Giovanni Esposito, more commonly known as Spoz, is much more down to earth than any preconceived image of a ‘poet’ you might have. Dressed in a vest and jeans and sporting a dark Mohican, he is an extremely friendly chap with a ready Brummie wit and constant stream of chatty opinion.
This is partly because Spoz is a normal bloke, not some lofty artist. Back in 1980, aged 16, he started work at the Longbridge car plant in Northfields, south Birmingham; only when it closed down, in 2005, did he have a proper bash at what he really loved doing: making music and writing poetry.
Before it shut he explains “I’d go to work to pay the bills and look after my wife and kids and the house, and of an evening and weekend I’d go out playing gigs. I got into the poetry when I ran out of chords and melodies and thought I’d stick to the words. It was all for fun – then it turned into my career in 2005 and it has been marvellous. I love it. Don’t earn as much, but there is more to life than money, as long as you have enough… and I love it.”
This could serve as a lesson to any number of people who struggle with awful day jobs, whilst doggedly pursuing their passion the rest of the time. But as he says: “It was kind of done for me, because I would still be there if the place hadn’t closed. I got the kick up the backside I really needed because I was too spineless to do it myself.”
We’re meeting Spoz in a condemned former council building, which is the temporary home to Beatfreeks – a social enterprise that engages young people with the arts – where Spoz is a director. Outside the window looms the bizarre, gold, chicken mesh-covered structure that is the new library; PR symbol of Birmingham’s new found emphasis on the arts.
The city itself is the youngest in Europe, nearly half (46%) of residents are under 30; 42% are non-white, and Birmingham is proud to list 187 nationalities among its vast melting pot of different colours, races and religions. It is these two factors that have had a significant impact on both the local arts scene, and the diverse artists working in it.
In fact Spoz’s own background is the extensive Italian immigrant diaspora which flooded into the city post-war. This inculcated a strong work ethic: “Coming from Italy, especially in the time [my parents] were growing up, there was no school because Mussolini was in charge and so they really valued education. We had to work hard and save our money and there was a sensible thing instilled in me from there.”
Poet Laureate for Birmingham 2006
However, the transition to full-time poet was made smoother because in 2006 he earned the title of Poet Laureate for Birmingham. In order to apply he explains, “you just had to write pieces of work and submit it to Birmingham libraries with a statement of intent as to what you would do as Birmingham Poet Laureate. And my thing was to get young people into poetry and not turn their noses up at it, and go: ‘oh no, that’s for clever people.’”
This spirit of social enterprise sits at the heart of Spoz’s poetic output: “The whole thing was to get young people involved because every-day-poetry is around you the whole time in one form or another, and getting young people into it was what I was really interested in. And that is why I started doing the work in schools and getting them writing.”
Spoz runs regular school workshops for children and teenagers of various ages, which gives them the chance to experiment with form and meter and express views on their own lives. “I think sometimes we try to get the kids at school to run before they can walk. I’m not a big fan of thrusting Shakespeare down kids’ throats. I love Shakespeare, but I remember having that when I was 13 and thinking it is not relevant. It means nothing to me.”
“When you’re 13 or 14 it’s not, it’s so meaningless. Yet we’re still trying to thrust it down kids’ throats. And yes, some kids will get it. The vast majority won’t. So, why don’t we ease them into it gently? They’re in at the deep end and it is sink or swim. And most of them sink, or they learn it in a parrot fashion that means they don’t enjoy it, they just learn it. And it’s a shame.”
This seems to resonate with young people: “I bump into kids, grown up kids, 21, 22 and they’re like, ‘alright Spoz’ and I’m like ‘hello? Sorry…’ [And they say]: ‘you came into my school when I was in year 7.’ I only met them once when they were 11/ 12 and now they’re 20. They still remember that one poetry day – get in. I’m chuffed with that.”
Through his own work Spoz covers a wide range of themes: “I do one or two about coming from Birmingham, a lot about my heritage, some of it I like to have a laugh. There are all sorts of opinions about poetry that it should be deep, meaningful, angsty, tortured and you can’t be a poet unless you’ve suffered. There is a valid argument for that, but I like to entertain as well. Poetry is a form of entertainment and people like to laugh while being entertained so I do some silly, inappropriate stuff.”
“I have a poem: ‘dying for a dump in the car back from Cheltenham’ which is about a trip back from Cheltenham, where my brother used to live, to Birmingham and how I should have gone to the toilet before I left. And there is a lot of license in there. You do your pooh poetry and sometimes that is the stuff you get remembered for. I get a bit upset about that. I do some deep and meaningful stuff as well. It is about what I see. It is about what I perceive as injustice.”
Poetry in Urdu, Bengali, Polish & Italian
The multicultural aspect of the city comes up time and again. “I’ve done some multicultural poetry nights here in Brum where they do poems in Urdu, Bengali [and so on] – I don’t know what they’re saying but you know it sounds amazing. And when do I get to hear Urdu or Bengali or anything like that? I think the more we open ourselves to these things [the better]. It’s marvellous.”
“There’s a friend of mine Bohdan Piasecki and he does a poem each week for non-Polish speaking audiences. He chooses the words for the sounds rather than the meanings and I’m listening to this and I’m thinking this is incredible. No idea what he’s saying, but it sounds brilliant. It’s like listening to instrumental music almost – phenomenal.”
“I do a poem in Italian then I translate it into English. It’s a love poem – a love poem in inverted commas. And I read it in Italian and people go ‘ah that sounds lovely, that sounds beautiful and romantic.’ Then I read it in English and they say ‘urghhh is that what you were saying?’”
“It just demonstrates how you can baffle people with language and some people choose to do it academically, which I think is really ignorant. I’ve seen poets use words and you’re going ‘really – I’m going to have to look that up’. Now I’m not thick – well, I suppose I am in certain circumstances, but sometimes when people use this lofty, erudite language just to say ‘look at the words I know’, I think, ‘yeah, I can look it up in a thesaurus as well’, that’s ignorant. It’s just demonstrating the problems you have in art, in all arts, you know like to go: ‘look what I can do, look what I know’. They talk a good art…”
Spoz has strong left wing views and is very excited to be part of the thriving multiracial arts scene. “I really love the fact that people hold onto their identities [here in Birmingham] because when I was at school they tried to knock it out of you thanks to a scummy little man called Enoch Powell who is dead now – ha ha.”
“Sorry that sounds a bit callous? It was meant to sound callous. Horrible horrible man. But you know what, long may the migration of people continue. It just makes us richer. People go on about these psychos: fundamentalist this, fundamentalist that – it has got nothing to do with where they’re coming from, it is just the fact they’re a bit wrecked in the head. It doesn’t matter where they come from. English people can be wrecked in the head too. There is no monopoly on being stupid.”
“I started school in 1969 just as Enoch Powell did his Rivers of Blood speech. It was a Catholic school, nuns whatever [and] Sister Aloysia, she is probably no longer of this earth, thought she was doing a good thing by saying: ‘Giovanni Esposito, we won’t call him Giovanni’ – because she had a knowledge of Italian, Giovanni is Italian for John – ‘we’ll call him John he’ll fit in a bit more.’”
“And my mum was like fine. And my dad, he’s a Giovanni, so he liked to be called John. My uncle Giuseppe was called Joe. It was a time when it was integrate, integrate, integrate and forget where you’ve come from. It was almost like the whole American thing: I pledge allegiance to… and all that rubbish. I always say acknowledge where you are and be respectful of where you are but never forget your roots, your heritage and your language.”
Years of Learning is Worth More than a Pint
Spoz strongly feels that the arts should provide proper employment opportunities. “People don’t value the arts. People are like ‘we’ve got an open mic come and play’. I love the open mic scene and I go to a lot of open mic [nights] and trial pieces of work, trial songs and what not, which is great you know but sometimes it is like: ‘oh yeah, can you come and play for us for half an hour or something… we’ll buy you a drink.’”
“And you’re going ‘great I’ll tell you what, I’ll just pop into B&Q and help myself to a load of power tools, is that alright’? People don’t realise the work that’s gone in to stuff. And that is the great thing with Beatfreeks because we’re trying to provide platforms for people to get confident with what they’re doing and, actual paid work [that is] sustainable work for artists.”
“I’ve seen the arts really go from strength to strength [in recent years]. I suppose many young people don’t really realise that you can make a living out of the arts. You can make a living doing what you enjoy.”
“If the work is not there go and make the work. There are so many social media, technology – back in my day we didn’t even have computers – get in. But now the platforms are different, exposure is different and you can really get your stuff out there. Was it Lily Allen that made it through social media? I dare say her dad Keith Allen had a lot to do with it as well, but you know, it is doable. It’s not easier, no way is it easier, but there are avenues to get your art out there. Many more avenues to get your art out there now than there used to be. And it’s all valid, it’s all good. Long may it go on…”
There is something extremely uplifting about Spoz’s positivity and energy. He is one of those admirable people who managed to turn his passion into a living and he has been going for nearly ten years. This has to be an inspiration to others, because if you’re driven to keep creating you’re in it for life… so, you might as well make the most of it.