We spoke to award-winning poets and creative duo behind Out-Spoken - Anthony Anaxagorou and Joelle Taylor - about the journey that Out-Spoken Live has made since it was established in 2012. From pub back-room to a twelve month residency at the iconic Southbank Centre - what's behind the incredible success of Out-Spoken?
"Out-Spoken has been my ‘go-to’ event over the last few years. It reminds me of what it means to be human and what hope feels like. It's the gold standard of poetry nights across our city and country and it's where the best poets of our time come to have fun and to play. It provides a safe space for artists to express themselves and for audiences to cherish and revere their words. It's so exciting. Each time I go, I feel renewed.” Madani Younis, Creative Director, Southbank Centre
Out-Spoken has been on quite the journey since it was established in 2012 by poet and curator Anthony Anaxagorou. From humble beginnings as a bi-monthly night in an underground space at The Forge pub in Camden, last month Out-Spoken made its debut in the first of a 12 month residency at the prestigious Southbank Centre, the largest arts centre in Europe. And in making this lofty step, it did so in its trademark eclectic fashion, just as anybody who has ever attended an Out-Spoken show over the past 7 years has grown to expect and love.
“With a night like Out-Spoken, you want as much energy from your audience as possible. What that opening night at Southbank Centre said to me was that we’re in good hands.” Anthony told us. “The audience were lively and responsive, attentive and energetic – and for me that’s the biggest thing. That alleviated any reservations I might have had about going into such a prestigious venue which was so different from the venues the night has previously been hosted in. The artists on stage were loved and appreciated and received well – that’s always great to see.”
For host Joelle Taylor, inviting the Out-Spoken audience to the venue for the coming year was a huge step, not least because there are 300 seats in the venue’s beautiful Purcell Room to be filled each month. “There is a lot of weight behind playing here,” she said. “What Southbank Centre wanted – and what we wanted – was to bring what we have already been doing into the space, to transform it and make it into a more radical space.”
It’s safe to say Out-Spoken has come a long way since the first night the pub doors opened up to an eager audience seven years ago, just under three miles and a whole world away from Southbank Centre. What remains is the same vision, passion, and pursuit of the very best in contemporary spoken word and music.
“I wanted to create a space which was kind of cabaret, kind of Jools Holland – a showcase where you’re giving space to artists who are emerging, alongside those who are more established,” Anthony explains about his vision for the night all those years ago. “Poetry is so vast – and by giving space to a variety of people working in theatre, poetry, and page, I wanted to achieve a holistic space where there wasn’t discrimination towards any one style of writing. We would give space to it, as long as it was good.”
Rising demand saw Out-Spoken grow and move from venue to bigger venue, picking up its current host Joelle Taylor along the way. The pair first met back in 2002, when the young Anthony Anaxagorou entered a poem into Slambassadors, the UK youth slam poetry awards founded by Taylor. Over time, the two became friends, and when Joelle was invited to perform at Out-Spoken years later, she was “blown away by the quality of artists on, and also the number of people who had come to see it. It had a buzzing, young, dynamic yet also intellectual kind of vibe to it.”
From there, Out-Spoken has continued to develop into one of the most innovative brands in the poetry scene and beyond. The team tours all over the country, bringing along their favourite poets and musicians. They have opened their own publishing house, with collections and poetry from some of the best writers in the country including Raymond Antrobus and Sabrina Mahfouz. Their Out-Spoken Prize for Poetry has recognised and shone a light on the most talented rising stars across all poetry disciplines. “This is punk rock. It’s doing it for yourself, and making things happen,” Joelle tells us. She’s absolutely right.
So how does poetry, fired by punk rock energy, make it to Southbank Centre stage?
The pair both attribute the success of Out-Spoken to the incredible team who make it happen every month. Producer Tom McAndrew brings a wide background in arts education and fundraising, vital in anchoring and shaping ideas into an achievable reality. Karim Kamar brings his incredible talent as a musician and classical composer in programming the music acts, and Sam ‘Junior’ Bromfield is the night’s resident DJ, playing a crucial role in gearing up the audience each evening.
But even to a well-drilled team, a new environment can bring with it new challenges, and potentially a brand new type of audience – something the team were understandably cautious about when stepping into a venue at the forefront of British art and culture.
“Obviously we were overjoyed to be offered this opportunity. But it was so important for us to make sure we were taking our audience with us from those underground spaces into this incredible venue,” Joelle says.
And that’s exactly what appears to have happened. On the resounding success that was the first night at the Southbank, a lot of the eyes looking on at the stage belonged to familiar faces, Anaxagorou told us. “These are people who have been coming to the night for years – and bringing them with us to this space was really affirming.”
The significance was also not lost on Joelle. “Gathering people in a space like Southbank Centre is a direct challenge to dominant ideology at the moment – which encourages us all to be ever more passive in the face of incredible cruelty and austerity.
“So when we gather together and we manage to have conversations and allow other ideas to take hold, we spread messages from other parts of the world, and we create this idea of a common language – that’s an act of revolution, its real radical, cultural revolution. We are owning our language again, we are owning our literature and poetry, and trying to create bridges rather than walls – that in itself is an act of great courage and defiance.
“We want to test the boundaries and to see where we can take it and what else we can create.”
High Quality Curation
With the success of Out-Spoken growing by the show, it’s no surprise that aspiring curators and poets regularly come to the team for advice about how to set up their own spoken word event. How do you put on a show as impactful as Out-Spoken? As Anthony says, “it’s all about the curation.”
“I’m constantly thinking along innovative lines – what can I do to ham it up a bit, what can I do to change it. What can I play with and what can I do to progress it?
“Make the quality of the night paramount,” he emphasises. “As a curator your job is to create a platform and an experience for others to enjoy. Pay artists properly by having a good financial model that you can rely on. And invite artists that aren’t just all within your proximity – you need to do your homework. You need to be familiar with artists who are writing really amazing books, but also those from different disciplines, working in theatre or writing incredible dramatic monologues or whatever it is. People putting on a good night are getting their finger to the pulse of who the movers and shakers are – having a really exciting line up is tantamount.”
Joelle agrees. Above all, she says, “be adventurous, be spirited, take some risks, and have a lot of fun – it makes it easier.”
The raw energy and undeniable fun the team are having as they dance along to musical performances is infectious.
Madani Younis, Creative Director at Southbank Centre, has been going to Out-Spoken since the beginning of its story in The Forge. It was he and Head of Literature at Southbank Centre, Ted Hodgkinson, who approached Anthony and the team with the idea of bringing the event into the space.
“For me, spoken word is the most revolutionary art form of our time.” Younis told us. “It's unadulterated and unfiltered and people are hungry for it. This is why I'm beyond excited that Out-Spoken has taken up a year-long residency with us at Southbank Centre, where we're home to the National Poetry Library the largest collection of modern poetry in the world, where we champion spoken word and where we bring people together to celebrate great art. It's a perfect match and I can't wait to see how audiences will be inspired over the next year."
Building on the momentum of their first residency show, where they welcomed renowned and celebrated poets and musicians like Inua Ellams and Fiona Bevan to the stage, the team have compiled an eclectic and brilliant programme of artists to perform over the course of the next 12 months. It will be sure to keep Southbank Centre abuzz with same energy that took over The Forge pub seven years earlier.
“Everyone we have got coming on to read in the next year I’m excited about,” Anthony glows. “They are all going to teach me something new – I’m going to learn and discover. That’s what it’s about.”
The next offering of Out-Spoken at Southbank Centre's Purcell Room is Thursday 20 June and will see Sabrina Mahfouz, Ilya Kaminsky and Kei Miller take the stage to share their words. With soulful sounds from Gabriella Vixen and Lloyd Llewellyn.