Poetry at a safe distance, with added snaps.

Going to poetry readings is a high risk activity, even outside of pandemic conditions. There’s a good chance of getting badly bored, as well as the daintier hope of having one’s entire being revivified by the power of language in its most indisputable finery.

A great kid who lives on our street. He hasn’t been to school in nearly a year. A granny from an upstairs flat lowered him down her old party balloons. Pop pop!

Two of the biggest ones: The Forward Prizes and now the TSEliot prize, have had to move online recently, like everything else.

I watched the latter last night and the night before in manageable chunks. Having a seven day window to watch and listen to ten poets read for five minutes each, on a prerecorded video, is a very different experience to the old fluster of catching the 59 bus from Brixton Hill to Waterloo, and stampeding around with fellow poets at the Festival Hall.

Those were fun and unpredictable capers of catching up and talking shop, laying bets, exchanging views and verdicts on books, performances, (outfits) and the shortlist in general. Who had read what, who had been overlooked, and what a load of nonsense prizes are!

Hanging out with fellow poets at the Festival Hall after the Forward Prizes, 2016. L to R, Jill Abram, John Clegg, Katrina Naomi, Malika Booker & me. Pic by Richard Skinner.

Because even mainstream poetry has less pull for a wide audience than other artforms, the hierarchies in it seem less extreme. So it’s easy to have a chat with a big prize winner who is also off on the bus afterwards, and stopping in at a supermarket for a cheese sandwich on the way home.

collections on the T S Eliot prize shortlist 2021

Poetry is magic, on the page and in the air, but the completion of the magic is in the reader, and how difficult it is not to catch or share that energy as it is cast into the collective space. The futility of this put me off attending the Forward readings online, though I’d read and loved many of the shortlisted works. But I decided to be brave and try with the TSEliots this time, even at the risk of the screen flattening my responses.

Trying to access the texture of real life through a distancing screen.

The word reassuring could have been coined for Ian McMillan, who is the regular compère of this ceremony in its live form. He is an expert in both poetry and audience handling and can hold the most incongruous gaggle of poets together. His unpretentious introductions to each gives space to any voice or content that may follow.

We only heard five minutes of work from each of the shortlisted poets, as compared to eight when it’s a live event. This made it almost impossible to arrive at boredom, (I was a little disappointed.) I took a special pride in those I knew or had read with. Poetry is nothing if not subjective.

This tree obviously knows what it’s doing & has done all its life.

For me, hearing Sasha Dugdale was a highlight. In her book Deformations, she questions power between men and women, artist and subject. Pain is trapped and inspected in her concision. Her renaming of Odysseus as Pitysad – with that conscious sounding of PTSD within it – made the poem she read from that sequence: Stripclub, extra layered. Words fluttered in a demimonde of desire & loss and the cumulative inhabiting of both. Whose skin we occupy in relationship, who performs and who feels. I looked at the book again later that night, and read a prose poem in the voice of Penelope. Always waiting. Still waiting now. It reminded me of Molly Bloom’s parallel monologue that ends Ulysses, but Sasha Dugdale inhabits the voice of a female lover in a very different key from the one James Joyce created.

I enjoyed the helter skelter wit and delight in language of Natalie Diaz– in which she piled on layer after layer of celebratory metaphors for her lover’s hips.

A window alights on a set of shut doors.

Ella Frears has a talent for the unsettling. She pulls horror from beneath the pretty, with a twisted aplomb. I read with her a couple of years ago and this adds to my feeling of connection with her, and the tornado of her poetry and mind. I also loved how she began, by saying: ‘I wish we were all in a room together.’

My local playground: not just empty, but what an impossible swamp to zip across.

Wayne Holloway Smith, with his oversized glasses and funky green sofa makes poetry refreshing. There’s no stodge or pomp in his poems, but pictures. The boy, the man, the town, the scene – emerge visceral, visible: blazing in city rhythms. He sat in my kitchen once, when such things were allowed, as I was asked to draw his portrait for the cover of Poetry London.

A version of Wayne by me.

Daisy Lafarge is a poet whose work I didn’t know. I really enjoyed the textures and delicacies she created in the work she read. Musicality, muscularity. A book I look forward to reading.

I don’t have Rendang by Will Harris yet, (my reading life has narrowed horribly since the libraries have been shut) I enjoyed his poems too. The work is subtle and imaginative: images open out and expand, reappear in different guises, places and objects are conjured vividly.

Images reappear & sometimes seem to flow or flood the readers imagination, doubling up like the river in the sky.

There’s tons to read – about the poets I have and haven’t covered. Shane McCrae, Bhanu Kapil (who won the £25000!) Glyn Maxwell and J.O. Morgan….

I admired the assurance & surprises in all the works laid out before my eyes and ears as I wandered through the dismally flat carpet emporium of my laptop.

Lockdown life with Zippy. Basket made by my son Conrad, photo by my daughter Rosa.

So, prizes for poetry! Absurd! It all seems counterintuitive in some ways (like how can a consensus be reached on what is good quality poetry, or god forbid, the best!)

But listening to these poets who’d thought so richly about which words they’d arrange in what order, did somehow re kindle my somewhat pandemic-crushed writing arm – and make it re-member – that a voice is an instrument of power, one worth using & raising – more than ever in a muted period of admonishing slogans, and their accompanying blanket of nightly death statistics.

Space on the narrow path & some rocks worth contemplating.

So thanks – for reading, and for continuing with the exhausting work of being a three dimensional human person with limbs & not just a flat zoom shaped head, for being… ALIVE!

Puddle the size of England, but better at catching the sun.

A Feast of Words

library poster

A Feast of Words

Free event with Shazea Quraishi, Ravinder Randhawa and me.

Part of Lambeth Readers and Writers Festival

Do come and hear me and two fellow Brixton writers talking and reading at our local library on May 20th, 7-9PM. As well as reading new work, we’ll be talking about how Brixton and the library have shaped and inspired us and our writing.

We’ve been invited by Marilyn Rogers the chair of the friends group. There’ll be refreshments, time to chat and ask questions, space for library saving ideas!

Shazea’s new collection The Art of Scratching, has just been published by Bloodaxe Books.

https://shazea.wordpress.com/

Ravinder is the acclaimed author of many novels.

http://www.ravinderrandhawa.com/

Looking forward to a bustling evening in the middle of Brixton!