In what we hope to be a regular feature in Great Central, one of our writers sits down with someone doing something inspirational in the city, and talks through what they’re up to…

GC’s Jodie Hannis sits down with Jenny Hibberd to talk about her visionary project, House of Verse, which in two short years has become Leicester’s most inclusive regular cultural happening. Best described as a wildly diverse variety show, it acts as both community and platform to a whole host of both established and up and coming artists.

GC: I feel like HoV becomes something slightly different in each venue.

JENNY: Exactly. I really try and guard that intrinsic HoV feeling but at the same time adapt to the lovely venues that we find. And as you said, each one has such a different vibe but at the same time we always have that welcoming family feeling when you’re inside.

I didn’t realise that the first one that you did was more like an interactive art installation.

Yes, it was an exhibition. I really realised that poetry seems to be not that accessible when it’s just read, when it’s just a poem on a page. So I created these four different moments. Each one was a physically interactive and involving thing so I tried to make it more accessible for everyone. You would be physically involved in the reception so you would be active in your mind as well as in your body. You have to do the task if you want to experience it.

Because most people’s introduction to poetry is having to read it in a GCSE English class. 

Yeah! And I didn’t like poetry at school. It just didn’t connect with me, I didn’t understand it and why it was such a big deal. And I couldn’t write. The way it was taught didn’t compel me to be excited about language or understand why people wrote poetry.

So what was it that changed it for you?

When I started university, I spent two months living alone and studied meditation. Basically one day something shifted and all this poetry just fell out of my brain. I was just like… okay, so that’s what all that noise was!

You’ve got this full programme of events for HoV but you’re a very successful poet (as Hibword) in your own right as well. Is it hard to balance those two things?

Oh, it’s super hard. At the moment I’m slowly finding a kind of see-saw equilibrium but it’s a tough one because I’m trying to manage a business which is a collective and a platform. Trying to balance exploring myself as a performer concurrent with exploring the business and its prospects has been crazy because it’s two whole, huge entities.

Each one has its own life and each one takes up so much time that actually, I’ve realised that you just have to make time for the things you really enjoy doing. Otherwise I’m not fulfilling everything that I need to do. And actually, these things can feed each other. Each side can inspire the other.

Of course. They’re completely intertwined. You as an individual performer can have an impact on the people who see you. You can connect with them and inspire them to start writing themselves. But then HoV is the other side of that which is that it is this platform so they can do it themselves.

Exactly. And then they will inspire me in turn and I’ll probably go away and create lots of things from their energy. One of the core values of HoV is… you know, I’m going to read it from here because it’s absolutely what I wanted it to be:

‘The HoV show is presented in off-beat and open minded ways in an attempt to expel social stigmas and inhibitions so that everyone feels welcome uninhibited and included.’

That is it. The whole point is that everyone has got a voice and everyone is allowed to have their voice heard and no one is forgotten and everyone has their place. And even if you think your thought is futile and silly… it’s not. You had a thought. So it’s totally welcome.

And this is a great city for that. If people feel like they need to work on their craft or practice before they get up on a big stage then Leicester’s the perfect place to do that. 

Leicester is just so rich. The talent base, skills, artists, culture and diversity here is just magnificent, we have so much to give. We just need to create that space and have that possibility. I was speaking to my friend and they were saying that HoV isn’t just a night, it’s a feeling. It’s like a mind opener, you know? There’s an amazing quote I have from my friend Simon. He said ‘Jenny, I had to convince my friend to come because he didn’t want to and by the end of HoV he was writing his first piece of spoken word poetry.’ That makes me so happy.

Well, it goes to show how important these events are. Everyone that I’ve spoken to has said that in the last five or six years something has just shifted. When a small layer of things start happening, it can grow. 

Exactly. This city has so much potential. There are so many spaces that are untapped and so many people that are undiscovered. And the whole point is to give them this safe, supportive audience and this exposure.

I’ve realised how engaged people are. And how many people were just waiting for something like this because I had been to other nights – music, poetry, rap, beat boxing – but I don’t think I’d ever seen something that’s so melded as this. We have a classical storyteller then all of a sudden there’s a hip hop clan. I think there’s so much magic when there’s collaboration and crossover between genres.

Handmade Festival in April was no small thing was it? You curated an entire stage of completely different artists for the evening.

That was so cool. It was our first commission.

Is that where you’re hoping to take HoV?

I’d like to do more shows around Leicester and find these untapped venues and then ideally take it to a few different festivals next year. We’ve been asked already to come back to Handmade, which will be amazing.

At the moment I’m working with a mentor who’s helping me to put together packages for different sectors like businesses or education. We would be their entertainment for a party or maybe we could put on some team building and confidence boosting workshops, stuff like that. Because we have this mind set that everyone’s got a voice and that this is a supportive platform where no one feels intimidated, I want to take that and spread that through the whole of everything.

God, it’s so important isn’t it? I don’t think of it as time wasted or anything but so many people I know have come to performing a bit later because things happen when you’re ready for them to happen. But at the same time I think, if I had been exposed to something like this when I was 16….

I don’t even know what I would have done. I think it would have changed everything about my mind because, I’m not saying I would have had revelations straight away, but it would have definitely planted seeds.

The hugest problem I had when I was younger was this constant need to want to fit in and have friends because I was constantly scared of being alone. But actually, you shouldn’t be scared of being alone because that’s where I found who I am. Now, I’ve reverted back to how I was when I was seven, where I’ll happily chase a balloon around a field and climb a tree then follow a monkey. You magnetise people who have a similar energy to you when you are just doing your own thing and that’s so valuable to learn.

And that’s what HoV shows. I think you describe it as a tribe and I really see that. You can’t chose your family and to a certain extend you don’t always chose your friends but then you get involved in certain things and find yourself surrounded by incredible people.

Exactly. I’m going to start a meet up for HoV where if you’ve come to an event but you’re too intimidated to come and say hi to the tribe then you can come and hang out with us and share your inspiration. It will be so cool to have socials and just get everyone together. There’s so much potential for collaboration. I have some other words I wrote down…

‘Communication, collaboration, skill share and support.’

There’s so much potential for this community to build. And for it not just to be a show. It’s an actual full blown collective.

Do you think you would like to see HoV expand so that you could have a team to help you run all of this?

Absolutely, yes. I’ve got big dreams for it. I’d really like to take it further. So when we’ve taken it to lots of places in Leicester, it would be really cool to branch out to other cities.

One of the ideals as well is to teach people how to put on events and how to run their own collectives. In the future, hopefully I’ll be able to package it so I can actually sell the license to use HoV as a name and as a brand.

It’s hilarious how I’ve just fallen into this. I’ve gone through this strange, twisty journey and have ended up doing all these things that I’d never thought I’d do. And I’m like, is this real? Is this real life?

House of Verse is hitting various locations around Leicester this autumn. 

Catch them at Basement with Poetry Brothel on 17th September, The Y Theatre for Haunted House of Verse on 29th October and at The Cookie on 26th November.

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