Nottingham Poetry Festival's Creative Director Anne Holloway on Her Career Highlights and What You Can Expect from This Year's Festival

Interview: Bridie Squires
Illustrations: Toby Anderton
Friday 25 June 2021
reading time: min, words

As Creative Director for Nottingham Poetry Festival, founding editor of Big White Shed and a former member of Mouthy Poets, Anne Holloway has just about seen and done it all on the Notts poetry scene. She talked to Bridie Squires about her work, career and what to expect from the upcoming festival...


See Like A Poet

I watched the starling doing nothing. Just sitting on the top of the stink-pole 
in the side street off Woodborough Road.

His feathers glinted like a cheap brooch, the kind my grandmother would call costume.

Costume jewellery is the kind of jewellery that caught my eye as a child, and now, if I’m honest.
A big fat diamond has so many negative connotations these days. A lot of baggage for a bit of sparkle.

Sometimes I want to be able to see a bird and just stop at that: a starling on a stink-pole on a side street. Instead my mind goes off lickety-split, leaving me to catch up and make the connections if anyone questions, “how the hell did you get there?”

I found the stink-pole when I parked the car to visit the café where the man makes most excellent coffee, if you like coffee, but hasn’t a clue how to make a proper brew for me, a tea-drinking kind of girl.

I feel wicked harbouring these negative thoughts for a man passionate about his art, but really, it’s just a cup of coffee.

He has such an air of the regent about him and it really gets my goat. It’s just a bloody cup of coffee mate! I want to shout.

It makes me think of that time I saw a play, where John Malkovich, playing himself really, explained the art of tea-making in such a way I wanted to yell from the auditorium, for Christ’s sake John! It’s just a cup of tea.

Of course, that would have ruined the scene, so I stayed quiet. Like I do with the man, in the café, across the road from the stink-pole where the starling sits, doing nothing.

Sometimes I want to be able to see something, and just stop at that. 


How’s lockdown been treating you?
Frustration has been the overriding emotion. I’ve been lucky that I have had work coming in, so financially I have been okay, and also I have had a sense of a future to work towards. At first though I felt a kind of rage. I felt cut off from everyone and everything that kept me going, and that included poetry. I hadn’t realised how important sharing words was to me – so I grabbed a pot of blackboard paint which had been lurking under the sink for years and painted a square on the side of my shed. Then every day or so I would write a short poem on it for any passers-by to see and I shared pictures of it on Instagram with a hashtag - #APoetLivesHere. That eased the feeling of isolation and impotence.

You’re now Creative Director for Nottingham Poetry Festival. What do you hope to bring to the event? What do you want to see it become?
That was a complete bolt from the blue. Nottingham was where I found my tribe, and that tribe is a poetry tribe. Poetry can mean so many different things to people and for me I would love everyone to feel the power of that – it can be high art or it can be a ditty chanted in a playground – but bringing words together to tell stories and express emotions is what it’s all about for me – so my dream is that everyone in Notts knows that a festival of poetry is going on and feels like they are allowed to be a part of it if they choose. And if they don’t choose? Well that’s just fine. So I hope to bring energy and enthusiasm and share some of the ways that poetry has made me feel that I belong.

I’d like The Nottingham Poetry Festival to be an event that people come to from all over the country and further afield. We have had great initiatives in the past years where we have made connections globally, and being a UNESCO City of Literature really lends itself to this. At the core though I believe the festival should be owned by the people of Nottingham and involve them. Notts folk are great storytellers, so I think it should be possible.

You are founding editor of Big White Shed. Why did you set this up?
I think most of my life I have wanted to be accepted by the establishment, validated by some invisible committee – I have no idea where this comes from, but I do know that I reached a point where I thought… “hang on, who are these people anyway?” In part that realisation was down to studying creative writing and the encouragement of tutors and peers. I had a boss at Nottingham Trent Uni when I was working there running an art supplies shop, who made it possible for me to study for an English degree part time. She believed in me, so that gave me belief in myself – and my family, my kids too, believed in me, and my friends. So when I started to understand how the publishing industry worked I began to wonder why we needed to wait for the established ‘gatekeepers’ to give us permission when we could give ourselves permission. I knew so many good writers who weren’t getting published and yet had stories to tell and the ability to tell those stories well. At the same time as this realisation was occurring I met Simeon from Bantum Clothing – he said he’d rather produce clothing that a hundred people absolutely loved, than clothing that a thousand people felt ‘meh’ about. The penny dropped and I realised that we could give each other that validation – so Big White Shed was born.

Tell us about some of your experiences so far with BWS – who have you worked with? How have you worked with them?
I have to thank Chris McLoughlin and Jim Otieno-Hall for putting their trust in me right at the start. I had published my own novel and learned a lot about the process, and knew that I wanted to publish poetry, as this would work particularly well with the model I was developing. We worked together on editing and refining the manuscripts, at that stage we were trading skills – you edit mine and I’ll edit yours! 

I have worked with NG:She on an anthology of work by survivors of domestic abuse, with Nottingham Writers Studio on Black Lives anthology, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature on two separate anthologies, and they recommended me to Nottingham Castle Trust when they were looking for a local publisher to produce the new guidebook. That has been a really exciting project and I’ve been working with their really supportive team and local designer Raphael Achache on that – he’s been brilliant and we can’t wait to see the final printed version any day now.

But Big White Shed has done events as well as publishing books. Prior to COVID-times we held poetry events every few months at Debbie Bryan cafe in the Lace Market. We were given some funding by Apples and Snakes (Arts Council funded UK spoken word producers) to deliver a series of masterclasses and were honoured to be able to host The Last Poets, Malika Booker and Roger Robinson. We have also taken a group of poets on a week-long writing retreat and delivered a series of workshops called Drag Me Up with Thom Seddon and Lewis Barlow of Unnamed Drag where we explored identity through writing and learning about the history of Drag and how to drag-up. 

You are a poet in your own right. What drives you to write? And why poetry?
I see things and want to point them out to people. If nobody is with me to say, ‘look at that’, I feel like I have to write it down. That could be a bird on a lamp post, two men holding hands and dropping their hold when they realise people have seen them, or a red leaf on a green tree – moments that tell a bigger story. I think it’s about sharing with other people more than anything at all, and making sense of stuff.

Why poetry? I’m a bit of a rambler, as you can probably tell. I can talk for hours! About anything to anyone. I think poetry helps me hone in on what it is I’m really trying to say – cut the rambling, cut the fluff and be specific. My mind is so full, all the time, so poetry gives me silence, a bit of peace.

My mind is so full, all the time, so poetry gives me silence, a bit of peace

See Like a Poet is fantastic. Can you share how you approached the writing and editing process for the piece?
Thanks! That poem is a bit of insight into my scrambled brain. Someone once said a conversation with me is like verbal potholing – I just wander off down a hole and keep going. The starling was the starting point… or was it… actually the stink pole was… months before… it stayed in my head as something I wanted to share – and I had shared a picture of it on Instagram but not put it in a poem.

The poem came about during a writing exercise led by Chris McLoughlin during our Write The Poem sessions. It was something to do with compass points, and that starling on the stink pole popped into my head and as it did all the other thoughts came shouting in right after. So the editing process is about putting the thoughts into some kind of narrative order, tidying up the connections, so that a reader can follow more comfortably – if you drag your reader round too roughly you lose them. It’s also a time to allow other thoughts which may have been sitting quietly while the rowdy thoughts were carrying on, to speak-up – my grandmother’s costume jewellery was one of those – me saying to my brain, ‘Does anyone else have anything they’d like to add?’

Beyond that it was about ordering the words on the page, looking at spacing, white space for quiet moments – line endings, where do I want people to rest before moving on – punctuation, where do I want people to take a breath. Then a title. A title should add something to a poem, give my reader a bit of context before they jump in.

You were part of the Mouthy Poets leadership team for some time. What did the organisation mean to you? Can you describe what it was in your own words, for the uninitiated, from your perspective?
Mouthy Poets was a poetry collective for young people aged 16 – 26 (or thereabouts). We held weekly workshops to develop new writing and performance and show participants how to produce poetry events. Initially we worked on a voluntary basis, with the ticket money supporting running costs and The Playhouse offering the venue and their services for free - then we secured Arts Council Funding. 

Mouthy Poets was/is my family, with all that family involves. It was at times painful, but that was balanced out by a huge sense of belonging and much love. We were supported by some incredible artists here in Nottingham and from across the UK. It was a lot of hard work, planning events and workshops, applying for funding, supporting and developing young people. For some it was a weekly safe space, for some a weekly social space and for others a platform to pursue a career as a professional poet. I learned a lot about poetry, developing an organisation, developing myself and other people. Mouthy was a space to grow.

Nottingham Poetry Festival has some events coming up this month. Can you tell us about what to expect?
COVID put an end to a lot of the community activity that had been planned for Festival in 2020 and the team had to cancel a lot of their plans and shift activity online - so we wanted to build on those plans and get back to seeing some of our followers face to face again. 

On Saturday 29 May we are hosting a Word Walk led by GOBS poetry collective. They will lead some writing activity which will generate poetry to produce a zine which will be available at a second event on Sunday June 27 at Antenna – a proper party atmosphere with poetry and music, some live and some online (for those who may not yet feel confident about attending live events).  We’re also working on a film to celebrate the Poetry Festival so far, because we’ve been going for six years now and that is definitely something to celebrate.

Was there anything else you wanted to say to the LeftLion readers?
Just that we are all poets. A poem isn’t a certain number of words or lines or stanzas. A poem is a moment noticed and sometimes shared. Some of us use words, some of us use images, music or song, paint or chalk or food, or a mobile phone, or kicking a ball, or swimming or smiling at someone on the street. It’s all about connecting. And for some people a poem might be getting out of bed and letting their feet connect with the floor. 

Nottingham Poetry Festival has events running throughout June. For more information and to book tickets, visit their website

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