Tag Archives: Poetry Society

Poetic Junketings

It’s a common perception that poets spend all their time scribbling away in lonely garrets. Well, some of the time that’s true, but we also love a good social occasion; and you’ll find that groups meeting to workshop their poems, as well as festivals and readings can all be fairly uproarious affairs.

One of the highlights of the social year for poets is the annual gathering in the Ballroom of the Savile Club in London, when the winners of the National Poetry Competition and the winner of the Ted Hughes Award are both announced and invited to read to the assembled company of literary glitterati. Wine flows freely, we are constantly plied with canapés, we applaud the fortunate winners, meet up with old friends and make new ones. It all makes for a very jolly evening.

This year I was particularly struck by how far the Poetry Society has travelled in the last few years. The sticky period is now well in the past and there is a wonderfully positive and Judith Palmer 5supporting atmosphere. Much of the credit for this goes, of course, to Judith Palmer and her excellent staff. They have worked tirelessly to bring off an amazing transformation and are to be congratulated not only on the way they have put right things that were wrong, but have also launched out into new and exciting endeavours.

The Ted Hughes Award was set up by Carol Ann Duffy when she became Poet Laureate, and
Carol Ann 4generously offered to donate her annual honorarium from HM the Queen to fund the £5000 prize each year. It is a little different from other prizes, honouring both excellence and innovation in poetry. This year the prize was won by Maggie Sawkins for her multimedia live literature production, ‘Zones of Avoidance’, which explores and reflects on her daughter’s descent into drug addiction.

You can read some of Maggie’s poem on the Poetry Society website; but here’s a taste:

I’m reading ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ – Maggie Sawkins reduced 4
I want to understand what drove my daughter out in the snow

with no coat or socks, in search of a fix.
I want to understand what divinity led her

to set up camp in the derelict ‘pigeon house’
after running out of sofas to surf.

For those of us who write, our writing is often a way of trying to make sense of experience, attempting to understand ourselves, other people and the world as well as to celebrate it.

Linda France cropped 6Congratulations, too, to Linda France, who has won the 2013 National Poetry Competition for her poem ‘Bernard and Cerinthe’. With well over 12,000 entries, the winning poem is likely to be a bit special, and Linda’s poem certainly is. I’d like to insert an extract from the poem here, but it all hangs together so beautifully that it doesn’t feel right to take bits out. So buy the latest Poetry Review and read this wonderful poem in full. Congratulations should also go to the three judges, Julia Copus, Matthew Sweeney and Jane Yeh who undertook the mammoth task of reading all those thousands of poems. Obviously judging poetry competitions is always subjective, but it is impressive that these three were unanimous in their choice of first prize.

Two prizes of £5000 each on one night makes it sound as though poets get a cushily life; but the reality for the vast majority of poets is that, apart from a trickle of financial reward from publications, small competition wins and readings, love and satisfaction are the main rewards they are likely to reap for their all-absorbing commitment to writing. But on an evening like the one I’m describing here, there’s also the fun of being part of a lively and talented community and spending an evening with like-minded people for whom poetry matters immensely.

Digital communication and social media

I’ve been blogging for over a year now, and enjoying Facebook for longer; so I thought I’d offer some personal reflections on the various forms of digital communication and social media.

First, an admission: I am not, and have never been, much of a telephone person. I don’t like ‘phoning people, because it seems rude to interrupt what they’re doing just because I want to grab their attention; and although I always love to hear from my nearest and dearest family or my best friends, other ‘phone calls can be irritating if I’m concentrating on work or enjoying leisure. Also, we depend on so many cues when we talk to people face to face. We see whether they are smiling or looking fierce, we detect love or coldness in their eyes, we notice if they are giving us their full attention or tapping away at a computer at the same time. All these cues are, of course, absent when our only contact is audial. I like to be able to put out my hand and touch the person I’m talking to, if the mood takes me.

Overheard (Poetry Society)

Mobile ‘phones, of course, compound my reticence. I do possess a mobile ‘phone (or a handy, as a German friend calls it), and occasionally I turn it on; but most people find me unsocially unavailable most of the time. Those who were present at my reading at the Poetry Society AGM last Autumn may recognise this photo.

Even worse than calling someone on a mobile ‘phone is texting. I deeply dislike predictive text, and find myself challenged to the point of exasperation by trying to find the correct keys to give me the punctuation I want. I am also saddened to see young people unable to lift their eyes from their mobile ‘phones, even when stepping out into busy roads or meeting socially.

Fortunately it is possible to send text messages by Skype, using a normal computer keyboard, so I do occasionally send a text to someone’s mobile by this method. Speaking of Skype, I am more than happy with this wonderful mode of communication. It gets round several of the difficulties that result from the lack of cues mentioned above, and it has absolutely transformed the accessibility and relationships of people separated by distance.

I can remember my first astonishing experience of faxing. I was in the IT department at the university when I needed to sign a contract with one of my publishers. I had a conversation with them on the telephone, then watched in amazement as the contract was spewed out of the fax machine before my eyes. It really did seem like magic in those days before all the wonders of digital communication made us blasé. But faxes, of course, had a restricted life, as new technologies tumbled over each other, challenging us to keep abreast of the developments.

Social media explained for blog

I took to email like a duck to water. This was so much more satisfactory than telephoning without knowing how convenient one’s call was likely to be to the recipient. It was like leaving a message in their pigeon-hole at work, and trusting that they would deal with it when it suited them. Strangely, I think I had one of the first emails in the country: I was editing a journal at the time, and immediately saw the potential for publishing the articles I received, without having to re-type everything. I’ve still got that original email address, though I use some others as well, for different purposes.

In the nineties I was travelling all over the world on business, and wanted to keep in touch with my elderly mother. I therefore acquired a second-hand computer for her and set about teaching her how to use email. She must have been one of the first grey-surfers in the country, and as it was all so new and different from other forms of communication, it was quite a challenge to get to grips with it. I remember her bafflement when she finally succeeded in sending a message, and then found that it was still on her computer – ‘so it couldn’t have gone!’ I was very proud of her internet prowess, and wished there were more websites for her to visit. She would have thoroughly enjoyed the infinite possibilities for surfing that we now enjoy.

Turning to more recent social media, I have to admit that with some of them I am as much at sea as my mother was with her early incursions into emails. The two that for some reason leave me completely cold are Linked in and Twitter.

LInked in

All sorts of people invite me to be Linked in with them, and quite often, rather than offend them, I comply. That tends to mean that I am connected to all sorts of people on Linked in, whom I don’t know and am never likely to meet. This network seems to pride itself on offering some sort of business advantage, but I think there are better ways to share business ideas and contacts.

Twitter

But even worse than Linked in is Twitter. In a rash moment I accepted an invitation to join Twitter, and I know that millions of people swear by it. I am assured that it is an essential publicity tool for a writer; but I have to admit that, even after several exploratory incursions into the Twitter-realm, I still don’t get it. Apart from the fact that so many of the tweets appear to be completely inane, there is the huge practical problem of superfluity. Apparently the idea is to have as many Twitter contacts as possible, but that means
a) that there will be a constant and unstoppable stream of tweets arriving into one’s system and I certainly haven’t got time to read them all, and
b) no one is going to have time or inclination to read what I tweet either.
I’m sure that my sparse visits to Twitter (maybe once or twice a month) do not constitute the correct way to treat this miracle of mass communication; but the only way to see even a fraction of the tweets that are posted would be to leave it on all the time, which would mean one was constantly interrupted and would never get a decent day’s work done.

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Next up the hierarchy of digital communication is Facebook, and here we come to a form of social media that, once I’d got the hang of it, I found I really rather enjoyed. It is an easy and enjoyable way of staying in touch with friends and family; but it has also turned out that many  of my Facebook friends are poets, and through Facebook we inform each other of publications and publishing possibilities and share some of our work. I enjoy some of the humour that is shared on Facebook, and also turn to it to keep me abreast of the news, particularly the news that isn’t considered important by the mass communications industry. The groups within Facebook are useful for selecting who one wants to share material with, as not everything that is posted is of interest to everyone.

Sometimes people send or accept friending invitations and then are never seen on the site again. I can’t help wondering what happens to them. Is it that they read the posts but are too shy to share anything of their own lives, or do they join and then think better of it and abstain from these jolly gatherings in the market place?

Possibly the most enjoyable of these media is Blogging, because while Facebook allows posts of more substance and interest than Twitter, a blog can be quite an extended communication. Because the blogs are longer than the quick messages that characterise the other media, it’s not possible, or advisable, to follow too many. I’ve just looked to see whose blogs I follow most assiduously, and find that they are all, like myself, writers. I suppose that’s why I find them interesting. They include Anthony Wilson, Jo Bell, Kathleen Jones and Elizabeth Stott.

These reflections are, of course, entirely personal, and I mean no disrespect to those who, for instance, enjoy Twitter or use Linked in for their business interactions. And then, most of you will probably agree that at the end of the day the best social interaction is to meet someone for a walk or a drink and talk face to face.

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.

Poetry Society 054

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.

2013-10-31 10.21.43  2013-10-31 10.22.24

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.

2013-10-31 10.36.44

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.

2013-10-31 12.48.43

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.