Oli Nicol is a prominent member of the Nottingham Literary community: he is the host of Invoke Poetry workshops and is also on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature Youth Board. We spoke to him about why he started the workshops, which he launched in 2022, his passion for poetry and plans for the future…
How do you structure the workshops, is it as a development session for writers or is it just for people to share their works?
So, I didn’t want it to be me standing at the front of a room lecturing people on ‘this is poetry’, ‘this is what it is’, I wanted it to be open range so that people can share their ideas. I’ll be showing them poems which they might have read before, poems they might not have even seen before from writers they have never heard of and poets they have heard of but they have never read. We typically have two poems and each poem feeds into an activity of writing and I always try to choose two poems from different periods and writer’s backgrounds. Typically there will be one pre 1800s poem, typically your Byron or Tennyson and then we’ll do one which is Postmodernism which is more modern and what people would consider more accessible. Just so there is a variety of what poetry can be and it is always centred around a certain theme. January’s theme was new year, new starts and new beginnings. We had a winter theme in December and so instead of it being ‘this is a sonnet, let’s write a sonnet’ it is more this is a theme - how does this relate to your life and how can you put that into words?
With the people that come to the workshops, where do they find you? Are they students, are they published poets?
I do the workshops with the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, so they run other creative writing events throughout the year, so a lot of people find us through that. What is different with our poetry sessions is we do them monthly, so it is guaranteed that every month there will be a poetry workshop. People will come along regularly each month which prompts me to make it fresh every time and to make each one as different as I can. There has been a big variety of people, people who have published works and go to open mic nights to perform their poetry and then we have people who have never written or read a poem in their life since GCSEs. The best part of it is, by the end of the workshop, everyone will have written something no matter what their ability or skill. Most of the time they will share it in the group which is a big part of what we push for, it’s a safe space, there is no bad poetry, there’s no such thing. It is just so nice to see people who have never shared poems or who are shy, sharing their poetry.
Why did you start Invoke Poetry?
I was offered the opportunity by the Nottingham Writers’ Studio to hold monthly workshops after speaking to them about my passion for poetry. We had a meeting and they said I could have free reign to do workshops on poetry in my way and they said they wanted it to be monthly. The workshops have been running since June 2023 and I’d never done anything like it before. Each month was a new stepping stone for me and I made it clear in the first few sessions that it was my first time doing something like this and I asked for feedback which was generally pretty good. I have to thank two people for helping me set up the workshops, that would be Ben Macpherson, anything literary based in Nottingham - he’s there, and Ashley Hickson-Lovence who does a lot of workshops, he is the author of The 392 and Your Show and he was on the Notts TV Book Club and he said he would send me a few of the resources he had which was such a big help because it just gave me a template. Ben gave me workshop sessions where he showed me how he did his and advised me to do mine how I wanted. This ended up being a merge of what they had both taught me and also me going off on my own and learning something new every month.
Everyone ends up sharing something in the session as well, which is always nice as we encourage sharing, but we don’t force it
Do you think people were comforted by your openness about your lack of experience with holding workshops?
I feel like it is misconceived that poetry is this rigid and certain thing which only certain people can write and I always tell people: “Everything that I am telling you is just a guide, it's just something to provoke you, you can hate and despise what I am telling you, you can despise the poems that I hand you but as long as that’s fueling an emotion or some response from you, you can channel it into a poem.”
Do you think the setup is similar to a seminar?
I try to make it not feel like that as much as possible, I don’t want people to think that my opinions are necessarily something they should be learning from. Some people will know a poem and know something about the poem that I didn’t know and didn’t find out when I was researching for the session. I’m there to guide people, but people can bring their own knowledge to it, everyone gets their own space to share. It’s just a first step into a poem and you can go away and finish it off, everyone ends up sharing something in the session as well which is always nice, we encourage sharing, but we don’t force it.
Do you write a lot yourself?
When I set the activities off, I always offer if anyone needs a hand or needs help on their writing style then I’ll come and talk to them but usually people are scribbling away. So, I’ll be doing the same. Usually while I’m planning the session, I’ll already have an idea of what I am going to write and then the session gives me the space and the time to start writing it.
Most of the time they will share it in the group which is a big part of what we push for, it’s a safe space, there is no bad poetry, there’s no such thing
Do you think you would ever collate your works together and publish them into an anthology?
Looking to the future of what we are going to do, we are in talks of setting up a monthly Invoke Poetry open mic night. I don’t want it to be the same crowd, every week, reading the same every time, I want it to be that people can come along to these open mics and it is like a ‘my first open mic night’. You can experiment with what you want to do, you can share in a supportive space. I don’t want people to be nervous or scared. This would also be at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, so hopefully this month we can get it sorted and then looking to February and March we’ll get it set up. After that, my aim is, when we hit the year mark in June, I’m going to see if people will send in their poems which they have written in the workshops. Each week has its own theme so I’m thinking it would be an anthology organised by theme. That’s another thing which has also been really nice, you give people the same prompt but what they create and what they write is completely different and it’s really nice.
What poetry are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Department of Lost Wishes by Henry Normal. As you can imagine, I get a lot of poetry books for Christmas so this was one of those. It’s witty poetry, it’s good and I really like the short ones. That’s the collection I’m reading right now.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
The first Thursday of every month is when we hold workshops and I’d love it if more people wanted to join. We’re on Eventbrite and you can get a ticket there or you can pay on the day as well. You can follow our Instagram page at @invoke_poetry. We’re hopefully going to do open mic and a zine collection this year so that’s something to look out for.
Get involved by heading to Invoke Poetry's workshops at The Carousel on the first Thursday of every month
We have a favour to ask
LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?