Two-Centre Poetry

Saturday was a busy poetry day. In the morning I went into London to a meeting of the Tideway Poets at the South Bank Centre. This is a group that used to meet at the Poetry School for Jane Draycott’s Saturday Sessions – a really useful and inspiring poetry workshop. When Jane decided she needed a break from teaching, her students kept on meeting, and over a year later the group is still going strong. Our workshopping wrapped up at about three o’clock, then I legged it back through London, despite Transport for London’s best efforts to delay me, and got home just after five. I collected my Other Half and we set off into the sunset, to Swindon, for a very special poetry event; the prizegiving for Cristina Newton’s Battered Moons poetry competition – part of the Swindon Festival of Poetry.

One of my Tideway colleagues was there; Ruth Wiggins was commended in the competition and read her mysterious poem (beautifully) which is entitled: “Confession: I’ve been crumbling antihistamines into your food all week”. Here’s Ruth, posing in Swindon Arts Centre with the festival mascot, who I am told is called Ophelia Dog.

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All the competition poems were of a really high standard. Thanks to Cristina, you can read them here.

The judge of the competition was the marvellous Alice Oswald, who read for us in the second half of the evening. Oswald is a fantastic writer, and also speaks all her poems from memory, which makes the whole event so special. I’d already got all her books, but bought another copy of Dart just so she could sign it for me afterwards. (However hard I try, I can’t resolve her signature into the name ‘A. Oswald’. It looks as though she wrote ‘Moomin’, which must be a Secret Message.) I had the chance to speak to her and congratulated her on memorising her poems. She told me it has become ‘a bit of a fixation – it’s all about the oral storytelling tradition’. She has, on occasion, recited the whole of her book ‘Memorial’ from…um… memory. She performed the last few stanzas of it for us on Saturday night, along with a section from Dart and many of her nature poems.

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I admire Oswald so much for ploughing her own poetic furrow down in Devon. She doesn’t clamour at the social media – as far as I know she doesn’t tweet, doesn’t have a facebook page, doesn’t blog. It’s hard to find anything of her on YouTube. She occasionally writes for the Guardian, is diffident about judging competitions, and diligently gets on with the writing that matters to her. Now Seamus has gone, she may be the finest poet writing in English today. I did get the chance to tell her that if I hadn’t heard her interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row back in 2002, I wouldn’t have bought Dart, wouldn’t have started reading poetry again, would certainly never have written any.

I’m going back to re-read some of her work before I try to write anything new.

Poetry Book Fair


Yesterday was a wonderful poetic day in London. The Poetry Book Fair, masterminded by Charles Boyle, put on a great show at Conway Hall. There were dozens of poetry presses there with their books – from Bloodaxe and Picador to the tiny hand-made publishers. I got to talk to a few of the ones in between; Kirsten Irving & John Stone from Fuselit, Todd Swift from Eyewear, Helena Nelson from HappenStance, Maria McCarthy from Cultured Llama, and Karen Mosman from Two Rivers Press.

But the biggest shout out has to go to Adele Ward and Mike Fortune-Wood at Ward Wood, who have a decent number of other poetry books on their list, but kindly donated their half-hour reading slot to four of us from the Royal Holloway MA course. Ward Wood publishes the “Bedford Square” anthology of new writing from the course every year. It was a delight to share the stage with Sarah Nesbitt (and baby), Caroline Squire and Lavinia Singer. Also great to see such a lovely, and quite distinguished, audience at our reading.

And then in the evening, we decamped a few yards up the road to the Square Pig and Pen pub, where the readings continued.

As for the poets; well Hilda Sheehan and Bethany Pope were among the Cultured Llama readers. Christopher James was excellent for Arc Publishing, and do look out for Penny Boxall‘s book from Eyewear which is due out next February. What I liked about James and Boxall in particular was the quirky range of subjects they tackled. James on the Age of Hats was great, and Boxall, on three shipwrecked sailors who were all called Hugh Williams, inspired. They both get my WIST (Wish I’d Said That) award.

There are pictures on the Poetry Book Fair site of the rows of poetry book stalls and of some of the readers., proving that poetry publishing is lively, healthy and diverse. The photo above is one that Charles Boyle might not have known about; there was a Book Fair Fringe going on, in the cafe in Red Lion Square, just outside the venue. This is Nicholas Murray, reading from his collection from Melos; “Of Earth, Water, Air and Fire – animal poems”.

I WISH there were at least two of these events every year!

‘And the best thing of all, the ring of it – sweet as a bell.’

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”.