Overhear Commission!

A while ago now I was approached by Overhear Brum, and commissioned to write a poem as a part of their second season of hyper-local poetry. In the run up to Birmingham Literature Festival, Overhear are releasing 12 newly-commissioned pieces by local poets, focusing on 12 indie venues around the city. My poem, ‘The Beating Heart’, inspired by Yorks Cafe on Stephenson Street, is one of these new pieces.

When choosing which local indie venue I wanted to write about, I chose Yorks as a way to push myself out of my comfort zone. Aside from a few Verve Poetry Festival meetings held there in 2018, I had not visited the cafe much, let alone considered it to be the subject of a poem. Though my poetry is often based firmly in particular locality, it is never based somewhere as urbane and modern as a popular coffee shop in the city centre. In an effort to try and create something I wouldn’t usually have attempted, I took myself off to the cafe and began my research into the company.

Located at the rear of our Stephenson St cafe, our coffee roastery gives customers the chance to see the beating heart of Yorks in action.  Working in partnership with green bean importers and proud to be part of an industry rather than a “scene”, we simply strive to give our customers the best coffee experience in Birmingham.

Yorks website

It was the word ‘industry’ that really caught my eye. I was intrigued by the fact that, at their angular street corner venue, Yorks roasted their own coffee beans – and with the word ‘industry’ in mind, I immediately saw a connection between this and the city’s heritage and history. There was an interesting parallel between the roasting of coffee beans and the burning of coal – both are a fuel which generate an energy of some kind, and both originate in a tropical environment, from the decaying plant matter back in the Carboniferous period to today’s Peruvian coffee farms in the Andes mountains.

So the poem I created, ‘The Beating Heart’, links these two stories. This was the first poem I had written in a long while, and I found writing it as a concrete poem with a set shape helped me to give my ideas some structure. The shape of a coffee bean was immediately appealing: roughly oval, but split into two halves, wherein I could present the separate but parallel stories. I typed out a rough template, then conducted free writes to generate the material to fill it out.

Taking a commission about a central cafe and making it relevant to her own interest in the natural history of the environment isn’t the only twist that Nellie has managed to pull off with her Overhear poem. As she reveals with a flourish of her first draft, she has also made the decision to write her piece as a concrete poem in the shape of a coffee bean, the two halves of her poem sitting side by side separated by the split in the centre.

Overhear Blog

You can read an interview I did with Kibriya Mehrban from Overhear, where I go a little further into my process for writing this poem, by clicking here. Check out my write-up of the Walking Tour I ran, also commissioned by Overhear, by clicking here.

A few days ago, I recorded the poem with Tom from Overhear, and on Thursday 26th October at 7.30am, it will go live online! Download the Overhear app from the Appstore/Play Store and head over to Yorks on Stephenson Street, Birmingham, to hear me read the poem aloud in the very place it was written.

You can read the full poem by downloading it, below.

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