Borderlines: young poets respond to borders

On 29 March 2019, the date on which the UK was expected to leave the EU, fourteen centres from across Europe organised simultaneous gigs showcasing the responses of young poets to the theme of borders.

Spoken word legend Joelle Taylor and Bristol-based arts organisation boomsatsuma are behind the Borderlines project, bringing young people across Europe together: from Middlesbrough to Athens, Manchester to Helsinki, London to Lisbon. In fourteen centres writers aged 18-25 took part in spoken word workshops and wrote new work on the theme of borders – psychological, geographical, cultural and more – ahead of their performances on 29 March. All the gigs were live-streamed, meaning that each centre was in conversation with the other thirteen across Europe.

We were at the Borderlines event at the University of East London, hosted by Joelle Taylor. Throughout the night we witnessed breath-taking performances from SLAMbassadors Tane Stevens, Abi Cook, Leila Jacob, Precious Olisokafor, Joshua Eyakware; Foyle Young Poets Jasmine Simms, Natalie Steinhouse and Helen Bowell; and UEL students Terri Foreman and Muhamed Badjie. One poet, Natalie, joined us via video from Italy. She even took part in a group poem, reading the first third of a poem which Muhamed and Helen would finish.

In February and March, these poets had taken part in two workshops and a day of rehearsals with Joelle Taylor. The poems they shared addressed all kinds of borders within the body, society, relationships, gender and cultural identities.

Muhamed Badjie kick-started the gig with a poem created through the workshops, about “how I see myself as an outsider in my own life”. It opened: “Let me tell you a story about a young black boy who wanted to be white.” And we were off. Before he began, though, he summed up the feeling of the evening, saying, “Thank you for coming, especially you, Europe – thank you for coming.”

After Muhamed, we heard from the brilliant Tane Stevens, who treated us to a contrapuntal poem (a poem which can be read in lots of different ways). Jasmine Simms then stunned the audience with a poem characterising Brexit as a horse and a series of extracts about the children she teaches and their views of borders. Joelle Taylor gave an emotional performance of ‘Everything You Have Ever Lost’, in memory of SLAMbassador PACE, and Helen Bowell followed this with a series of poems about being half-Cantonese.

Abi Cook’s set took us on a journey from abuse and the border between herself and her body, to a beautiful resolution. Terri Foreman had the audience in hysterics with her poem set on Brexit Block, featuring characters Jack Union and ‘Theresa May’ re-imagined as an ‘Essex girl’.

joshua eyakware performing

We ended with three of our most recent SLAMbassadors. First, Leila Jacob stunned us with heart-wrenching poems about loss, Grenfell Tower and identity. Next, Precious Olisaokafor confidently performed her poetic speeches on immigration and racism. The evening ended with two stunning raps from Joshua Eyakware on Brexit and social inequalities, and a Star Wars themed spoken word piece that explored celebrity culture.

You can watch the whole of the London performance here (content warning: Abi Cook’s set from 59:00 – 1:16:00 contains explicit references to sexual abuse and violence).

As well as the concurrent performances across the EU, Borderlines have curated an online exhibition of poems and spoken word responding to borders, from young poets across the world. Watch these videos here – and look out for Foyle Young Poet Laura Potts, SLAMbassadors commended poet Fionn McCloskey, and Foyler and YPNer Rachel Lewis, as well as the nine poets who featured in the London gig.

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