24 hours in poetry

1. Dateline: 16.02.2018, about 20.00, The Poetry School, Lambeth, London

One of the great joys of being a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen is that we often have guest poets in to run sessions — which truthfully are masterclasses, as we get to see a mind up at work, up close. Tonight, we’ve been joined by Nuar Alsadir, flown in en route to the Verve Poetry Festival. We start by watching a short snippet from Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil then read some extracts from Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book — lists lists lists and how they form a basis from which we can expand outwards into contemplating, capturing a moment; and maybe, while we’re at it, a little of bit of the person who is doing the contemplating and the capturing.

If you’ve read Fourth Person Singular, then you’ll know that Alsadir’s approach is, well, singular, especially in how it approaches our relationship with time, and how we navigate the world, and present a sense of ourselves in the world. She reiterated one of the things she mentioned on her recent Poetry School Lyric Essay course (disclosure: I was a full and enthusiastic participant), the distinction between ‘horizontal’ time — prose time, time moving forward, ordinary time — and ‘vertical’ time, poetic time when the reader can get closer to a moment, get inside it.

She has a particular ability, in framing writing prompts, that somehow make you focus more directly inwardly on yourself, but at the same time be looking outwards. Combine that with a tight drafting time — four minutes! — and suddenly you are observing in a way that goes beyond simple looking but into something deeper and richer.

And we talk too — 14 of us round the table, about things like *that* Rebecca Watts article, how far we go in accommodating reader’s expectation of the words we use — and the political implication of those decisions, especially when we might be using the ‘colonisers’ language.

It is one of those nights that reminds you why it’s quite good being a poet.

On the train up from London Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street, I am struck by the fact that is the first time in a long time I am heading somewhere to do something poetic but without my reading copy of Ticker-tape. And that fills me with a warm glow — the knowledge that I can listen to, bask in, revel in other people’s words without worrying about delivering my own.

Part of the joy of being at a festival in a world so small as the poetry one is that you will know a fair few of the people in the room, which for me always makes these days fun and bouncy — you get to shake the hands of people you admire, tell them how great their last book was, how fab their reading was (and never underestimate how much these little bolts of pride matter to people); and yes, you get to swap gripes and gossip too.

I think the reason that Verve in particular has been taken to so many hearts so quickly is precisely because it understands this underlying kindness that is extant in the poetry world, no matter what writing or performing background you’re from, or tradition you’re writing into. It’s why it can programme the strong meat on offer from the Offord Road Books poets (it was a real pleasure hearing Martha Sprackland, Bobby Parker and James Brookes read, three distinct voices that dovetailed well precisely because of their singularity) and then head straight into the sheer collective joy that was the Poetry Assembly, the carnival that sent Jane Commane’s Assembly Lines into the world (which, bias and all, I think is fab and you should all read now).

And in a sense the festival itself is the biggest argument against the lingering impression that Watt’s article has left. Now, be in now doubt that I am all for craft, for working to make sure that what your words do on the page is as good as it can be (and, by the way, that what you do when reading and performing should be as good as it can be too.) But my biggest over-riding impression from the article was the sense of it trying to draw boundaries artificially, too tightly and saying: only *this* can be poetry.

And Verve says: you’re joking right? Look at all these people, who with vigour and diligence and craft and compassion and love, take their various life experiences, influences, memories — their being in the world — and transmute it into art. Is there ‘personality’ here? You bet. Is some of it not what I prefer to read or hear? Of course. Could some of it be ‘better’? Sure, whatever ‘better’ is. But is it worth giving a hearing? Absolutely.

For whatever we write, however we write it, however sloppy or tight, however lazy or not our poems might be, like it or not, we are part of this community, and that maybe, just maybe, means we should be kind as we critique, fair on others as we are tough on ourselves, and remember — it is precisely because this stuff matters that it should be fun too. Take the work seriously, but never yourself seriously, as my old creative director once told me.

Of course, I am poetry’d out now, and so once I finish the novel I have with me (Alicia Kopf’s Brother In Ice from And Other Stories, and it is excellent), I put on the Fighting Talk podcast, and while giggling to that, one of Jane’s poems comes back to me, from earlier:

…the tongues,

rabbling and clattering through vowels and dialect

and regional collateral like wonderful

mongrels escaped from the pound,

never to be returned, gifts

we must carry behind our teeth,

a Hleów-feðer to drape on

a fellow traveller’s shoulders.

(Hleów-feðer means ‘shelter-feather’, but in some Old English literature it is used mean to put a protecting arm put around someone.)

And I think: that’s a pretty good manifesto for our community. Put a protecting arm around someone.

I felt lots of arms around me today. Which is why it is has been one those days that reminds you why it’s quite good being a poet.

Hunger, Fire, Harrumph.

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