Only connect

One of the best things about running an open mic is when people who have never read in public before arrive with a poem and, after a little encouragement, walk to the front of the room and launch it for the first time. The look on their faces as they get to the last couple of lines and realise they’ve not only done it, they’ve nailed it, is marvellous; a mixture of delight and relief that spreads to everyone present, if the explosion of applause that follows is anything to go by.

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It’s a long time since I first got to my feet in Bristol Central Library, the then home of Silver Street predecessor, Can Openers, to read a poem about my great-great-grandmother, Mary Block of Christmas Steps. I was so nervous I managed to flick the black Bic I was holding (I’ve no idea why) right across the floor and into the listeners. Yet when I reached the end, I was amazed by how much I’d enjoyed the experience.

Since then I’ve learnt various techniques to improve my performance. (All page poets who read their poems in public are also performance poets.) Chief amongst these is preparation of my set – I time everything so I never have to ask ‘Am I doing all right for time?’ and I rehearse not just the poems but how I plan to introduce them too. I leave nothing to chance.

Until last Thursday evening, that is, when I read at Lyrical at Trowbridge Town Hall, along with Dawn Gorman, Anna-May Laugher, Shauna Darling Robertson, Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery. Together with Pey Oh (who wasn’t able to be there on this occasion) we’ve formed a group called Strange Cargo, and have recently been discussing the possibility of improvised readings – ie taking poems on a loose theme to a poetry guest slot and then riffing off each other’s work, with no running order, no introductions, no safety net. Letting the poems echo and connect with each other, which is altogether scarier than a planned reading.

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Our theme on Thursday was walls and windows, and nerves were slightly calmed when we saw that our poems would have the perfect setting. And once we’d started, we realised it was nowhere near as terrifying an experience as we’d anticipated. We found ourselves tuning in to each other’s body language, so that the poems flowed well and there were no awkward pauses. If anything, perhaps we followed each other a little too eagerly.

The aspect that struck me most was the enhanced quality of listening this format requires. Usually at open mics or in more planned group readings, I find it quite hard to focus on the readings that come before my turn because half my mind is worrying away at my poem, intent on getting it right. We had no such luxury on Thursday; we had to concentrate on the other poems as they were being read so that we could find the best responses to them.

By the end we were brimming with ideas for improving the experience: for instance, managing the pauses better, so that they act in the same way the space around a poem on the page enhances the poem; and looking at whether even poem titles are necessary. What interested me the most, however, was the possibility of including the audience in the actual reading itself, rather than having separate open mic sessions. I would love the other poets present to be part of the process, and to take that involvement away with them so that they too can experience a different way of reading and listening to poetry.

Bob Dylan brings it all back home … almost

Bob Dylan

The celebrated American photographer Barry Feinstein’s famous photograph of Bob Dylan standing on the jetty at Aust in May 1966, along with a visit to the same spot earlier this year, was the inspiration for our Deb to write a poem about this small moment in rock history, and the subsequent changes to this spot in the intervening years.

‘Bob Dylan waits for the ferry at Aust’ was the result, and the Leaping Word is delighted to announce that it has just been awarded fourth place in the 2019 Welsh Poetry Competition.

Congratulations to the writers of the winning poems, and all those on the short-list or with special mentions.

 

Tracy K Smith at the Bristol Festival of Ideas

In these days of sweeping funding cuts, the chance to see top poets reading locally come along only a couple of times a year, yet I can think of no more valuable a way for poets to learn and be inspired than to listen to the best of their peers reading their work in person. So when I learnt that Tracy K Smith, the US poet laureate, was coming to Waterstones in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, I seized the opportunity of seeing her.

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Most poets tend to write about a corner of their own experience or a particular interest – for example, you might think of yourself as  an eco-poet, or someone who is especially good at capturing what it means to be a survivor, or a poet suited to political declamation. Smith herself is known for poems about the body, focusing on intimacy, love, and sexuality, but her work also encompasses, apparently effortlessly, political poems of enormous sensibility and empathy, such as the sequence she read from her second collection, ‘Duende’, which gives voice to Ugandan women kidnapped by rebel commanders, and such vast subjects as … well, the universe.

‘I don’t have a great brain for science,’ she claimed, to a frankly disbelieving audience during her reading of her sequence ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ from her 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning collection, ‘Life on Mars’. But in case you’re starting to think her work might be altogether too rarified, the quote about stars is from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, proving that Tracy isn’t afraid to tangle with pop culture either. She even writes affectingly about that ultimate starman, David Bowie.

And as you wing out across the universe of Tracy’s poems, you are being lifted on the most perfectly pitched reading of them. I would urge any poet who wants to improve their delivery of their work to listen to her read. There are lots of videos on line, or you can buy a CD of Duende. Better still, go and hear her read in the flesh … though now her book tour has ended, you might have to fly to America for that.

 

Letting poems take their place in the world

When it comes to poems inspired by a certain area or landscape, that have a story to tell about that spot, being able to connect the poem to its place adds an extra, vital dimension.  I often go on walks with a site-specific poem in my pocket. I’ve taken U A Fanthorpe’s ‘Stanton Drew’ to the eponymous stone circles south of Bristol, and, as she urges, listened to the past’s long pulse. I’ve sat on Ted Hughes’ memorial stone near Taw Head on Dartmoor to recover from all the tussock-jumping required to get there and read aloud his wonderful litany, ‘Rain-Charm for the Duchy’. I’ve wept over Eliot’s Four Quartets in East Coker churchyard.

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Stanton Drew stone circles

Then there are the poems we write ourselves. It has be be said that going around sellotaping poems to lamp posts and telegraph poles isn’t practical. But now you can pin them to an online map of England and Wales, which is another, less polluting way of letting them take their place in the world.

Places of Poetry is led by poet Paul Farley and Professor Andrew McRae. The project is open to readers and writers of all ages and backgrounds, with the aim of prompting reflection on national and cultural identities in England and Wales through creative writing. Writers are invited to pin their poems to places on the map from 31st May to 4th October 2019, after which date it will be closed to new poems but remain available for readers. 

The site will also contain news about events and activities to promote the project and generate new writing. You can also follow Places of Poetry via social media (@placesofpoetry).

Places of Poetry is based at Lancaster and Exeter Universities, and funded by Arts and Humanities Research Council, The National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England.

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Ted the border collie at Ted Hughes’ memorial stone, Dartmoor

 

The new venue for Silver Street Poetry

With just ten days to go before the first meeting of Silver Street Poetry in its new home, it feels timely to share our photos of our visit there today and remind our poets of its location.

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We parked in the Galleries – although Trenchard Street car park is nearer, of course – and took the scenic route to get there, via Christmas Steps. (Other, less precipitous approaches – for instance, walking up Colston Street from the Centre – are available.)

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Hours is at 10 Colston Yard, which is reached from Colston Street. What fascinates me about it is that although the entrance is at ground level and therefore fully accessible, it is built into the side of the hill, and the views are amazing. I’d only been there in the dark before, so I was quite excited to get a new perspective on a familiar area.

We checked and it’s fine for poets to bring their own refreshments from nearby cafes, of which there are many.

We returned to Broadmead via Johnny Ball Lane, which passes below Hours and the other buildings of Colson Yard. Here they are, perched atop this magnificent Victorian wall.

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Just time for a quick coffee in Revive Cafe at the top of Corn Street.

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See you on Friday 7th June at our original time of midday and at our new venue of Hours, for hours – well, an hour and a half – of poems shared with friends.