December tends to be the time when you take stock of the past year and make plans for the coming months. I was filling out a funding application for Word Life recently, and I realised it has been six years since we started out with our first event at the Raynor Lounge at Sheffield University […]

December tends to be the time when you take stock of the past year and make plans for the coming months. I was filling out a funding application for Word Life recently, and I realised it has been six years since we started out with our first event at the Raynor Lounge at Sheffield University back in 2006, a night of shisha, soul and spoken word. Pre smoking ban days seem like an age ago now, and it remains the first and likely only time Sheffield Students’ Union will allow a shisha bar to be set up inside their premises. Among a haze of smoke, a collection of mostly terrified English literature students shared their own work to an audience of 100 people followed by sets from DJs and local bands.

Word Life has evolved a lot since then. Starting as a group of friends running an open mic night, we now run regular events in Sheffield, Bradford and further afield, collate this section in Now Then, and work with a range of different individuals and arts organisations in devoping literature across Yorkshire.

This year our activities have reached an estimated 150,000 people through a mixture of events, publishing and public engagement projects such as Poems On The Trams and 21 Poets For Sheffield. Through Now Then we’ve published some of the leading names in contemporary poetry and fiction. At our events we’ve showcased award-winning poets in front of sold out audiences across a range of different venues including The Showroom Cinema, The Lantern Theatre and The Riverside in Sheffield, and The National Media Museum and Theatre in the Mill in Bradford in the past year alone.

There’s a poet called Byron Vincent who regularly introduces his sets with the acknowledgement that most people see poetry as some sort of creche for the mentally ill. While this is not wholly incorrect, perceptions about poetry and live literature are steadily changing for the better. I’d like to think Word Life has had a small part to play in this within Yorkshire. It would be wrong to suggest that we ever had a plan, or any alterior motive for setting up Word Life other than to run the type of night we had wanted to attend ourselves. Yet as I look back, I realise it’s all been about showing that poetry is for everyone.

Six years down the line, we still battle conceptions that poetry is elitist, irrelevent, boring or self indulgent. But that remains part of the reason why it’s still an exciting art form to be part of. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never come across another type of event where you can hear a teaching assistant from Rotherham, a social worker with an MBE, an archaeologist and an obituary writer for The Star talk to strangers about subjects a lot of people would be embarassed to discuss with their closest friends. At your average poetry event you can hear a poem about a Post Office party romantic liason at a bandstand, a poem about a father whose health deterioriated from a lifetime of working in the mines, to a poem charting the history of dance music. Long gone are the days when poetry was mostly the pursuit of upper class straight white men. It’s increasingly about giving a platform to those who feel disenfranchised by our society. It provides a subversive voice and a community for anyone who wants to be a part of it. It can also be moving and incredibly entertaining.

But enough looking back. Time to make some New Year’s resolutions. Get better. Run more events in different cities. Release an anthology. Run artistic development sessions.

Just a word of warning for all of you attending Christmas parties this month – be careful who you cop off with, because you might just end up in a poem.

WORD LIFE 6TH BIRTHDAY.
THE RIVERSIDE.
8TH DECEMBER.
7PM.
£5/£4 CONCESSIONS.

Inua Ellams is an award-winning poet, playwright and performer; a writer with a style influenced by both classic literature and hip hop, by Keats as it is by Mos Def. Rooted in a love for rhythm and language, he crosses 18th century romanticism and traditional story telling with contemporary diction, loose rhythm and rhyme. Also featuring Sally Jenkinson, open mic slots and more acts to be announced. Email wordlifeuk@gmail.com to reserve a five minute slot.

Joe Kriss.