I spent the whole of yesterday at Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank Centre in London. I couldn’t be there every day this week without looking like a Simon Armitage stalker, but I treated myself to a day out. Frank, my other half, gave me a lift as far as Osterley tube station on his way to work, so I got to the south bank about an hour before anything opened. I was forced to take shelter in a cafe with latte and an organic almond croissant.
The first event was “an intimate reading” by Jo Shapcott of a number of her poems including her “bee poems” ( one of which you can find here at 14:55) which I’m getting more and more out of with re-reading. I’ve been lucky enough this academic year to be one of Jo’s students at Royal Holloway, and the encouragement of attending her workshops has helped me a lot. Her editor, Matthew Hollis, at Faber and Faber, described her to me as a “national treasure”, which indeed she is.
Next I attended a workshop with Kate Kilalea on how to tell secrets in poetry. I struggle with making things up; many of my poems could be prefaced by the words “this is a true story”, which I put down to my training in science. Somehow, nobody expects a novelist to tell a true story, but when a poet writes a poem, most people think it is strictly autobiographical. It was fascinating to explore how much of us as poets is visible in our work, versus how much we choose to keep our distance.
During the breaks between events, I just hung out at the Clore Ballroom and watched the poets from 170 countries read their stuff, and there were some very eccentric readings indeed. I think my favourite “random find” was Minoli Salgado, from Sri Lanka, who read poems that sounded absoutely beautiful, and also made me feel that the world is small – her preoccupations felt very familiar. Also if I could “speak in tongues” I would choose Georgian. Maya Sarashvili’s poems sounded like angels speaking; and it was almost a disappointment to find out, thanks to Sasha Dugdale’s beautifully crafted English version, that she was talking about missing her children as she went through airport security.
“Famous Seamus” Heaney is always a highlight, and I was delighted that he read his translation from the Irish of Rua Ó Súilleabháin, “Poet to Blacksmith” which is about how to make a spade, or a poem, in fact. I love poems about making things. I’ve written a few myself.
Wole Soyinka is another Nobel Prize winner. I couldn’t hear him so well, but he did read a funny long poem about going to the optician and being told that his eyes had such different prescriptions that they didn’t belong on the same person. Much mirth ensued when a mobile phone rang in the middle of the performance and turned out to be Wole’s own.
Topping the bill was American former laureate, Kay Ryan, who was witty and thought-provoking and profound, and without any poetic ego. I really must buy some of her work and see how she does it.
Eleven hours of poetry yesterday has taken its toll. I was at home, gathering up the washing this morning, announcing:
“Now has come the hour of towels, for to every laundry there is a season”.