Monthly Archives: November 2013

Celebrations at the Poetry Society

Anyone who knows me will realise that admin and AGMs aren’t my cup of tea; so you will no doubt be a little surprised to hear that I had a very jolly time at the Poetry Society’s AGM earlier this week.

The venue for the evening was Keats House in Hampstead Heath. This is the house where John Keats HouseKeats lived between 1818 and 1820, and where he fell in love with the girl next door – Fanny Brawne. He wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here, though I suspect it’s many years now since a nightingale ventured this far into North London. The house is now a museum, dedicated both to the memory of Keats, and also to poetry in general, so it was entirely fitting that the Poetry Society should hold its AGM there.

We were welcomed with wine and nibbles, then Sir Stephen Irwin, the Chair of the Poetry Society, gave a very positive report of the last year at the society. It is no secret that the Poetry Society went through a rough patch a couple of years ago, but over the last year, the dedication, hard work, fortitude and good humour of the staff have pulled the society through and brought it back to full strength. All the staff are once again in place, and what  a lovely lot of people they are! The Director, Judith Palmer, who has done so much to bring the society through its difficulties, gave a report of recent activity, and the long list of events and work with young people was impressive.

With the business behind us, we replenished our glasses and then moved on to the poetry reading. Three of us had been invited to read, with an emphasis on celebration to set us thinking about the festive season ahead: R V Bailey, Dannie Abse and me.

Rosie at Poetry SocietyRosie read first, starting with a few general poems before moving on to some of her Christmas poems, which she described, with wry humour, as ‘gloomy’. One of these,  ‘At Maison Miller’, is credentials-fullin the voice of an elderly woman at the hairdresser’s trying hard to be enthusiastic about going to stay with her family for Christmas and knowing she is going to end up feeling sad and lonely. Several of the poems Rosie read, including this one, were in Credentials, the collection of her poems published by Oversteps last year.

Reading at Poetry SocietyI read next, and like Rosie I began with some new pieces, festo front coverfollowed by several of the poems from my collection festo: celebrating winter and Christmas. I thoroughly enjoyed reading to this packed audience of poets who responded with such fantastic warmth and enthusiasm.

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When I was a student I went to hear Dannie Abse reading his work and remember being impressed that a practising doctor could at the same time make a name for himself as a poet. Little did I know that this same poet would be writing and performing his poetry many years later, or that I would enjoy the enormous privilege of reading with him at the celebration of his ninetieth birthday.

Dannie has lost none of his dynamism and charm, and his voice is as strong as ever. It was very fitting that after Rosie and I had been presented with huge bouquets of beautiful flowers, the lights were lowered and a birthday cake, twinkling with candles, was brought to the front for Dannie to blow out the candles before the cake was cut and shared with everyone present. As ‘the icing on the cake’ of the evening, it has to be reported that the cake was delicious.

Thank you to all at the Poetry Society for organising such a happy occasion; and thanks to the lovely audience who made it all so worthwhile. And once again, many happy returns to Dannie Abse on his ninetieth birthday.

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Winchester blog 5: November

After five fascinating and enjoyable months, I have come to the end of my assignment as Poet in Residence for the Winchester 10 Days festival. From July onwards I visited the city once a month, and my reflections on these visits have appeared on earlier blogs. The final spurt – the actual ten days – meant more visits to Winchester, more obvious excitements and more public appearances.

The launch of 10 Days was on 25th October, and as I was at the Torbay Poetry Festival, 2013-10-25 17.16.36 copy
I needed to travel for five hours, on four trains, to get to the launch, stay in a b&b and then return the next day. But it was worth it. There were 400 people there for the launch; and the cathedral, lit predominantly by candlelight, grew huge and seemed to float. I was able to see all the artworks in situ, and meet some of the artists I hadn’t managed to meet before.

My b&b hostess was Alice Kettle, who was one of the artists exhibiting in the cathedral. We got on extremely well, and if anyone ever needs a b&b in Winchester, I would recommend that they go to her. Here is the work on which she collaborated for the exhibition.

Alice Kettle's piece cropped

It was strange going round the cathedral and finding my poems everywhere. There was a map of the Poetry Trail for people to pick up as they went into the cathedral, but in fact it was quite difficult to miss them. Because they were all displayed so beautifully and so prominently, and also because the portrait Michael Weller painted of me was exhibited, lots of people came up to talk to me, which was fun and interesting.

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The poem displayed above was not written specially for the exhibition (in fact it was included in my last collection, festo), but seemed appropriate for this spot in the cathedral, just beside the Holy Hole and under the icons. A few of the other poems in the Poetry Trail were not new – and of course I wrote others while I was working in the cathedral, including one about Jane Austen’s tombstone, which is situated in the north aisle.

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Later in the ten days I did a couple of ‘walk-abouts’ in the cathedral. On one of the days there were lots of young French visitors, so I chatted to them, and I also spent time with some of the volunteers who tend the two libraries in the cathedral. They were keen to take a photo of me beside my portrait, so I succumbed.

The other two events of the week were a writing workshop, for which I took the festival theme of Creative Collisions, and then an evening performance which included a new piece by June Boyce-Tillman, a poetry reading by me and finally a discussion with some of the artists with whom I had been collaborating. This was very ably chaired by Stephen Boyce, who set all of us at ease and elicited comments and questions from the audience. The artists who shared in this were Lisa Earley, Sue Wood, Lucy Cass and Penny Burnfield.

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I’ve covered some of these in earlier blogs, so
I’ll just include Penny’s beautiful piece here. Penny used silhouettes of members of her family on the hangings, and then inscribed some of the words from the surrounding monuments over them. The poem I wrote to accompany this piece is called ‘Retrospective’. I wrote it before I met Penny, and it was wonderful how what she had in mind when she was creating the piece and what I wrote for her should have chimed so well together. My  poem will now travel with Penny’s artwork when it is exhibited elsewhere.

The last of the works of art I was asked to respond to was a dramatic piece by Anna Sikorska entitled ‘You are very near to us’. It was a huge float, suspended from the ceiling of the cathedral, and was situated at the back end of the nave. This poem had to be written rather quickly before I went off on holiday, so that the printing could be done while I was away. Initially I thought I was going to be stumped by this one, but then the poem, ‘Transition’, came to me, and I even managed to get in all the various themes that Anna suggested to me by email. Normally I go back to edit poems before launching them out into the world, but that wasn’t possible in the time-frame we had available. In view of this, I’m much relieved that all the poems seemed to work out fine, and were greatly appreciated. Whew!

float      2013-10-31 11.36.39

Quite a number of people have requested that there should be a publication so that they can have copies of the poems. The organisers of the festival are keen to do this, but whether it happens or not depends (as so often) on finance. If it does, I’d like to include all the artworks, with my poems on the opposite pages. The festival photographer, Joe Low, has plenty of super photos of everything that went on at the festival. This publication might well not be possible, but if it does come off, I’ll post something to let you know.

I’m immensely grateful to the organisers of the 10 Days Festival for giving me the opportunity to work in this amazing building with such lovely artists. Thanks, too, to all those artists, whose warmth and appreciation made the task so richly fulfilling.

The next poetry excitement for me is reading with Dannie Abse and R V Bailey at the Poetry Society’s AGM. More news anon.