Saturday, 19 October 2019

Audiences at poetry readings


At one of my recent readings in the U.K., a Spanish woman approached me at the interval to say hello. She explained that she’d seen my event advertised in the local paper and had come along, just as she might attend a concert, exhibition or lecture. She was amazed to find that she was the only non-poet in the building apart from the barman and two long-suffering spouses.

This is because in Spain (in my own personal experience) on average maybe only two or three people at any given poetry reading are poets. The rest have an interest in the arts. They’re often teachers, academics, visual artists, etc, who enjoy poetry just as they enjoy other genres. This cross-fertilisation means that poetry reaches far more readers than in the U.K., while also overcoming the simple fact that a large chunk of people at most poetry event in the U.K. would actually love to be giving the reading themselves.

So, having identified a problem and an uncomfortable comparison, I’m pondering the causes and potential solutions. Firstly, I’d argue that we could all do more to reach out to the millions who think poetry’s not for them except when attending weddings or funerals. Secondly, I do feel a concerted, coordinated, long-term effort is required to ensure that poetry acquires new readers who don’t necessarily aspire to being poets themselves.

Here’s one example of how things are done in parts of Spain: instead of getting a poet into a specific school to do a workshop, certain councils bring in a poet every month of the academic year to give a reading in the morning at the main theatre in the city for kids from all the schools (the poet’s work is previously read in class, of course), followed by a reading at the same venue in the evening for the general public. Everyone who attends either event is given a tiny booklet of the poet’s work for free to take home with them. Hundreds of people progressively learn how to listen to and read poetry without seeing it as something that’s written by poets for other poets. 

Would this work in the U.K.?

Sunday, 13 October 2019

A clarity of vision, M.R. Peacocke's Honeycomb


Back in January, when M.R. Peacocke generously granted me permission to post one of my favourite poems (see here) from Honeycomb, her recent HappenStance pamphlet, I promised a review of the chapbook in question, and here it is.

Honeycomb is an unusual pamphlet in many ways, not least because it represents something of a New & Very, Very Selected Poems, combining more recent uncollected pieces with complementary poems from M.R. Peacocke’s previously published full collections. As such, it represents an ideal introduction to her work.

Moving on to this collection itself, if I had to choose one single term to encapsulate M.R. Peacocke’s poetry it would be “clear-eyed”. There’s a clarity of vision to her poems that stretches from the construction of her sentences and the cadences of her lines to the layering of her narratives and the thrust of her thematic core.

This afore-mentioned thematic core pivots on a teasing-out of the tension between life and death, youth and ageing, nature and humanity, all illustrated by minor details that take on huge magnitude when brought together as one. An excellent example can be found in the final stanza of Taking Leave:

…And it’s like that, people leave,
sooner than they thought,
sooner than they knew, and things
don’t wait, and a lifetime
isn’t enough to recover the words,
uncover, discover the words.

A lesser poet would have thought a stronger effect could be gained in the closing lines by bunching the three …cover verbs together artificially one after another. Instead, Peacocke repeats ’the words at the end of both the last two lines, splitting up the verbs in such a natural way that these lines manage to take the reader aback, cast fresh meaning on existing language but also seem inevitable, all at the same time. She suddenly reminds us of the subtle differences in meaning between recover, uncover and discover, juxtaposing the urgency of the search for meaning with the impossibility of achieving such a feat.

Quiet voices tend to be lost amid our contemporary tumult, and M.R. Peacocke’s runs just such a risk. However, as remarked earlier, her clarity of vision is crucial to her poetry’s longevity. It provides her work with a edge that can cut through digital cocoons and remind us how to feel. As a consequence, I strongly recommend you get hold of Honeycomb, but with one warning from my own experience: you could then be tempted into acquiring the rest of M.R. Peacocke’s excellent books as well.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Poetry Bites in Birmingham

Prior to the Rogue Strands event in London on 28th November and Poetry at Pembroke in Oxford on 27th November, I'm really looking forward to appearing as the guest poet at Poetry Bites in Birmingham on 26th November. That's three reading on consecutive days, so I'll have to get in training!

On this occasion, the details are as follows: Poetry Bites will take place at the Kitchen Garden Café, 17 York Road, Kings Heath, Birmingham, B14 7SA. Entry is five pounds, while food will be available from 6.30 p.m. onwards and the event itself will begin at 7.30 p.m..

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Poetry at Pembroke

The last week in November promises to be a busy time for me. Not only will I be reading at our second Rogue Strands event in London on 28th November, but I also have two additional readings in other cities on the 27th and the 26th!

Here are the details for Oxford, where I'm delighted to report that I'll be the guest poet for Poetry at Pembroke. The event will take place in the Mary Hyde Eccles Room at Pembroke College, Univeristy of Oxford, at 6 p.m. on 27th November, with free entry and an open mic (see link here). It would be lovely to see any of you who might be in the vicinity...

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Oliver Comins' poems at Wild Court

Understated yet packing a subtle punch, Oliver Comins' work always lingers long in the memory, and his three new poems up at Wild Court today are no exception. You can read them here, along with a treasure trove of the best in contemporary poetry.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Verbs, verbs, verbs, Declan Ryan's Fighters, Losers


At first sight, Declan Ryan’s second pamphlet, Fighters, Losers (New Walk Editions, 2019) displays many of the technical qualities that made his first Faber New Poets chapbook stand out. Both collections share the capacity for serving up delicately structured narratives, keen humanity and linguistic playfulness. However, Fighters, Losers brings a stronger sense of confidence in his poetic effects to the table, and thus a lighter touch.

In these nine poems about boxing, Ryan employs reportage, avoiding subjective adjectives and implicit judgement, as in the following extract from the pamphlet’s opening poem, The Resurrection of Diego Chico Corrales:

…He’s just been knocked down for a second time,
in this tenth round, by José Luis Castillo,
but now he’s standing up, and the fight resuming.
He’s starting to open up
and land heavy shots: a right cross moves Castillo,
who smiles, which means he’s hurt…

Accumulated observation here is mainly achieved through the use of verbs, as in the non-defining relative clause (who smiles), while the narrative is driven forward via a shift from the present perfect to the present continuous tense, which also lends additional immediacy.

As the poem moves on, it also displays certain other deft features that are common to several pieces in the collection, as in the opening lines to the fourth stanza:

…Two years from tonight, Corrales will lie dead
on the Fort Apache Road in Las Vegas,
his Suzuki motorcycle in component parts,
his license expired, his blood three times the legal limit…

Not only do these lines crank up their subtle power through the layering of reported details alongside those afore-mentioned supercharged verbs, but this stanza immediately announces a change in narrative gear in its first line via the sudden use of the future tense.

Ryan employs this technique of shifting from the present to the future tense to excellent effect throughout his pamphlet, using it as an axis within the poem, a pivotal point at which everything changes. The previous lines are immediately thrown into startling, fresh relief, while the following lines are projected forward.

Fighters, Losers demonstrates that Declan Ryan has learned to trust his readers and his own skill in generating huge empathy via restraint, juxtaposition of details and a masterclass in the manipulation of verbs, verbs, verbs. His writing in these poems therefore becomes emotionally resonant far beyond any mere portrayal of individual boxers or specific moments in sport. I very much recommend this chapbook to all readers, especially to those who might think a bunch of poems about boxing cannot move them.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Excellent news from the National Poetry Library

On the back of a large petition and numerous complaints from major figures in the poetry world, I'm delighted to report that the National Poetry Library have today announced that they have decided to suspend the planned launch of the new membership scheme for next week (see here).

Instead, they intend to consult the poetry community as to how they might raise the funds that they require to keep growing. This is, of course, excellent news, and I personally would suggest that they have scope to build a far stronger annual programme of readings, events, courses and workshops than at present without stepping on anyone's toes, simply by making the most of their terrific location. Sponsorship, meanwhile, is an additional option that might be worth considering if it helps keep the library free to join.

Fingers crossed that this unfortunate episode might in the end lead to the strengthening of such a valuable resource for U.K. poetry...