Sex, laughter and adultery: anthology draws big crowd at festival

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“It’s great to have a big audience at a poetry event. I suspect the subject matter may have something to do with it,” Sophie Hannah, pictured, editor of The Poetry of Sex,  said in her introduction to the reading from the anthology at Canada Water library in south-east London.

The event, part of Southwark libraries’ Rhyme and Reason poetry festival, saw six poets, including Hannah, read their own and other poets’ work in the anthology, and then take part in a lively Q&A session afterwards.

The anthology is laced with work from Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, DH Lawrence, Cavafy, Dickinson, Yeats, Whitman, Ovid, ee cummings, and Edna St Vincent Millay, to mention just a few.

Fleur Adcock included Wendy Cope’s caustic view of the price of sex, from a man’s point of view, among her selection: “I need a woman, honest and sincere / Who’ll come across on half a point of beer,” reflecting perhaps Adcock’s own dispassionate view of the opposite sex in her own poem ‘Madmen’.

Nic Aubury has two brief poems in the anthology – ‘Casanever’ (“To most men, the notion / of ‘romance and mystery’ / means clearing the porn from / their Internet history”)  - and ‘The Couple Upstairs’ (“Their bed springs start to creak; / their ardour has awoken. / That’s twice at least this week. / Their telly must be broken”).

Sex can be a laugh, but it is a lot of other things as well. Caroline Bird referred to what the publicists have described as the “raucous” nature of the anthology when she confessed: “Being in a Penguin anthology sounds like definitely something I would have boasted about to my grandparents. But unfortunately the poem that I happen to have featured in this anthology, my grandparents can never, ever read.” She then read out her poem, ‘The Plague’, as well as one by Sharon Olds, ‘Sex without Love’. 

Tim Liardet read several sections from Walt Whitman’s ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, as well as his own poem of awakening, ‘Viginty Alley’, which will appear under a slightly different title in his forthcoming collection from Carcanet.

Sophie Hannah said she was very interested in the “hypocrisy” involving sex. Talking of her own, wry poem, ‘Rubbish at Adultery’, said she believed people were either “innately” faithful or unfaithful, with problems only cropping up when “people don’t stick to their correct category”.

Dan Burt  – “I’ve had four wives, five marriages” – apologised for bringing what he described as “a note of seriousness and guilt to the evening”, adding that “adultery is a subject that interests me very much”. His own poems included  ‘The Faithful’, when a women on a trip with her family slips away to call her lover; and ‘End of the Affair’, a reference to the Graham Greene novel about adultery, with a man and his lover releasing hands “to adjust demeanour for a neighbour”, a moment that leads them to separate soon after, “sans goodbye / Relieved what never lived had died.”

Asked, at the end of an entertaining Q&A session, if there might be a volume two, Hannah said the selection process had started with 30-odd poems that she knew she would like to include. After that, she gathered material by “a mixture of going to the Poetry Library, reading as many poetry books as I could, asking all my poet friends if they knew any good poems about sex, asking the Poetry Society to put it up on their website - and I just got loads sent in, far more than I could have picked. So yes, there could be a volume two. I’ll suggest it!”

She insisted during the evening that the anthology was not “designed to turn people on”. But she added that it included poems that she had selected, but would not necessarily be comfortable with reading out in public; poems such as Auden’s five-page ‘The Platonic Blow’, a graphic account of homosexual fellatio, perhaps. The point is, as my wife reasonably put it, you can’t be shocked by the contents of a volume that has the letters S, E and X elegantly emblazoned over its back and front. The Poetry of Sex joins those thinly populated ranks of unputdownable poetry books; reeking of salty life, in all its diversity.

 

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