April was the cruelest month…

Last month I began offering free online classes to vulnerable adults. I thought I’d share a little history about one of the classes I set up…

I began running a creative writing class from the social care unit at the Union Chapel, London in 2005. You may well know the building as the cool, Islington venue that’s hosted the likes of Amy Winehouse, Noel Gallagher, Tom Jones and Philip Glass but it’s also been home to the Margin’s Project, a crisis centre that offers housing advice and a winter night shelter. It used to provide free Sunday lunches to between 150 and 200 people a week until residents complained about the ‘unsightly’ queues outside their picturesque Georgian homes.

Homelessness isn’t pretty and nor are the social issues that surround it. But there is poetry there, stories that people need to share. Some ugly-beautiful, some incoherently elegant but all of them moving, limping, falling, dancing with a mix of grace and rage. These Monday afternoon sessions generated hundreds of poems, many of them performed at the raucous, monthly Sunday lunchtime gigs we put on. A few members of Babyshambles tipped up one afternoon, delighted that this was ‘the most punk gig in London’. Really it wasn’t. It was raw and that was all. Our poets weren’t trying to prove their authenticity and none of them had record company budgets to squander. While some of our writers went on to higher education and earned degrees, others came once and were never seen again.

As the Union Chapel sought alternative revenue streams, doubling up in the day as a theatre workshop space, our group, nestled in the venue’s canteen, accommodated polite interruptions from well heeled thespians many of whom, I’m quite sure, were not expecting to encounter a rough shod troubadour group when they popped in for coffee during a break in rehearsals. While some of our poets published in magazines like the ‘Big Issue’ most didn’t care for celebrity. The following accolades were, however, provided in passing: “Bloody ‘ell” – Peter Kay, “Oh my goodness” – Julian Clary, “Do excuse me” – Prunella Scales.

With support from the WEA (the Workers Education Association) we teamed up with Islington Libraries, changed location and ran our classes from the splendid but decaying reading room of the South Library on Essex Road. This was the infamous venue where where ledgendary playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell created illicit collages and fake flyleaf blurbs in the library books. It felt like the perfect environment for a poetry group but the clock was ticking. Or rather dripping. Gradually the amount of buckets collecting rainwater from the magnificent ceiling above outnumbered members attending. We passed our Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) inspection despite all of this but the venue was eventually forced to close.

We moved further north and snuck across the border from Islington to Hackney settling for several semesters in the historic Mary Wollstonecraft room at the Newington Green Unitarian Church. While this was certainly our most salubrious environment funding cuts at the WEA meant we were forced to move on once more. The irony that, what had begun life as a ‘homeless writer’s’ group had now become a writer’s group without a home was not lost on some of the original members. Despite the lovely people at the DAY-MER Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre, a former library in Stoke Newington, taking us in for a while further reductions to our budget made the running of a free, creative arts class untenable. After fifteen years I decided to call it a day.

Last month I announced that I was setting up an online poetry class. I was touched by the amount of likes and shares it received but overwhelmingly I was approached by people who had attended my classes in the past and who were struggling to cope under lockdown. Concerned about the impact isolation was having on peoples’ mental health I decided to open up this Monday afternoon session once more giving my time, for free, to those who needed it most.

I’m currently running two free online classes for vulnerable adults. If you’d like to support me with this initiative you can do so for as little as £1 ($1) a month on my Patreon page.

Jan Noble, May 2020

This is Piazzale Loreto…

This is the spot where Mussolini was strung up at the end of the second world war. This is also Piazza Quindici Martiri where the bodies of fifteen ordinary Milanese civilians, killed by the fascists in retaliation for partisan activity, had been put on public display as a warning by Il Duce’s henchmen one year before.

I came here to read a poem (in The Swan bar just across the road). It was always going to be a quiet affair. A far cry from the large and impressive auditorium at MUDEC on Saturday and the historic Teatro Filodrammatici tonight. I had just posted a picture on social media of the bar in Piazzale Loreto when an Italian friend pointed out the significance of the location.

IMG_3119 (1)

I had begun to feel a little sorry for myself, sat in an unfriendly bar by what is now a huge traffic roundabout. I had begun to think that no one really understood what I did, that no one really cared whether I did it or not before my friend explained the story of the Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto.

IMG_3120

It may be glib to say that reading or writing poetry is an action against fascism (it depends of course on what kind of poetry you happen to be reading or writing). It may also be simplistic to suggest that if poetry’s purpose is to make you think a little differently, then a poem can be a weapon against tyranny.

The cars honked and horned around Piazzale Loreto and the locals took aperitivo in the Swan bar on Piazza Quindici Martiri. This was freedom. And I came here to read a poem.

Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano

We performed ‘My Name Is Swan’ with a live slideshow compiled by filmmaker Adam Carr as part of Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano at MUDEC. We’ll be taking this event on tour after the film premiere at the East End Film Festival on 25th June.

We’re doing a reading and Q&A at Teatro Filodrammatici tomorrow night, Tues 16 May at 7:15 pm. Details here…

The Importance of Being Elsewhere

The first time Chelsea won the league I wasn’t there. I really wasn’t there, most of us weren’t. The second time (within living memory) I wasn’t there either. I was on stage at a festival in Italy. After the show, I went backstage and found that someone had nicked my Chelsea towel from the dressing room. Yer, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had a dressing room.

The last time we won it I was on an artists’ residency in France writing a screenplay. While Chelsea achieved yet another success I was off, scratching away, twisting in the wind, missing out on another had-to-be-there moment. But absence is the essence of poetry, loss and not belonging where it finds itself, elsewhere its station and its standing.

Poetry is the art form that isn’t there. It lacks the universality of music, the physicality of image making. If it points at anything it is beyond, away, not here. So as Chelsea fans fought in the stands when their team won the league again last night, where was I? Well, you never saw me. I wasn’t there, right?

[Jan Noble will be performing tonight at Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano, MUDEC, Via Tortona, 56, 20144 Milano, 13 maggio, 19:20 h]

Some Italian facts about swans…

  • The last known ‘breeding pair’ of Italian swans were spotted on Lake Como in 1974. Their union had been blessed by the church in 1969. It was later discovered that both swans were in fact male. The church declined to comment.
  • It is believed the poet Dante once fell in love and proposed to a swan. Swans feature in much of his poetry: “When at last the swan returns to Italy / so shall be the soul of Lombardy restored.”
  • Mussolini is said to have ruptured a testicle after being attacked by a swan on the banks of the Po. Alpine partisans in WWII carried the insignia of the swan and two orbs on their berets.
  • A violent faction of the Juventus Ultras known as ‘Brigata del Cigno’ or ‘The Swan Brigade’ attend matches dressed in black and white swan feather costumes. They intimidate rival supporters by waving their arms about a lot and hissing.
  • Jan Noble will be performing his poetic monologue “My Name Is Swan” at three venues in Milan. Saturday, 13 May at 19:20h at the Festival Internazionale di Poesia di Milano, MUDEC, Via Tortona, 56, 20144 Milano. On Monday 15th May at 19:30h he will give a private reading at The Swan, Piazzale Loreto, 9, 20100 Milano. On Tuesday night, 16 May at 19:15h he will perform at the spectacular Teatro Filodrammatici , Via Filodrammatici, 1, 20121 Milano.

This is Steve Micalef…

IMG_2955
Stephen Micalef’s 60th birthday at the Palace.

He is the greatest poet in London. He may not be the best poet in London but he is undoubtedly the greatest. He has never had any aspirations to be either, he has gone out of his way to be neither.

He hasn’t wasted time or money entering competitions, he would never consider submitting careful rewrites to magazines or bother typing up laboured manuscripts for publishers. These pursuits are petty and pointless, contradictory to everything poetry, in its rawest form, represents. Micalef is a purest. His is a life given entirely to the grubby art of rearranging words on a page and growling them at whatever audience happens to gather before him.

He has won no awards, received no nominations, been proposed for no prizes. He isn’t the darling of the lit fest circuit nor the toast of the (small p, small s) poetry society and despite this, and in part because of it, he is the greatest poet in London.

I lived with him in Brixton in the mid 90’s toward the end of his ten year tenure running the Brixton Poets – the only free, weekly poetry night in the city. I would say I served my apprenticeship under him. Back then he made little of his contribution to the legendary Sniffin’ Glue magazine. While his mate Danny Baker had made strides into mainstream media he was still happily stapling our handmade Brixton Poets’ House pamphlet (later The Concessionary) together and giving it away in pubs for nothing.

Steve wrote every day. I’m sure he still does. He’d be up at six and done by nine when he’d knock on my door to read me his morning’s output. Steve wrote fast and fearlessly. Each piece firing and misfiring simultaneously. Although he is the greatest poet in London, Steve doesn’t always write great poetry. His greatness is in that everything he writes is poetry. Every unqualified cough and imperfect croak is a poem. While the rest of us are tightly transcribing Arts Council Grants in iambic pentameter Steve Micalef is gargling turpentine and lighting it.