Behind the scenes at Poet in the City

Royal Holloway student Charlotte Cole on her experience of coming back stage and getting involved in the workings of a busy two weeks of events….

When I came to King’s Place for the first day of my work experience with Poet in the City, I had a vague idea of what it was that I wanted to have achieved by the time it was complete, but I had no clue how invaluable the experience was going to be.

With the thriving environment of the city centre, I was not merely someone available to make coffee (I did not make a single cup!) but an individual keen to take up any of the tasks set for me, whether this was looking at the variety of social media that the organisation use and to come up with a marketing plan that can be put into motion or helping with front of house alongside the other volunteers. Sitting in meetings with potential collaborators, I saw what it took to present a new idea and create multiple ways in which it can work as an event, I promoted events through contacting listing agencies across multiple forms of media in order to get the best reception possible as well as designed promotional posters for future events.

I can definitely say that I attacked all that was given to me with enthusiasm and vigour. The highlight, however, throughout my entire two weeks there would have to be night of the Viking Sagas. As much as I enjoyed Andrew Motion and Friends or Seamus Heaney: A Tribute, it was this final event that topped it all off. Perhaps it was the flowers I received, the fantastic location, or the knowledge of a delicious Italian meal afterwards that contributed to my excitement for that Friday, or maybe it was the fantastic choice of texts that both intrigued me and stimulated some creative writing that I plan on pushing forward, either way, I had fun.

Now that the time has ended, however, I can now look back and see how much I have learned from Isobel, Gabby and Graham. Not only has it solidified my plan to work in Arts Administration, but it has ensured me that I will thoroughly enjoy this as a career path. So who knows? Perhaps you’ll hear my name soon enough as one of the top people to head up an event with, but no matter what I’ll be doing in this sector, I know that it all started with Poet in the City.

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Spoken Word in the City

Alia Cassam on Spoken Word moments, and why a pop-up Bowler Hat is the perfect place for a poetry performance…

My spoken word ‘moment’ happened some years ago, on an uneventful afternoon – television on, feeling absentminded and only half-watching what was flickering on the screen. Then a young woman called Kate Tempest appeared and my dull ears (until that moment anyway) opened up like satellite dishes to take in the amazing sounds that were coming from my small television in the corner of the room… The experience was new, visceral, the words were electric and crackled into the atmosphere. It was my first experience of spoken word, and I knew I’d just encountered something special.

Ever since, I’d been looking for more opportunities to find out about spoken word. This was poetry alright, but not as I knew it.

So when Poet in the City announced a new series of showcase events for this year’s City of London Festival, including one on spoken word, my ears switched on once again, satellite style. Living London, on Monday 7th July, will be bringing the artform right into the heart of the City, and into the Festival’s purpose-built pop-up Bowler Hat space, in Paternoster Square by St Pauls. It will be an evening of city tales, telling tall stories, revealing minute moments, and it will provide a unique linguistic encounter with that shape-shifting, ungraspable, and wonderfully charismatic character – London.

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Spoken word performance has sometimes been dismissed as a less serious artistic endeavour, but as Melanie Abrahams, founder of Tilt, and partner with PinC on Living London points out, it’s more than just clever word play or a bit of ‘cool entertainment’:

“I feel that spoken word enables you to give a good account of yourself. Take for instance the importance of speech in everyday life – to get by, and to get on. Or, the ways that people have been moved to action by strong presentation – Obama being a totemic example. I’ve a passion for well-phrased, wise, funny and stirring words and their articulation and delivery.”

Spoken word is an artform in its own right, and it’s growing in popularity. This year’s Living London will be presenting three very different and very talented artists within the spoken word scene.

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Antosh Wojcik is the youngest of the performers. A graduate in Creative Writing at Winchester University, he came across spoken word after finding conventional studies and approaches to poetry troublesome. He describes spoken word as a “gateway into poetry” which later led to an appreciation of poets such as Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney. While spoken word performances can often appear to be very spontaneous, he speaks of the process as one of constant and rigorous editing – “write it and explore it as much as you can on the page” he says, before describing how he works with the live experience and an audience’s reaction, in order to craft the work further. Wojcik is writing a piece especially for the Living London event, and is performing at the Glastonbury Festival later this week.

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Femi Martin is best known for her flash fiction. These are stories which stick to a short, tight form, and have been described as ‘micro fiction’. Charles Dickens, one of London’s most famous residents, also wrote short fiction pieces and in 2012, Martin was the Dickens Young Writer in Residence at the Charles Dickens Museum. Ever busy, Martin has taken her work and workshops into various organisations around London including schools, libraries and hospitals. Earlier this month she ran a series of workshops in HMP Isis in London and according to English Pen, flash fiction is proving to be a particularly popular form among prisoners. In an interview with the TRC website she says, “I teach people how to get the most out of using just a few words and identify the pinnacle moment”. She is currently working on ‘The Breakups Project’, which explores the ways breakups can affect the body, and will be leading a flash fiction workshop at London’s Southbank Centre on August 5th.

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The third and final contribution to Living London’s spoken word evening comes from Stacy Makishi. Makishi, who has worked with PinC before, describes herself as “a transplant from Hawaii who found paradise in Dalstan, East London”. Impossible to pin down, her interdisciplinary approach takes poetry, and also uses film, installation, and visual art. Makishi creates worlds which are rich with imagination, which are both humane and humorous (she was once a stand-up comic). Her most recent work, ‘The Falsettos’, was described as a “thrilling tale of filial-sleuthery” which explored “midlife, mobs, meatballs and moms via Barbra Streisand, E.T., and The Sopranos”. Makishi meets a Bowler Hat will be a fantastic encounter between a playful and searching artist, and a unique and surreal performance space.

There is something rather fitting (excuse the sartorial pun) about bringing spoken word performance, which is sometimes seen as edgy, still on the fringes, and which challenges and turns conventions on its head, to an icon of respectability and order – the traditional City Bowler Hat! If opposites attract, then this is a marriage made in heaven. I can think of no better place to explore the conundrum that is London, and I’m looking forward to yet another opportunity to have one of those unexpected and magical spoken word ‘moments’…

Living London takes place at 6.30pm on Monday 7 July in The Bowler Hat, Paternoster Square, London EC4M. Tickets are £8 INCLUDING booking fee, and can be purchased from the City of London Festival Website: http://www.colf.org/whats-on/1074-living-london

 

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A Soldier and a Maker – radio drama pays tribute to Ivor Gurney

‘A Soldier and a Maker’ – BBC Radio 3: Drama on 3, 22:00-23:30, 29th June

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting ‘A Soldier and a Maker’ on 29th June, based on the music, poetry and letters of Ivor Gurney. Poet in the City volunteer John Dixon spoke to the play’s author, Iain Burnside, about the fascinating man behind the story…

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Ivor Gurney, born in Gloucester in 1890, fought in the Gloucestershire Regiment in WW1 but had already developed strong interests in both music and poetry before the outbreak of war. He published his first book, Severn and Somme, in July 1917. He had been wounded, not too seriously, in April of that year, but was gassed in September and sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital. He studied briefly with Ralph Vaughan Williams after the war, and produced another volume of poetry, War’s Embers in 1919.

Gurney had already had a mental breakdown in 1913, and the war only exacerbated his mental problems, and although he produced more musical and poetic works up until 1922 he was diagnosed as insane for the last fifteen years of his life. Despite this he continued to produce poetry and some music in the asylum – a further eight collections of verse, though his best musical work was behind him by this stage. He eventually died of tuberculosis in 1937 in the City of London Mental Hospital and was buried at Twigworth, near Gloucester.

Iain Burnside feels that the strongest outpouring of emotion came from the letters Gurney wrote from Dartford Asylum, tormented by his condition, and begging for release. Burnside’s play intertwines the letters, which were never sent, with Gurney’s poems and songs and his own dramatic material.

‘A Soldier and a Maker’ was first performed as a drama on stage with Iain Burnside’s students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at the Barbican Pit. Richard Goulding, a GSMD alumnus, played Gurney, with Stephanie Coles playing Winifred, Gurney’s sister, Jemma Redgrave as his friend Marion Scott, while David Shaw Parker played another friend, Herbert Howells. The songs are performed by the mezzo soprano Susan Bickley and members of the cast. Iain Burnside himself plays piano throughout.

Ivor Gurney described himself as a ‘maker’, not distinguishing between the music and the poetry or setting one above the other, and he will be remembered for both in equal measure. He set few of his own poems to music but the best known of these is Severn Meadows. The remarkable thing is that he was able to produce so much given the fragile state of his mental health even at the outset of war and the physical trials he endured on the Somme. Iain Burnside feels that the prolific artistic outpourings provided some solace to Gurney, even as his mind continued to deteriorate. Most of his poetry remains unpublished, though steps are being taken by Oxford University Press to rectify this, but most of his music is already known. The selected poems, edited by P.J. Kavanagh (OUP 1990) remains an important collection of his poetry, but a fuller picture of the man will surely emerge from publication of more of his work.

John Dixon

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June Drop-In: Living on an Island

Poet in the City volunteer Julian Frazer found himself on an inner-city island of poetry at this month’s Drop-In…

On June 3rd, Waterstones Piccadilly was overrun with poets young and old who came together to read on the subject of ‘Living On An Island.’ The evening was led by Gerry Skeens, who opened proceedings and led the charge with a wide selection of texts, flowing between many great renditions of island imagery. There was everything from poems about Britain and its islands, to poems about being stuck on or escaping them, and poems written and read on islands.

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Islands are odd places to call home. No matter how large they are, they are self-contained, and hemmed in by water. The image of shipwreck on a barren island is a potent and oft-referenced human fear. Stranded and captured by geography, without a ship, your island becomes a prison, a subject that many of our readers turned to. Bound Is The Boatless Man and that poem’s prequel , Ship-lack,turn on, I feel, man’s instinct for curiosity and adventure, and his hatred of chains. They are set in Scotland’s Shetland Islands, though the sensation one feels upon reading them is universal. It is one of looking-out upon the horizon, one of ambition.

Other poems from the reading turn on a longing for home and for a sanctuary. The Soldier turns his mind to his “forever England,” and each of The Shires has received its own epigraph and inked memory. Scotland’s praises are often sung by poets, as one expect of country with almost 800 islands. The Hebrides (Hallaig), the Shetlands (Bound Is The Boatless Man), and the Orkneys (Orkney/This Life), should all be held in special esteem. The Irish are also well represented. Heaney, Yeats, and Hewitt were all born again in the voices of our readers. (English verse without the rolling lyricism of Ireland seems unimaginable, doesn’t it?)

Islands may be then Heaven Havens, imaginations of the sublime and of peace, as in Island and Paradise Island, as well as, in Marooned, clumps of inhospitality. However one interprets islands and living on them one can only hope, unlike Alexander Selkirk in his Solitude and self-deprecating monarchical rule, that you make good use of your time on them. The psychological metaphors in these texts are infinitely arresting, as is the nature of all great art. I would implore you to revisit those poems that impact you, over and over again, to get a sense of the great range of work on offer at these Drop-Ins, and to explore this fascinating poetic theme.

The next drop-in reading will be held again at Waterstones Piccadilly on Tuesday the 1st of July. Proceedings will commence at 7pm, though please join us from 6.30pm, before kick-off, for a glass of wine. The event is free to attend, but places should be booked via piccadilly@waterstones.com. Our host will be the poet John Gibbens, and the theme for the night will be Walking, so let’s get thinking…

Poems performed at the June Drop-In included:

  1. The Lake Isle Of Innisfree – written by William B Yeats, read by Gerry Skeens
  2. Storm On The Island – written by Seamus Heaney, read by Gerry Skeens
  3. The Soldier – written by Rupert Brooke, read by Gerry Skeens
  4. Invictus – written by William Earnest Henley, read by Gerry Skeens
  5. Paradise Island – written by Kristin M, read by Gerry Skeens
  6. Islees – written and read by Michael Walker
  7. Offshore – written and read by Roger Bush
  8. The Solitude Of Alexander Selkirk – written by William Cowper, read by Roger Bush
  9. The Mainland – written by John Hewitt, read by Jennifer Johnson
  10. Island – written and read by Janette Innis
  11. Marooned – written and read by Racker Donnelly
  12. The Long Silence – written by Kenneth Steven, read by John Snelling
  13. Bound Is The Boatless Man – written by Vagaland, né Thomas Alexander Robertson, read by Iain Orr
  14. An Island Spring – written and read by Ingrid Leonard
  15. Orkney/This Life – written by Andrew Gregg
  16. Two Tigers By The Sea – written and read by John Gibbens
  17. Crusoe In England – written by Elizabeth Bishop, read by Stephen Jasper
  18. Heaven Haven – written by Gerrard Manley Hopkins, read by Paul Guest
  19. Inland – written and read by Paul Guest
  20. The Tempest, an extract taken from Caliban’s character – written by William Shakespeare, read by Gabby Meadows
  21. The Idea Of Order At Key West – written by Wallace Stevens, read by Gerry Skeens
  22. Still I Rise – written by Maya Angelou, read by Gerry Skeens
  23. An Island Of Kings And Queens – written and read by George Moudgil
  24. Lady Pirate – written and read by Sharlene Du Marie
  25. The Scarecrow – written by Derek Thomson, read by Richard Lee
  26. The Island Of Bougainville – written and read by Michael Low
  27. The Malarkeypeligo – written and read by Racker Donnelly
  28. Floating – written and read by Janette Innis
  29. The Beehive Cells – written by Kenneth Steven, read by John Snelling
  30. The Shires, four extracts – written by John Fuller
  31. Salt In The Blood/Salt I’ The Bluid – written by Robert Rendall, read by Ingrid Leonard
  32. Hallaig – written by Sorley MacLean, read by Iain Orr
  33. An Island Of Kings And Queens, continued – written and read by George Moudgil
  34. They Will Take My Island – written and read by Richard Lee
  35. Crossing The Bar – Alfred Tennyson, read by Roger Bush
  36. La Serenissima – written and read by John Gibbens
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Longships and poetic treasures – Poet in the City gets to grips with the Vikings….

Ingrid Leonard discovers the Vikings ahead of our Viking Sagas event this week.

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Visitors prepared to devote more time than a quick whirl round ‘The Vikings: Life and Legend’ exhibition at the British Museum can expect both an education and a feast for the imagination. Through an exhibit spread that covers swords, settlers, sailing, mythology and (of course) battle, we learn that, far from being solely pirates and raiders (the original Old Norse meaning of ‘viking’ and tag by which they are often remembered in British history) here we have a people who spread their culture and beliefs into a network of trading contacts which spanned 4 continents, from the Americas to Afghanistan, taking in Constantinople, the poetically- named Miklagard, on the way.

The Vikings shared their ideas on economic systems, religious thought and artistic skills, peacefully or otherwise, wherever they travelled and this can be seen in jewellery and coins, some of which are outstanding, which mark the beginning of the exhibition, often set alongside similar artefacts from Baltic and Slavic cultures of the same period.

The real meat of the exhibition, however, lies in those old Viking favourites of raiding, battle and wordy exaltation of fierce gods, as told through excerpts from the Nordic and Icelandic literary saga traditions which accompany the visitor on their tour. Indeed, the magnificent 37-metre ‘Sea Wolf’ warship, otherwise known as Roskilde 6 and excavated from the fjord of the same name could not be more accurately depicted than by the Icelandic Skald/poet Þjóðólfr Arnórsson:

‘Men will quake with terror before the seventy sea-oars are given deserved respite from the labours of the ocean, Norwegian arms are driving this iron-studded dragon down the storm-tossed river like an eagle with wings flapping’.

Other bloody highlights include axes and spear-heads, an enormous wooden shield, skeletons from a mass grave of 50-odd Viking raiders who were hacked to pieces mid-raid on the rolling hills of Dorset and a fabulous helmet and (we hope) berserker’s jaw, complete with filed teeth, both to inspire fear in the onlooker and as a warrior testament to the ability to withstand pain. Add to this the fact that these warriors adorned themselves with tattoos and eye make-up and we have a picture which meets and exceeds all pre-conceived expectations.

Yet there is another side to this ancient people of the North. Belief in the human power to shape-shift was widespread among the Vikings, with men taking the form of bears and wolves and women sea creatures or birds. Magic was practised overwhelmingly by women in the form of ‘völva’ (‘staff bearer’) a kind of shamanic sorceress and burials of such women often contained amulets, animal remains, hallucinogens and, of course, their metal staffs. Reference is also made to ‘norns’, female beings who controlled the fate of the world and no Viking exhibition would be complete without an appearance, if fleeting, from the Valkyries, those ‘choosers of the slain’.

Odin and Thor also make an appearance in the shape of diminutive amulets and (take note, fans of the Marvel Studios films) Mjölnir is also on hand as a symbol of the gods’ power to control storms and as a fearsome weapon in battle.

A number of kennings – metaphors used in Skaldic verse – lighten the mood of the exhibition:

‘A man shall clutch at his cup, but moderately drink his mead; he should be sparing of speech or shut up; no man will blame you for bad behaviour if you go early to bed.’ A snippet of wisdom which we can only assume is born of experience, even if it sits at odds with a gallon-sized ale-feasting bucket from the 10th century exhibited nearby.

The Vikings Exhibition tells us that much of what we know about Viking mythology was first written in Iceland. What better motivation then for Poet in the City to host the ‘Viking Sagas’ event, an evening of Icelandic sagas and poems, with contributions from experts on Viking literature and heritage, held in the heart of the British Museum on Friday 30th May.

Taking part in Poet in the City’s event is Gerður Kristný, an acclaimed Icelandic poet and author of Blóðhófnir -‘Bloodhoof’. Written as a modern response to the story of Freyr, Norse god of virility and prosperity, who falls in love with the female giantess Gerður, Bloodhoof retells this story for the first time through the eyes of a woman, Gerður, using the anonymous poem ‘Skírnismál’ (‘Words of Skírnir’) and Snorri Sturluson’s 13th century Prose Edda as source material.

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Having stolen into Odin’s throne and gained the ability to gaze out over all worlds, Freyr spots the beautiful maiden Gerður in her native Giantland and immediately falls irrevocably in love. Having given him his horse and magic sword, Freyr sends his servant Skírnir, who woos Gerður on his master’s behalf, first with finery but, when she refuses, with threats of death and plague. In the words of Gerður: ‘Love had indeed come armed to the teeth’.

Gerður then agrees to meet Freyr in nine nights’ time, a message which is delivered to Freyr by Skírnir. It is here that the Icelandic sagas end their tale and where Kristný continues hers, with all of Gerður’s fear of violence, coercion and lamenting of her lot contrasted with her love for her mother, her brothers and the raw beauty of her home: ‘There is my country wrapped in calm of night, steeped in steel-cold ice’.

No more is the threat of violence clearer than in the title of this vivid piece of work, the hooves of Skírnir’s horse wet with the promise of fresh blood that will be spilt if Gerður rejects Freyr’s advances.

This wonderful poem can be read in English translation from Rory McTurk, published by Arc Press.

The British Museum’s Vikings exhibition runs til 22nd June.

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Andrew Motion and Friends; a night of Bloomsbury poets

Bloomsbury Hotel, London, 22nd May 2014

Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott choose their friends well. Or maybe there’s something in the air at Royal Holloway that allows creative talent to flourish, because Karen McCarthy Woolf, Will Searle, Lydia Macpherson and Declan Ryan all brought fresh and distinctive voices to the Bloomsbury Hotel on Thursday night.

the poets L-R: Karen, Will, Lydia, Andrew, Declan & Jo.

Karen McCarthy Woolf’s recently published poem (and book) An aviary of small birds was a moving tribute to a stillborn child, but Karen is clearly an outgoing type who reaches out beyond such intensely personal experiences to engage with a wide variety of poetry events and literary happenings to feed her art. Lydia Macpherson too wrapped her experience of family and nature into her 2014 publication Love Me Do, from which she read. Will Searle drew on an eclectic mix of anecdotes from North Wales to Africa, demonstrating a sharp eye for the unusual. Declan Ryan though delivered the most mature offering from this young group, drawing less on direct personal experience than subjects like boxing, revealing an economy of style in his re-telling of the legendary fight between Joe Louis and Primo Carnera, while in the poem The Exaltation Of Saint John Coltrane he explored jazz; he chose as his subject a rough time in Coltrane’s life when he couldn’t play the sax. The research behind these works gives them added value – not for nothing is Declan one of Faber’s new poets for 2013-14.

Not to be outshone by their protégés, Jo Shapcott brought us a bunch of roses, in her response to a group of ‘rose’ poems in French by Rainer Marie Rilke. And finally, Andrew Motion read a few poems, the last as yet unpublished – a warm tribute to a remarkable mother he had interviewed, who lost her soldier son to the conflict in Afghanistan. The dignity of the way the mother managed the news of her fatally injured son shone through this touching dialogue.

No doubt Andrew and Jo will continue to unearth more new talents and bring them to our attention in future, but by Thursday’s showing this group of Royal Holloway’s students are already making their mark.

by John Dixon

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Chaucer in the Cathedral

Aisha Farr reviews Chaucer: Modern Echoes, which took place on Thursday 10th April, 2014 at Southwark Cathedral….

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As Southwark Cathedral filled up with Geoffrey Chaucer’s present-day pilgrims, I stood at the back of the building and absently recalled the prologue for The Canterbury Tales, one of the few passages of poetry I learnt growing up:

‘Wan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…’

It was indeed April, but outside London Bridge was dry and warm, the sky blue and dusky, and the trains rattled evenly past the stained glass windows in glimpses. So the mixing of old and new began.

With the full congregation settled in their pews, Gail Ashton, the Chaucerian academic and biographer, set the scene with a lively introduction to Chaucer, in which she credited him with “giving us back our mother tongue” by boldly choosing to write in the vernacular at a time when French was still the official language, during the reign of Richard II.

She also highlighted the breadth of his influence. From Peter Ackroyd’s The Canterbury Tales retelling, the RSC’s performances in Middle English, to bumper stickers and movies such as the rom-com The Knight’s Tale, his writing has continued to echo forwards to us, an effect which the cathedral acoustics appropriately performed throughout the readings.

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The event centered on some very recent work made under Chaucer’s influence; the new poetry collections A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde by Lavinia Greenlaw and Telling Tales (inspired by The Canterbury Tales) by Patience Agbabi.

Woven through the headline acts were readings from passages of Chaucer – in the original Middle English and then in modern translation – brought to life by Tom Deveson and Gabby Meadows’ voices. The readings were appropriately from the texts that had inspired the poets’ collections, namely Troilus and Creseyde and The Canterbury Tales, and I thought the specific selection of passages from these works were inspired. It was amazing how intense such small and fragmentary readings could be, and this surely gave the audience some understanding of what drove the two poets to rework his writing, to try and distil them to something modern in size and tone.

Lavinia Greenlaw’s introduction to her reading swept us across time from Homer, past Bocaccio, through to Chaucer, drawing our attention to the process of literary reception, and what happens each time a story or idea is versioned. She encapsulated the knack that poetry has for collapsing time, flattening all past and present to mutual contemporaneity, when she said of Homer that his verse, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyede was simply “about a man who dies young”. Chaucer, similarly, describes Troilus as ‘a dead image’.

In the same vein, her writing seeks to be timeless, shaking off any specifics that might tie the words down to place and context. But she is also drawn to complexities, activating, as she explained, our “ideas of love, and how feelings are a mesh of things”. Without pretension, the poems search for a kind of literary honesty that tries to transcend tradition in order to express something more directly human. Their content comes from moments in the lovers’ story, which Greenlaw has picked and planted, making room for them to grow into something lucid and new.

Her approach is humble too: the book exposes the poet clearly as a reader, who has unashamedly chosen the sections of Chaucer’s version which she loves and responds to most; her method is transparent and in this way confessional and personal. In her poem ‘Lime’, she spins her premise from a borrowed Boccacian image of love running through Troilus like ‘a bird over whom lime has been poured’, making her own lines from this: ‘As love spreads through him like lime through feathers/ And settles its weight’. In condensing the combination of previous versions, her writing becomes about this process as well as about love.

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The collection pauses at points of Troilus and Criseyde, and at these places in the old text sheds light on parts that are shady or have gone partly unsaid. The moments she chooses are often ambiguous or ineffably rich, and so the poems can only capture some of this complexity; ‘so full, so light’. They also make use of repetition, most noticeably in the poem ‘In this heaven he starts to delight’. The anaphora of ‘a place… a place’ at the start of every line seems to reiterate her poetic process, her awareness of all the text’s possibilities as repetitions of ones before them.

There is a poetic form that has been inherited from Chaucer, a seven-line stanza called the ‘rhyme royal’ to which both poets referred during the evening’s event, Patience Agbabi calling it her ‘favourite form’. Its rhyme scheme – a-b-a-b-b-c-c – has an inherent oddness, giving an off-kilter, unsettling effect, which Chaucer first used in Troilus and Criseyde. Thomas Wyatt later employed it for his famous poem ‘They flee from me’, which makes use of the rhyme’s natural strangeness to echo the insidious subject matter. In fundamental ways, there was an underlying awe which both poets expressed for Chaucer’s inventiveness, the toolkit which he had left them, and the suppleness of his writing which seems to have invited so many others to create after him.

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Patience Agbabi’s reading was a real contrast, with its spoken-word energy and life. The audience’s applause after her opening poem was hearty and full, responding now to the character in the voices she was writing in, as though – in The Canterbury Tales – she really was the storyteller taking her turn, and we were gratefully listening to pass the journey. Indeed she herself had described it as ‘a remix of The Canterbury Tales’. What was so striking about her work was how much recognisable character and life, like Chaucer, she had captured, and she even took Chaucer’s pointed use of the vernacular and in the same spirit deliberately used equivalent modern slang, like ‘hubby’. As Gail Ashton had declared at the event’s opening: “[Chaucer] truthfully explores the ways in which we live”.

In Telling Tales, she includes biographies of the characters she has created, like her ‘Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey’ the publord of the Tabbard Inn, who hosts a story-telling night at the pub, one of many details that got a big laugh. An audience often enjoys a well-drawn modern equivalent of a classic, and the wit and knowingness of hers won them over from the beginning. She also proved herself to be a fine spoken-word poet, and I couldn’t help but notice how much her rhyme sounded like The Canterbury Tales prologue at points, with the same skipping heart-beat cohesion that makes it so memorable and exciting. You can watch her perform her own version of the prologue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U-ozgjZfjQ

“They are fools that think the poem lies only in the pages… it will talk back to you, in all its tongues.”

As I’ve often found to be the case in the past, having two poets read alongside each other, when they have taken quite different approaches, stimulates further thought about the meanings we each make when reading a poem, and the way in which the text offers up its layers so variously.Both poets’ readings were so wonderfully different, and in that way the evening ultimately felt like a communal celebration of ‘the reader’, and the way in which we all can find personal resonances in writing from any century. Through the act of reading we are all intuiting new meanings, finding slants and angles, and actually writing our own versions of a poem for ourselves.

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