There’s something peculiar going on in the cathedral city.
Over the last couple of years, Canterbury has exploded with literary events.
There’s been a deluge of poetry slams, home-grown poetry events, festivals and storytelling readings. Poetry has had a tangible presence in the city, with words cropping up in parks, kitchens, on shop windows, in schools, and even spilling out onto the streets. There’s been a dramatic surge in rap battles and poetry slams. There’s been poetry seen on benches in early hours of the morning, tucked into crevices on street corners. Coffee shops have been menaced by poets frantically scribbling in the cool air of their enclaves, clutching half-cold coffees and chewed up biros, whispering rhythms under their breath.
Internationally renowned poets have been visiting the city to perform in local venues; at the end of last year, Lemn Sissay and Joelle Taylor performed in the Marlowe theatre as part of Warrior Poets, whilst Joelle Taylor also performed a solo show in the City Arms. In April, Wise Words festival has announced that Roger McGough will be their headline act, with rumours of many more to come. Last year, Canterbury Festival’s Poet of the Year competition had an unprecedented number of entries, with 391 people writing in from all across the UK.
Some weeks there have been numerous events occurring, with storytelling and poetry events at the Chocolate cafe, Bramleys, The Foundry, Water Lane and Waterstones, among many other establishments. Sarah Holt, co-ordinator of I Speak my Truth, a new poetry evening at Water Lane, set up her night in order to create a safe space whereby sex, consent, and body autonomy could be openly discussed. Joined by Steal This Magazine, an independent arts and politics magazine, the evening showcased the wide range of writers, publishers, poets and artists that Canterbury has on offer.
Poetry is, of course, resident in its usual haunts; in Creative writing societies, English departments, and university sponsored events. In February, for example, the School of English will be hosting its annual LGBTQ writers’ festival (open to the public), which will celebrate LGBTQ history through poetry readings, discussions and talks.
So where has all of this poetry been coming from?
Wise Words festival has been instrumental in creating these ripples, and has acted as both a platform and host for youth-centered poetry groups, such as Word Out, a group for 14-30 year old poets, and Motion, a new group focused on producing literary events. These groups have fostered a sense of community through poetry, and have led to networks of writers joining together to produce events and develop their work together. Beth Cuenco, co-director of Wise Words festival, states that ‘Although Canterbury has a rich literary heritage, when we first set up Wise Words, audiences for poetry were almost non-existent. It’s been wonderful to watch the scene grow as young poets have emerged and started to set up their own amazing events – inspiring their peers to do the same. Poetry is thriving in Canterbury. It’s an exciting time’.
As a result of its activity, the city has been attracting the attention of poets living in nearby towns. Connor Sansby, poet and manager of Whiskey and Beards publishing, told us ‘In Canterbury, poets have a wealth of creative history proudly on display to draw from, as well as the universities constantly producing new poets. In Thanet, we have no universities and our poetry scene is still in early days, so our poets tend to be a little less familiar with form but packing plenty of grit. I think many of us would consider Canterbury our second poetry home, where many of us cut our teeth at slams and full-stage events, rather than writing groups and pub venues’.
Canterbury has historically been most famous for its literary export, Geoffrey Chaucer. Today, it’s a city that continues to be famous for telling stories — not just through prose, but through poetry.