‘In The Arena’ by Ian Henery

Extract taken from Overhear Poetry.

In this week’s blog post we celebrate community and creativity with poets Ian Henery and Leanne Cooper as they tell us about their work for The Arena Theatre and Newhampton Arts Centre. Not only that but, in the spirit of collaboration, we are also joined by Sam Fleming, Education and Outreach Manager at The Arena, who gives us a fascinating insight into what it’s like to be part of a venue working with an Overhear poet. We begin, sat with Sam and Ian around a table in the café of The Arena Theatre…

‘I applied for the position of Wolverhampton’s first ever poet laureate,’ Ian tells us, ‘and while I wasn’t successful (congratulations, Emma Purshouse) I did get shortlisted. Penelope Thomas – of Wolverhampton Literature Festival – got in touch and told me there was an opportunity to work with the Overhear project and I said what in God’s name is that?’ He laughs. ‘I’d never heard of the project before. So I had a Google and read about the excellent work Overhear had done with Birmingham Literature Festival and Verve and I was immediately intrigued. I replied to the email Penelope had sent and the rest, as they say, is history.’

‘I’ve done a lot of commission work in the past,’ he says, ‘I’ve done a lot of workshops, been a poet in residence; writing to a brief is something that’s very familiar to me. The guidance from Overhear was to work collaboratively, make contacts in your chosen venue and talk to them. Find out ways you can work with them to create a piece that’s useful to them as well as a creative output for you.’

Ian already had some connections with The Arena and the connected University of Wolverhampton, as he explains: ‘I was a student here, I was poetry editor for the student union publication, I was commissioned by the university for the 2012 commonwealth games and Neil Reading – Artistic Director for Arena – has seen some of my work. Last year, I was very grateful to The Arena for providing a venue for an event with an organisation I head up here in the Midlands called Poets Against Racism. We performed during the second day of Wolverhampton Literature Festival and it was absolutely rammed with people from all sectors of the community – which was brilliant.’

‘To do this project right, it seemed clear to me that I needed to visit The Arena, get in touch with the people who work here and have a conversation. I had a meeting with Sam, who is part of the outreach team at the theatre, had a chat with her about the work she does and her view of the place and that was when I started to get to the heart of what The Arena is.’

We asked Ian to elaborate.

‘In simple terms The Arena is a building,’ he says, ‘but it’s more than bricks and mortar. To say a bit more, The Arena is a former gymnasium which has become a multi-million pound state-of-the-art community hub that deals in all sorts of things,’ he holds up a printed brochure of the Arena’s Programme, ‘from films to theatre to dance to poetry – but it’s more than that too. For me, The Arena is a philosophy, an ethos, a way of doing things. It’s a set of values that Neil and Sam and the team all hold dear. It’s a mission statement, to provide a platform and an opportunity for the whole community here in Wolverhampton to have a chance to come together and celebrate the culture that is here.’

Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton

Uniquely, we have the chance to ask Education and Outreach Manager Sam first-hand about how she would define the venue:

‘The Arena is really important to the community,’ she says. ‘We’re the community theatre of Wolverhampton, I think. We do a lot of great work with so many different groups – disabled communities, refugees, the local LGBT and BAME communities – as well as putting ourselves at the heart of the university. All of that is reflected really well in the poem Ian has written, I think.’

We ask her to tell us more about what her job at The Arena entails and the outreach work that the venue does.

‘Most of what I do is community engagement and schools engagement. I work quite a lot with primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and students at the university,’ Sam explains. ‘We’ve got quite a few local companies that come along as well. There’s a local artist group that meets up every second Tuesday, where people can present and get notes on scripts that they might have been sitting on for six weeks, six months or six years and a local poetry night run by Poets, Prattlers and Pandemonialists.’ Emma Purshouse, Steve Pottinger and Dave Pitt, who make up that collective also have Overhear poems pinned to venues in Wolverhampton, which you can read more about here. ‘Their night, PASTA (Poets And Storytellers Assemble), is for local writers to share their work and get some feedback too. It’s all about setting up those safe spaces for local artists and communities.’

Sam continues: ‘At the moment we’re doing quite a lot of work with the refugee and migrant centre. The centre itself is very well hidden for the obvious reasons of protecting people from hate crimes and such but we’re now on a touring map that marks us a safe place for those folks to come when they first come to Wolverhampton,’ she says. ‘We want people to see our theatre and café as somewhere safe that they can come to with their families and embed themselves into the culture. The Light House Cinema down the road are doing something very similar too – which is a real testament to the kind of community we are.’

Ian tells us what this community means to him: ‘I owe so much to Wolverhampton. I was conceived here, my first married home was here – and not very far away from my parents’ corner shop. When I was a student at the University of Wolverhampton, I used to look out of the window and think I haven’t travelled very far. I’m nothing more than a well-developed embryo.’ He laughs before continuing. ‘I was able to convert my (next to useless) philosophy degree into a law degree here; I met my wife here… Wolverhampton means a lot to me. I wanted to give something back through poetry – the only way I know how – and Overhear was a perfect way to do that. I’m very grateful and humbled that I’ve been able to contribute to the amazing work The Arena is doing.’

He goes on to tell us more about the poem itself.

‘To write the piece, I needed a frame into which I could place all these wonderful ideas we’ve been talking about,’ Ian says. ‘The form I chose was a rondeaux, which consists of fourteen lines across three stanzas with a repeating refrain. Probably the most famous rondeaux is the WWI poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae but the problem with it (if there can be a problem with it) is that it’s a bit of a dirge. If you go back to the rondeaux’s origins in the 15th Century, it should be a piece of celebration, a piece of joy. I wanted to reclaim that for Sam and for everyone else at The Arena.’

“The Arena host’s first class shows: Performing arts, seats row on row. Champion of community, A venue where theatre grows…”

‘I was the first person to see the finished piece, which was quite an honour.’ Sam tells us, ‘I’m really happy with it. I think it reflects what The Arena does and what we’re all about really well. I believe that first meeting we had, hearing each other’s opinions, was something that really helped. It was clear pretty quickly that we valued the same things – diversity, equality, accessibility, inclusion – and that we were both keen for that to come through in the final piece.’

Ian agrees, saying ‘I think it’s important, with all the challenges that face us now, to find good people to support, good people to collaborate with, good people to stand by. There’s a lot of negative spirituality going around and it’s important for us to come together with a common cause. If this new decade is going to be defined by damaging populist politicians, we need to form an equal and opposite force for good. Creative collaboration is vital.’

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To listen to the result of Ian’s creative collaboration with The Arena Theatre and Overhear, collect his poem from the venue from 25th January using the Overhear app, available to download here.

To find out more about The Arena and their work visit their website http://arena.wlv.ac.uk

Written by Kibriya Mehrban.