I’ve been going along to FenSpeak, a bimonthly poetry and storytelling event based in the Babylon Arts Gallery in Ely, for several years now. Each session features one or two guest poets, alongside plenty of open mic slots. The first time I went, I was struck by the friendliness and inclusivity of this event, and the particularly warm welcome given to newcomers. Thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of its co-hosts, Beth Hartley and Stewart Carswell, FenSpeak has not only survived the pandemic, but has evolved and flourished in its current Zoom form.

I’m a passionate hill-walker, so having been born and brought up in Norfolk, and having lived most of my adult life in Cambridge, it’s taken me quite a while to appreciate the beauty of the flat Fenland landscape. The poems shared at FenSpeak, as at any open mic, cover a huge and eclectic range of subjects, but it’s always a special treat when someone shares a poem that captures the distinctive qualities of this area, whether that’s the infamous vast skies, the birdlife or the rich peaty soil. These poems help to bind us together as shared inhabitants of this unique and peculiar landscape.

Last night’s guest poet, Jonathan Totman, is a former Fenland Poet Laureate, so there were plenty of evocative landscape and nature poems, alongside some beautiful and poignant poems about family relationships, past and present. I’m really looking forward to reading Jonathan’s first collection from Pindrop Press, Night Shift.

And the open mic offered up what Beth described perfectly as ‘a rich layer cake of a night’ – such a fine blend of humour, intimacy, longing, pain and vivid, sensory detail, shared by such a lovely bunch of people. It was one of those rare Zoom evenings when a genuine sense of community was evoked, even amongst people who had never gathered in person in exactly that combination before.

Stewart and Beth deserve huge credit for sustaining this sense of community and welcome so well during such a challenging period. So it’s wonderful that each of them has a pamphlet published this autumn, and that both will be the FenSpeak featured poets at the next event on 20th October. I’m looking forward to it already!

Beth Hartley’s pamphlet, What if Stars, is published by Allographic Press and can be purchased here.

Stewart Carswell’s pamphlet, Earthworks, is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams and will be available soon here.

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