451, listed as one of Picador book’s top 10 spoken word nights in the UK in 2017, began at Nuffield Theatre, Southampton in 2009. In it’s 8 years of existence it has hosted over 100 guest poets and over twice that number of open mic poets. Some guests have gone on to greater notoriety and we were lucky to be able to book them when we could, and some open mic poets have gone on to become feature poets in their own right spreading the word of The South East around the country.

As the curator of 451, of course I’d say that all the poets have been amazing – I booked them –
and all the nights, consequently, have been rapturous affairs, leaving me dazed, or uncontrollably grinning, or buzzing with thoughts and ideas or numbed by truth and often all four.
To be perfectly honest, some of my favourite moments at 451’s have been when, in the middle of a poetry set during which the poet has the audience engrossed in every turn of phrase or syllable or simple gesture, I’ve looked away from the stage at the audience and realised that they are as engrossed in spoken word in that moment as I have been and I’m honoured to be in the very fortunate position of being able to offer them that shared experience.

There are 451 moments that I will forever hold dear – amongst many of which are, most recently, host Ricky Tart improv beatboxing for Poetic Pilgrimage; Kat Francois drawing both laughter and tears performing Raising Lazarus, the various groups of young poets who have been given feature spots to share their words together and experience their first real spoken word gig, the  and many, many more – and there are 451’s that I can now look back on with amusement, although at the time …
One that particularly springs to mind is the 451 that took place on a Monday directly after Glastonbury Festival when I arrived, festival weekend weary, with Botswanan poet Drea Chuma as International guest supporting Elvis McGonagall. Despite my tiredness, all seemed to be going well on the night – good audience numbers, fine open mic as ever, and as we moved into the second half I was beginning to relax when suddenly, the power failed.
Sound gone, lights gone. There was a moment of silence, then some confusion, then, it being a warm June evening, I made the decision to move the event outside into the evening light where we could all sit on the grass and the show could continue al-fresco. The poets agreed, the audience agreed and out we went to set up a horseshoe of listeners around a focal point of poetry beside the cafe.

Drea began her next piece and a few lines in she was rudely interrupted by the cafe’s extractor fan rumbling back to life as the power was restored. The fan rattled and wheezeed so loudly that Drea couldn’t be heard without a microphone, so we all traipsed back into the cafe, settled down in our seats and she finished her set. Marvellous.
Next up was Elvis McGonagall. He was introduced, took to the stage and almost immediately the power failed again! Of course it was funny, and Elvis has never had an issue with projecting, but he was reading his poems and the now fading dusk meant that he couldn’t see his words. Rather than all go back outside again Elvis crossed the room so that the window was behind him and started to perform his next couple of pieces until the light outside became too weak to read by, at which point an audience member volunteered themselves as a standard lamp and stood behind Elvis with his phone torch on, illuminating the book from over Elvis’s shoulder for the rest of the set and as the applause and cheers marking the end of the set began to die away, the power came back on.
As the organiser, this was one of those events that, at the time, was more stressful than it was amusing, but in hindsight, because of it’s chaotic nature and the tolerance of the audience and the professionalism of the poets and the volunteer standard lamp, I really do look back on it fondly.

One of the most important ingredients of any poetry event is the glue that holds it together; the captain steering the ship; the rabble-rouser and time-keeper; by which I mean the host.
451 has had 3 regular hosts in it’s incarnation so I asked them to tell me about their experiences of the gig.
First up, put your hands together and welcome to the blog stage, all the way from Warwick University where he now teaches English Literature ….

Steve Purcell
(Host 2009 – 2011)
I started hosting 451 in September 2009, I think, the result of a conversation or two with Pete at another poetry night I ran at the Soul Cellar. I compered 451 every couple of months, give or take, until I moved away from Southampton in 2011. My memories are mostly a blur: drives in the dark up to the university campus, coffees in the café, print-outs from Pete telling me who was who and what was what. I remember a group of strangers slowly turning into a familiar community. I remember Pete using the phrase “sacrificial poem” to describe my opening offering, and picking up, show by show, what that poem needed to do. I remember scribbling these poems onto scraps of paper at snatched moments during the day. Looking back over my sacrificial poems for the whole two-year period, I notice they mostly followed a tried-and-tested formula: Setting up a rhyme In a short amount of time, Then a longer line immediately after; Just a little touch of whimsy (Though the rhyming might be flimsy), Then an end-of-stanza punchline, cuing laughter. (Repeat four times, with different gags.) I remember the rush of pleasure when these efforts produced the desired rumble of warmth from the room, and the prickle of panic when all they got were polite, scattered barks. My job, of course, was to warm up the room for the main acts, and I remember being awed and humbled by many of them. Polarbear speaking from the heart, sharing life stories, sweeping the audience along on a tide of empathy. Elvis McGonagall’s mischievous satire. Kate Tempest, every bit the force of nature her name suggests, sending shivers down my spine with her high-wire rhythms and impassioned delivery. Poets whose names I don’t remember but whose warmth and humanity, whose skill and wit, linger in my memories with a fuzzy-edged glow.


Next up, and now hosting events for Apples and Snakes in Exeter, amongst other things, please welcome…

 

Rob Casey (Host 2011 – 2014)
I started hosting 451 in the autumn of 2011, having been a regular open mic performer for a couple of years beforehand, back when Kate Tempest would top the bill and few realised how good an evening they’d be in for. Among my first gigs as a compere, I received useful pregnancy advice from the wonderful Hollie McNish, in the form of a poem to give to my expectant wife. There were also stand-out performances from Nathan Filer (before international fame as a novelist) and Rachel Pantechnicon, as well as Shane Koyczan, Kate Fox, Buddy Wakefield and Salena Godden.

It was also a special thrill to host John Hegley as part of the ‘Nuffield Playing Field‘, a performance space built to resemble a football pitch in Southampton’s Guildhall Square. That was an evening that fulfilled two of my ambitions in one: playing in front of a football stand full of appreciative supporters, and also to do so alongside one of my favourite poets. (Ricky Tart was supporting John that night, but I was referring to…oh, you know what I mean.)

One of the best bits about hosting was the guarantee of always getting the chance to perform and share the stage with so many great acts, although always having to go first was the bum end of the deal. However, as a reward for winning the associated Archimedes Screw Showcase Slam, I did once get booked to be support for Jonny Fluffypunk and so had to introduce myself, walk off as host, then walk back on again as guest, then the same again in reverse at the end.

The guests were always amazing and the quality of the open mic was consistently astounding. However, more surprisingly perhaps, the audience were rather splendid too, especially when it came to writing under pressure in the interval. One of the aspects I was keen to introduce to 451 when I started hosting was a competitive element to involve those not on the stage in the evening. Light-hearted discussions were held as to whether to ban one poet, as a result of him winning so often, but thankfully the prizes were quite evenly spread, with audiences voting on anonymously submitted poems, written to specific briefs and read out at the start of the second half.


And last, but by no means least, the current host of 451 who’s helping steer this particular poetry ship into its new mooring. (that’s enough sea-faring metaphors…ed)
Please welcome …

 

Ricky Tart (host 2015-2017)

451 has had many ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ moments; Hannah Silva looping just the guttural vowels of Ed Milliband’s identical interview responses springs to mind, and Pete Bearder leading the audience to fake-laugh louder and louder for a good sixty seconds before stopping dead and calling us all idiots.  It’s a pleasure to witness an audience respond to a performer who has the confidence to lead them to strange or unpredictable places. On this note I must mention Toby Thompson.  His performance was part poetry gig, part shamanic ritual, part guided meditation, and part masterclass in performance energy.  I fell in love with Toby.  In my own work I mix sampling, poetry, beatboxing, ukulele, drum machines, and looping – it’s a headache.  These 451 poets walk on stage with just a microphone and their words.  I wish I’d thought of that.  

 

So why these reminiscences and fond recalls? This seeming obituary for 451? Is it gone for good?

No, it’s just the end of an era. 451 is rising again in 2018 with the thoroughly-thought-through title 451 City at the new Studio 144, NST City building in Guildhall Square, Southampton on Monday 19th February.


And what a rising! This new era begins with a young feature poet who won the Apples and Snakes and Wise Words emerging artist contest back in April 2017, Henry Madd, and the main feature will be How to Survive a Post-truth Apocalypse, a spoken word show from one of the UK’s best loved spoken word artists, Francesca Beard. (‘Beautiful Wordsmithery’ Everything Theatre. ‘Beard’s charisma and humour is sparkling’ Exuant) There’ll also be the open mic that is regularly commented on as one of the best people have ever seen.


So come along and witness the stars of the future and the stars of the present all on the same stage in brand new surroundings.


451 is dead, long live 451 City!