Sunday, 5 February 2017

A Time for Poetry

(Photos by the brilliant Fabio Paleari of all the New River Press poets)


It was getting near to dusk, and Paris was all soft blue-grey air and gold lights. I was wandering along the Seine (as you do when you’re intent on fulfilling every cliché) with one of my most brilliant, articulate friends. We’d met earlier in the day for coffee, and I caused an impressive ruckus by walking straight into the glass door of the café with my full cup in hand. It went everywhere. After the spillage had been mopped and my bruised ego was allayed, we got more coffee, sat, chatted for a while, then walked. He knows the city well. This was only my third visit. I followed him as we wove down streets until we hit the river. It was heart-soaringly gorgeous. Finally, after strolling and sitting on the stone lip of the walkway for ages, freezing but happy, watching the water pass and talking about art, relationships, politics, work, it was time to leave for Shakespeare & Company.

I was performing there that evening with the New River Press: the utterly brilliant independent press that published my debut collection Branch and Vein earlier in the year. I’d been excited for weeks. Of all the bookshops to speak in, this is pretty much as special as it gets. By the time it came to the performances, every corner of the shop was taken up. There were people spilling out of the door and squished in the alcoves beyond the stage. It felt so safe, so charged, so full with the thrill of shared words and a warm audience. I sat and listened to others, reveling all over again in their poems, then stood up and did mine. I sailed through them, enjoying the chance to play once again with cadence and timing, giving voice to my work while wearing a blue velvet jacket, naturally. When I sat down again, my adrenaline levels surged. (You can see a video from the evening here. I begin at around the 14.40 mark). 

Our performance took place on the night of the election. We read, celebrated, went for drinks and dinner, and finally all stumbled off back to bed at our hotel. I immediately checked Twitter, and felt jittery. There was nothing definitive at that point, but it was uncomfortably close. I put the phone down and pulled the duvet over my head. Over the next eight hours I kept on waking up, dozing, checking, wishing I hadn’t checked, and lapsing between anxious sleeplessness and weirdly lucid dreams. In the cold truth of morning I had no appetite. I’d been planning to walk around Paris by myself for much of the day (taking a cue from Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse), but instead I just wanted familiarity. I caught the metro and went to see the same friend I’d hung out with the day before. We drank more coffee. We talked more urgently.

It’s weird to recall now, this strange, strange 24 hours that were half heavenly, half-nausea inducing. Nothing can tarnish the gold of that evening: from the company to the audience to the poems to Sylvia Whitman being possibly the most luminescent human being ever. It reinforced to me everything that I love about poetry: reading it, writing it, listening to it spoken aloud. It made me want to go away and toy and tinker with my verse for days, pursuing new ideas and crafting old half-finished stuff. But there are shadows at the edge of the memories too. They've got darker in these last few weeks. 

(Photos by Mazzy Mae-Green for Autre magazine)


I was pink-cheeked and flustered, having dashed my way through central London to get there on time. As is so often the case at the moment, I had a massive backpack with me: overnight kit and a change of clothes squeezed carefully into as scant space as possible. I also had on the most beautiful blue feather print Burberry dress. It made me feel like a very glam, un-camera shy Virginia Woolf (and oh god was I terrified of sweating into it). Over the top I had on a camel trench coat with buttons like big, black circles of liquorice. Both had been borrowed for the evening. In them, I could stand a little taller.

I had come to Thomas's café next to Burberry’s flagship store for a literary salon hosted by Greta Bellamacina: one half of the duo behind the New River Press, along with her partner Robert Montgomery. I feel immensely grateful to be friends with the two of them. They’re such forceful, shining, tireless artists: each producing fantastic work of their own, while also doing a damn good job of championing so many others. Knowing them for nearly the last year has been a dream. I can’t thank them enough for their support, and their general presence in my life. Sometimes I still look at my beautifully designed book and want to squeal all over again (SHAMELESS PROMO ALERT: you can buy it here. Please do. I’ll be very, very grateful. It has poems in there about everything from ghosts to greenhouses, via way of abandoned hotels, PMQ’s, family stories, iced over lakes, sex, tarot cards, and train journeys. Oh, and you can see more with another reading of mine here. If you need any further convincing, it's been rated by AnOther magazine, and GQ too.)

The salon consisted of a number of people performing their own work, and others reading aloud their favourite poems. I devised a poem specifically for the evening’s theme of ‘Great Britain’. Ever the lapsed student, I ended up working on it right until the moment I had to leave for the event. It was about Brexit and autumn and bad news and village halls and city streets on a Saturday night. It felt impossible to write about much else. Recently, it’s been hard to think of much else either.

Alongside the ridiculous delight that comes with getting to read your work for one of the brands you’ve loved since you were a teenager (I credit Christopher Bailey’s rain-drenched SS09 collection with really kick-starting my interest in design), it was also just a pleasure to let everyone else’s words wash over me. We need more evenings full of poetry. They’re soul-lifting stuff. I also finally got to meet both Rae Morris and Scarlett Sabet: two immensely talented women I’d chatted with online, but never met in the flesh. They both outdid me in the long, curly haired stakes too. Together we did look slightly like a trio of Pre-Raphaelites… 

(Photos via Getty Images/ Tatler)


I was sitting with a friend on Greek Street drinking tea. The lights flickered, flared, flickered again, and then the entire street went dark. We sat there for a minute or two, wondering what to do. Our phone signal had dipped too. In those first few moments, I panicked. It’s amazing how much you take for granted in a city. You assume that your pavements will be illuminated, that everything runs according to order, that you can pretty much always pay for things if you have a debit card with you, and ring people if your phone is charged. Having that thrown was disconcerting.

Once we established that it was a Soho-wide power-cut, it was more intriguing. The mood shifted. I was due to do another reading that evening, and worried it might be cancelled. But in the end, that power-cut provided all the magic needed. Our venue, The Society Club, assured us that it would be lit by candles. As I approached it, weaving my way down the dark street by the torch on my iPhone, passing clusters of people doing similar, I saw the windows ahead. They were radiant and fogged up with all the bodies inside. A beacon in the murk. I entered, and everything/ everyone looked like a Caravaggio painting (or an Artemisia Gentileschi one, but given how violent her portraits are, perhaps the former is a better comparison). I was wearing a pink satin blazer and a Lacroix shirt stitched all over with words. It felt perfect for the occasion: decadent enough for the task of reading aloud by the glow of a flame.

The lights came back on half-way through Rob’s performance. We were all slightly disappointed. There’d eventually been something thrilling in everything being a little off-kilter. Without the street lamps, we’d been able to stand right in the heart of London and see stars up above the office blocks.


In these last few weeks of hellish news, I’ve found it harder to write: to just continue with pitching articles, chasing up projects, plotting out ideas, scribbling poems, dashing off blog posts, dipping into the various fictional worlds I’m currently trying to construct. Many of us have. It’s strange to have to carry on with ‘normal’ things when much feels so hugely abnormal, to have to switch between work and fearful helplessness at the actions of those in power on both sides of the ocean. I don’t have much to add beyond that. Pretty much everything has already been said by people wiser and better equipped to do so than me.

All I can stress yet again is that we have to stay angry. We have to keep on listening to those most affected and marginalized. We have to keep on contacting our representatives (see Rosianna’s very helpful video here). We have to lend our voices, our time, our money, our energy, our empathy, our hands, our commitment, and, sometimes, our humour (what a time for protest signs) to those values we hold dearest – as well as, crucially, knowing when to switch off, look away from the news for a little while, and just sleep, or take joy in the things and the people around us. Joy is vital. It is energizing. It is a form of resistance - and it is yours to keep and nurture and hold close.

This is also, I think, a very good time for us to read and celebrate poetry too: to pick up Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, enjoy the Poetry Foundation's collation of poems of protest, resistance and empowerment, scroll through this Black History Month poetry account (especially this thread on LGBTQ+ poets), look at Kaveh Akbar’s beautiful list of works by poets from those countries affected by that heinous (and illegal) ban, and then go in search of those whose words provide solace and strength specifically to you. I’ve found poetry a very soothing thing these last few weeks. I’ve picked up Irina Ratushinskaya again, as well as U.A. Fanthorpe, Elizabeth Jennings, Helen Mort, and Greta Stoddart. I’ve made myself a huge list of poets to buy (Sabrina Mahfouz, James Baldwin, Marilyn Hacker, Andrew Macmillan) and reorganized my own shelves for easier access.

All forms of literature are humanizing. They’re a way of being pulled into a specific voice or setting or way of viewing the world. Poetry is especially good at elevating us into other, new spaces or, conversely, articulating the recognizable feelings we need worded most. Right now, we need art. We need sparks and flickers of hope. We need work that is tender, or emboldening, or powerful. We need some beauty to cut through the clamour at times, and add fire to it at others. And oh do we need lots of it, going forward. 

Who are you reading at the moment? Who should I add to my list? I want to know. 



christian said...

Great to the the excellent photos of you by Fabio!

Miu said...

Thank you for this wonderful text and wonderful pictures! I just love how you are able to play with words!
I am afraid I do not really read poetry, so I cannot recommend anyone for you. Even if, I think you would already know them, as you are much more educated in the topic than I am :)

Emma Corbin-Mckenzie said...

Wonderful post thank you. Am not much of a writer but have been writing much more recently. You have given some much needed new reading inspiration. X

Lola Byatt said...

This is gorgeous and the pictures are divine!!

Carlota Antolin Vallespin said...

Girl, you are a woman now! A what a woman.

20somethingboozer said...

That Soho reading must've been magical by candlelight - almost serendipitous.

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