We spoke to Isobel Colchester, CEO of Poet in the City, about their work and their recent collaboration with The Crick Institute.
How would you describe what Poet in the City does?
Our objectives as an organisation focus around making poetry (live poetry specifically) more popular, and creating more of a platform for live poetry. We’re really trying to establish it up there with all the other genres as a major performing art form. We occupy a space away from the amazing grass-roots salons and the more academic end of things, and try to give big stages to poetry, often for people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be poetry fans.
We also do a lot of commissioning work. It’s really exciting to lead up to having something live, something performed, or something heard in a different context. In particular it really helps break down barriers for people who would never go to poetry events, and uses poetry as a way to help them to engage with a difficult subject matter.
How did the Crick Commission come about?
Partnership is central to everything we do, be it a venue or another organisation – we find that it’s critical for reaching new audiences. The Crick Commission came about through The Knowledge Quarter which is a consortium of different organisations within a mile of Kings Cross, all working in some way to share knowledge. There’s everyone from us to the Crick, to Google, to The British Library. That network has been a great opportunity to form and build new relationships, sometimes with organisations which you might not have initially come into contact with.
The Crick specifically are working on this amazing science that impacts all of us: life sciences, biological sciences and DNA, but it’s all so far ahead of where the day-to-day person has an understanding. We’re using the arts and poetry to create a new language; it’s a translation and an interpretation that brings the very complicated science that they’re doing at the Crick to life for an audience.
I think when we work with science there’s something really interesting that’s happening – the role of poets here is as a sort of human layer between the challenging subjects that we want to understand. They go in as an individual, without wanting to represent everyone’s views. They want to represent their experiences, and then from the public perspective, being able to hear that voice helps them begin to understand it too. Because this was a collaborative sound and poetry piece, this was further amplified as the sound artist Chu-Li Shewring and the poet Sarah Howe were working very closely together to think about how they could create this aural experience that animates the science in a very physical way. You can literally stand inside it.
What other partnerships have come through The Knowledge Quarter and what’s next for Poet in the City?
Through The Knowledge Quarter we’ve built a much deeper relationship with the British Library – they’ve always been a partner and we’ve worked together on smaller projects before. We’re actually just about to launch an exciting project which will see us going from being a London organisation to a national organisation. We’re collaborating with the library on a three year project to tour their exhibitions with poetry events and commissions. Where the physical exhibition can’t go, we’ll be pairing poets with the curators to turn those into different stories, and that’ll happen in five libraries across the UK. The idea with that is that we’ll create locally specific versions of the exhibitions and it’ll be a very deep audience engagement commissioning process.
How can our readers get involved?
I love our volunteering module – it’s one of the things that got me really excited about Poet in the City, not least because I was a volunteer but because it made me understand what the opportunities were with this sort of organisation. It’s very open, we don’t have any specific volunteering roles – anyone who wants to be a volunteer can be a volunteer. We have a monthly meeting where we tell everyone what we’re doing, then people can say I want to be involved in this and we’ll build them in from there. For some people it’s a regular thing, or others come once a year, and people do everything from being our face at different events to interviewing speakers, writing blogs or recording podcasts… a whole range of different things.
What are your visions for the future of Poet in the City?
For us, it’s about consolidating this national work now we’ve got this opportunity. We really want to embed ourselves as a national organisation. Obviously there’s a big focus on that, not just for the three year project with the British Library but thinking more broadly about how we can extend that project and also our other work nationally. There’s a demand, an interest and an excitement about live poetry right now and we want to continue to play a role in fulfilling that in other places, not just in London. With the program I think it’s about continuing to be a really eclectic mix of everything, from celebrating the late, great, dead poets to the very best of contemporary poets, and cross-arts theatricals and collaborations. There’s a huge opportunity and a huge energy around poetry at the moment and I think that people are just much broader in their thoughts about what poetry can be.
What we think is exciting about live poetry, or poetry that you listen to, is that it isn’t about analysis, it’s about experience and actually that’s so open to so many people.
BY LUCY BINNERSLEY AND EMMA QUICK
The Poet in the City collaboration with The Francis Crick institute is running through to December 2018 at the Crick Institute building and is free to visitors. More information available here.