Apples and Snakes was founded in 1982 by Mandy Williams, Pete Murry and Jane Addison, as a development of Worthless Words, a writers’ collective that had been active in south London since the 1970s.
Whereas Worthless Words’ shows had been showcases for the members of the group, Apples and Snakes aimed to present a wider spectrum of poets, and a weekly programme of shows was initiated at a London pub called the Adams Arms. Early flyers describe these events as ‘poetic cabaret’, and billings usually included music acts as well as artists who were arguably more comedians than poets. These were boundary-blurring times, though – Apples and Snakes being part of a wave of radical entertainment that was springing up in Britain at a time of social austerity and political unrest. Like many of these other events, Apples and Snakes was initially funded by the left-wing Greater London Council.
The nights quickly outgrew the original venue and moved to another pub – the first of a series of moves, as it turned out. Mandy Williams – who was by now running operations with a committed team of volunteers – handed over the reins to Paul Beasley in 1986, shortly before the shows found a longer-term home at Covent Garden Community Centre. This was a time of gradual expansion for the organisation, as it secured new sources of funding and took the first steps from being a voluntary to a professional body.
Paul and his successor Ruth Harrison introduced a jazzy element to the proceedings, and initiated the annual Apples and Snakes Jazz-Poetry Festival. They also established a number of national tours, often showcasing visiting international artists, and in 1992 launched the successful Poets in Education Scheme that opened up new opportunities beyond the realm of live performance.
In 1994, Apples and Snakes moved both its HQ and its regular shows to Battersea Arts Centre. This coincided with the early days of spoken-word theatre and full length solo poetry shows, as performance poetry sought to expand whatever boundaries it may have had. A&S’s programming accordingly took on a more theatrical bent – performance artists rubbing shoulders with poets on bills that might previously have involved comedians or jazz musicians.
The organisation – by this time funded by Arts Council England – celebrated the new millennium by launching its first website, and by looking to establish new contexts for live poetry. Aisle 6 (at Asda) and Bus Jam (on London Transport double-deckers) are two of the most fondly remembered examples. Now under the directorship of Geraldine Collinge, Apples and Snakes celebrated its twenty-first anniversary with a series of high-profile events – including a one-off return to the Adams Arms – and the publication of its most ambitious anthology, Velocity.
Although the activities of Apples and Snakes had never been wholly confined to London, their regional events had largely been tour dates and one-off forays. In 2002, however, it secured funding to open the first of a series of regional offices, engaging Steve Carroll as its East Midlands coordinator. This was soon followed by other offices, each of which established its own programme of shows and artist development initiatives. Since 2013, there has been a permanent A&S office in each of Arts Council England’s regions.
With the profile of performance poetry now boosted by the proliferation of slams, festival stages and the opportunities afforded by the internet, Apples and Snakes now found itself in an increasingly busy market-place. Whilst still maintaining a busy schedule of regular live events, the organisation focused its attention on larger-scale national projects, particularly youth work. The quadrennial Word Cup slam, and 2012’s Shake The Dust season – both of which engaged with hundreds of young people across England – are the most prominent example of this.
Steered into the 2010s by Lucy Crompton-Reed and subsequently the twin guidance of Lisa Mead and Robert Saunders, Apples and Snakes continues to push performance poetry and spoken word into uncharted territory, by nurturing new talent, commissioning new work and creating opportunities for poets at all stages of their professional development: a natural continuation of the aims behind those first shows in October 1982.
Spoken Word Archive is a celebration of the artists and the events that make up the Apples and Snakes story.