I am a firm believer that opportunity begets opportunity: if you seize the things that come your way, more exciting ventures will follow. Early in my poetry journey, I applied to a project that was passed along by the university, organised by the Birmingham-based arts charity Leaveners. They were curating a ‘Poets’ Corner’: a showcase of poets, all sharing small portfolios of their work. I was elected to be their Poet of June, 2015.
It was certainly an exciting opportunity to be a part of: those earliest poems, including ‘The Collier’s Wife’, and some more I’d written at university, were published on the Poets’ Corner blog. But it was the wealth of opportunities that sprung from this project that provided the most fertile grounds for my personal and poetic development. Applying to the Poets’ Corner project led me on whole new poetry journey, which is why it needs a throwback post all of its own.
(One thing to note is that, during this time, I had yet to adopt my preferred/pen name of Nellie, and was still in the habit of using my birth name of Elinor).
Following my stint as ‘Poet of June’, I was invited into talks by the project’s organiser to create an exhibition out of my poems. The Black Country theme which strung together many of the poems gave them a strong link, and one they thought would work really well when presented alongside another artistic form. It was then discovered that Dudley Museum were developing an exhibition of 19th century etchings by Black Country artist R. S. Chattock, all depicting the same industrial scenes my poems were attempting to evoke. Following discussions with the museum’s curator, it was agreed that framed prints of my poems were to go on exhibition alongside Chattock’s etchings.
The exhibition went up the following year, from March to June 2016. Utilising the wall space in the upstairs corridor, it was in view for everyone who accessed the upper galleries. As well as the poems I had had published previously on Poets’ Corner, the exhibition included new poems I had written in response to Chattock’s artworks. One of these, ‘The Glede Oven’, can be read below. To tie into the exhibition, I produced a small pamphlet of the poems to be sold cheaply in the museum’s gift shop.
At the time, I wrote: ‘I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to put my work in the public sphere through the exhibition at Dudley Museum. The process of writing a poem is such an isolated one – just the writer, the research, the notes – that it is very exciting to share my finished work with others. […] I am especially looking forward to seeing my work displayed alongside the evocative etchings of R. S. Chattock, which themselves inspire a whole range of emotions, from desolation to intrigue and admiration.’ Eloquently put, past-Nel.
To help spread word of the exhibition, another article was published in the Black Country Bugle, and posters were displayed in local museums and libraries around the region. An event was also organised, to tie in with the exhibition, and give people a chance to hear the poems read aloud and discussed. ‘Black Country Tales’ took place in Dudley Library, just over the road from the Museum, on 28 May 2016.
I was heart-warmed, if a little overwhelmed, to have so many people attend this event. Some of these people are still friends, and one ‒ Kuli Kohli ‒ is now one of my Offa’s Press stablemates. I read a few of the poems, and we had a great panel discussion about the subject matters explored and about the Black Country dialect ‒ many were very shocked to hear I didn’t speak with much of an accent myself! Following the event, attendees were invited to come over to the Museum and see the exhibition, where many more lovely interactions were had.
Though I had already published and performed by poems before, these were two new firsts in my poetic journey: an exhibition, and a panel discussion. These wonderful opportunities would never have happened without Leaveners, and the chief organiser behind Poets’ Corner, Jorine. But I also feel it is important to mention that these wonderful events would not have come about, had I not taken the leap of faith to apply to the project, to share my work, and to seize the opportunity which presented itself to me. You can take a look through my entire journey with Leaveners’ Poets’ Corner, including interviews and insights into my creative practice at the time, here (read chronologically by scrolling from the bottom upwards).
I was fortunate enough to enter conversations with the Pen Museum, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, and arrange for a second exhibition of my poems with Chattock’s etchings to be held there. This exhibition, ‘The Pit to the Pen’ ran from September 2017 to January 2018.
However, very sadly, Dudley Museum suffered with funding cuts and was forced to close in the winter of 2016. The Poets’ Corner blog, it appears, has also ceased to operate, since about August 2016. However, there is a wealth of wonderful poetry by some great poets which can still be accessed through the site. As promised, here is ‘The Glede Oven’:
The Glede Oven The day dawns to the thrum of machines and a workman’s whistle and you, watching. A miner’s tub. A heap of raerker. I smile when you tell me we are stood in an orchard: how in the rows of hunkered domes you see beehives or in the swelling, tumbling smoke a swarm of bees, taking flight. Together, we warm our fingers by the bricks and listen to the queen, humming inside her castle. I will never forget how in your tiny, unfurled donnies you clutched that small and precious stone and marvelled at it as it cooled as if it were honey. glede - coal which glows in the coking process raerker - a large piece of coal donnies - hands, especially a child’s hands
If you read this far, I hope you enjoyed this post, the third of my thread of throwbacks. Other stories like this will follow, published on Thursdays. Next time we move away from this early Black Country portfolio, and focus more on the festivals, events and workshops I became a part of.