Deep in the Belly of Your City: On the Gobjaw Poetry Collective.

Michael Kabasele pays tribute to Gobjaw’s poetry open mics, a vital part of London’s grassroots arts scene.

Photos by @sickacidpuppies unless otherwise stated | Words by Michael Kabasele

The nearest Overground station is Surrey Quays. With my years in Cornwall still fresh in my memory, this name conjures up romantic images of the wind-swept sea, even though I have just gotten off the train in an industrial corner of South East London. I run through the setlist in my head again. Practising the poems on my own never seems to fully prepare me for reading them in front of people, even if some of them are people I know. Excitement mixes in with the pre-open-mic-shakes I always get. Kate, one of the longest standing members of Gobjaw (it was established in 2019, with Kate joining the crew in 2020) feels similarly nervous, even in the poetic community she has found nurturing to her art.

As I walk towards The Avalon, there’s a stretch where it looks easily as if I could have gone the wrong way. It is quiet as I walk past the Millwall F.C. Stadium, and there doesn’t seem to be much — if anything — lining the street. I feel as if I have a terrific secret, as if finding the event in the first place finally makes me ‘a real poet’. One of the only hints of the quietly bustling art-life that thrums through the veins of this unassuming corner is the graffiti on the walls of the warehouses. Another hint is a board, sprouting mushroom-like out of the ground, that is a palimpsest of past and future gig announcements at another nearby haunt: Venue MOT. The word ‘Orion’ peeks through. Paper and old sticky tape flutter in the wind. Just a little further.

A couple hundred metres later, The Avalon Café abruptly lands with a thud into my sight. Here is one of the places where the art-lives of a few dozen people get tossed together in the metaphorical tumble dryer of the poetry open mic format, creating one lovely, steaming, Gobjaw-scented load of laundry.

‘Gobjaw-scented?’ I hear you ask dubiously, perhaps unaware that each poetry open mic in London has its own distinctive smell. Lewie, one of Gobjaw’s founders, explains that the scent would be ‘chutzpah’, because we’re ‘determined, sassy, and have a can-do attitude’. He flips his feather boa.

Gobjaw Poetry Collective is an incomprehensible idea, an artistic community, and the name that gets slapped on a regular open mic night at The Avalon Café in Bermondsey. There are quite a few regulars, although I always spot many fresh faces each month as well. There is also a zine series that welcomes everyone who reads at a Gobjaw Open Mic to submit one of their poems. The ‘goblins’ themselves are busy and artistically diverse, with subtypes ranging ‘musician’ to ‘printmaker’ to ‘tattoo artist’, though they gather here under the banner of poetry. There are many things I could tell you about Gobjaw but the more I list, the more it strikes me that the poetry is alive, and more than the sum of its parts. When asked what exactly encapsulates Gobjaw, Stavros (one of the goblins) floundered for a few minutes before sending me a link to a video of bored-looking humanities students at a rave with the caption ‘this but in an art museum’. Well, the Tate is getting quite tired.

To return to describing what exactly the Gobjaw parts are: the open mic nights have a sign-up time from 6pm, which in art-time means approximately 6:20pm. The first host of the night will start to herd the poets (and the non-practicing friends they brought for moral support) into the café before kicking off the readings roughly an hour or so later. The poetry reading happens in two halves, to allow a long smoke-and-drink break. After all the poets have read and the zines have been sold, people gradually disperse into the pitch-black night. A few stragglers stick around until The Avalon closes its doors. Then, with a ‘whoosh’, the last goblins are scattered back to their homes, dotted around the city.

The stage set for Gobbing | Photo by Michael Kabasele

But what makes Gobjaw smell like Gobjaw? There is an undeniable distinctive scent to all of the regular poetry events in London. To give a couple more examples: Fresh Lip smells like a warm blue cloud, and Blue Shout smells like a beloved chain-smoking grandfather’s flat cap. Perhaps a peek into the mind of a Gobjaw poet would help answer the question: Medb is a ‘deeply horribly introspective yearning restless person’ who is fascinated by the mundane, and who writes the everyday into poetry. Elvis Presley also makes an appearance in her poetry— the ‘everyday’ does not particularly need to be temporally accurate when one is a poet. Medb feels her poems end naturally, similarly to songs.

I wasn’t being serious about finally answering the question of what makes Gobjaw smell like Gobjaw (that was your fault for expecting a straight answer out of a poet), and will elaborate on a non-answer I already gave: Gobjaw is an incomprehensible idea, and you need to see it to believe it. As for how it functions, Kaisa (another goblin) ‘went full goblin mode’ once Gobjaw was made into a collective, and says that all of our contributions are amplified through the community. The only real requirement for being a Gobjaw poet is to see ‘it’ enough times that ‘it’ starts to see ‘you’. At least, that’s what I did.

‘Deep In The Belly Of Your City’ is a reference to a piece of writing Michael Kabasele made to promote the release of her first book and its launch event. You can find the full text here Follow Gobjaw at @gobjawpoetrycollective.

‘This Is My Goddamn Poem, And I Make The Rules: A Poet’s Manifesto’ is available directly from Michael Kabasele via DM to @artbyradish or at an in-person Gobjaw event. You can also buy it from an actual real shop: The Common Press in Shoreditch.