekend in my home town and sent it in.  A few days later I was thrilled to see ‘Tweet’ up on the website in the company of other little plays which had been ‘found’ just about everywhere including some from familiar names like the great Caryl Churchill.  The plays are great fun, some are two lines long; some a page in length and some have just one image which tells a whole story.  A simple but wonderful idea.

 ‘Tweet’ was then chosen as one of a few of the Found Plays to be performed by Uncommon Nonsense at the Royal Court on 11 July – not quite the main stage but hugely exciting all the same!

Royal Court – Found plays

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Northwords Now Spring Issue

Hi folks I’m pleased, proud and chuffed to bits to announce that the spring issue of Northwords Now is now available online (and on your e-reader). The print version will be in the usual venues in a few days so, one way or another, some fine reading is heading your way. You’ll also be delighted to hear that short stories by two former A215 students, LM Morgan and Lyndsay Marshall, are featured in this issue. Current students (and ALs) may also be keen to read Mandy Haggith’s article on the joys of self-publishing in the digital world.   www.northwordsnow.co.uk

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Emily Bullock’s short story to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4

Emily’s short story ‘My Girl’, which won first place in the Bristol short story prize in 2011, is due to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 29th March 2013, at 3.45 pm.  It opens a short series of stories celebrating the range of writers and talents attracted to the prize.

In ‘My Girl’, a mother watches from the corner as her daughter fights in a brutal boxing match: ‘My job is to stop the blood, cool her off, wash her down’.  As the punches land, memories come like blows.

Reader: Lynda Rooke
Producer: Sara Davies

Since winning the Bristol short story prize, Emily has been finishing a novel as part of her Creative Writing PhD with the Open University.  Set in 1950s London, it also has a boxing theme.  she is also currently working on a collection of short stories.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rk5qb

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Word on the Street

My novel ‘Word on the Street’ will be out in paperback and ebook in September, published by Cillian Press. They are a new independent based in Manchester and they’re a great team. I was allowed in on a meeting with the cover designer, which is probably every writer’s dream. It was so interesting to be part of a meeting between the three parts of the process – writer, publisher and designer – all working together and looking at things from the different angles. ‘Word on the Street’ is about homelessness, life writing and dermatology. It’s dark comedy, and that was one of the hardest elements to convey in a cover. We didn’t want it to look like a crime or mystery novel, even though it is both of those, and we didn’t want it to look like a romance, even though it is. I’m looking at book covers with new eyes now.

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Mike Johnson’s career in poetry writing

 My poetic praxis principally stems from PhD studies on twentieth-century kinaesthetic and otherwise experimental poetry (e.g. visual poetry, sound poetry, Merz, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) – what could be called avant-garde Modernism or Postmodernism.  Making it new, both in terms of structure and content, predicated on an unambiguous acknowledgement of living in a scientific epoch, with the machine achieving ubiquity (for good and ill), are significant factors. A chunk of my thesis was published by Routledge and can be found at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/36374179/KURT-MERZ-SCHWITTERS-AESTHETICS-POLITICS-AND-THE-NEGENTROPIC-PRINCIPLE-Mike-Johnson

Early success in being professionally published (including Macmillan and Oxford University Press) was simultaneous with these studies and I found equal amazement and amusement in the fact that the most fecund outlet for my poems began to lie in the general area of children’s  poetry! Naturally, pieces were increasingly targeted to a young and/or crossover audience (which additionally prevented a degree of self-indulgence) and the use of intriguing layouts on the page and an enchantment with language play turned out to be highly effective. So fruitful, in fact, that for much of the 1990s I was regularly asked to contribute poems for anthologies and I had something like 220 poems published. Anthology work has lessened in the twenty-first century, though I still get requests e.g. for a collection celebrating the Olympics, last year. Performing my poems in schools to an eager audience and then getting them to write their own, has been an supplementary joy, over the years.

According to the ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society) my poetry has  frequently been used in various ways and for diverse purposes, from Canada to Finland to New Zealand and places in between – I’m global! Details of much of my writing can be found at http://poetryzone.woodshed.co.uk/johnson1.htm

An agreeable concomitant of being in so many collections has been that I have subsequently had work selected for educational publications in UK, China, Germany and North America with Ireland forthcoming. I also had a poem published in The Times and I have appeared on several radio stations.

Enjoying the challenge of being inventive is still a major drive. I seek publications and competitions all over the English-speaking world and I recently had success in the Age UK Poetry Competition, eventually performing to Royalty – details of this can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBAwx-K8pLY

I have been lucky with my poetry in that my passion for the imaginative is shared by a number of editors, adult readers and especially children.  In teaching for the Open University and elsewhere, I try to project this passion (within module parameters). To date, I have seen 19 students published professionally – I would dearly love to reach 20 soon.

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Northwords Now on Kindle

Despite my best efforts to keep at least one foot planted in prehistory (I’ve yet to send a text to anyone, let alone work out the nuances of textspeak), it isn’t just my occasional OU blog (and all the online tutoring) that’s throwing yours truly into the bright, digital future. The new edition of Northwords Now is now available in e-reader form as well as good old fashioned paper. It won’t roll into a ball quite so easily but it does mean that there’s now a solution to that annoying moment when readers realise the last copy of Northwords Now has vanished from their local bookshop. Also, we get to extend the reach of the North further still.
The new Kindle edition has been specially put together with an e-reader screen in mind and boasts the same fine mix of fiction, poetry, articles and reviews as the paper magazine (Tom Pow, Kona Macphee, Liz Niven and Ian Stephen all feature in our latest issue). What’s more, we remain free of charge, which these days is no bad thing.
If you’re in any way vexed by how e-readers work and whether you’ll have to fork out precious lucre on a special contraption (you don’t) just visit the Northwords Now website where there are really clear instructions on how to download the magazine to an e-reader, PC, tablet or smartphone.
northwordsnow.co.uk.
Cheers and happy reading!
Chris

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