Student blog

An Interview with Wordsmith Alex Vellis

Wise Words reawakens a sense of wonder and encourages people to be curious. We are an arts organisation that works through poetry and storytelling, inviting people to see the world from a different perspective and to take time to pause. Our work is unexpected, intimate and connects strongly with the outdoors, engaging the widest possible audience.” Wise Words Festival

The Wise Words festival is a programme of thought-provoking talks, music, performances, storytelling and poetry take place in yurts, tents and the ancient Franciscan Chapel. The event takes place in the spring every year and this year will be running from 28 April to 7 May. The heart of the festival lies in Canterbury’s Secret Garden, belonging to the Franciscan Friars.

The human tongue is a beast that few can master. One man who can and is releasing the power of words is spoken word artist, author, and producer, the inspirational Alex Vellis. Alongside being the poet in residence for Wise Words, The Chocolate Cafe and Canterbury Connected, he has developed a wider Poets in Residence scheme across the city. Alex  works with the team at Wise Words to explore how to connect better with younger audiences throughout the festival. 

I interviewed Alex about the upcoming festival Wise Words and how he became the captivating wordsmith he is today.

So Alex, can you describe what you do?

I am a producer for the Wise Words festival, spoken word artist and an author.

A spoken word artist, can you elaborate?

I am a performance poet; a poet that takes the words from the page and applies them to the stage.

Why do you do what you do? How did you become a spoken word artist and author?

I do it because I love it! I just wouldn’t know what else to do. I had a full-time job working in a library at night and I realised that if I didn’t stop doing that, I would never pursue my dream. So, I quit my job and gave it a go… Worked out pretty well if I am honest.

Leap of faith then? That must have been a significant risk for you. How did your love affair with words start?

I started writing when I was 12 and started performing when I was 17. I have always had an affinity towards words; they have a mercurial power about them, dependent on who is saying them and how.

How did you get into performing? Did you approach people with your ideas or find similar artists and outlets to get yourself out there?

Well, I had already been performing for a while when I quit my job. I got into performing by doing open mics in bars and clubs until someone decided I was a bit good and asked if I would like a regular slot.

I continued to perform for some time and made some brilliant connections and friends. I also got involved with local projects such as the Wise Words festival. I asked them to consider me for any opportunity they had and hounded them about every new event and participated in everything.

And of course, Facebook and social media! I trawled through the pages to find people that shared the same passions as I do. I started attending every open mic and slam I could find in the area and it really went from there. Being seen at gigs is an effective way to get yourself noticed even if some of the stuff (that you might have thought was great at the time) is rubbish, haha!

What advice would you give to other people who were interested in writing or performing?

If you are interested in writing, read! Read everything, even things where the subject matter doesn't interest you. Read so you learn about words and how they work from one author to the next. Reading will help [you] to discover innovative words - just read!

If you're interested in performing, go to every gig, every workshop, every event that is going. See how other people do it, and speak to them. See what gets them excited about performing and writing and being on stage.

You learn so much from seeing and talking to others.

The best advice would be, do the things that interest you. At the end of the day, it is just a stage and the people are there because they want to see you and hear what you have to say.

So, Alex, has anything held you back? You are very confident, talented and self-driven. To stand up and perform in front of hundreds of people, and have such self-belief is very admirable. Have you always been like that?

You know the old phrase "fake it till you make it" – yeah, that!

It's like anything, you just have to keep at it. No one is amazing first time they try anything. With trying again and again comes confidence. As you improve by practising more, speaking to others and getting critique on how you can improve yourself, everything becomes easier.

I still get nervous every time I go on stage but the nerves are a good thing, they show that you care about what you are doing.

Let’s talk about the festival, Wise Words, what is it all about and who should come to the events?

The Wise Words festival is a poetry festival that stretches into music and the literary arts. It is designed to inspire wonder and curiosity through unexpected encounters with poetry.

It was created by Beth Cuenco, she saw a need for a festival that celebrates poetry in a world that often forgets it after they leave school. Poetry is in our everyday lives and, thanks to Beth, poetry is now widely celebrated daily. It has come out of the shadows and breathes itself. I have a lot of respect for Beth and the whole Wise Words team. They are incredible people and, I believe, the driving force behind the poetry scene in Canterbury.

Who should come to the Wise Words festival? Everyone! But if you would like a shorter more concise list, then I would say… Anyone that has ever felt love in their lives, ever felt loss, or ever felt that twinging feeling just below the ribs when someone passes by and you think, "Just like ships in the night." The festival this year celebrates every type of love, whether it be love of a friend, a family member, a pet, or a lover.

If you like words, come down, if you think they are okay, come down, if you have no real interest in them, come down, let us change your mind.

To become a creative professional/artist/working in industry, what would you advise?

The key is to put yourself out there, not get upset by ridicule, and work with others. You are not going to make it alone no matter how good an artist you are.

What have you got lined up this year?

The Wise Words festival (28 April until 7 May), then on 16 May I am performing at the Chocolate Café, Canterbury at a Poetry slam. I am also headlining a show in Hastings for Lucas Howard called "Slam Dunk" on 27 May.