Words And Pictures From National Poetry Day @ Royal Festival Hall
Poet Katy Evans-Bush spent National Poetry Day at the Royal Festival Hall. This is what she saw...
It may seem a bit last-week, but I’ve just spent the morning going over the photographs from last Thursday’s National Poetry Day Live event at the Royal Festival Hall, run by the Poetry Society with the Southbank Centre, and now in its third year. The pictures answered a question, even while they posed it: What does poetry look like?
Sound silly? I mean, I’m a poet, so I know what poetry looks like. It looks like a pub full of rather scruffy leather-jacketed blokes, or American guys in chinos, or the Poetry Café with a queue at the bar, or the Purcell Room with some visiting Lithuanian intellectuals. Sometimes, mostly in books, it even does look like a very serious man in a tweed jacket. It does look like lots of different things. So I hadn’t been wondering till I saw the pictures.
But National Poetry Day is different. It has an agenda: it’s for everybody, not just the usual suspects. Schools get involved, so the Clore Ballroom was packed with kids – interested, happy kids – and grannies, and people in between. It’s a drop-in-when-you-can day, so people wandered in for their lunch breaks, or bunked off a bit early and came along for the poet they were most interested in. Some Foyle Young Poets of the Year, who had just been awarded their status upstairs that morning, stayed for the main event. I ran into someone who’d been having a meeting. The place was packed – people were sat on the floor, because the chairs had run out – and there were extra rows of chairs set up in the non-sunken bit.
So that’s one way poetry looks: it looks like 1,000 people at any given point in a whole afternoon, jammed into the most central open public building in London. We thought this only happened in the sixties! It was like Woodstock! Who says we can’t pull ’em in?
It looks like Michael Rosen or Philip Wells, two mild-looking teachery sorts, gesticulating and making faces and getting everybody – not just the kids – laughing. Laura Dockrill with her wonderful silly rhymes and magenta tights.
It looks like Glyn Maxwell with his binder, reading his insistent and compelling and formally structured poems. Imtiaz Dharker, reading Anglo-Indian poems in a beautiful, clear voice.
Then it looks like the young Bangladeshi Naga MC, fresh from the East London grime scene with over-the-edge vocal effects: one punter shouted to me over the music, pint in hand, ‘I think it’s disgraceful! The way they’re trying to popularise beat box and hip hop with the kids, using straight poets to draw the crowds!’
Over on the side it looked like a school fête, with a lucky dip, quizzes and prizes, and even a poem tombola run by Julia Bird (of Jaybird Productions and the Poetry School).
Out the front it looked like a burger stand, but instead of burgers, the Poetry Takeaway team offered made-to-order poems.
Down the side it looked like the Poetry Society’s famous (and slightly controversial) knitted poem, which was spread out on the floor below the Clore Ballroom. (Huge respect for knitting here: I still think it’s amazing that you can take what’s essentially a piece of string and make something intricate and lovely, and warm and cosy, out of it. A knitted poem seems to me possibly to possess some kind of magical powers.) A little girl in cute, serious glasses asked me where the poem was, then dragged her dad over to see it; I saw them both craning their heads over the rail to get a look.
Poetry looks like the poems people wrote on Twitter, sparked by the ‘poembola’s’ random words: ‘You could tell when Caesar'd had a long night: Sancerre strewn on the tiles, a half-eaten dormouse, a ripped picture of Cleo’ (@madelainemusic).
There was even a spot where, if you just wanted to sit quietly in a corner and read like the poem-loving bookworm you really were, you could go to the Foyle’s counter and buy a paperback or three by the guest readers.
But most of all – as several people were heard to remark during the afternoon – it looked like what can happen if the poetry world pulls together – as organisations and as people. ‘We saw on one stage, in the space of two hours, the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors and Ahren Warner (whose first collection is due out from Bloodaxe). Where else can you go to find that?’
The next National Poetry Day isn’t till next year, but you do have until 31 October to enter the National Poetry Competition.
Last Updated 11 October 2011