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Poet in the City

"One of the biggest reasons people don’t come to poetry is because they can’t see how it’s relevant to them, so by positioning it as something which is really exciting to go to but also enables the conversation that they want to have or want to be a part of, that's a real opportunity.”

Poet in the City

Poet in the City produces poetry not in books: it is a leading curator of some 50 classic and contemporary poetry events and commissions each year, as well as a festival of poetry and lyrics. It has three core staff led since 2014 by chief executive Isobel Colchester, plus three or four freelance consultants. It has a turnover of roughly £230,000, which includes Arts Council funding as a National Portfolio Organisation, business partnerships and philanthropic income, plus ticket income.

Mission: making live poetry a popular art form

Contrary to the stereotype that poetry is esoteric and inaccessible, Isobel Colchester argues: “Since the beginning of time poetry has been helping us to articulate meaning or non-meaning on a really personal and a global level and providing an opportunity to reinvent language and change the narrative.” In seeking to make live poetry a popular art form, Poet in the City sees itself as “using poetry to give a platform for ideas, and including people in those ideas. One of the biggest reasons people don’t come to poetry is because they can’t see how it’s relevant to them, so by positioning it as something which is really exciting to go to but also enables the conversation that they want to have or want to be a part of, that’s a real opportunity.”

Streams of activity

Poet in the City pursues its mission in broadly three ways:

1: Produces

The organisation seeks to occupy “the space between grassroots poetry nights and the more academic poetry salons”, producing a programme of roughly 50 events a year to large mainstream audiences, featuring “everything from the ancient world up to all sorts of contemporary poetry”. The ambition is “to invite the audiences into the world of poets: we might do that by having speakers interspersed with readings of the poetry, or commissioning dance and music to provide that context”. Other commissioned work “uses poetry to break down barriers to challenging or difficult ideas”: for instance, Poet in the City worked with St Paul’s Cathedral to commission writing to retell its story and host audience round tables to think about how Londoners, and particularly young people, might engage more with the cathedral.

Ultimately attracting an audience of 2,000, the St Paul’s event “showed us that if we are really engaged in talking to people about what we’re doing, then that platform for ideas is incredibly powerful. If we can find ways to enable people to take those ideas in to other parts of their lives then we’re doing our job right. That’s when an arts organisation has a truly civic role. It’s not just about enjoyment, it’s about changing who you are and providing a sense of a wider community and a connection to bigger ideas in a meaningful way.”

Partnerships with venues and other cultural organisations are integral to the strand, enabling Poet in the City to deliver its programme across London and, increasingly, beyond, for instance in Manchester.

2: Support

Recognising that, as a small organisation, “we can’t make live poetry popular on our own”, Poet in the City is beginning to “support other people to be producers of poetry, with the idea that if we can create more competitors for ourselves then that’s really good for the sector”. It already has a young producers programme in place, which invites under-25s to produce their own events, and it’s beginning to think about how that model might be replicated. The challenge, says Colchester, is to ensure “that our artistic delivery is at least equal to our approach to including people”.

3: Include

Although the Produces and Support strands think about inclusion, Include is where Poet in the City really focuses on audiences. It is beginning to expand its offer to “make sure that people can get really, really close to our work”, through developing a new Carry on the Conversation scheme, which invites audiences to take part in post-performance discussions, and hosting audience round tables. But by far the biggest aspect of this strand is the long-standing volunteer scheme, discussed in the next section.

Co-creating with volunteers

Colchester first came to Poet in the City as a volunteer herself, so has a deep appreciation for the ways in which the organisation brings people together and acts as a creative platform for ideas. Volunteers – of which there are over 200, with 70 regularly involved in the organisation – are seen as “our critical friends, who feed back to us on how we develop and how we stay true to ourself, through our monthly volunteer meetings. It’s like having a monthly focus group where they say, I really like this, I don’t like this, and then we have a debate about it and come up with solutions together.”

The scheme is “really open: we don’t have roles that we recruit for and we don’t say no to anyone. People come and hear what we’re about and say, I’d really like to get involved with X, and we find a way for them to do that. In that way they get involved in everything from front of house to making podcasts and writing blogs.” Colchester stresses that the volunteers’ enthusiasm is never exploited: “We don’t need our volunteers to exist; we have core staff to deliver the work that needs to be done. We just would never want to operate without them because they add so much to what we offer. We offer our volunteers exactly what they want on their terms and they can drop out of things at any point. People know themselves and know what they want out of it and we are guided by them.”

Primarily how the organisation gains is in learning how to extend that inclusive offer further. “We deliver really high-quality content but we’ve always let people play a part of that, so we have this community of people who are passionate about the art but also passionate about doing this together”.

That community spirit, and the idea that what we’re able to share together can be beneficial to them and to their lives, has really inspired all of our other inclusion options because we’ve got such a successful structure in place: the volunteer scheme allows people to get close, so with the other schemes we can just keep giving access in different ways.

What next?

For Colchester, the next phase for Poet in the City is to extend its approach to working with audiences into “everything that we do, so that it’s how we work with our partners and our speakers, and we really consider that when we work with somebody, they become a part of our community”. Artistically the organisation is looking for “the right way to increase our ambition: should we be delivering multi-evening shows, should we be bringing in artistic directors to work on specific commissions and productions, and how can we keep making sure that these events continue to serve what we want them to be, which is this platform for ideas?” It’s also testing different partnership approaches, as a way of extending its work into other cities, and the possibility of developing a franchise model run by other people.

This is typical of the organisation’s desire to be “ever increasingly inclusive, letting people get really close to the structure of the organisation. As an organisation we’ve got very porous wall and we want to perpetuate that as much as possible. Our job is to relinquish expertise in a way, and to provide frameworks that allow other people’s ideas to be really successful, from the artists we work with to our volunteers and audiences. We can only deliver so much, but it’s about creating a platform for other people.”

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