If you’re familiar with the spoken word scene at all around the Yorkshire area, then you’ve probably heard of the Red Shed.
It’s fairly hard to miss. It’s a shed, it’s red, and it sleeps in the heart of my hometown. Between the beacons of a consumer city with its old roots in mining, the Red Shed stands as testament to the everyman and his working day: this is also Wakefield’s Labour Club.
But over the last few years the Shed has also channelled much political momentum through poetry. The Red Shed Readings are monthly spoken word nights which run throughout the winter, and have seen the likes of Joanne Harris, Helen Mort, and Ian McMillan take to the humble creaking stage as headliners. In a short time this modest, glowing cabin has come far, hosting some of the biggest names in the literary world.
And this is, of course, all down to its organisers, which brings me to the Red Shed’s summer counterpart ‘Risk A Verse’, and September’s featured poet Jimmy Andrex.
In shameless self-promotion, ‘Risk A Verse’ was founded in 2015 by John Irving Clarke and I in an effort to provide a friendly, non-intimidatory atmosphere for local writers to share their work and simply love the words. Although newly-fledged, the nights have gathered momentum this summer and now attract writers both new and experienced from further afield. Much like the circle we sit in, it looks like word gets around.
The format is simple: for the first half, bring along a few poems (either yours or someone else’s) to share with the circle for constructive discussion, then sit back with a drink during the second half and listen to the evening’s guest poet share their own work. Discussion is always vibrant, but not to the point of intensity.
September saw the last of the summer’s Risk A Verse nights. Under discussion was the poetry of Robin Robertson, the migrant crisis, the work of Amnesty International and the power of political poetry during such trying times. Also present in the circle was local Yorkshire poet John Foggin, recently published by The Poetry Business and now enjoying a degree of limelight success as a result.
The room, musty with years of political struggle, is nevertheless bright and warming, and the pro-left posters which deck the walls create an incubator to fuel vibrant political poetry.
September’s guest reader, Jimmy Andrex, is one of the reasons I am writing this today. Jimmy was one of two writers who first introduced me to the poetry scene when I was just fourteen. A local lad, he tours the country giving readings and generally sharing what I think has often been, really, the best stuff around.
Here is a writer who knows no rules. It’s clear from the start that Jimmy has a broad opinion of what a poem can be: the evening saw not only experiments with the sonnet form, but techno, speakers, and verse put to music.
Not surprising given his credentials: Jimmy is a regular voice on Leeds local radio and has this year become a University of Leeds Lieder Poet, collaborating with a composer to put his words to music. I have also been honoured to read my own poetry on Wakefield and the Five Towns in his radio piece, Cresties. Here is someone who, with the sheer effort that he puts into every line, makes you sit up and think, ‘well this guy is different’.
Jimmy’s work is firmly rooted in the local and personal: his father, a wartime ancestor who died one hundred years ago to the day, and the murder of local MP Jo Cox were all prominent subjects in the poetry he read. Grounded in his own history and the legacy of the city, he is unafraid to confront major social issues such as the contemporary purpose of remembrance and the ‘dying stars’ of his hometown.
Jimmy Andrex reading in Holmfirth
Perhaps the most valuable advice I took from the evening was an exhortation to collaborate with other artists. His improvised encounters with musicians in Leeds bars have made this man feel music in his very bones and, in the words of Dylan Thomas, ‘love the words’. For Jimmy, ‘there’s too much ordinariness’, and working with new voices on the spoken word and music scene is one way to, like him, become someone well worth the listen.
So with the momentum of his words and their political charge, and the Red Shed’s Labour flag for a backdrop, Jimmy Andrex was the perfect artist to represent ’Forty Years of the Shed’ that night. I’m sure, if September is anything to go by, we’ll see him around.
Risk A Verse returns in June 2017. The Red Shed Readings begin on Thursday 13th October with headliner Rosie Garland.