Review of ‘The People Vs. Poetry’

Review of National Poetry Day: The People Vs. Poetry, at Foyles. 4 October, 7-8.30pm

In the strange white cube at the top of Foyles on Charing Cross Road, Will Harris presented the four poets: Craig Raine, Sandeep Parmar, Richard Scott and Victoria Adukwei Bulley.

The audience are instructed to participate, not to sit back and let poetry happen to them. You are supposed to shout out, take notes, interrogate the poets, as Will kept excitedly reminding us. Of course this doesn’t mean that all the interrogations will be useful.

First Craig Raine read a narrative poem about climbing Everest. He read slowly and with care although the poem was a dynamic tragedy about various fallen climbers, so he could have made it more oratorical, with some performative flare. He was asked afterwards about the narrative style and gave a rather trite answer, saying that poetry is best on the page and reading it out is just a mimetic duplicate of the written word (an idea as old as Aristotle, which Jacques Derrida spent his left trying to dismantle).

Luckily life was pumped back into the room when Sandeep Parmar read from her book Eidolon (Shearsman, 2015), winner of the Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection. It is a whirlwind biography of the various fames of Helen of Troy, taking her as a kind of archetype expressed through thousands of years of women, including Sandeep herself and her mother. The poem confronts the brilliant stupidity of late capitalism’s shiny plastic surface, placing Helen on the target board of constant eschatological news in the contemporary USA.

A man in the audience asked Sandeep to explain what he considered to be the current turn towards ‘identity-based’ performance readings, rather than the ‘proper’ page sort of complex poetry. Craig Raine had no opinion on this, only repeating what he had said before about page/performance, but Sandeep Parmar calmly and lucidly struck down the binary simplicity of the sentiment: all poetry ever has been about white heterosexual men debating their own identity, now it seems shocking that a woman of colour would have her say too. It’s not a reductive subversion of poetry, lessening it so the speechless subalterns can also get a word in. It is expanding it to include all of humanity. (I am paraphrasing.)

The audience member tried to interrupt her, bitterly lamenting all this talk about ‘WOMEN’ and ‘FEMINISIM’, but Sandeep’s answer left him with nothing to say. The poet Warren Czapa put it well: That man was convinced of the properly colonial English imperialist tradition in which all things that come out of English men are considered to be the objective, universal proper way of doing things, never considering the veracity of anyone else’s way.

Next came onto the stage Richard Scott and Victoria Adukwei Bulley.

Richard tuned his reading from his collection Soho (Faber and Faber, 2018) specifically to the ancient anger of the audience member. He had no access to relatable figures when he was growing up, like all gay/lesbian/queer kids in the 90s. As Soho begins, and as he began the reading on National Poetry Day, ‘In the library where there is not one gay poem, //  not even Cavafy eyeing his grappa-sozzled lads – I // open again the Golden Treasury of Verse and write                COCK //  in the margin.’ Richard is always worth seeing and he reads regularly in London.

Victoria was next, bringing together some poems not from any collection. Her playfulness with poetic form was of course not visible while she read, but she brought out the words with a musical and performative reading, not just listing words off the page (as Craig Raine says is always inevitable, in a case of spectacular self-projection), but rather engaging with the event of reading, making a focused moment of the sound between the poet and her audience, the audience and their poet.

Again, the audience questioned the difference between sound and script. Why read? Why sing? Why write when all you want to make is sound? Why make sound…. etc? Richard, as an ex-opera singer, answered well with a more erudite version of: BECAUSE IT’S FUCKING POETRY, MATE! And Victoria agreed. At which point Will Harris said we all had to leave. The whole event was strangely similar to the ending of Will’s paralyzingly good poem ‘SAY’: ‘I can’t remember // what I tried to say. Flow, break, flow. You hear me, though?’