A passionate ode to the power of verse

Apples and Snakes wants to bring poetry out of the shadows, and it's taking over the South Bank to do that

Apples and Snakes, the national poetry organisation that brings performance artto schools, youth clubs and prisons, comes of age next week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. To celebrate its 21st birthday, it will bring together 21 poets - from the lyrical rap artist Ty and the dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah (who turned down an OBE last week), to the Liverpool poet Brian Patten - in a night of performance poetry.

Other performers will include the Guyanese poets Grace Nichols and John Agard, both on the GCSE syllabus, and Billy Childish, a cult figure of the Stuckist movement, grounded in the punk ethic of 1977. More mainstream artists, such as the abrasive comedienne Jenny Eclair, the Scottish poet Liz Lochhead and the children's author Michael Rosen, will also be joining the chorus.

Geraldine Collinge, Apples and Snakes' director, is the person responsible for rounding up these stellar names, some of them alumni of the organisation from its early days in the Adam's Arms pub in 1982. "There wasn't much of a poetry forum for artists then," Collinge says, "but now performance poetry is on the brink of a breakthrough. In America, it's part of mainstream culture. People there understand that rap means rhythm and poetry, and it feels as though we're at last achieving that understanding here. Seamus Heaney calling Eminem a top poet, for example, is helping people to make those connections."

The comedian John Hegley is also to perform. Best known for poetry collections that blend verse, prose, drawings and, often, dogs, the author of Glad To Wear Glasses and The Sound of Paint Drying has not yet decided what to perform. But, he assures us, "it will have a poetic basis and a bit of dancing." Hegley remembers the old days when Apples and Snakes gave him a platform alongside other, more famous, poets. "For me, that was in the Roebuck Pub on the Tottenham Court Road - early 1984. I remember Michael Horovitz was performing that night," he says.

"What Apples and Snakes has really done for me is helped me with my writing and given me the opportunity to put forward stuff that is more poetic than comedic - stuff without what the comic writer Arthur Smith described as 'the tyranny of the punchline'."

He continues: "It's harder to get audiences to see poetry. People prefer a laugh, rather than an ambiguous plaintive call." He is pleased to see poetry taking centre stage, but still doubts its wider popularity: "It will be interesting to see how this show does," he says. "People appreciate song lyrics - poetry getting in through the back door - but it is still hard to get the spoken word out there."

'Momentum: Twenty One Poets for Twenty One Years', Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4242; www.rfh.org.uk) 16 December, 7.30pm