Birmingham Literature Festival – Digital Edition

This year’s Birmingham Literature Festival is already in full swing – and an amazing example how you can turn a challenge into an opportunity! For this ‘special’ year, Festival Director Shantel Edwards and Guest Curator Kit de Waal have put together a digital edition of one of my favourite literature festivals, allowing me to join even though I cannot travel to Birmingham. Everyone with an online connection can join from anywhere in the world. Most events are on between 8 and 17 October, but there are others who run throughout October and the new podcast series even runs until Christmas!
Shantel Edwards, Creative Producer and Festival Director, kindly agreed to answer some questions for Literary Field Kaleidoscope and tell us about the making of the 2020 Digital Festival, the programme and how we can join.

Congratulations for making the Birmingham Literature Festival work this year and for putting together such an amazing programme! How did you come to the decision to create a digital festival in 2020? 

When we went into lockdown in the UK in March, we were still hopeful that by October life would be back to normal and the festival could go ahead as planned. By June, however, as social distancing measures continued and many of the venues we were due to use for events in the city centre remained closed, we made the decision to move the festival online. We were really inspired by the ways other literature festivals and organisations moved their events, and created new events, online so quickly and creatively and I hope we have managed to imbue our own digital programme with the same level of creativity. We have a range of digital formats, from a podcast series – the Birmingham Lit Fest presents… podcast – to video events in collaboration with Nine Arches poetry press and Durham Book Festival and a programme of online workshops delivered through Zoom.

How did you make it work?

Making the decision early to move the festival online meant that we had time to curate and produce our events over the summer. We recorded all our podcast episodes across August, which gave us time in September to edit and transcribe the podcasts and make sure that the finished product was high quality and captured the feeling of being at a live event. We worked with a local production company, Birmingham Podcast Studios, to help us record the podcasts remotely and create the finished product – now available across all podcast platforms and via our website!

We followed the same pre-recorded format for the collaborative video events we recorded with Durham Book Festival, recording the interviews in September and editing and captioning them before live streaming the events during October. It has been an adjustment moving everything online and with the bulk of the work having to take place before October, which is very different to previous years! It has allowed us, however, to make our programme really accessible and now people across the world can listen to our podcast and take part in our workshops and events, which is a really lovely silver lining to this year.

How did authors and your other speakers react?

All of our authors, chairs and workshop leaders have been wonderful! By the time we started moving everything online and recording across the summer, I think most people had adjusted to our new online world and were really au fait with using online technology. At Writing West Midlands, we have gotten very good at Zoom very fast! With the help of our producers, it was actually a really seamless transition to move online and all of our festival contributors have been so open to new formats and trying things out and so generous with their time.

And which part did you find most challenging?

Shantel Edwards, Festival Director (c) Lee Allen

I think the most challenging part was figuring out how we were going to deliver everything! Once we had recorded the first podcast and were used to the technology and the format of the recordings, every one after that felt much easier and became routine very fast. And I have had wonderful support from the rest of our team at Writing West Midlands, our producers and board, and our partners Nine Arches Press and Durham Book Festival, as well as our Guest Curator Kit de Waal and the rest of our writers and guests. Having to pivot and deliver the festival in a new way has given us so many new skills and new ways of doing things that I know we are all really keen to build on in years to come.

So what have you planned for the 2020 Digital Festival? Which part of the programming was closest to your heart and what are you most proud of?

We have 4 programme strands for this year’s festival:

  1. The Birmingham Lit Fests presents…podcast series: Our podcast series launched on Friday 2nd October and is now available via a multitude of podcast platforms and through our festival website. We were really keen to try and capture the spirit of our festival events, which bring wonderful writers together for interesting discussions about books and ideas and social issues and to continue to connect with our audience through a shared love of literature. I know I’m biased, but I really think our podcast does this! Each week, on Thursdays, until mid-December, we will bring excellent writers directly into our listeners’ homes. The podcast features writers such as Candice Brathwaite, Sarah Moss, Paul Mendez, Stuart Maconie, as well as poets such as Rupinder Kaur and Romalyn Ante and covers fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art.
  2. The Big Ideas: This 4 event video series is a collaboration between Birmingham Literature Festival and Durham Book Festival, highlighting authors and books that discuss really important and topical issues. The series features authors Layla Saad (Me and White Supremacy), Laura Bates (Men Who Hate Women), Alistair Campbell (Living Better) and Caleb Femi (Poor). The events are free and will be streamed through Crowdcast from 11th – 17th October and people can register to watch live on our website here.
  3. Online workshop programme: Our programme of festival workshops will all take place online over Zoom starting on 3rd October and running until the 17th October. Our workshops include; Poetry in Translation, Funding for Creative Writers, How Publishing Works, Telling Your Own Story and Creative Non-fiction, Poetry for Happiness and Joy, and That Killer First Page. Places can be booked via our website here.
  4. Staying Human, A Poem for Every Day of October: This is a collaborative project with the six other regional development agencies and Bloodaxe Poetry. We’ve selected 31 poems – one for each day of October – from the new Bloodaxe anthology Staying Human – and we’ve asked readers across England to record a reading, which we’ll be sharing through this Soundcloud playlist once a day all month. We’ll keep adding to the playlist throughout October and we’ll be sharing them on our social media – you can find us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @bhamlitfest.

I’m genuinely really proud of the programme as a whole, it would be very hard to identify just one aspect of it! I think it captures the variety of our festival programme and the spirit of our live events that aim to connect people, provide a space to talk about important issues and great books and offer inspiration. It has been a tough year for everyone and I think our programme offers space for real joy and hope.

I saw that the ticket sale already began before the start of the festival and that some events were already sold out (congratulations, by the way!) Can you say anything about the audience in comparison to last year? It is a similar crowd as in previous years or does this unique situation also encourage different people to join?

Our programme only launched last week so it’s difficult at this point to get a sense of our audience and whether it has changed. A few of our workshops have now sold out and we have noticed that we have people booked on from locations across the UK as well as Europe and the US, which is wonderful! Its so exciting to be able to engage with audiences across the world and we’re really looking forward to seeing who has been watching and listening as the festival progresses.

What would make the festival successful in your eyes? What do you hope for?

We are a small organisation and I think the fact that we have been able to pivot and deliver such an interesting and exciting programme online in such uncertain times is a success in and of itself! We would love to have lots of listeners, viewers and participants engage with the programme and our work. There are lots of ways that our audience can get in touch with us to let us know what they think, so I’m really looking forward to finding opportunities to hear from our audience and hope that they feel connected to us, and to each other, through our programme. 2020 has been an incredibly tough year for everyone, so if we can offer some respite from it and some joy and hope, I think the programme will have been a huge success.

Link to the Festival website:

You can find more details on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @bhamlitfest.