It’s a bold claim but it’s true, Apples and Snakes really did change my life. Reaching me just at the right time and showing me that poetry wasn’t/isn’t exclusively written in the drawing rooms of the privileged, that community work was not of lesser quality and that art really can change lives in a way that is more significant than my own experiences. 

In 2012 I was leaving the cosy confines of education and was lucky enough to secure a short-term position as a young producer at the Southbank Centre, working on ‘Shake the Dust’, a national poetry showcase run by Apples and Snakes. 

From this first role, I learnt so much about the practicalities of producing work. It proved to me that producing live work was scary and stressful and hard work but, most of all, it taught me that, when done right, the payoff was incredible. I don’t think I’d ever experienced Spoken Word before this, or at least not knowingly.

This new role was not only my first chance at producing but also my first experience of Spoken Word. 

I am not nearly eloquent enough to explain just how exhilarating and beautiful it was to see young people from such diverse backgrounds telling their stories on one of the most prestigious stages in the world. The sound of 1000 clicks running up and down the stalls and realising that this intensely personal story resonated with each individual watching from the darkness. It still gives me goosebumps. 

I knew I wanted to make work like this, celebratory, life-affirming, the work that gives a platform to voices that aren’t represented nearly enough. 

A bumpy road now travelled sees me working as Creative Producer for Suffolk Libraries and, in many ways, the work I do has a similar thread to the work I did with Apples and Snakes over ten years ago. It’s rooted in community, free to engage with and encourages a lifelong love of learning. 

One of the first things I did in my new role was to reach out to Apples and Snakes about collaborating. I was so delighted to be invited to bring a group to the Wordcup. Like ‘Shake the Dust’, teams from across the country would work with a professional poet to create spoken word performances to be performed at a National Showcase. 

We chose to run an intensive poetry weekend with Gainsborough Girl’s Group. A social group for teenage girls that is run at a small community library on an estate in Ipswich. Our first session, 4pm, Friday afternoon. A group of chaotic teenage girls, bribed into the space with promise of a McDonald’s shouted over each other to tell us all that they were the wrong group for this. They were rubbish at English. They weren’t very good at reading. They hated poetry. 

We were lucky enough to work with Yomi Sode, who guided these girls to find their own words and stories with humour, respect, and dramatic reading of Taylor Swift songs. 

Over the weekend we saw eye-rolling teenagers remove their armour and tell each other about estranged fathers, disabled siblings, worries about not fitting in and grieving loved ones. The space became open and raw and with it, our poets became celebrators.

We rehearsed over the next two weeks and before we knew it we were all packed up in a car, ready to join the other teams in Manchester.

I would be lying if I didn’t think the initial pull of this project was a trip to Manchester for these girls; staying in University Halls and a Friday off school. Yet, even seeing young people exploring a University setting was a highlight for our team too. On our first night in Manchester, girls in their pyjamas, each having a go at logging into Netflix in the communal living room.

“I can’t believe people get to live here.”

“I know… I thought people only lived like this in America”

The space that was created at Manchester Poetry Library was beautiful. Every moment was about celebrating and empowering each other. It’s remarkable how quickly teenagers embrace this, no cliques, no laughing at each other. Everyone was scared about performing and so everyone uplifted and supported each other. 

Showcase Day felt tense. There were a lot of last-minute notes, wobbles, and tears. Each time, young poets were crowded around and showered with encouragement and joy. When the groups had finished rehearsals, for the first time that weekend, the building fell quiet. The nerves were taking hold and the sound of excitable teenagers was replaced with catering trolleys wheeling across the space and the DJ setting up in preparation for the afterparty. 

The Leeds team had been teaching our poets the electric slide over the weekend and a few of the adults on the trip used this forced peace to lock in our moves in the foyer. The group of two became four, became eight. The DJ, now ready to soundcheck, blasted the opening bars to ‘candy’ which alerted everyone else in the building. Before the lyrics had set in every poet, teacher, young person and caretaker was part of a joyous flashmob. Dancing out their nerves amongst new friends. 

The Showcase followed in the same pattern. Nerves, courage, joy. Again I was reminded of how it feels to be sat in the darkness, the sound of 1000 clicks running up and down the stalls and realising that this intensely personal story resonated with each individual watching from the darkness. Each performance met with a standing ovation. 

I feel so lucky to have been witness to young people being heard and celebrated in such a way. 

Before we left for Suffolk, the young poets were invited to put their names down for a poetry open mic. Each performance was perfect. A young girl from Devon stepped up, she adjusted the mic to fit her small stature and began. Halfway through as she started to sing a line from Lost Boy, her voice cracked and her face crumpled. She turned her back to us, her shoulders sobbing. The room fell silent. 

From the back we heard the smallest, beautiful tune. Everyone turned to see one of our group joining the song. The room erupted and the two girls joined each other at the mic to finish their song, arms wrapped around each other.

 This felt like the perfect moment to wrap up a life-changing weekend.

Written and sent in by Rebecca Abbott, Creative Producer – Suffolk Libraries (The Suffolk Team)

About Rebecca Abbott

Rebecca Abbott is Creative Producer for Suffolk Libraries, a charity which runs Suffolk’s library service. We nurture children’s literacy, support vulnerable people, and promote wellbeing across Suffolk. Our libraries sit at the heart of the community, and we are nationally recognised for our work. 

Our team participated in the Wordcup as part of the community strand of Suffolk Libraries Arts and Culture programme.  

Suffolk Libraries Arts and Culture Programme is generously funded by Arts Council England. We were officially granted National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status in April 2018 and the programme aims to develop libraries as accessible, creative community spaces.