Making the everyday extraordinary

Charley Genever - Photo by Leah Barfield
↑ Charley Genever - Photo by Leah Barfield

As the city marks 25 years of the Peterborough Poet Laureate competition, Laura Fanthorpe spoke to some of the people who’ve held the title. What does winning mean for them, the city, and for its next generation of writers and performers?

Peterborough might have gained a reputation for many things, but one of its most intriguing has been for its acclaimed poetry scene, which continues to gain a groundswell of support. Pushing the boundaries of creative writing and performance, poetry in the city is flourishing.

The Peterborough Poet Laureate competition has been creating ambassadors for the city since 1998. It’s a role unlike any other. The laureates tell the tales of our region and are the markers of moments in time; mirroring the mood of Peterborough and its people, and bringing the power of poetry to the masses.

Charley Genever

Charley Genever

Winning the title is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for keen wordsmiths. Looking back through past champions feels like perusing a roll call of some of the city’s most well-known creatives. One previous winner likens being named laureate to being a “Doctor Who or James Bond”. Once you’ve been named a laureate, you will always be a keeper of the region’s words and stories.

Previous laureates include Toby Wood, Mark Grist, Keely Mills, Malika Speaks, Charley Genever, Clare Currie, Mixxy, Kat Beeton, Pete Cox and more. Latest to join the roster is Lauren Kendrick, who won the title in December 2023.

Recognising unique talents and untapped potential, the competition aims to award poets with the honorary title for one year each. During this time, they undertake a unique role in their local community. No two laureate’s reigns have ever been the same. Every person has done different things with the title – whether it’s setting up new poetry nights, putting on performances, running workshops in schools, or supporting the growth of new artists. The opportunities are endless.

Syntax Poetry Collective

The competition hasn’t always been smooth sailing, particularly when the pandemic years toppled the world of live performance. But when the Poet Laureate position was under threat of dying out, it was saved by what became the Syntax Poetry Collective; described as the ‘poetry lungs’ of the city. This group of writers and performers has the ambitious aim of celebrating and raising the profile of Peterborough poetry.

So what does the Poet Laureate do? Firstly, it’s a voluntary role, with no set expectations. The application criteria are pretty wide-ranging, so you don’t need to have had any training, qualifications or previous poetry successes. The main thing is that you live in the city, are over 18, and care about the impact poetry can have on Peterborough.

Kat Beeton, Toby Wood, Keely Mills, Pete Cox, Malika Speaks

Kat Beeton, Toby Wood, Keely Mills, Pete Cox, Malika Speaks

Throughout the year, the laureate works with Syntax to make poetry part of the life of the city, often through chronicling special events or by being commissioned to write poems by partners. The Syntax chairperson, Keely Mills, explains: “It’s important to have a Poet Laureate because we’ve had one for 25 years. And I think it’s especially important, in a city that’s considered to have low literacy, to have an ambassador that focuses on words and the speaking of words.”

Keely continues, “Don’t be put off by thinking that poetry’s not for you. Poetry is everywhere and it’s in everything – from our songs to our sympathy cards.
I would say to people that they should come along to events and watch it, or come and perform it yourself, or come and write it. And know that there’ll be people there ready to support you.”

Discover more

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Peterborough Poet Laureate position, Syntax has commissioned a special film podcast of five former laureates in conversation, sharing stories and experiences. The film will be launched in spring 2024.

Meet the Peterborough Poets

Charley Genever - Photo by Dan Weill Photography

Charley Genever – Photo by Dan Weill Photography

CHARLEY GENEVER – Poet Laureate 2016

What was it about the competition that appealed?
It’s such a great role because each poet makes it their own. There aren’t any set parameters, so I was really excited by the potential. When I entered, I was on a training programme for young creatives. I was 24 when I won, and I was bragging for ages thinking I was the youngest Peterborough Poet Laureate ever. Then I found out very recently that Mixxy was 23 when he got it! But still, as a young creative, I wanted to offer an alternative to how poetry is received, particularly in schools.

How did you feel when you discovered you’d won the title?
I was completely overjoyed. It was a proper whirlwind. I remember I had a meeting the next day; we did the introductions and I was really bashful about it. It definitely is a very empowering role in that it gives you the kudos and the validation to do the things that you have in your head, that previously you didn’t feel quite so confident you could achieve.

Did you feel that it improved your writing?
Yeah, definitely. Because you get opportunities that you maybe wouldn’t write about in your own personal practice. And particularly for me, again, working with younger people or working at public events that are family-friendly forced me to write about things that I could then perform in that context. It gave me that extra confidence to apply to the Arts Council for funding to put on Freak Speak, which was a quarterly poetry event that ran for a few years.

What was your favourite memory or moment from the time you were laureate?
Oh, I think probably the most unique experience was when I was invited to judge the Miss Peterborough competition. None of the other laureates have done that. I was expecting it to be very stereotypical, but it was actually much more inclusive and welcoming than that.

What do you think poetry does for Peterborough?
It gives people a voice and it cultivates a community. Also, I think it’s not just true of me, but many people can’t always say what they want to say unless it’s in a poem. It can be a really powerful tool to figure stuff out, or to say things about yourself and the world.

Toby Wood

Toby Wood

TOBY WOOD – Poet Laureate 1998

Can you explain the origins of the Peterborough Poet Laureate competition?
It was started in 1998 by Peterborough City Council, who recognised that there had been a successful performance scene in Peterborough for at least 10 years. The Gaslight Club was an alternative comedy club in Peterborough in the 1980s and early 90s. It was really ground-breaking and featured a number of nationally renowned poets. I was one of the comperes and used to do performance poetry. Towards the end of the Gaslight’s time the council set up the Poet Laureate competition, to try and build on the popularity of performance poetry, and I entered that first competition. Surprisingly, I won with something called Infant School Hymn.

How did it feel when you won the title?
I was absolutely thrilled because, you know, I describe the stuff that I do as like cheese and onion crisps in as much as you wouldn’t live on them, but they’re quite pleasant for the moment. Well, that’s the story of my life!

Has winning given you lots of opportunities?
I had duties at various civic functions. I remember going to the mayor’s sausage supper and reading something and it was thought of as quite novel and innovative. One of the huge advantages is that when you read a poem out loud, it doesn’t last very long. Therefore, they can fit into all sorts of events. At the time I was a primary school headteacher, and I was doing lots of assemblies for children, which in itself is a performance. I like writing, I like words, but I love the context of performance. So, putting it very crudely, doing something for adults in the evening meant that I could be a bit more wide-ranging and use naughty words, and then I was doing assembly in the day, so I was very careful not to get the two mixed up!

Is the poetry scene in Peterborough still thriving?
Oh gosh, yes. The lovely thing about it is it’s really varied. There are lots of feminist performers and there are lots of multicultural performers now. It gives a voice to people from a variety of backgrounds.

Why does poetry matter to you?
Poetry matters because it’s a fun way of using words. You can use a few words. You can use many words. You can use words in any particular way you like. And – as I often say to children when I’m teaching in schools – with poetry there’s no right and there’s no wrong because it’s what you feel and how you want to express yourself.

Keely Mills

Keely Mills

KEELY MILLS – Poet Laureate 2009

How did you feel when you won the title?
Oh, very overwhelmed, privileged and humbled. Because the thing is, it’s not just about you. It’s about what you represent and who you represent, which essentially is Peterborough.

What can poetry do for Peterborough?
It can tell really good stories about the city that aren’t just about the big things, which might get lost or overlooked for other things that might be more salacious or exciting. Sometimes people from outside Peterborough can look down on it. They have a misconception or a view of it given to them by someone else. Yet I know that we’re considered to be a really exciting place for poetry. And it’s almost like a time capsule as well, in that poetry is a way of capturing a different time. I think that’s wonderful.

What does poetry mean to you?
It means telling the story of everyday people and everyday situations that are magic, that are often not exalted in any way. I think for me, it’s a way to capture stories of those people around me that might not be with me in the future. It’s about telling the story of the everyday and how extraordinary that can be.

What opportunities did winning the title give you?
It’s a bit like you’re Doctor Who or James Bond, you’re always the laureate. It’s opened up loads of opportunities. I was commissioned to write poems that I never would have been asked to write otherwise. It’s helped me to just start conversations with someone at a bus stop. You know, because someone will go, ‘Oh, are you that poet?’ From that, you create connections and networks.

What were your biggest achievements during your time as Poet Laureate?
I don’t want to get too emotional, but the year I was made laureate was the year that we opened up the John Clare Cottage in Helpston. I got to perform alongside Benjamin Zephaniah. That’s one of the real highlights, to honour someone like John Clare, who for me
is like a working-class lad and I’m a working-class girl, and then also to meet someone like Benjamin – it was amazing.

Kat Beeton - Photo by Lauren Irving-Cooper

Kat Beeton – Photo by Lauren Irving-Cooper

KAT BEETON – Poet Laureate 2022-2023

What made you decide to enter the competition in the first place?
Hubris at 3am! I’d just started writing again, and I hadn’t performed in a long time. I was asked to read my work at the opening of a literary journal with Charley Genever and Malika (who was the Poet Laureate at the time). They were really encouraging about my work and Charley said I should apply for Poet Laureate. I laughed it off. But then I went, oh, right then. And I wrote something and just sent it. It was kind of a leap and a spur- of-the-moment thing.

How did winning the title make you feel?
Lots of things. I never thought that I would actually get it, because I hadn’t performed in a long time, and I’d only recently been writing poetry again. So it was a bit of a shock. Then it sunk in that, with what I wanted to do with the role, it was going to be a responsibility as well.

Do you feel that winning the title helped improve your work as a poet?
I think so because I was hyper-focused on working as a poet throughout that time. It gave me an opportunity to really concentrate on poetry and explore that medium and genre. And I’m glad that I’m finished now as well, because I really did welcome that opportunity to inhabit that space and explore myself as a poet, but it’s not the only part of me.

What were your biggest achievements during your time as laureate?
Bringing the city’s existing poetry and arts culture to more people and making it accessible. Throughout my time, I was focused on providing access to people who wouldn’t have it necessarily any other way, particularly socio-economically disadvantaged people. I didn’t charge communities and schools for visits and workshops. Just seeing people who didn’t think that poetry was for them then change and blossom was amazing.

Would you encourage other people to enter the competition in the future?
Absolutely. It’s a really great opportunity to excel and live in the moment and to celebrate where you are. It gives people a bigger platform and a louder voice and to be able to do what they love.

Lauren Kendrick

Lauren Kendrick

LAUREN KENDRICK – Poet Laureate 2024

What made you want to enter the competition in the first place?
I’ve sat in the background for a few years and just seen how important it’s been for a poet’s progression. It’s quite a developmental role, and I’ve watched different poets grow, and I thought that actually, this is a time where I could both give my time to develop and also wanted to – it felt like a good part of my poet’s trajectory.

What was the atmosphere like on the night you won?
It’s like a fire really, burning brightly. It’s a real reflection of how alive the scene is in the city. Both those who are up-and-coming and for those who are already established. In December, many previous laureates were in the room, and it was an incredible atmosphere. It felt like a real coming together of the community.

How did you feel when you heard that you’d won?
Really shocked. Quite overwhelmed. It’s such a high bar, and I think I was incredibly nervous before performing. I was very emotional reading my competition piece again, I cried the whole way through it. People said, ‘Don’t forget this emotion that you’re feeling right now.’

What opportunities are you looking for this year?
I’m really open actually. I think to explore that connection between land, food and how words have an amazing power, and sharing knowledge through that. I want to take people on a journey with me. Any link to food and poetry and how we can have a feast, physically and soulfully.

Why do you think it’s important to have this position in Peterborough?
It’s a great platform to show what’s happening and to develop what’s going on in the city. And I think those connections and seeing how previous laureates work with each other and support the scene, as well as the community at large, is important. I suppose that I will probably be able to answer this question a bit better by the end of the year!

Peterborough Legend – By Lauren Kendrick

In the land without hills
Each year the sky more distant as the soil blows away
Crumbled by ploughs dredging up the ancient forest
Fertile soil, sugary sweet because of the beets

Claggy clay from ancient slips of the Nene
Preserved ancient life of farms
Long boats, stilts and round houses
Pomegranates for Queens

Boadicea and Robin Hood to the North
Fen Tigers to the South

This land knows the secrets of our past
Prisoner of war camp
Standing ground for meat
Monks fishing in fresh springs
What Holy Well
A mansion now a hospice
Town house to hospital, now institution
The Posh play on London Road
A garage sits where once was a pig farm.
Developers flattened the Solstice
Burghley road where a Glass Onion had doors
There was a House on the borderland, fragrant, melodic
Flats inside a carcass of bricks that once held the vibrations of a planet of sound
The stumbles on concrete as we work out our tolerance

Daisy chains in parks and first kisses in graveyards
Under the bridge echoes of glass bottles clinking from underage drinking.
Teasels on the riverbank, once combed wool now feed the goldfinches

A house on the high street where a new Medusa was forced.
Building boxes, burning effigies, sowing seeds
Hi-vis friendships in sweat lounges
Resilience is here
Al fresco bathing, the best in the country, lived through a bombing last century
The underpasses house street art and poetry

Communities collaborate as Peterborough Celebrates
The cottage of culture offers space and residencies with a garden credited gold
A home of ideas and opportunity, with feasts for the bellies and soul
Community gardens sharing, healing, growing

Buildings may fall, but lay your hands on the soil
Homegrown or new, we’re a rich tapestry

True legends to me are the collectives and communities

Mural Maker – By Kat Beeton

Always moving, always a new thing
             spreading paint like gospels
that lift us out of our personal hell

making and remaking the city scape
painting over and starting again
with something that catches your eye
or shows you someone else’s mind
brings back the parts of childhood
that got you through the darker times

taking teenage rebellion and moulding it
into beauty and statements
that raise our expectations
teach us we are worth
being surrounded by spectrums
            of colour and sound
learning it’s ok to look down

as long as you remember to look up
and know we are all worth it in the end

Walter Cornelius – By Toby Wood

I’ll tell you a story about a man
Who lived without frippery or fuss;
A man with the heart of a lion
And the frame of a double-decker bus.

He was originally a son of Latvia
Then later one of us.

I speak of course of a character
Called Walter Cornelius.

He was famous for being eccentric;
Unkind citizens called him a fool;
He spent a great deal of time living in a Ford Transit
Behind the Lido swimming pool,

A place where he gained employment
Teaching children to swim and dive
And he even appeared on Blue Peter
In the year after 1975.

He bent coins, metal posts and steel railings
And reputedly appeared in a song
And on telly (who remembers Opportunity Knocks?)
All for being strong!

He held various world records
Pushing peas or even a bus;
Skipped for 90 minutes with a 48-pound chain
All for the amusement of us.

Devouring three and a half pounds of onions in two minutes;
Huge numbers of sausages he would eat

Not for gluttony but for charity,
These masticating gastronomic feats.

His attempt to fly across the Nene
Fascinated the nation.
Had the Birdman of Peterborough stunt succeeded
He’d have been frazzled in the electricity sub-station.

But in September 1983
This king of oddity and quirk
Sadly departed this mortal coil
And he did not turn up for work.

A heart attack had taken him;
Perhaps one too many sausages I fear
And his death caused many a Peterborian
To shed a private tear.

We now live in a time of austerity,
Of blandness and minimum fuss
But our lives were made cheerful and colourful
By Walter Cornelius.

This city is full of lions – By Keely Mills

This city is full of lions,
Magnificent felines everywhere you look,
Sitting still at desks, filing that account book
Standing next to you at a bus stop and the town hall
Striding down the planes of the shopping mall.
Trying to not set their pride before a fall.
Glance at the many sumptuous manes toasting,
Lying on cathedral grounds, which are full of midnight ghosting
This city is full of lions,

Don’t march on their pack, try to break their unity.
These dime a dozen kings of the jungle ignite with dignity.
Seemingly Inert and bursting with domesticity

They spring into action, no longer hidden in the streets.
Roaring about their successes as well as their defeats.
Courageous love cats parading words upon placards full of peace.
This city is full of lions,

Enduring this flat land made of sky and potential.
Making their homes whether its new or ancestral.
Connecting to the old and new through every neighbourhood.
They prowl on grasslands where gangmasters once stood.
Fiercely protecting their families from black shucks and strawbears.
Off on adventures in townships and market squares,

But be sure that these noble creatures do roam there,
This city is full of lions.

Dog walks with Mieke – By Charley Genever

The sky is a burst jewel and it shares its shatterings with us.
The cracks of light refracting on the breeze. We lead.
Mieke’s holding Sid, a worried Romanian Shepherd,
his coat a bathed shade of winter.
I’ve got Hildy, a stubborn Podenco,
more horse than dog, satellite ears,
us weird pilgrims of Nene Park.
In a time of crisis, we would share our last rolo with each other,
but we portion our affection out like treats we give the dogs,
make each other work for it. Jokes work best.
As usual, our hideously goofy laughter
reverberates like hi-hats to the beat of the falling rain.
We’ve probably scared all the wildlife away.
My sister is my best friend. Her existence is a gift.
The only person in the world who hates glitter
and yet inside she is full of it. Her joy sticks to me.
Her brilliance. Her anger flecks. All confetti.
We shared a bedroom our whole childhoods and in it
between the emo band posters and energy drink cans
scattered like leaves, we were each other’s therapy.
Lockdown’s been hard on us both.
Whatsapp and memes can only do so much.
Distance from the ones I love makes my heart eat itself.
In dog walking boots we talk over common ground.
How’s work? Have you seen the latest episode of Drag Race?

No, I’ve not got round to watching The Tiger King yet.
There’s a black spot on my soul. I think it’s sadness.
What do you think of the new BTS song?
I can’t take it anymore. It’s all so heavy.
Here’s a good spot to take a picture of the dogs.
Oh I forgot to tell you! Is that someone up ahead?
Remember when? Yeah. No. Ugh. I don’t know what to do.
I bottle things up when you’re not around.
Hildy. Sid. Stop. That. Right. Now.
Along the trim of the path, Hildy finds her spot and squats.
Our conversation turns at length to, well, poo.
What kind of poo is it? Soft poo? Runny poo?
Corrr, it stinks! Not-pick-uppable poo?
Poo with soil in? She’s always eating soil, damned dog.
Black poo? Yellow like mustard or brown like HP?
It’s not much, she already pooed once this morning.
Okay poo? An excited poo? Normal poo?
Did you get poo-nails from picking it up?
It’s mad how a bond this deep defies the grossest act.
Even when we talk about poo, what we’re really saying is
I don’t know what I’d do without you.
And on these walks between walls of trees
we make sense of things, stitch the sky back up.
In our pockets, we keep treats for when we need,
and extra bags to carry the burdens we (and the dogs) excrete.

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