Ben Norris: Joint winner of LitroTV’s transgression competition

Litro had such a hard time choosing the winners of LitroTV’s competition that we awarded the prize to two, very different, but equally talented poets. Here is our first winning entry, Ben Norris’s ‘Dismembered Voices,’ with an introduction for LitroTV viewers by the poet himself.

Ben Norris is an actor, a writer, and a spoken-word artist. He was born and grew up in Nottingham, but is now based in Birmingham where he is studying English with Creative Writing.

Norris’s work explores the theatrical potential of poetry and the poetic elements of theatre, while ensuring words remain at the heart of what he does. Occasionally, however, he simply rants about the concept of being charged to use the toilet at most major British railway stations.

His career began on Birmingham’s open-mic circuit before expanding to take in regional and national poetry slams, including the inaugural UK Team Poetry Slam, Ledbury Poetry Festival, Bristol Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Literary Festival, Bang Said The Gun, and University Poetry Slams against Edinburgh and Cambridge respectively. Following his success in the world of slam poetry, Norris now plays gigs up and down the country, and is currently working on his first one-man show.

He is also the Literary Events Officer for Writers’ Bloc, the University of Birmingham’s Creative Writing Society, and runs and hosts two spoken-word nights in the city: Scribble Kicks, a night of page poetry and prose readings, and Grizzly Pear, a raucous performance poetry extravaganza. In addition to these, Ben organises less regular but no less spectacular inter-University poetry slams.

Alongside writing and performing poetry individually, Ben collaborates with guitarist James Grady in a music and spoken-word band. He also writes for the stage, and has had his plays staged at Leicester Curve and Theatre503.


performs his sharply crafted poems with breathtaking verve and expertise” Cheltenham Poetry Festival

infallible and energetic” UoB Blogfest

both harrowing and hilarious…impressive as always” Redbrick Newspaper

had the gathering instantly hooked”

For more information about Ben visit

Where Did the Languages on Game of Thrones Come From?

Image Credit, Creative Commons
Game of Thrones, Image Credit, Creative Commons

The world of Game of Thrones is so complex and believable that each language spoken in both the books and films fits right in, feeling authentic to Westeros and Essos. When Daenerys speaks High Valyrian in season 3 for the first time to devastating consequence, her compelling effect on both dragons and men is not undermined for a moment by the feeling that she is mouthing gobbledegook.

The numerous geographical locations in HBO’s Game of Thrones each have their own tongue and way of speaking. Author George R.R. Martin mentions “the Old Tongue” and “the Common Tongue” in Westeros, along with a language said to sound like “the crackling of ice,” spoken by the non-human White Walkers of legend; the region of Essos features a plethora of languages, and the character of the professional slave-translator Missandei who plays a major role in the fifth season, mentions that she can speak nineteen languages altogether.

So how did GRRM come up with all of this? The short answer is that he didn’t. In the books, we get just a word or phrase here and there, which fit right in with the situation but are never expanded. Martin has explained that he is not a linguist, so his work on the languages stopped there. The words just came from his imagination.

This is fine for the books and works well, but when it came to the TV series, more detail was needed. Initially D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the scriptwriters for the series, simply made dialogue up that sounded kind of right. But when actors spoke the lines, it was clear that it sounded unconvincing. An expert was needed to actually create whole new languages, which would be used in the series as High Valyrian and Dothraki.

Luckily, there are people in the world who are able to do just that. Who knew that linguists exist who are so skilled that they can start with a few words and phrases, such as the ones already provided by Martin, and develop them into a fully-realised language system? This is exactly what David Peterson, a scholar of linguistics and president of the Language Creation Society, did. The society members, who are known as “conlangers,” invent new languages as a hobby.

He didn’t get the job by virtue of his position, though; the show’s producer’s held a competition to find the best conlanger for the job. Peterson spent a month putting together a language system for Dothraki using the existing words and phrases from the books, and demonstrating how it would work. The document in the end was 300 pages long, with a useful summary for those short of time.

Once his version of Dothraki was accepted, the language expert set to work on High Valyrian. There was considerably less to go on with this language, however, but the phrases “valar morghulis” which means “all men must die” and “valar dohaeris” meaning “all men must serve” were both useful. Because both phrases end with “-is,” it suggests that “-is” indicates “must.” “I developed the entire conjugation system based on those two verbs,” explains Peterson. “Only when I couldn’t squeeze any more out of the books did I start the process of creating a set of typological rules and building from there.”

Neither Valyrian or Dothraki are based on any existing languages, as you may expect. The basic structures do not come from Latin, as Romance languages do, or on any other language system. Peterson was able to use his knowledge of languages and how they work to create completely new ones. However, the perfect, brand-spanking-new language was actually incorrect, as all languages change over time, with slang and shortening of words becoming accepted into everyday speech, as well as elements of other languages that become adopted. So for example the High Valyrian that Daenerys talks in is different from that spoken in the city of Astapor. The Astapori speak in a mix of Valyrian and other languages of Slaver’s Bay. “I made sure the language was evolved over a period of time, so that it sounded authentic and had the hallmarks of a natural language,” Peterson says.

Once invented, it must be extremely exciting for the creator of these complex tongues to visit the set and see his creations come to life as the actors speak their lines. Sadly the answer to this is no. The actors work from MP3s he records for them, and the academic has not yet taken the opportunity to visit the set. “I’m not a fan of high fantasy,” he states, disappointingly.

Words & Music: Joshua Idehen of Benin City

Photo by Zach Den Adel (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Zach Den Adel (copied from Flickr)

The first ‘song’ I ever wrote was ‘Baby.’ Inverted commas because a) everyone else does, the fools, and b) it’s got a verse, a chorus, and a second verse and chorus and a bridge and final chorus, so I guess it must be a song. Except, to me, it’s a poem. Of course it’s a poem. It’s a poem with sing-y bits. And a sing-y chorus. And a bridge. All my ‘songs’ are poems.

I feel this way because I’m a poet. It’s how I started; I got into poetry because I didn’t think I could sing and at the time, the idea of being a Hip Hop artist in the UK was like, lol, UK Hip Hop sucks, yo. I know better now, but for my money (not a lot of course cuz, lol, I’m a poet) nothing gives you as much control over your art as poetry. All you need is words, and something you want to say. How you choose to say it, what conventions you want to employ, is up to you: free verse, spoken word, blank verse, limerick, rap, prose… and even ‘song,’ or as I call it: poem with sing-y bits. I say it’s up to you when really it’s up to the bloody poem; Baby, for example, came to life as a chorus one night, in between a Gods of War 3 session and listening to the next door neighbours argue over who cares the least. Lovers being mean to each other for what seemed like hours, with me on the other side of the wall, asking why, eh? “Why You’d Have To Be So Cruel?” Voila.

I craft most of my sing-y poems like the normal, less sing-y ones: start with a line I really, really like, which will probably make the chorus and determine the narrative/mood of the piece and expand from there. I love to hear and write spoken word with a strong story to them; third person narratives or monologue pieces like Musa Okwonga’s Cooper Chimonda, The Roots’ Return to Innocence Lost, Polarbear’s Jessica, Faithless’ I Want My Family Back and Shane Koyczan’s Crickets Have Arthritis. Nina Simone’s I Cast A Spell On You is probably the most perfect sad love story ever written for my money (again, see first bracket) and you can gleam most of the tale from the chorus and the sucker punch just near the end: “I love you, I love you, I love you anyhow/And I don’t care/ if you don’t want me/ I’m yours right now.” Stories are cool. Why be abstract when you can make sense? (Don’t answer that).

Writing poetry, you learn to observe the conventions of whatever style the poem blossoms into and bend them to suit your style: a song does not need a verse and chorus structure but it sure as hell helps everyone else go oh look I see he’s written a song. Brevity: generally between three to five mins long else you are being indulgent/genius and sometimes it’s too hard to tell which is which and besides why are you writing poetry if you’re writing pieces longer than five mins anyway mate go write a short story you fake (although I do often write very wordy, rhythmic verses in all of my sing-y poems). You also become a real snob towards clichés, you hate adverbs, avoid adjectives ‘til there is no other word you can use, and you develop a taste for the most unique, unusual rhymes and imagery you can think up: For Baby, I spent a day staring at a blank page before, eureka! I decided my fictional couple were going to have a near-breakup at a kebab joint, because no one else had done that as far as I know. Oh, and her smile was crooked, because crooked smiles are rarely called beautiful so I will.

You may not have guessed, but honestly I’m pretty still much winging it as far as songwriting goes, and I could even say the same for poetry. I write things that connect with folk and when I sing people don’t scatter for the mines so it’s going well so far I guess. One day I’ll write a proper song, not a sing-y poem. Or maybe I’m good where I am. I dunno.

Music Q&A with Scroobius Pip

Litro chats with the spoken word artist about his forthcoming Latitude Festival appearance, and his personal festival wish list.

Scroobius Pip.
Scroobius Pip.

Litro: What’s your dream festival lineup, if you could select artists from any era?

Scroobius Pip: This is just too tough as I would want to list a number of different stages with different styles! The main stage would have Prince and Bruce Springsteen co-headlining. And maybe Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper co-second-headliner-ing? Would have to have a hip hop field with Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Public Enemy, Sage Francis, B Dolan, Open Mike Eagle, Pharoah Monch, Jean Grae, Young Fathers… wait, can we discuss budget? We need to start making this happen. We need to stop this interview immediately and start making phone calls. All of these acts are alive!

Litro: How important are lyrics in your musical process?

Scroobius Pip: They are the most important part for me. I come from and still move within a spoken word background. So my part of the process is very much all about the lyrics. Pretty much everything I have ever written has at some point been performed to a crowd with no music. Just words in their rawest form.

Litro: Do you have a favourite lyric from someone else’s song?

Scroobius Pip: There’s so many to choose from! Sage Francis has a lot that I love but the one that springs to mind is “Make love to the present, [email protected]&k the past…”

But there really are so many every single year that blow my mind and move my favourites list around.

Litro: Do you read much, either at home or on tour?

Scroobius Pip: I read a whole lot more these days than I did. When I was a kid I wasn’t really into reading (despite my mum and brother both always having numerous books on the go), but that has changed now and I try to have a book on the go whenever I have free moments. I am currently reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Litro: How much does your reading influence your music?

Scroobius Pip: Reading influences my whole life and, in turn, certainly influences my music. I remember spending over a year reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa as I had to constantly stop and make notes or highlight or simply reflect upon some of the things that were being said here. Things that changed my perspective and way of thinking.

Litro: If you weren’t a musician, what would you like to be doing?

Scroobius Pip: That’s a tough question as I could kind of get away with saying my spoken word shows aren’t music so I could keep doing them? Haha. After my slot at Latitude in 2012 I was blown away by the turnout for a spoken word set and decided to develop the show and take it to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013. Much to my surprise all 19 shows sold out and I’ve now ended up releasing it on DVD (available August 3rd) due to the demand that built through the reviews and ticket sales. So, thankfully, I think I could probably sustain myself on just words if music wasn’t an option.

Litro: Will you be checking out the other stages at Latitude?

Scroobius Pip: I will do my very best to! But I do find myself drawn in and almost hypnotised by the spoken word stage. The lineup is always so strong and so varied that it feels silly to go from stage to stage hoping to catch bits here and there when I can just get comfy and take it all in.

Litro: Who/what do you want to see?

Scroobius Pip: In the poetry tent, off the top of my head, I wouldn’t want to miss Rob Auton, Rosy Carrick, Zia Ahmed… and numerous others.

But Billy Bragg and Young Fathers are the ones sure to drag me from the poetry tent. Billy is obviously an all-time great and Young Fathers are the most exciting new act I’ve seen in years. I’m also a massive comedy nerd though so the chance to see Tim Key, Trevor Noah, Brian Gittins, Marcus Brigstocke, Sarah Pascoe, Josie Long and numerous others are chances I would be foolish to pass up.

Litro: Whose work – director, author, artist – would you like to write a musical score for?

Scroobius Pip: Another tough one! From the director point of view Gus Van Sant, Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine or Edgar Wright. Writer… if we are talking film then it’s got to be Kelly Marcel or Simon Pegg.

Since 2006 Scroobius Pip has been doing spoken word all over the world. From Japan to the US, Europe to the UK, whether it be with producer dan le sac or with just a microphone he has pretty much been on one long tour. In 2012 he headlined the Latitude spoken word tent to an overwhelming crowd. Regularly stating it as one of his favourite live experiences (so much so it inspired a sold out 19 date Edinburgh Fringe run & full UK tour) the chance to return in 2014 was one that he had no intention of passing up.

Poetry Q&A with George the Poet

Ahead of his appearance at the Latitude Festival, Litro talks to one of the hottest names on London’s spoken word scene.

George the Poet
George the Poet

Litro: What’s your dream festival lineup, if you could select artists from any era?

George the Poet: I just really wanna see Michael Jackson.

Litro: How important are lyrics in your musical process?

George the Poet: Lyrics are everything to me, I build songs around them.

Litro: Do you have a favourite lyric from someone else’s song?

George the Poet: That’s hard. Probably Sam Cooke “Change is gonna come”.

Litro: Do you read much, either at home or on tour?

George the Poet: Yeah reading really stimulates my writing

Litro: How much does your reading influence your music?

George the Poet: Words are gateways into other worlds, so reading helps me bring different things out of my music.

Litro: If you weren’t a musician, what would you like to be doing?

George the Poet: I’d be making more money and working with kids.

Litro: Will you be checking out the other stages at Latitude?

George the Poet: I’ll be checking everything!

Litro: Who/what do you want to see?

George the Poet: I haven’t seen Ady Suleiman in a while and he’s sick, can’t wait to check the progress. I’m excited for loads of people though.

Litro: Whose work – director, author, artist – would you like to write a musical score for?

George the Poet: Charlie Brooker. If you see him please tell him George would like a word.

Spoken Word Band: Benin City

Named after a Nigerian capital, Benin City is a fused genre band fronted by Joshua Idehen (vocals), who has previously collaborated with Hyperdub’s LV, Theo Buckingham (drums) and Tom Leaper (tenor saxophone/synths/samples).

After a successful 2012 that included two single releases on indie label Audio Doughnuts and a six date support tour of Dan Le Sac (Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip) Benin City are back with a new single that bears the trademark of their distinctive blend of post-dubstep, electro and brass.  Remixes from Spoek Mathambo’s Nicolaas Van Reenen, Dan le Sac and Paper Tiger are also available to stream on Soundcloud now.. LitroTV viewers can download My Love and its remixes here for free.

The outfit are set to release their debut album Fires In The Park in 2013, preceded by immersive single, My Love: a synth addled marching beat anthem produced by pop experimentalist Marc Pell (Micachu and the Shapes),with an unforgettable brass melody that unravels and soars, and an emotive Super 8-esque video directed by video artist Charlie Behrens (featured on It’s Nice That).  The group are fans of the melodic assurance of Metronomy, the vastness of Cinematic Orchestra, the instrumental experimentation of outfits such as Beirut and the lyrical dexterity of Roots Manuva.

My Love is a testament to the band’s maverick nature with its repetitive rhythms, cascading over each other. A dark, playful call to arms is enacted through a regal sounding horn pattern that keeps increasing in volume. My Love is more a truthful manifesto on love than ode: “it’s nasty, it’s fiesty, it’s vicious, it’s conniving, it’s crazy, it’s petty, it’s callous, it’s cunning…it’s warm.” The synths interact with the horns to create a sound that is hard and bright; the traditional instrument being made to sound more metallic, more befitting of the urban sprawl Benin City’s tales are set.

Upcoming album Fires In The Park was produced by Marc Pell (Micachu and the Shapes). Josh formed a close relationship with Marc two years ago through mutual friends. The band were originally meant to work on 3 songs with him but after seeing how naturally Marc understood their eclectic vision, they ended up working on the entire album together over the space of 18 months. My Love will be released via Audio Doughnuts in the wake of extensive support across BBC Radio 2, Xfm, and BBC 6 Music for their previous two singles via DJs such as John Kennedy, Tom Robinson, Huey Morgan, Mark Lamarr and Craig Charles. 

Praise for debut single, Baby

Single of the Week – Metro

Mercury Prize Recommends featured

John Kennedy’s Hot One of the Week – Xfm

Featured on Tom Robinson BBC Introducing Mixtape

“A sultry piece of afro dub blues” – Q Magazine

“Subtlety soaked in that modern trifecta of electronic, bass and soul” – Pinboard blog

4 Minute Hangout With: Dean Atta

Dean AttaDubbed “the Gil Scott Heron of his generation” by Charlie Dark, London-born-and-bred spoken word artist Dean Atta has been making waves ever since his poem “I Am Nobody’s Nigger” went viral last January. The poem, which took 30 minutes to write and received thousands of views, likes and shares in a matter of days, was inspired by the killing of Stephen Lawrence and the use of the N-word in rap. It became the title of Dean’s debut poetry collection, which was published in February by The Westbourne Press.

If you are familiar with the London spoken word circuit, no doubt you will be familiar with Dean. The 27 year-old has been writing and performing poems for over 10 years, running workshops with schools and poetry nights all over the capital. His focus is on using writing and spoken word to break down barriers and discuss difficult issues within race, gender and sexuality.

LitroTV manages to grab four minutes with him on the Docklands Light Railway to discuss how London has inspired his work and what’s next for this very busy, 21st century poet.

You can order Dean debut collection, I Am Nobody’s Nigger, here.

Amy McCallum: Joint winner of LitroTV’s transgression competition

Litro had such a hard time choosing the winners of LitroTV’s competition that we awarded the prize to two, very different, but equally talented poets. Here is our second winning entry, Amy McCallum’s ‘The Basis of Something That’s A Bit More Than Nothing.’


Amy is a London based actress and poet and has recently graduated from the Drama Centre London.  Previous to this she studied English Literature and Drama at the University of East Anglia wishing mostly to be training at a drama school.  With retrospect she now says that ‘it is the challenges and discomforts (however minor) in life that we seem to learn the most from’ and that all those hours spent escaping the place by going off into the realms of creative writing (if you could call it that then…it was unfathomable!) were as valuable as ever.  She has only just begun performing her poetry this year.


Performance Poetry: Anna Freeman

For Litro’s transgression theme, this week’s LitroTV performance is brought to you by multi-slam winning poet Anna Freeman, with an introduction filmed for LitroTV viewers from the poet herself.

As someone whose poetry ‘‘has been known to leave a greasy after-taste of lingering wrongness. Like a kebab”, her work illustrates perfectly how transgression and comedy go hand in hand. Done badly, transgressive comedy can feel like a relentless pursuit of offensive one-upmanship but done well, it looks something like this.

Anna’s first foray into the spoken word scene came whilst she was studying for her BA at University and was required to go to an open mic night as part of her performance poetry module. She has since performed at Latitude, The Eden Project Festival, Shambala, Cheltenham Poetry Festival and Bristol Poetry Festival. She has more recently been involved with Tongue Fu, a brilliantly innovative spoken word event held regularly which experiments with live literature, music, film and improvisation. Spoken word is the only element that is crafted before the show and the performers only have a few seconds on stage to suggest to the band behind them the style of music which best suits their poem. Which is why in her video you can hear Anna mentioning a tune “something like Saving Private Ryan?”

Anna’s first poetry collection Gingering the World from the Inside will be released by Burning Eye Books in May and is available to pre-order now.

LitroTV meets: Adam Kammerling

Adam Kammerling
Adam Kammerling

Describing himself as a “poet, rapper and general miscreant,” Adam Kammerling is certainly an exciting and entertaining member of the contemporary spoken word scene. Hailing from Brighton, where he, “cut his teeth on the open-mic cyphers and rap battles on the local hip-hop scene”, he has travelled around the UK and abroad leaving a trail of expertly interwoven words in his wake.

Winner of the Brighton Hammer and Tongue Slam Champion 2010, the Hackney Slam Champion 2011 and the UK Slam Champion 2012, he has performed at Glastonbury, Latitude and Big Chill festivals, done theatre shows in Soho and Bristol Old Vic, as well as numerous collaborative projects with bands and charities, such as the Cambodian break dancing NGO Tiny Toones, promoting rap and spoken word as healthy forms of self-expression.

We talked to him after his performance at Hammer and Tongue Hackney about the projects he’s working on at the moment and what’s next in the pipeline. “The main thing is writing,” he says. “You get caught up in everything else and just don’t have the time to write. April is going to be a writing month – so expect new material.”

Adam is currently touring, running workshops and working with a band – but he’s keeping schtum about that. Instead, he recommends we “keep our ears peeled” for updates.

Check out more of Adam’s work at his website.

Everything Speaks In Its Own Way: An Interview with Performance Poet Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way
Kate Tempest, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way

“So, call me Caliban. They gave me language so I could reign down my curses in verses. I’ll take ’em on word for word — I know the worst is I have to watch my good friends getting caught up in circuits. The serpent rehearses his hisses. He makes the valiant viscous. I know now never to waste wishes. So go on then, conjure a storm on the head of your enemy — you will find yourself victim of negative energy.” —Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’

Kate Tempest
Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest‘s angry, heart-felt, sing-song performance style and allusive, pulsating writing come together to create poetry that’s literary, musical and mesmerizing.

In this podcast, we talk to Kate about her love of hip hop, her first slams, telling her poems to squat raves and punk gigs, and the relationship between lyrics and poetry. We also hear some of the tracks from her fantastic new spoken-word album, Everything Speaks In Its Own Way.

Listen to the podcast using the player below, or subscribe on iTunes by searching “Litro Lab”.

Kate Tempest got up on stage in her first rap battle when she was sixteen. She discovered poetry and began to speak her lyrics in poetry slams. Since then she’s gone on to perform her writing all over the world, from the Nu-Yorican poetry café to all the major European music festivals, and has written poems for the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She also tours with her band, Sound of Rum, and last year her first play, Wasted, was staged in London to glowing reviews.

Beautifully packaged: "Everything Speaks In Its Own Way"
Beautifully packaged: “Everything Speaks In Its Own Way”

You can buy the album Everything Speaks In Its Own Way, which comes packaged with a beautifully produced book of her poetry, at Kate’s website.

The tracks ‘Live and Die’, ‘What We Came After’, ‘Your Sister Thinks I Love You’, ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Babbling Brook’, and ‘Theme From Zingaro’ are taken from Kate Tempest’s album, Everything Speaks in its Own Way, with the kind permission of Kate Tempest.

A Literary Mixtape: Featuring Saul Williams, Caits Meissner, Joshua Kleinberg, Matt Mason, Inua Ellams and Bree Rolfe.

Tonight at the Southbank Centre in London, performance poet and musician Saul Williams introduces his new anthology, Chorus: A Literary Mixtape, an introduction to 100 young street poets, students and outsiders he is championing. Litro Lab is delighted to welcome Saul to the podcast to talk about the anthology and his own work.

Saul Williams is a performance poet and musician whose fierce, philosophical rants cross genres and weave together hip hop, politics and poetry. Starting out performing his poetry at the legendary Nuyorican Poets open-mic events in the 1990s, Saul Williams has gone on to release rap albums, publish poetry books and star in Slam, the film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998.

In this podcast you’ll hear Saul talking about the anthology and reading a meta-poem he has written using words from the work of the 100 poems in the Chorus anthology. You’ll also hear the voices of some of the poets who contributed to the book reading their work: Caits Meissner reading “Kissing”, Joshua Kleinberg reading “Transient”, Matt Mason reading “Connections”, Inua Ellams reading “Guerilla Garden Writing Poem”, and Bree Rolfe reading “Non-Verbal Learning Disorder”.

To listen to the podcast, use the player below.

Saul Williams’ Literary Mixtape is on at the Southbank Centre tonight, Thursday  29th November.

Sound credits:
“Unanswered Questions” by Kevin MacLeod (, licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

LitroTV Launches!

Back in July 2010, we posted a review of John Cooper Clarke’s show for the London Literature Festival:

John Cooper Clarke, photo by Tim Duncan
John Cooper Clarke, photo by Tim Duncan

The Bard of Salford was on good form, despite the temperature. Now in his 60s, he still has the style of Bob Dylan, mixed with the dead-pan delivery of Alan Bennett and just the right sprinkle of Bernard Manning. He delivered a stream of curiously old-fashioned stand-up, interspersed with his own brand of rapid-fire performance poetry. His disjointed jokes and puns revelled in an infectious love of language, perfect for a literary festival.

You can read the whole review by Emily Cleaver here.

Litro is keen to support performance poetry and the spoken word. Our Litro Live! events aim to bring you the latest talent, as well as great music. This year, we want to take this further.

Last month we launched LitroTV on YouTube. To celebrate, we want readers to send us video performances of  their readings. The winners will be featured on the YouTube channel. Videos should be no more than five minutes in length. Please send them to [email protected].

The 2009 Small Wonder Festival Slam

I didn’t post on Friday because I was at the Small Wonder Festival at Charleston House, near Brighton. It’s a literary festival, now in its sixth year, that spans four days and takes place in a beautiful rural spot among the South Downs. The difference between this and other festivals is that Small Wonder deals exclusively in the short story, a distinction that guarantees a sense of completion. If you’re anything like me, you can sometimes get frustrated at literary events in which an author reads you a middle chapter from their novel. It’s great if you’ve read the book, but if you haven’t it’s hard to engage with the passage when you have no context and haven’t learned the nuances of the characters.

The short story avoids this problem entirely and makes, in my opinion, for a far better live experience. Whether you enjoy the story or not, at least you get the entirety of it rather than just a sampler. It’s more theatrical and engaging, and that’s what we got at Small Wonder.

A great deal of care and attention had gone into making the festival an absorbing place to simply hang out. The grounds had at once the landscaped quality of a stately home and the earthy satisfaction of farm premises. This year there was a Virginia Woolf trail in the garden and, when night settled in, bed time stories with warm blankets and mugs of cocoa under the stars. With autumn creeping in, the festival organisers made sure you could stay cosy indoors as well as out. A grand old barn had been dedicated to helping festival-goers relax.  Comfy sofas, library books, food, drink and Small Wonder’s very own brew of fine ale (which, if you’re interested, was sweet and malty).  The programme didn’t disappoint either, with the likes of Ben Okri, Owen Sheers and Will Self on the bill. If you get the itch to go next year I’d advise treating yourself to at least a couple of afternoons or evenings there. Learn from me, though, and assume that Charleston takes a little bit longer to reach than Google Maps implies.

With Friday night came the famous Small Wonder Slam, a double-header consisting of a commissioned writer talking about short stories and giving a reading, then the titular short story contest, open to all-comers. The commissioned writer was Mick Jackson, author of, most recently, The Bears of England. You can read the short story he wrote especially for the festival here. He also read a story from The Bears of England, which was the perfect kind to be read out loud, but more on that in my next post.

The rules of the slam were as follows. Contestants prepared their stories beforehand, wrote their names on slips of paper and dropped them into a hat to declare that they wanted to enter the slam. Fifteen names were pulled from the hat, and each of these was asked to read in turn before a panel of judges. The judges marked each contestant out of ten, and the three with the highest score were then lined up for the audience to choose a winner, through the scientific method of roaring, clapping and hooting. The catch? No story could last more than three minutes. The master of ceremonies (who compared the slam with genial wit) had an old bicycle horn and a stopwatch at the ready. If any story outlasted its three-minute welcome, he’d sound the horn and the reading would be brought to an abrupt end.

So off they went, these brave souls, reading one by one. I’m not sure I could have gotten up there among them to take part, for these shortest of short stories are a hard form to master. I remember trying my hand at them when Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology came out (which I drop in here because it’s a masterpiece of the genre) and finding them incredibly hard to get right. Writing a story like that is like trying to mix an exact shade of paint. You need to get the proportions of all its constituent elements precisely right, or it can become muddied and useless. There isn’t much room for plot, or even scene in such a story. The best, instead, seem to focus on a particular emotion, hold on to it for a moment, and then close.

I felt that the slam’s judges were completely on the mark, and was pleased with their choice of the top three stories. We had Andrea Samuelson’s tale of a man with a body made up entirely of household objects (his legs were brooms, his belly a bucket) except for his hands, which were human and as such loved to feel things. It was a deftly constructed image carrying a sense of loneliness and a metaphor for old age. Then there was Ruth Maxwell’s blissfully naughty tale about an elderly thief getting a thrill from stealing. Ruth herself was of stately years, and she told the story with such delicious enthusiasm that the entire audience were in hysterics. And finally the champion on the night, Nell Currie, whose story was a deserved winner. This was the tale of a mother convinced that her son was a saint, so much so that she collected all the souvenirs of him that she could (such as his baby teeth) into a reliquary. She was convinced her son’s every act was a miracle, and so strong was her conviction that she eventually drove her son away. Nell’s story was not only composed with great craft, but was delivered pitch-perfectly in slow, blackly humorous tones. Getting up before an audience can make you speed up your reading and spoil important details with rushed pace, but Nell kept the performance slow and steady. I hope there is much more from her where that story came from. If you want to check it out for yourself, it’s going to be hosted on the website of the event’s sponsors, Spoken Ink.

The slam was lively, engaging, and created a fantastic sense of shared experience among the audience which, I suspect, was also felt by the fifteen contestants. In these respects it’s the perfect microcosm of the festival itself. Bright and beautiful, small and wonderful.