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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 17 October 2016

On not leaving London 1: National Poetry Day at the Festival Hall

Some days you feel, how much longer can we stick around here? This swamp of  bad money and poison air, especially in this area, stricken as it is by deadly Nine Elms Disease.

Falling out of love with London happens increasingly often in this household, and yet it never lasts more than a day or two because the city has a winning habit of serving up something wonderful, just in time.

Last week it did this again. It was National Poetry Day and a series of readings and discussion was advertised at the Festival Hall. This happened in the Clore Ballroom area, a big space underneath the main auditorium, but a useful performance space in its own right, where most of the Southbank's biggest free events are held.
Poet Ian McMillan and his team prepare for the live recording of Radio 3's
The Verb on National Poetry Day, at the Southbank Centre, London.

There was a full programme, all free. A lot of the earlier sessions were aimed at schoolkids, and the place was packed at 3pm. Poet after poet went up and did their stuff: I was looking at the art show in the basement (the excellent annual event featuring art by people in prisons and young offenders institutions) but every so often came the cheering and chanting and stamping of feet on the floor above.

As the afternoon went on, the school groups left and more and more men and women of a certain age and look arrived and found seats. These people looked to be in their 40s, dressed in tight black clothes, austere of look, thin people. They were quite likely fans of one of the poets due to appear - the singer P J Harvey was in fact top of the bill. And to be perfectly honest, I too was there, above all, to see the scarily wonderful singer of so many powerful songs, in person.

But first, the poets. At 4 o'clock, the poet and radio broadcaster Ian McMillan took to the stage with  four poets to record a live session for his Radio 3 programme, The Verb. He's a brilliant master of these strange ceremonies, and calmly proceeds to get the by now rather staid looking audience whooping and cheering and even chanting responses to certain words, as he take the mickey out of pre-conceived notions of what a poet looks like.

One by one he talks to the line-up of four poets, and each reads some of their work. Meanwhile, the resident cartoonist Chris Riddell is busy sketching his own interpretations of the event. So while Luke Kennard reads one of his pieces featuring a very knowing wolf, Riddell has quickly drawn the most insouciant, upper-crust fanged leader of the pack you could want.

All this is thrown up onto two big screens.....but of ocurse it has to be described for the radio listeners...It's a hilarious event, with McMillan making the most of his power in this situation to get his audience to particpiate in repeating all manner of curious and surreal  lines.

You can listen to the finished programme here.

After that - more poetry, and the highlight of this session was Salena Godden

She's a powerful performer, highly political, hilarious as well. She'd written "Citizen of Nowhere" specially for the day, a poem full of anger which grew stronger as the way we treat refugees from wars we have helped to start became clearer.

Her finale was "Die Wasp!" - a long angry hilarious piece inspired by a recent stay in Berlin. She's in a cafe, watching a very young and beautiful woman being very young and beautiful and cool as she works on her laptop, and comparing this vision of calm and collected smartness and brilliance with her own unconfident, messed-up accident-prone self. A wasp bothers her. It does not touch the girl. Hence the title, the chorus. It is so funny, and so harsh, and so beautifully true.

Several of the pother poets were just as good, just as moving - it was an eye-opener, a tear-duct opener. 
Sabrina Mahfouz for example, read "The most honest job I've ever had" - a poem in the voice of woman working in the sex industry. Many of these young poets were first or second generation immigrnats to the UK< and several of them are contributors to the new anthology The Good Immigrant which is currently being serialised on BBC Radio4. 

So that by the time we got to the climax, many were already emotionally exhausted. Not what you'd want to be if you were waiting for a performance from  the high priestess of extreme emotional expressiveness, PJ Harvey.

As it happened, Polly-Jean was as cool and collected as a recently harvested cucumber in a chilled room. She strode up to the mic, opened her book, and read away, announcing each poem with a few very straight to the point words. Maybe she was more nervous than you'd expect of a seasoned performer: her voice sounded a bit strained, it was the voice of a newly-qualified English teacher in her first week at a school in Surrey.
She never really let go. She was almost the opposite of the PJ Harvey we knew from tracks like Rid Of Me.  Beautiful, cool, calm, reading splendidly crafted poems about people and places she had experienced, in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and in the USA. Some of the well-turned images and metaphors were read with almost audible quote marks around them. We clapped each poem, politely.

She's such a brilliant singer and exponent of that spare, blood-curling brand of electric punk blues-rock music, that you wondered, why is this beautiful, slighly diffident lady behaving in this prim manner? Personally, I think her poetry is already there in her music, and it is not  fully expressed in these quite careful, restrained poems about very bloody, horror-filled situations. Maybe we've already seen too much.

The only one that really seems to smoulder a bit was a poem about the countryside, from a new book she's working on. That seemed more like it: raw, bloody nature.

Rock stars who become poets ften have htis problem, and it was fascinating that PJ's set came just a week or so before the Dylan-Nobel prize news broke. Why people get so hung up about definitions of poetry I don't know. If someone uses words and music to have an effect that could not be imagined or achieved any other way....it is poetry, just as an unaccompanied song is just as much music as is a full orchestral performance.

Another poet who had a big role that afternoon was Inua Ellams, who was one of the MCs along with Indigo Williams for part of the event. He's one of that generation of young black poets, inspried as much by hip-hop and rap as by European writers; inpsired by jazz and politics,  and as you can see on his excellent website, he's inspried even by a visit to the office of a quantity surveyor. But today he performs a piece which gets straight to my heart. It's called the ‘Saxophone Player’s Mouth’, and its a sort of warts and all tribute to the great dead Nigerian musician, the inventor of Afrobeat,  Fela Kuti.

Which leads naturally on the next episode of this occasional series....

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