On Sunday I’ll be reading with a dozen other great poets at the Wordsworth Trust (the Jerwood Centre in the Wordsworth Museum at Dove Cottage, Grasmere). This is the grand climax of the Poetry Business’s Writing School, in which we “graduate” through a public reading of some of the poems we’ve written over the last eighteen months.
Come along if you’d like to. It’s a public event, free, from 2.30 to around 3.30, Sunday 2nd March. A good way to spend a Sunday afternoon if the rainclouds open up over Helm Crag and Rydal.
I’ve read there once before, and felt very privileged to do so. In fact, I’ve been lucky enough to read in several very special locations, and I think the place always adds something to the experience for me. My work seems to mean more when read in a special setting. Foolish, perhaps, but that’s how it feels. As a prizewinner in the John Clare competition a couple of years ago I was asked to read both at John Clare’s cottage, which was humbling in several ways, and also at Westminster Hall (part of the House of Commons – we were also given a behind the scenes tour by Helpston’s MP and ate in the Commons refectory, quite a treat). We read on the steps where both Guy Fawkes and Charles 1 were condemned. How can that not make your own work feel special?
On another occasion, I read in the fifteenth century half-timbered hall of St William’s College, York. This is the only occasion, so far, where I’ve injured myself reading poetry. In my haste not to be late to read my piece, I missed a step on the ancient uneven staircase, fell, and dislocated a finger. Fortunately, I was so anxious to read that I simply shoved it back into place, and had to grin in agony when shaking the hand of George Szirtes, who was presenting the session. So that lives in memory, too, and colours that poem whenever I read it. Whilst the finger, remaining slightly crooked, reminds me that poetry is a dangerous sport.
But I suspect the place in which we read always affects the way we read. There are obvious things, of course, like the acoustics, the distribution of the audience, the background noise. But there’s also a – what do I call it without being new-age fuzzy? – a sort of psychic echo (ok, I don’t seem to be able to avoid the new-age fuzziness) to do with what the place is, how it has been used, what happened there before and what will happen after the momentary flow of your words.
I’ve read in several galleries, for example, and the best readings have always been when the poems and the exhibition somehow touch each other. Art seems to seep into the words, and the words can hang like a commentary on the paintings or installations. Whereas in a library or bookshop (I’ll be reading in Waterstones in a few weeks) I become conscious of all the other names on spines and displays and top ten lists, and find myself aligning myself with the great names, identifying with other poets and authors. Somehow, there seems to be a continuation, a connection, a sense that, in a very, very small way, my own words belong here, in this place of a million million revered words. It doesn’t change the character of my own words, of course- they remain, for good or ill, what I fixed to the page and happen to voice in the moment (have you ever misread your own poem, and never noticed?) but they also seem to belong in such a place, flowing into and out of L-space, (Terry Pratchett’s concept of all books being interlinked and inter-influencing).
In such a context, whilst it’s uplifting to identify with all the other names on the shelves, it’s also enriching – as if the senses of all else that has been, and might be, said with the words I’m using are linked together, just as in a dictionary, where every word exists by virtue of its relationships with all the other words in that dictionary – and none can live without the others.
I’m not saying it’s true, of course, just how it feels. In some ways, even the most isolated poet is not writing alone, and public readings in revered spaces reinforce that feeling.
PS The next issue of Antiphon is less than two weeks away.