I think it was still last year when I put up my last post. Maria very sweetly got in touch to find out if all was well I have been silent for so long. I’m fine.
I have been busy and a deal of that business has meant being in front of the computer, so when I stop there is something very liberating about shutting it down and being screen free for the rest of the day. I have also been out and about, taking pictures, making new contacts, and going to hear the ten shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize on Sunday.
Celia is our convenor. She sends out an email in the autumn asking who wants to come, gets the tickets for all of us in our favourite row at the Royal Festival Hall (AA if you are interested, and actually even f you aren’t). It’s a great start to the new year every time. We lost a few of our number at the last minute. Three couldn’t attend after all due to geographical difficulties or family responsibilities. But last year it was on Zoom, so to be there in the flesh, to hold up the queue finding our COVID passes, well Cynthia and I did that, the others managed just fine, and so be queue jumped because of our incompetence by a COVID-pass p-ready Frank Skinner, meant it was already a red letter day.
Cynthia was back from Canterbury for the event. Nicola arrived with Martin from a different part of London, as did Tony. I haven’t seen Nicola for a year. A woman with long hair, wearing a blue beret above her mask, walked towards me smiling. I didn’t recognise her. “All that hair!” I said. “Your wild hair!” is what she said to me. She teaches voice and Kayo Chingonyi, one of her erstwhile students, was the tenth to read. He was good. Very good. We wondered if he might win. My heart was with Raymond Antrobus whose poetry shows you don’t have to use complicated images or obscure language to have depth. I loved Hannah Lowe and I definitely want to read more by Selima Hill. Joelle Taylor’s high octane performance alone was worth the ticket price. I felt blasted back into my comfortable seat.
Afterwards we headed for the ballroom bar. Viv had to leave as she had someone coming round early in the morning. Not that we were going to be late. The Royal Festival Hall is hardly a lock in venue. Martin had slipped out before the end to get a train which in the event he missed. The poets were at the bar. No book signings this year for COVID reasons, but as Ian MacMillan, who did a grand job of introducing each poet with his usual mix of wit, knowledge and humour, said, it’s the unsigned poetry books which are worth something due to their rarity.
So everyone I was with had received a copy of The Sun is Open by Gail McConnell as a Christmas present. This was my poetry tribe. We talked about the poets, who we liked, how we disliked the poetry voice (Cynthia and me), who we wanted to win. Someone questioned whether Antrobus’ poems were too much in the quotidian to scoop the prize, but Roger Robinson, a worthy winner in 2019 writes so much about his home, his family I didn’t think so. And why should a poem be thought good, or better than another poem simply because you struggle to understand it and sometimes never do? There is nothing wrong with accessibility. A poem’s ability to reach in and express something, a truth perhaps you have never considered, an emotion, a feeling you have never put into words, is powerful. Simple language is often all the more effective for its directness and clarity.
It was Nicola who wasn’t staying, but who in the end stayed as long as the rest of us, who asked what was with all the thank-yous. Yes, we chorused, what was that? The first poet did it – editor, publisher, mother-in-law, flight attendant on the plane from the States, barber, bus driver, Joe Biden, us the audience – yes I do exaggerate, but not by much – then they all did it. As Nicola said, that’s what you do when you have won, not when you have been shortlisted.
Finally we separated, Tony headed off to the North, and Nicola elected to walk along then across the river to her station. Celia, Cynthia and I made for the bus stop.
Back in our neighbourhood we were at once accosted by Romeo who had been absent when I fed the garden cats earlier. He tagged us round the square, waited while we talked outside the house which will soon no longer be Cynthia’s. Then rubbed himself against Celia and my legs as we talked at the corner.
I went in, grabbed food and a bowl and came outside to him again before giving MasterB my full attention and the last of his day’s food allowance. It was by now after eleven, meaning after my bedtime, but I was quite high on the poetry performances, so it took a while to slow down and prepare for sleep.
In the late afternoon yesterday I looked in vain for where the winner would be announced. Ian MacMillan had told us but I had forgotten. Radio 3 perhaps. No sign. Front Row on Radio 4 at 7.15? I tuned in but it was all about the arts in Sheffield, interesting but not what I was after. Cynthia texted me: Joelle Taylor. Wow.
I know a lot of people dislike poetry, but I have a strong suspicion that is because they are forced to read a select few for GCSE English and there are standard interpretations of what the poem means which quite exclude the individual’s response to the text. You don’t get readers energised by excluding them. I am listening to David Harewood’s Maybe I Don’t Belong Here. It’s fascinating and insightful. He has helped me identify the veiled racism that was prevalent when I was growing up. No one I knew was overtly racist. There were no derogatory terms bandied about, but nonetheless, I say I grew up in a racist society. He also suggested to Al Pacino that if, in his film Looking for Richard, he had employed black actors to engage with black teenagers to switch them onto Shakespeare he might have had more success. Spot on.
Joelle Taylor identifies as a butch lesbian. Her poetry is about her experiences. She’s theatrical, outspoken, funny, arrogant, tender and sharp. She is writing about an experience totally alien to me. But the powerful performance, her conviction, her honesty, her laughter as well as her anger, makes hers a book I want to read. She’s about as far from the idea of poetry being pretty words about pretty flowers as you can get. Bravo!
By the way, you can watch all the poets shortlisted YouTube reading at this event. My money is on Gail Mc Connell to win next year.
Stay safe. Keep well. It doesn’t have to rhyme.