Ex­cite­ment, Heart in Mouth, to Lis­ten

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Chris McCabe

Amongst the au­di­ence for the first Po­etry In­ter­na­tional gath­er­ing, which took place in July 1967, was Lon­don writer Iain Sin­clair. He’d come along to see Charles Ol­son, all six foot eight of him, but due to the Amer­i­can poet’s de­ci­sion to sit in the aisle rather than tak­ing a seat on stage, Sin­clair got much closer to him than he ex­pected. Amongst the other po­ets read­ing that even­ing were W.H. Au­den, Stephen Spen­der, Giuseppe Un­garetti and Allen Gins­berg, who was pho­tographed ear­lier that day wear­ing a ‘God’s Eye’: a gold charm from Mex­ico.

Sin­clair re­mem­bers: ‘Ol­son put him­self in with the peo­ple. He sprawled across the aisle, wear­ing a dirty white suit’. The young Sin­clair of­fered the poet his seat; Ol­son re­fused to take it: ‘Ol­son pre­ferred the space on the floor, not pay­ing at­ten­tion to in­com­ers who were forced to ne­go­ti­ate a pas­sage around his no­table bulk’. When Ol­son did get up to read, just be­fore the in­ter­val, Sin­clair wrote in his di­ary later that day: ‘It was an ex­cite­ment, heart in mouth, to lis­ten’. A state­ment which has echoed through au­di­ence re­ac­tions to the fes­ti­val over the past 50 years.

The awk­ward­ness of Ol­son was symp­to­matic of the times and, per­haps, of the grow­ing pains of the fes­ti­val in those first years. Ted Hughes had ini­ti­ated the idea for the fes­ti­val as a re­sponse to the global po­lar­i­sa­tion of east and west dur­ing the Cold War, writ­ing in his in­tro­duc­tion to the 1967 brochure: ‘The idea of global unity is not new, but the ab­so­lute ne­ces­sity of it has only just ar­rived, like a sud­den rad­i­cal al­ter­ation of the sun’. De­spite, or per­haps be­cause he wasn’t flu­ent in any other lan­guage than English, Hughes firmly held the no­tion that po­etry could be ‘a uni­ver­sal lan­guage …. in which we can all hope to meet’.

Be­hind the scenes Hughes had al­ready re­lin­quished his main di­rec­tor­ship of the fes­ti­val which he handed over to Pa­trick Gar­land. Hughes sensed the board of the fes­ti­val think­ing ‘he ought to be re­strained … So the fes­ti­val could only be 5 for­eign­ers, 5 Amer­i­cans, and 5 English. It was those 5 English I was try­ing to avoid’. Hughes hadn’t wanted any English po­ets but the Po­etry Book So­ci­ety who were ad­min­is­trat­ing the fes­ti­val had per­suaded him to in­clude some English ones ‘for box of­fice rea­sons’. As it turned out only three English po­ets came (out of nine po­ets), but the im­bal­ance was skewed else­where with only two fe­male po­ets be­ing in­vited (Anne Sex­ton – who one re­viewer com­mented had ap­peared on stage wear­ing ‘shock­ing pink’ – and Inge­borg Bach­mann). There was a lot of work to be done. The sun had many more al­ter­ations to make.

The au­di­ences, how­ever, ar­rived, with one reporter say­ing that 500 peo­ple were turned away from the event at the Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall as they didn’t have tick­ets. As The Ob­server wrote, aware of the var­i­ous prob­lems off­stage and be­hind them: ‘Get­ting an au­di­ence is about the only prob­lem the or­gan­is­ers of Po­etry In­ter­na­tional ’67 have not had’. If au­di­ence sizes have var­ied over the years one thing that has been con­sis­tent is the pre­car­i­ous­ness of putting to­gether a fes­ti­val of this scale, the least of which is in ne­go­ti­at­ing the travel and ar­rival of dozens of po­ets from around the world. Charles Os­borne or­gan­ised the 1970 fes­ti­val and kept a daily di­ary of pro­ceed­ings:

The po­ets be­gin to ar­rive. I sit in my of­fice like some be­mused Shake­spear­ian monarch while mes­sen­gers … rush in to ex­plain ‘Thom Gunn has just ar­rived from San Fran­cisco’, and ‘Soyinka has flown in from Stock­holm, but we’ve lost him’ (Stock­holm? I was ex­pect­ing him from Ibadan) and ‘I met the plane from Rome but Pa­solini wasn’t on it’

Rick Stroud, who worked on the 1972 fes­ti­val, was sent ner­vously down to Devon to en­cour­age Ted Hughes to take part in an event around Sylvia Plath. When he got there, Stroud re­calls, Hughes ‘showed me a pet bad­ger that he had trained to wear a lit­tle leather har­ness. I spent a won­der­ful

af­ter­noon with the leg­endary Ted, talk­ing to him and walk­ing the bad­ger’.

Po­etry In­ter­na­tional was ini­ti­ated to ad­dress po­lit­i­cal ten­sions in the world but hu­mour quickly be­came a part of it. ‘An Even­ing of In­no­cent Aus­tralian Verse’ was pro­grammed as part of the 1973 fes­ti­val in which the host, in mint-fresh BBC RP, apol­o­gised be­cause one of the speak­ers on the panel, Dame Edna Ever­age: ‘couldn’t get into her head that any hall seat­ing fewer than 6,000 peo­ple could be one in which she ex­pected to ap­pear and we’ve heard that she’s gone by mis­take to the Al­bert Hall’. Barry Humphreys, of course, was on stage, switch­ing at the in­ter­val to en­ter as Dame Edna and read a se­ries of Aus­tralian po­ems, one of which was called ‘Pig­face’.

There was a long lapse in the fes­ti­val, be­tween 1977 and 1982, when it emerged for a few years, bring­ing to­gether age­ing Amer­i­can Beats (Allen Gins­berg, Lawrence Fer­linghetti, Gre­gory Corso) with UK per­for­mance po­ets (John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Ben­jamin Zepha­niah). If po­etry hadn’t quite come down from the shelf it was com­pact enough to fit in the pocket and City Lights Edi­tions flooded the South Bank. Archival pho­tos from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s show po­ets we now take as state fig­ures caught in mid-flight be­tween ju­ve­nilia and imago. In one shot An­drew Mo­tion looks like he’s ar­rived from the set of Grease; in an­other Paul Mul­doon ap­pears as a school­boy who’s been caught bunk­ing off. UA Fan­thorpe de­scribed what it was like be­hind the scenes at the fes­ti­val, when the po­ets were off duty: ‘the lovely thing is that we are all put up in a ho­tel to­gether so we can ac­tu­ally meet each other ... it’s very stim­u­lat­ing. The young ones sit around talk­ing about the mean­ing of life and the old ones get drunk’. There’s a let­ter from Tony Har­ri­son in South­bank Cen­tre’s ar­chive say­ing that he was once given ‘warm Liebfrau­milch’ be­fore an event at a school but when he comes to South­bank Cen­tre he doesn’t have such con­cerns. I don’t know where he got that idea.

Be­hind th­ese at­tempts to open up po­etry to new au­di­ences there’s a sense in which the fes­ti­val had, for a while at least, lost its way. The pro­gram­ming of the 70s over-cooks the Amer­i­can beef, and that of the 80s is ex­tremely UK-cen­tric – ev­ery­thing that Hughes had been against. What might be seen

as the mod­ern era of Po­etry In­ter­na­tional be­gan in its re-launch in 1988 (the first fes­ti­val for four years) when the Na­tional Po­etry Li­brary moved from its home in Pic­cadilly to the 5th floor of the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall. The poet Maura Doo­ley was the Head of Lit­er­a­ture at the time and she saw the po­ten­tial for this col­li­sion of two great in­sti­tu­tions to com­bine their lega­cies and bring the fes­ti­val into a new era. In the end there was no li­brary, Doo­ley re­calls, as it wasn’t ready to be opened, but the drive of the pro­gram­ming was very much about get­ting back to its roots: ‘The re-launched fes­ti­val re­ally res­onated with the Cold War themes of the 1967 fes­ti­val. The Ber­lin Wall had come down in 1989 and all th­ese East­ern Bloc coun­tries were open­ing up. There was a re­newed in­ter­est in work in trans­la­tion, so that was very much a fea­ture of the 90s’.

Look­ing through the brochures for that pe­riod shows this fo­cus on the in­ter­na­tional and trans­la­tion to be at the core of the pro­gram­ming with po­ets such as Joseph Brod­sky, Go­ran Simic, Hans Mag­nus Enzen­berger, Tadeusz Różewicz, Valerio Ma­grelli and Piotr Som­mer com­ing to read. Weav­ing through th­ese Euro­pean leg­ends, fig­ures coated with the dust of pre­vi­ous epochs on their shoul­ders, was a new streak of youth­ful glitz which came in the form of the New Gen­er­a­tion po­ets. The fu­ture GCSE syl­labus had just come out of school and was gain­ing a wide read­er­ship; it was in­evitable that the new UK cool would be fused with the lesser known and more mys­te­ri­ous forces of the con­ti­nent. Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Si­mon Ar­mitage and Lavinia Green­law ap­peared to read a num­ber of times dur­ing th­ese years with some crit­ics tak­ing is­sue with it, in­clud­ing Daniel Weiss­bort, who had part­nered Ted Hughes in launch­ing Mod­ern Po­etry in Trans­la­tion the year be­fore the first fes­ti­val. Weiss­bort wrote an ar­ti­cle for Po­etry Lon­don in 2002 un­der the ti­tle ‘Is Po­etry In­ter­na­tional Be­com­ing too Bri­tish?’ say­ing: ‘per­haps ... the or­gan­is­ers had lit­tle if any choice in the mat­ter. They had to make a case to their fi­nan­cial masters and they had to do the best they could to get bot­toms on seats...’

Po­etry re­ally be­gan for me – at least in the sense of show­ing what was truly pos­si­ble – in 2002. I’d started work­ing in South­bank Cen­tre’s Na­tional Po­etry Li­brary ear­lier that year and came to every event at the fes­ti­val

in the au­tumn of that year. The li­brary was al­ready ask­ing me to rip-upand-start-again with what I thought I knew about the art form, push­ing me to­wards the weird and off­beat, the chal­leng­ing and orig­i­nal, and there were el­e­ments of the fes­ti­val that per­fectly ex­tended that. If the Na­tional Po­etry Li­brary col­lec­tions con­tained the un­der-wiring for ev­ery­thing that was pos­si­ble in the form then the fes­ti­val was the lit-up, un­miss­able re­al­i­sa­tion of that in the live in­stant. The French Oulip­ian poet Jacques Roubaud ap­plied his math­e­mat­i­cal train­ing to the ex­per­i­men­tal poem and took his lines for a walk around Paris and the screen be­hind the stage. This set off a love af­fair with Roubaud’s writ­ing which, I’d dis­cover time and again through the years, was ex­actly what the fes­ti­val was there to do: to con­nect au­di­ences with po­ets from around the world who were per­form­ing tricks with lan­guage they would never for­get. Af­ter lis­ten­ing, heart in mouth, au­di­ences walk out amongst the open spa­ces of the bru­tal­ist site with their heads filled with the im­pos­si­ble. Af­ter-im­ages mov­ing across the shards and an­gles.

In 2004 Au­gust Klein­zahler gave an in­cred­i­ble read­ing, pick­ing out po­ems from the four or five col­lec­tions he had bal­anced in the lectern, sat­u­rat­ing the au­di­ence with the grime and lived ex­pe­ri­ence that his po­ems seemed to mop up, then mov­ing to the next poem with the speed of a world-class waiter who had cho­sen to work in the lo­cal café be­cause that’s where the life was. Anne Car­son ex­plored the si­lences in the frag­ments left be­hind by Sap­pho, mak­ing the ab­sences do the work. Saadi Yousef re­fused to let what was hap­pen­ing in Iraq go un­no­ticed by the au­di­ences on the South Bank.

This fo­cus on the Mid­dle East be­gan in earnest with the 2010 fes­ti­val Imag­in­ing Peace, bring­ing the fes­ti­val into a new era of ur­gent and di­rect pro­gram­ming which has con­tin­ued since. That fes­ti­val in­vited po­ets from twenty-nine coun­tries ar­riv­ing to take part, a big in­crease on the nine coun­tries of the orig­i­nal fes­ti­val in 1967. It was this ur­gency which saw the one-off, im­pos­si­ble, dizzy­ing and un­for­get­table 2012 Po­etry Par­nas­sus fes­ti­val take place. As the fes­ti­val was due to fall in the year of the Lon­don Olympics, South­bank Cen­tre’s Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Jude Kelly CBE aimed to do some­thing on an epic scale. Si­mon Ar­mitage be­came the cu­ra­tor and the

fes­ti­val or­gan­is­ers Anna Selby, Bea Col­ley and Martin Colthorpe worked for over a year to make the im­pos­si­ble hap­pen. The idea was sim­ple: to in­vite one poet from each of the 204 Olympic-com­pet­ing coun­tries. Af­ter the easy bit of send­ing out the in­vi­ta­tions came the ad­min­is­tra­tion around visas, book­ing ho­tels, or­gan­is­ing trans­la­tors and giv­ing the po­ets some­thing to do when they got here.

Lon­don’s South Bank was over­run with po­ets speak­ing the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of their art: run­ning late, ask­ing for di­rec­tions for some­where they were meant to be an hour ago. The New World Or­der event brought to­gether Nikola Madziroz, Kei Miller, Valzhyna Mort, Ilya Kamin­sky, Tis­hani Doshi to the same stage, to read in pairs – col­lab­o­ra­tively if they wanted to – which some did, fus­ing to­gether their ex­tem­pore col­lab­o­ra­tions min­utes be­fore go­ing on to the Pur­cell Room stage. The Chilean Arts Col­lec­tive Casagrande’s Rain of Po­ems in­volved a he­li­copter which dropped po­em­swrit­ten by each of the at­tend­ing po­ets over Ju­bilee Gar­dens, land­ing on the grounds of the Shell Build­ing, onto the roof of ITV stu­dios, melt­ing like Lon­don snow into the Thames. It was dis­cov­ered later that one of the po­ems had fallen onto the lap of a cy­clist who then looked at the poem to find that he knew the poet who had writ­ten it. Po­etic vi­sions sent like busi­ness cards from the sky. The dream logic of po­etry as a wak­ing re­al­ity.

Through­out the week of the fes­ti­val the Na­tional Po­etry Li­brary cre­ated a unique, one-off edi­tion called The World Record for which each at­tend­ing poet hand-wrote a ver­sion of one of their po­ems in its orig­i­nal lan­guage. In ad­di­tion a mod­ernist desk with a leather sur­face – blank green to be­gin with, an open field – was pre­pared for each poet to sign as a relic of the in­cred­i­ble week. The po­ets came to the li­brary to sign the desk and write their po­ems, leav­ing their mark in space be­fore re­turn­ing to the cities and vil­lages they came from. On the fi­nal day of the fes­ti­val Sea­mus Heaney, who’d ar­rived to read at the cli­mac­tic gala event in the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, wasn’t able to make it up to the li­brary to sign the desk. We did what we had to: picked up the desk and worked our way back of house through three floors of the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall, nar­rowly miss­ing walk­ing on stage where

the au­di­ences were be­gin­ning to gather, un­til we found the dress­ing room he was in. Sea­mus saw the hu­mour in the predica­ment: if the poet doesn’t go to the in­scribed me­mo­rial desk, the in­scribed me­mo­rial desk will come to him. He raised his pen say­ing, cryp­ti­cally, ‘let the fox see the rab­bit’. The next day Kay Ryan, the U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate (who’d also read that even­ing), came into the li­brary look­ing for her jacket, say­ing she’d ei­ther left it back­stage of the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall or in the less salu­bri­ous Hole in the Wall pub, just op­po­site Water­loo Sta­tion. It was that kind of week.

Since Po­etry Par­nas­sus the fes­ti­val has hap­pened twice, in 2014 and 2015. The im­pe­tus for ad­dress­ing is­sues in the Mid­dle East has con­tin­ued, with es­sen­tial pro­gram­ming invit­ing Afghan women po­ets to come to the fes­ti­val and read their lan­days: short, acer­bic po­ems that they write se­cretly – out of the male gaze – har­bour­ing and vent­ing their anger at their so­cial and po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. Pak­istani po­ets were in­vited to share their ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing forced to flee from the Tal­iban. A mushaira – a gath­er­ing of po­ets by can­dle­light – was held on the Clore Ball­room of the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall.

This year’s fes­ti­val presents a strong line-up of po­ets from Nordic re­gions, ty­ing in with South­bank Cen­tre’s year-long pro­gramme cel­e­brat­ing Nordic cul­ture, Nordic Mat­ters, and many more from fur­ther afield. There will be a strong fo­cus on en­dan­gered lan­guages ac­ti­vated by South­bank Cen­tre’s Trans­la­tor-in-Res­i­dence, Stephen Watts, who will host an event called Seven Thou­sand Words for Hu­man in which po­ets, in­clud­ing Joy Harjo, have been com­mis­sioned to write new po­ems in a lan­guage that is un­der threat. There will be work­shops (in­clud­ing one led by Anne Car­son who will set the task of invit­ing stu­dents to ‘in­vent a sub­urb’), a cel­e­bra­tion of Mod­ern Po­etry in Trans­la­tion and ex­hi­bi­tions delv­ing into the his­tory of the fes­ti­val. The Wall of Dreams ex­hi­bi­tion, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with award­win­ning Dan­ish artist Morten Søn­der­gaard, will project the dreams of refugees onto the Royal Fes­ti­val Hall build­ing ex­te­rior and the fes­ti­val will cul­mi­nate in World Po­etry Sum­mit, a stel­lar line-up of po­ets in­clud­ing Clau­dia Rank­ine, Sjón, Choman Hardi, Anne Car­son and Yang Lian. Five of the seven po­ets are fe­male. The sun is al­ter­ing. As the pro­gram­ming team, led by Ted Hodgkin­son, gear up for the po­ets to ar­rive there is a sense

in which the fes­ti­val, now in its 50th year, is only just get­ting started.

Po­etry has changed so much since 1967, we now de­mand that any fes­ti­val is in­clu­sive of a broad range of ex­pe­ri­ences and can show­case the var­i­ous­ness of the de­vel­op­ing art form, from the con­cep­tual to the dig­i­tal. The ideas that will sur­face and in­vite en­gage­ment re­flect this. At the heart of the fes­ti­val is the no­tion so im­por­tant to Hughes, and to many po­ets today, that po­etry con­tin­ues to pro­vide a space in which di­vi­sions can be met face-on. Or as the fe­male Afghan poet Sahira Sharif said at the 2015 fes­ti­val: ‘A poem is a sword. It’s our form of re­sis­tance’. Po­etry In­ter­na­tional runs from 13-15 Oc­to­ber and forms the open­ing week­end of South­bank Cen­tre’s Lon­don Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val. www.south­bank­cen­tre.co.uk

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