Introducing: Helen and Benita Johnson, Organisers of Glastonbury Poetry&Words

The Johnsons, by Scott Tyrrell

The Johnsons, by Scott Tyrrell

Time to tell you something about the history of the stage, and thereby Helen Johnson, who’ll be there with partner Benita every day, barring a natural disaster! If they’re new to you/ you’d like a reminder, read on:

In Helen’s own words:

“The Poetry&Words stage was set up in 1992 by Pat V T West. It started off in a yurt and then moved quickly to a small stage in the corner of the Green Fields. Just before her untimely death in 2008 Pat called me to her flat in Clifton to ask me if I would take over the stage. To say I was taken aback would be a massive under-statement. I had absolutely no idea that was coming! At the time, I was in the midst of my PhD, juggling that with a full-time teaching job. I had no idea how I could possibly run a festival stage too, but you just can’t say no to that!

“So I said yes – on condition that the infrastructure was sorted out for me. (No arriving two weeks’ before to a bare patch of grass for me; I needed the tent up already!) So it was that the Poetry&Words stage moved to Theatre and Circus, who had a tent they would house us in for a few hours a day; a tent, as it turned out, that was several times the size of Poetry&Words Mark I.

“That first year, before I headed off to a conference in Saskatoon, Canada, I packed two bags – one for Canada and one for Glastonbury. After the conference, I got back to my house, had a shower, switched bags and caught the train to the festival! I had a skeleton crew that first year and ran much of it myself – compering, performing, organising etc, alongside a few helpers and poets. By the Sunday, I was so exhausted by jet lag and festival fever that I literally fell asleep on my feet (to quite a lively band, as it happens!)

“Anyway, fast forward to 2010. The stage now ran all day and I had a full crew to help me with it (having discovered the wonders of delegation). At the time, I was performing my poetry as part of the duo, Yaffle, with musician, Benita Johnson. I invited Benita along to perform with me at the festival. Two years later we were married (not something, I can assure you, that happens with everyone I book, though we did get engaged at the festival in 2011).

“When we had our son, Jake, in 2015, Benita stood in for me as stage manager, and I had the pleasure of attending as a punter for only the third time ever, along with our 6 week old boy. Benita proved to be so adept at running the stage, that we’ve worked together on it ever since. I suspect that Jake won’t be far behind. He helped me laminate Scott Tyrrell’s bunting this year, talking to each of the poets as they went through the laminator. (Some were told off for being naughty, but most, you’ll be pleased to hear, behaved well and made friends with him on their journey.)”

Reviews:

“Her sparkling witty poetry is continuing to wow audiences on the performance poetry circuit.” ~ Three Tuns Poetry

“…poignant yet sultry and stirring, complex and sweet.” ~ Everton Hartley

“She glides and canters over hills and vales of words leaving a landscape of language hanging on the wall of your mind.” ~ Mal Travers, Acoustic Night

“Like Ani DiFranco on steroids.” ~ Bob (happy audience member at a Yaffle performance)

Fay Other people’s words:

I really wanted to highlight the folk who make this all possible. It turns out we haven’t heard explicitly from Helen since Scott’s interview in 2015, so it felt like time! In a total cop-out, I canvassed those poets who I know who’ve worked with Helen (and Benita) in the past. They have this to say:

“These two create, curate, and nurture one of the most unique stages at Glasto – a true space for listeners to open themselves or take a quiet breath among the chaos. The two of them create life changing experiences for poets – I can genuinely say going to Glasto, my first ever gig in the U.K., was transformative – and it was thanks to them.” – Erin Fornoff

“How hard Helen and Benita work for make P&W happen is indescribable by even a billion villanelles!

“Loadsa folks believe these things ‘just happen’, they don’t consider how much organisation it takes to make it happen. That attitude is the greatest sign the event is well managed, cos most people only notice when stuff goes wrong. P&W is a Glastonbury Festival staple any poet worth their sonnets is proud to shout about being on the team.

“Helen has deeply studied the art of performance poetry, she knows what makes a solid stanza, and her love for our art is evident in all she achieves.

“Long may P&W’s flags triumphantly fly!” – Dominic Berry

“I met Helen around 2003, when we were both part of the Bristol poetry scene, and when Pat West was still the P&W boss. The stage has grown and diversified so dramatically in the years since Helen’s been at the helm and I’m so glad to still be a part of it now, and to see her and her growing family (and amazing thigh-bum-bag thing) pottering gloriously around the site!” – Rosy Carrick

“We met Helen and Benita at Larmer Tree festival in 2011. I had submitted The Antipoet for Glastonbury, along with a couple of thousand other people that year. I had never seen so much negativity on social media before! Many people that realised they hadn’t been chosen were angry and expressed themselves accordingly. I felt I needed to address the balance and simply wrote on line, that even though they hadn’t been selected, that they would happily step in if anyone had a problem at the last minute and thanked them for all their hard work and wished them good luck with it all. A few similar responses appeared after mine and the ‘angries’ petered out. I received a response a couple of days later stating that yes, I was correct in thinking that they hadn’t got Glastonbury but would they be interested in Larmer Tree, another poetry Stage that Helen ran? Yes please! They did it, had a ball and found a great fan base that saw them being asked to play there every year since. I didn’t give up submitting to Glastonbury and the next year when they were given the second opportunity to play Larmer Tree, they were pleased but Ian simply acknowledged my text notifying them with a, ‘lovely, I guess that means no Glastonbury’. I said, ‘never say never’ and a few weeks afterwards we were told they had been successful in applying for Poetry and Words as well that year! I cannot put into words how happy they both were as I’m the manager and they’re the creatives but I can still remember the look on Paul’s face when I read out the email over breakfast. He never did finish that boiled egg.

“Having done that I realise it’s more how they all got together than about Helen and Benita themselves 😮 It just all came flooding back. The fact that they’re lovely people, who have a stupidly hard job sorting through submissions every year and juggling poets that can really handle festivals and create a good mix across the board in all areas whilst looking for performers they know that can trust to turn up and do the job should be forgotten either.” – Donna Ray, Manager of The Antipoet

“Both Helen and Benita have thrown themselves into the gargantuan task of getting a world class lineup together every single year. A lineup that flows and wows seamlessly and effortlessly over 3 days. They’ve worked hard to get a first class backstage team to grease the wheels, and they have an unerring eye for spotting talent and giving them a platform at the world’s greatest outdoor festival. The likes of Luke Wright, Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish all started out being picked for Poetry&Words when they were bright, young, hungry things. And I personally have huge gratitude for being allowed to have plied both my love of illustration and spoken word at such an amazing place regularly over the years. I am truly in their debt.” – Scott Tyrrell


I’m really looking forward to finally meeting Helen and Benita in person later this month and telling them in person what an amazing job they do! ♥

Sneak preview:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s