The company (Workers of Art) began in 2010 with the ambition to create events that were sited at the heart of the community and that aimed to engage the widest possible audience – from traditional lovers of the arts, right through to those who felt that the arts were not for the likes of them.
Poetry events in Canterbury were few and far between and audiences almost non-existent. We warned by some of the larger cultural organisations not to touch poetry with a barge pole if we wanted to succeed.
Between 2010-2012 we designed and produced an annual weeklong event called Poetry City. Each year we commissioned poet John Siddique to spend a week in the city talking to people about their hopes, concerns and experiences of living in Canterbury. He then wrote a poem inspired by these discussions that was then projected onto the outside of the historic Westgate Towers. For the week of this event, other artists would use the city (it’s streets, gardens, coffeeshops and the river) as the canvas for their own poetry inspired responses to his work and their own engagement with the community.
In 2012 Arts Council England encouraged us to explore how this community focused and very site specific work might travel to another location and so we took it to Margate where Lemn Sissay became the poet in residence and we projected his poem onto the outside of the new Turner Contemporary gallery for the opening of their first Turner exhibition.
In 2013 our funders became excited by the way we were managing to connect with new audiences for the arts and challenged us to transform Poetry City into the more ambitious and more structured format of a festival – without losing what we had learn’t about engaging diverse audiences. Poetry City became the Wise Words Festival.
Over the years the Wise Words Festival has grown in ambition, has expanded it’s audience and established itself as a much loved event within Canterbury’s cultural calendar. In 2014, Jane Gardam became our first Festival Patron and in 2017 we were delighted that Lemn Sissay agreed to become our second. Headliners over years have included Jane Gardam, Simon Armitage, Sir Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Tempest, George the Poet, Roger McGough, Holly Mcnish and of course Lemn Sissay.
Rather than aiming to become bigger, we want to focus our energy on becoming better. The small, intimate venues are part of what makes Wise Words so special. Providing a stage for emerging artists alongside those who have national and international success is important to – as is offering a space for new ideas, new shows, and work that artists don’t have the chance to try elsewhere.
Wise Words has captured the hearts of many people with audience members returning year after year, children saying that the festival has awoken a love of words within them, adults letting us know that it has changed their perception of poetry. One person who stumbled across the festival at a dark time in their life, deciding to go home to Europe, resign from their job and start their own version of Wise Words.
Developing artists as been at the core of our work since our inception in 2010 and an integral part of building a strong poetry scene in Canterbury. Artists that we have supported have gone on to become members of the Roudhouse Collective and the Barbican Young Poets, have written and toured their own shows, have had their poems published and become semi-finalists at the Hammer and Tongue Nation Slam Championships.
In 2013, supported by the Arts Council’s Strategic Touring Fund we delivered a project that aimed to engaged young people across Kent through spoken word. This year long project resulted in the development of Word Out, a group of young poets who wanted to explore the writing and performing of poetry further.
In 2015 we formalised our Artist mentoring programme for those who were outgrowing Word Out and created the Rough Cut Collective. The Rough Cut collective is a community of emerging poets who, through creating work together and in partnership with Wise Words, develop the skills, experience, networks and opportunities that give them the opportunity to shape not only their own careers as poets but ultimately the wider poetry scene here in Canterbury. Our ambition is that artists graduate from the collective having the confidence to go out into the world and fulfil each of their unique potentials.
We see poetry as more than entertainment. We believe in its ability to act as an agent for change: reaching across differences, inspiring a sense of social responsibility, bearing witness to the diversity and complexity of human experience and helping us to imagine a better world. Our experience has shown that the reading, writing and performing poetry can help on life’s journey.
Increasingly, poetry is being used to promote and sustain health and wellbeing. Reading and reflecting on poems – and writing in response – is a way of connecting with the self and others at a profound level.
We have worked with many groups including young people in care, young refugees, adults with mental health issues and those who feel isolated within the communities where they live. We have also delivered CPD for poets to support them in leading this work. Many of these sessions have been led by trained poetry therapist Victoria Field.
Additional Programmes of work
Alongside the above, we have designed and delivered work with many partners for many different client groups. This work has included CPD for teachers and artists; designing and delivering conferences in partnership with The Map Consortium, running regular events such as monthly slam nights and designing cultural strategies for councils and developers. We have also delivered many programmes that engage parents in supporting the development and wellbeing of their children through active storytelling and poetry.