Twelve hours of poetry, sea shanties, and a message from the laureate: pushing the boat out to celebrate publisher’s 50th anniversary
A north-east magazine and publisher celebrated its 50th anniversary in spectacular style on Sunday with a 12-hour reading comprising close to 50 poets, as well as musical interludes that included the singing of sea shanties, and a special recorded message from the poet laureate Simon Armitage. IRON magazine accepted one of the younger Armitage’s first poems to be published – and on Sunday a packed audience at the Watch House, perched on the seafront and covered in scaffolding at the North Tyneside fishing village and artistic community of Cullercoats, heard him say: “Thank you for taking this poem, all those many, many years ago. I don’t think I’ve read this poem for 30 years." The laureate then read one of his early efforts, and added: “Here’s to the next 50 years.”
IRON was set up by its editor Peter Mortimer when he was living in the attic of the poet Tom Pickard and his wife Connie in Gateshead. The press has been based in Cullercoats since 1975, and although it no longer publishes its magazine, it has maintained a reputation for its often unusual choice of anthologies, such as Star Trek and limericks, and still puts out new collections from time to time.
Well-known poets such as Kate Fox, who lives locally and who launched proceedings at 8 in the morning, John Hegley, Linda France and Tom Pickard were happy to read for just 10 minutes each, along with other, lesser known poets that have also been published by IRON over the years.
John Hegley, who preceded Tom Pickard, recalled travelling to a reading at Morden Tower in Newcastle with the late Michael Horovitz, who revealed to him that the word ‘plutonium’ also happened to contain the word ‘Luton’. He also read a poem whose subject remains particularly poignant to your correspondent – the closure of railway branch lines by Beeching in the 1960s. It was published in IRON’s Book of New Humorous Verse in 2010:
All that remains of the train is a photograph
That branch no more of it. Just like the rest of it
cut down to none of it, that is the size of it.
(‘A Waltz in Dunstable Downs’)
Peter Mortimer, whose garb suggested a certain piratical air, introduced his one-time housemate Tom Pickard with these words: “He was a very bad lad then, the police were always calling. Well, he’s still a bad lad now.” True to his image, Pickard read a short story about swimming naked in the North Sea, after a drink and taking a couple of pills, and finding himself “heading directly towards Norway”. He was intercepted by a lifeguard in a rowing boat, who ordered him to return to shore. Tom was reluctant to oblige, but then became worried about the stash he had left in his clothes on the beach, in case the police were called.
The award-pinning poet Linda France read from another IRON anthology – IRON Erotica - which she confessed she had forgotten about, and a poem she couldn’t “even remember writing”. It was titled ’Thirteen Ways of Looking at Orgasm’, after the poem by Wallace Stevens, ’Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. She added by way of explanation: “in 1994 my erotic life was rather different than it is now … these days I am more interested in trees.”
There was another recorded message played, this time from the celebrated poet and presenter Ian McMillan, who was once an IRON assistant editor. His ‘Praise Poem for Yorkshire Puddings’ contained typically forthright advice: “Floppy as a vest if you get ‘em out early; / Hard as a wall if you get ‘em out late!”
I will mention as many other poets that I heard, as I can. There was Jeff Price, whose ‘Ten Things I Have Observed in the Asda Car Park in Gosforth’ made it into the New Humorous Verse anthology; Keith Parker’s counter-attack against seagulls – “an emblem of our vicious times … buccaneers of smash-grab crimes”; and Mary-Anne Perkins, who disarmingly prefaced her gently witty and erudite poems with “These poems are a bit metaphysical. I apologise for that.”
Di Slaney, who lives on the edge of Sherwood forest and runs a farm sanctuary for animals, read poems suffused with nature; Robin Moss took a firm line on ageing: “Yes, it’s old age that fucks you up. Larkin got it wrong.” We also heard dialect poems from the Ashington miner poet Fred Reed, who died in 1985, read by Chris Goodwin, who reminded us that “Northumbrian dialect is a direct descendant of Old English”.
One of Gene Groves’s poems was first published in the monthly online Up! Magazine, run by Cullercoats locals Harry and Bridget Gallagher, who were both due to read later in the afternoon. Lightweight that I am, I only managed to stay for four of the 12 hours of readings scheduled, so this review is by no means exhaustive.
One of the last poets I heard was Eileen Jones, who had edited IRON’s anthology of humorous verse. I unearthed a kind rejection letter from her the other day, consoling me that one of my poems had made the shortlist. Having purchased a copy of said anthology on Sunday, I realise that the bar was very high indeed.
Mention should also be made of the excellent food and drink available to sustain the crammed audience, whose members often had to queue outside before securing a prized seat. It was a grey day, with rain teeming down, and breakers crashing angrily against the sea walls. The Watch House, built in 1879 to be shared by the Cullercoats Volunteer Life Brigade and the local fishing community, and now a general community venue that is still being refurbished, stood up to the test as the poets piled in.