A beautiful summer afternoon in July 2001. Annikki Wooden Quarter in Tampere. A bunch of neighbors are sitting in the yard and casually chatting about all sorts of things—as neighbors usually do.
Someone comes up with “Why don’t we organize a music festival? I mean, literally here.” Coincidentally, they are sitting on the stairs under the kitchen window of Simo Ollila who will soon become the festival producer.
No one rejects the seemingly crazy idea. The neighbors are ready to get their hands dirty—they haven’t the foggiest what they just signed up for. They just do what feels right. The festival will lighten things up in the neighborhood.
“We didn’t have a clue how to do things. We didn’t ask any permission. We just did it. We learned more and more. We learned by doing,” this is how Simo describes those days.
They invite musician friends and put up posters around town. Six hundred guests turn up for the first festival. Invigorated by this success, the neighbors roll out twelve more events the next summer.
Autumn 2002. After two summers of music and culture, and trying his hand at event production, Simo has a new project in mind. He has a feeling that poetry will be a good fit for Annikki. He suggests arranging a poetry festival to a friend and a well-known poet J.K. Ihalainen, who picks up the idea immediately.
Just like two years ago, Simo and his neighbors starts something new and unexpected. Not a poet himself, Simo relies on J.K. Ihalainen as an artistic director, and on the help and advice of friends. Success is bound to come because he is starting a project with the right purpose in mind.
The first ever Annikki Poetry Festival comes to life in June 2003. Over time, Annikki grows to become one of Finland’s most significant biennial poetry festivals, and spawns Annikki OFF, a three-day series of events around the city.
“It’s great to see so many different people coming. Annikki Quarter was built for workers. We think that Annikki Poetry Festival belongs to everyone. It’s a part of cultural activism that highlights the workers’ spirit of Tampere.”
The year 2017. Finland celebrates 100 years of independence. Simo feels that it should also be the year to celebrate Finnish poetry. Together with Annikki Poetry Festival’s crew, he comes up with a new exciting plan: “We need to put poems on billboards all around the city. Let’s bring poetry to the streets!”
Previously unpublished poems by eleven contemporary Finnish poets under the theme “Freedom of Speech” appear on more than 33 large billboards in downtown Tampere.
“33 posters were in the center of Tampere for two weeks. It was the first-ever outdoor ad campaign of contemporary poetry in Finland! About three hundred thousand people saw them. For many it was their first encounter with contemporary poetry.”
Late 2018. Simo is inspired by last-year’s success of the poetry billboards. He feels that it’s not enough to expose people to poetry once a year. Poetry should have a permanent place in the city and in the hearts and minds of people. Annikki Poetry Festival sets out to create a landmark.
“There are quite many empty walls in the city center,” Simo’s thinking. “Why don’t we paint a mural on one of them and dedicate it to poetry?”
He negotiates the idea with the city officials, who give him unconditional support. The local newspaper Moro publishes an article encouraging house cooperatives to take part in the project.
In the coming two years, the poetry mural changes three addresses but finally finds its home. In June 2020, the mural created by top Finnish mural artist Teemu Mäenpää is unveiled at Pinninkatu 14, just two blocks away from Annikki Wooden Quarter.
“It covers the entire wall of a seven-storey building. The mural features a poem by Mirkka Rekola, one of the classic names in Finnish contemporary poetry. It reads ‘I love you – let the whole world know it.’ The poem carries a strong message of tolerance. The whole neighborhood is different now. Everybody knows of the house with the mural.”
It’s been 20 years since Simo started his journey in cultural activism. All this while, he’s been boldly pursuing projects that change the cultural landscape of Tampere and that nobody ever did before.
These days, Simo is a sought-after festival producer, art and culture professional, designer and social media expert. His unorthodox career started in summer 2001 thanks to that chat at Annikki Wooden Quarter.
“It was just a coincidence that the right people were there. That conversation changed my whole life.”
Simo admits that he wouldn’t have come this far had he not had the right purpose in mind and had he not been surrounding himself with good people who were always there for him. The community of Annikki Wooden Quarter remains a constant source of inspiration and support for Simo.
“I think that when you have right attitude and you are doing things for the right reasons and you are serving your community, things usually work out fine. And if not, you have at least tried to do something useful.”
Text: Grigory Kharitidis