14 weeks of Lockdown – the story of a poetry group and other adventures with John F Keane

Today’s feature is a full interview instead of a feature with John F Keane, head and curator of Write Out Loud Stockport.

Write Out Loud Stockport is a poetry group that runs beneath the ‘umbrella’ of Write Out Loud. Write Out Loud itself “is a national (indeed, international) hub for participation in poetry, encouraging everyone who writes poetry – from still-too-nervous-to-do-open-mic to Nobel Prize winner – to share their words with others.”

In today’s feature, John discusses this influential group and the way it has changed / developed since he took it over almost ten years ago. He also describes various projects the group has been involved with, including two collections of poetry written during lockdown by the group.

Andy N:

What led you going to WOL Stockport and then running it for the last 9 or 10 years?

John Keane:

For some reason, 2009-10 saw an explosion of interest in writing in the Stockport area. Perhaps the evening course in creative writing at Stockport College served as a catalyst for this interest. Stockport Write Out Loud started meeting at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery in February 2010. It was one of several writing groups that emerged at that time, some of which are still running in some form or other.

I did not attend the first few meetings but heard about them through word of mouth. Those early sessions were run by a cockney called Bagnall who gradually lost interest in the group. For some reason I was chosen to replace him. We were lucky to have free use of the Art Gallery as a venue, although changing circumstances have shunted us all over it and we now have to pay a small fee. During the early years only six or seven people attended but we now hold steady at about twelve. Very few attendees come from Stockport and some live much further afield. The basic format is two complete rounds of poetry separated by a ten minute coffee break.

The drive and energy in the group is incredible and we have a good ethnic, age and gender mix. Perhaps this explains the success we have enjoyed in our many collaborative ventures with artists and public bodies.

Andy N:

Over the past few years Write Out Loud Stockport has been a hotbed of creative projects. Can you tell us a bit about these?

John Keane:

Our first open mic event (‘Read Out loud’) was held at the art gallery in 2011. Although this was quite successful, it made me realise that public poetry needs a ‘hook’ to make it relatable to a general audience. Julian Jordan (Write Out Loud founder – Andy N) has cultivated such a relationship between jazz and poetry at the Marsden Jazz Festival for some years now, with great success.

For the most part, our own ‘hook’ is the visual arts. The fact that we meet in an art gallery where artists convene and exhibit has helped foster this association. Some of our members have done the MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, where collaborative creative projects form part of their coursework. This is where I learned about ekphrastic poetry (poetry inspired by works of art), which soon became the cornerstone of our group’s collaborative activities.

Our first ekphrastic collaboration was the Unpicked-Restitched exhibition in February/March 2016. Organized by Arc Media, this touring exhibition integrated the group’s written work with collaborative textile art. Although it was not a true ekphrastic exhibition, it gave me a clear idea about what such a thing might look like. In March 2016 we did a creative workshop inspired by artworks displayed in the ‘It was 50 Years Ago Today’ exhibition in Stockport Art Gallery. The workshop led to two successful and well-attended ‘open mic’ sessions, in which our poets read poems inspired by the paintings. The event consolidated my suspicion that public poetry works best in collaboration with other art forms. Without the exhibition to provide a context, the poetry might have alienated the audience. As it was, the two were a marriage made in heaven.

Our next collaboration was a joint exhibition with artist Mark Sheeky. Before his ‘21st Century Surrealism’ solo exhibition went on display in Stockport Art Gallery, I asked the group to write poems inspired by each artwork. The response was tremendous, as usual. The exhibition displayed the group’s poems next to every painting, adding layers of interpretation to Sheeky’s unique visions. This resulted in a successful poetry reading event at the gallery on 22 September 2018, in which Sheeky discussed each painting while the poems were read aloud. We also had an unexpected intervention by a local madwoman, which made the event even more surreal and exciting. I slipped her a fiver afterwards…

Our two most recent ekphrastic exhibitions occurred in collaboration with Mark Sheeky and Stockport Art Guild. These went much further than our earlier efforts, in that the artists produced drawings and paintings inspired by our poems in a reciprocal creative relationship transcending traditional ekphrasis. We call this process the ‘ekphrastic tower’, a cultural product in which alternating poetry and artworks rise in a growing tower of mutual inspiration. The first exhibition (‘Ekphrastic Towers’) was held in March 2019, culminating in a short musical concert by Mark Sheeky. The second (‘Woven transitions’) was posted in March 2020.

What I liked about these two exhibitions was the immortality associated with ‘inverted’ ekphrasis. True ekphrasis leaves the poem secondary to the artwork while an artwork inspired by a poem only imparts its true and full meaning in relation to the poem. Since our poetry has now inspired dozens of artworks, our words are embedded forever in posterity. Stockport Art Guild has been meeting for over a century and their collection contains many old works. If their paintings of our poems someday receive the same reverent treatment, people centuries from now will be asking: ‘Who were the poets who inspired these paintings?’ And so our words will be kept alive through their intimate association with these treasured art objects.

In a sense, this represents the ultimate achievement for any writing group, one that very few can match: immortality. Since I took stewardship of the group in 2010, the broadening path of glory we have walked has always sought this goal.

However, some of our most dynamic collaborations and activities have not been ekphrastic at all. In September 2014 we conducted a creative seminar to develop poems and prose celebrating the work of the Healthy Waterways Trust. We also organised a reading event inspired by the War Memorial celebrations in November 2016. This meeting included a number of important attendees, including the Mayor of Stockport. And in November 2019 I organised the judging of the Stockport/Trafford College poetry competition by Write Out Loud Stockport members. The winning piece inspired a series of creative workshops and an exhibition of artworks at Stockport College.

Andy N:

What are the circumstances that led the group to produce two volumes of Lockdown poems?

John Keane:

When Lockdown began in March 2020, the group started using Zoom to convene our public meetings. I have always championed the use of technology as a way of organising the group and this meant we were well-placed to meet the challenges presented by Lockdown. Not only have we kept up our monthly meetings, we have also added an interim meeting to our schedule. The basic format is maintained and it is nice to see the poets reading from their natural habitats.

At the first two meetings, I noticed that many of the poems were strongly influenced by the Covid-19 crisis. Immediately, the concept of an anthology specifically dedicated to this unique moment in history flared in my mind. The group received this idea with their usual boundless enthusiasm and set about sending me their poems on a week-by-week basis. Each week’s poems were based on a theme arising during the preceding week.

Those poems were published in two volumes. Eight Weeks of Lockdown is volume one, covering the period from March 23 to May 18 2020. Six Weeks of Lockdown is the second volume, covering the next six weeks to June 26, 2020. This period saw a slight relaxation of the original rules, with people being allowed more exercise and social contact.

Our first Lockdown Anthology captures every nuance of the unfolding crisis.  At first there is confusion and uncertainty about the future. Observing the nature burgeoning outside their windows, many of the poets slipped into a wistful pastoral mood. The group also meditate on their collaborative exhibition with Stockport Art Guild, with our deserted exhibition becoming a potent symbol of urban abandonment. This gives way to a more reflective tone, as the poets gradually settle into the new situation. Humour and wit start to return around week six, albeit tinged with nostalgic melancholy for happier times.

Many of the poems deploy the key poetic methods of the ‘Stockport School’ of poetry to great effect. For example pastoral scenes and urban landscapes are used to metaphorize psychological and emotional states. There is a strong interest in the visual arts and visual experience in general. Science and technology are also prominent, unsurprisingly so given that Zoom was the group’s primary lifeline.

The second Lockdown collection has a very different tone. The murder of black security guard George Floyd by white Minneapolis police officers in May 2020 resulted in a global revolt against systemic racism by the Black Lives Matter movement. In Britain, statues of slave traders and racist politicians (including Winston Churchill) were attacked or defaced, with nationalists fighting pitched battles with BLM protestors in scenes strongly reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s.

Unsurprisingly, these momentous events gave our second Lockdown collection a much more dynamic and varied flavour than the first. There are poems on racism, social justice, sport and economics. A number of pieces address the problem of depression and other mental health issues. In sum, the second phase of Lockdown proved an ideal vehicle for the group’s ‘Grim but Good’ approach to poetry. The term ‘Grim but Good’ began to be bandied about in the months leading up to the pandemic, helping to crystallise the unique features of our emerging style. Although this list is by no means exhaustive, the ‘Stockport School’ of poetry is defined by:

  • Forlorn urban imagery such as ruins, wastelands and factories, which is often used to metaphorize loss, regret or despair.
  • Obscure scientific facts or historical events.
  • Idiomatic titles that create an arena for the poem and illuminate its contents.
  • The poet’s raw experiences, emotions and thoughts are usually on display, however painful these may be for the poet (or reader). Troubling personal anecdotes or historical events often form the poem’s conceptual centre.
  • Extensive use of the bleak northern landscape and things within it (animals, trains and railway lines) as vehicles of personal meditation and reflection.
  • Striving for clear, terse statements rather than obfuscation; poetic directness and acuity.
  • A strong interest in ekphrastic poetry and visual experience in general.
  • A strong moral sense but essentially apolitical and irreligious.
  • An intimate conversational style which assumes the reader is (or was) a close confederate in the poet’s experiences, creating a strongly nostalgic or elegiac atmosphere.
  • Rich verbal patterning, with extensive use of assonance and alliteration.

Whatever the future holds, it is obvious that these are extraordinary and unprecedented times. Not only are we beset by a global health crisis, the early 2020s are troubled by race riots, economic chaos, political instability and a generalised frustration with social distancing. Posterity (assuming there is one) will look back on this astonishing year as either a startling aberration or the beginning of a new world. At the time of writing (July 2020), there are widespread fears of a second spike of Covid-19 infections undoing all that has been achieved. Whatever the outcome, our two poetic diaries will stand as a fascinating mirror to these difficult times.

While history cannot be changed, the present can change the future. Centuries from now, scholars and historians will be debating the social, ecological, political and technological impact of the early 2020s on their own world. This is why creating this ‘in the moment’ poetic record is so important not only for ourselves, but for posterity.

Assuming there is one.

More can be read about Write Out Loud Stockport here – https://www.writeoutloud.net/profiles/stockportwol

8 Weeks of Lockdown can be purchased here – https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/john-keane/8-weeks-of-lockdown/paperback/product-ddq89g.html

6 Weeks of Lockdown can be purchased here – https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/john-keane/6-weeks-of-lockdown/paperback/product-gdedq9.html

Andy N is the author of four full length poetry collections - the most recent being the Streets were all we could see. He is also the host / creator of 'Spoken Label' - a author / writer chat series as well as Podcast series such as Reading in Bed, Comics Unity, Wrestle-Up and the Koll, Andy N and Amanda show. He also ambient music under the name of Ocean in a Bottle. His official blog is onewriterandhispc.blogspot.com Occasionally he does sleep.