A week in poetry (and a short tour of independent bookshops)

There have been times (usually when I’m in a bit of a slump) when I have asked myself why I continue to write poetry. Apart from the pleasure it gives me, I realise it will never bring me vast numbers of readers or great wealth. Auden was right: poetry makes nothing happen. It will not change the world (although it should, of course). It is often considered precious, esoteric, obscure. But there are times when poetry rewards me for my patience, my dogged determination. Last week I gave four readings (in Oxford, London, Galway and Dublin respectively) and taught three classes. I have to admit this is not typical – four readings in the space of six days must be a record for me. But I can’t think of a better way to have passed the time.  

In Oxford, six poets spent much of the weekend discussing each other’s poems. We are all working on new books or sequences, and so coming together and critiquing over a concentrated period is invaluable. We were fortunate to have Rhona McAdam with us, on an extended visit from Canada (see her pictures of our weekend on her blog, Iambic Cafe: http://reallygoodwriter.com/ ). The highlight was a group reading at the marvellous Albion Beatnik on Walton Street. The Albion Beatnik is reminiscent of the first bookshops I frequented in New York as a teenager – crammed to the rafters with books, with a fabulous poetry section including lots of work in translation and American imports (I bought a beautiful CB Editions bilingual selection of Francis Ponge). The audience was crammed in too, in every available corner, and the mulled wine was flowing; the large turn-out was due to the efforts of Jenny Lewis, our host for the weekend, and a much-loved tutor in creative writing for Oxford University (http://jennylewis.org.uk). What struck me about our reading was how diverse we were as a group – we have very different formal approaches and distinct concerns – but somehow that conspired to make a truly varied evening.

Back in London, and a very different venue and line-up for the Penned in the Margins Christmas party, hosted by Tom Chivers (http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/). Not a bookshop this time, but the flagship London branch of Aubin & Wills, the clothing store. Five of us read our poems amongst the lumberjack shirts and chunky sweaters (and all the time I was wondering what Auden would have made of it, or Eliot!). A little odd, but then again, why not? Why shouldn’t poetry be brought into places where you would least expect it? Isn’t that the problem, that poetry has been sidelined, marginalised? The thing about poetry is that it is portable, easily transmitted. So when you think of it that way, Aubin & Wills is perfect. The shop itself is all whitewashed wood, full of quirky furniture and posters advertising past readings (they’ve been hosting literary evenings in the store for some time). And fairly lights of course. Tom was a brilliant host, bringing together another diverse bill of poets. I like the energy of Tom’s evenings – he has a policy of putting on new voices along with more established writers, mixing performance poets with more page-based readers. And I won a snow dome in the Christmas quiz for knowing a line from that famous seasonal poem by Louis MacNeice!

And then it was off to Ireland. I arrived in Galway in time to have a stroll around town, and to visit Charlie Byrne’s bookshop, which is more ramshackle that the Albion Beatnik, with lots of rooms on different levels, like a book maze. It has, as you might expect, a great section of contemporary Irish poetry (I bought an anthology of the best Irish poems from 2010, edited by Matthew Sweeney – a series I haven’t seen for sale in England). Galway is one of those places where there is always music somewhere – on the street, or just audible through the open door of a bar. There was a Christmas market in Eyre Square; it felt as if it ought to be snowing, although there was just a light sprinkling of rain. I was reading for Kevin Higgins and Susan Millar duMars in their Over the Edge series (http://overtheedgeliteraryevents.blogspot.com/) . Kevin and Susan are terrific hosts; the last time I read for them it was in a packed little room upstairs at Sheridan’s Wine Bar, but this time we were in the spacious surrounds of the Galway City Library. As before, it was a lovely, enthusiastic audience, followed by a Christmas gathering at McGinns pub. I’m always struck when I’m in Galway by the concentration of poets and poetry-making (the wonderful Salmon Press is based there). It is a warm, welcoming city, even in the depths of December.

And finally, to Dublin. The last time I was in Dublin was about ten years ago, so the first thing I did when I got off the bus was to buy a map and get my bearings. I like Dublin because the city centre is easy to navigate on foot, and I soon found myself on Grafton Street. There was a busker attempting to hawk his collection of poetry; and groups of carollers in Santa hats singing Van Morrison and the Pogues. I made my way to the plush wood-panelled sanctuary of Hodges Figgis, that grand old Dublin institution, where I tried to limit myself to one book (airline weight restrictions are an excellent way to curb impulse poetry purchases): I bought a lovely Gallery Press edition, the Selected Poems of Seán Lysaght, a new poet to me, but recommended by Chris Meehan, one of my fellow Galway readers.

But the highlight of my trip, and possibly of my whole week, was the gathering I attended in the evening, organised by Yvonne Cullen (http://yvonnecullen.wordpress.com/). I was put in touch with Yvonne through Mark Granier, a fellow Salt poet and photographer based in Dublin, who I met when he came to launch his last collection, Fade Street, in London last year (http://markgranier.blogspot.com/). Yvonne hosts gatherings of musicians and poets in her home in Glasthule, and everyone brings food and drink, so it’s more like a party. What a civilised and wonderful way to hear poetry. There was some gorgeous music by Dermot McNevin, and Yvonne, Mark and I read poems. It was one of those evenings that was perfect in every way. And before we all disappeared into the night, Yvonne took me through Sandycove, past terraces of little Victorian villas, to the sea, with the lights of Dublin Bay behind us, to show me the Martello Tower where Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty lived, and where Ulysses begins, Stephen Dedalus standing on the parapet, staring out at the snot-green sea, the scrotum-tightening sea … the great sweet mother. 

Word as image

From a distance, Alice Attie’s drawings (which I came across for the first time this weekend at the London Art Fair) resemble tornados, storm clouds, funnels – swirling gray patterns committed to paper in a spidery hand. You have to get up close, practically put your face against them, to see that her patterns are shaped through minute letters, meticulously hand-drawn. I think of medieval monks patiently transcribing texts into tiny missals. The image I’ve shown here is comprised from the whole of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, forming a continuous circle of longing, a full moon, a breast.

Do we call these extraordinarily delicate works ‘art’ or ‘literature’? Can we ‘read’ them, or are we meant to see them from the perspective of distance, so that words blur into image, become something more than recognisable letters? Can we ascertain meaning simply from the patterning of words? In answer to the latter question, yes, to some degree poetic form can make an impression before we even begin to read the poem. The reader knows a sonnet by its shape, a box to contain an elegy or a declaration of love or a meditation on devotion. The broken, indented lines of a Jorie Graham poem suggest a mind at work, the process of thought detailed on the page, with all its hesitations and diversions.

The importance of shape, of using the whole page, even the white space and its implied silence and stillness, is something both poets and artists have in common. It is this convergence that Attlie’s work explores so lyrically.

A piece which explores the links between poetry and sculpture is now on the South African web journal of poetry and photography Incwadi:

More images of Alice Attie’s work can be seen on the Foley Gallery website: