A brief overview of the Devon poetry scene

Over a year ago I was asked by a magazine to write an article about the Devon performance poetry scene. They didn’t use it. So here it is in all it’s magaziney glory.
Jackie Juno is at the microphone reciting a poem. In gothic, black clothing, ankle boots and a pink feather boa, she doesn’t exactly look like the average poet. The audience is totally at her command and the room buzzes with hilarity. The poem is about Newton Abbot, and when she delivers the final line, there is laughter and thunderous applause. This is just an ordinary night at Torquay’s ‘Poetry Island’.
For the last six years I have travelled the country as a performance poet, delivering sets of whimsical and funny verse to audiences from Edinburgh to London, Wolverhampton to Swindon. Audiences everywhere tend to be enthusiastic for this niche blend of comedy, spoken word and poetry, and most cities have a certain style on the local scene which seems distinct to that area. A lot of London performers are influenced by rap, while Bristol’s thriving scene borrows the three-rhymes-per-line inflexions of hip hop. Yet I am constantly both delighted and perplexed by the diversity, flavour and creativity of the Devon performance poetry circuit.
It’s hard to pin down what it is which makes it so distinctive. Each poet is as diverse and as individual as the next without following any trend or local characteristic. As a result, the local circuit has become truly unique.
Some of these poets are starting to become recognized further afield. Ashburton’s Lucy Lepchani has recently been published by Burning Eye, the top publisher of performance poetry in the UK, and she performs regularly at festivals such as Glastonbury and Womad. Her poetry is about motherhood and nature and takes on feminist and political themes.
Tim King’s poetry is political, social and thoughtful, tackling issues such as drug addiction and child abuse, often performed with a ukulele or a loop pedal for added effect. Plymouth’s Richard Thomas has just had his second collection published by Cultured Llama Books, and his wry poetry about fatherhood and nature has seen him win praise from some of the top names in poetry. And my own oeuvre has taken me to the Edinburgh Fringe and some of the biggest poetry nights in London. We all have different styles, motivations and influences in our chosen field, yet we all come from a relatively small population spread.
What is it about the Devon scene which makes it so vibrant and diverse? For a start, there are an abnormally high number of monthly spoken word events in Devon. Because of this there are plenty of opportunities for local poets to try out new material in a supportive atmosphere. It also gives a chance for big names from further afield to visit, see the local talent, and invite them to gigs in London and Bristol.
Also, there is a culture on the local circuit of developing new talent and encouraging first time performers. Chris Brooks, the inaugural host of Poetry Island, would run workshops and courses to develop and hone the art of performance poetry, while most venues welcome new performers. The co-host of Exeter’s ‘Taking the Mic’, Tim King, is eager to give a platform to new voices.
‘Our job is to make sure they have a good experience as possible and keep coming back, learning and improving. It’s a very rare newcomer who fails to entertain at all’.
Tim reckons that the diversity and creativity of the local scene is due to the ‘tradition of openness and experimentation exhibited and encouraged by those who run local poetry events’.
Gina Sherman, the south-west coordinator for spoken word organisation Apples and Snakes says that, ‘Maybe it’s the sea air, the creative spirit and the down to earth people that make the Devon performance poetry scene so welcoming, intelligent, inclusive and witty’.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the local performance poetry circuit is going from strength to strength and developing an identity all of its own which has to be seen to be believed. Come along to a poetry venue yourself and you will not be disappointed!

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