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Free Verse book fair: a day when poetry met the people in Red Lion Square

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Would Jeremy Paxman have approved? It was a day when poetry engaged with the outside world, or at least bumped straight into it, as poems were read while marchers assembled in Red Lion Square in London. The poets were taking part in outdoor readings as part of the poetry book fair Free Verse, which grows in size and popularity each year. The marchers were gathering in support of the NHS, and waiting to link up with those who had been walking from Jarrow on Tyneside. While they waited for the march to start, many of the protesters listened to the poets, who found themselves with the audience of their dreams, in terms of size at any rate.

While there was the odd health and safety issue, as one or two protesters tripped over the microphone lead in their haste to buy a cup of tea before the march started, and the poets struggled to make themselves heard at times above car horns, drums and whistles, there was warmth and fellow-feeling between the two groups.  

The outdoor poetry readings were a new departure for the book fair, which had the usual indoor readings and discussions inside Conway Hall throughout the day, and a main floor packed with publishers displaying their wares to poetry book browsers and buyers. A one-day poetry festival, except that all the readings are free. It’s a wonderful chance to meet poetry friends and acquaintances from London and the south-east, and from further afield, too.     

The day included a fascinating discussion between three anthology editors – Tom Chivers, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Mark Ford. Chivers, whose innovative Penned in the Margins was holding a 10th birthday party celebration later that night in Shoreditch, edited the “provocative” anthology Adventures in Form. The anthology is described as “a compendium of poetic forms, rules and constraints”, and includes poems using only one vowel, “twisted sonnets”, and poems compiled from Facebook status updates. He said: “When it stops being like a poem, that’s when I want to publish it.” He also spoke of asking Paul Muldoon to make a poem “more strange”, asserted that most poems would be improved by removing the first and last lines, and said it was time to break down the “old order” in poetry, even if it meant that bookshops “would no longer know who to order from”.  

Mark Ford is currently compiling the next Salt anthology of Best British Poetry. He had been asked to do the job by the series editor, Roddy Lumsden, who, he said, “seems to know something about all poets who are alive”. He has been selecting poetry for the anthology by trawling through poetry magazines at the Poetry Library on the Southbank: “I didn’t have all that much time, but read as much as I could.” The process was exciting, he said. “I felt a bit of an old fogey, suddenly meeting the young at a party, and realising they were all having a good time.” How did he select? “Poems that didn’t ring my bell, I didn’t feel guilty about not picking them.” He revealed that that he had amassed a number of poems that he had in a folder with him. How had he chosen them?  “The usual things, funny, beautiful, true – to use a lot of old-fashioned criteria.” And ones that had come close to being selected, but were then discarded? “You start with enthusiasm, you plunge into the poem, you feel that it hasn’t put a foot wrong, and then you suddenly think, it doesn’t quite work. There’s a sense of disappointment.”

Karen McCarthy Woolf edited Ten: the new wave, part of an initiative to promote diversity in British poetry, and which has been described as “a sampler of work by black minority ethnic poets that includes some of the best new verse to be found anywhere” by Fiona Sampson. McCarthy Woolf said that “linguistic gymnastics doesn’t interest me so much”; she was instead looking for “emotional authenticity, a willingness to allow a certain vulnerability into your work”. Later on, she added that she was keen on “text and space, in utterance and silence. I want to see that there.”  

The future of poetry? Chivers predicted more fragmentation, “where you don’t have two or three schools of thought in poetry, but hundreds. It would be nice to see a breakdown of the old order that says, this is how you get published, these are the best publishers, the best magazines …” He said later that “the idea of ‘being a poet’ needs to change. Building a career on YouTube is a perfectly valid way of being a poet.” McCarthy Woolf expected to see “more collaboration, and more politics”.  Ford anticipated that there would be more “anything goes”, with people “finding the tribe that they’re comfortable with”.  

Ford concluded by saying: “There are thousands of poets, they could fill two stadiums, they could go to the moon and back. I marvelled at the desire to write poetry that is out there. The different kinds of experiment are dizzying and mind-boggling.” He added with disarming frankness: “All anthologies should come with a health warning – ‘This is a random selection of stuff that I happened to come across’.”

There were more opinions and tips in the afternoon at another panel discussion, What Do Pamphlet Editors Look For?, with Emma Wright (The Emma Press), Helena Nelson, (Happenstance), and Peter Hughes (Oystercatcher Press). Pamphlets can be exciting and experimental, but also “less threatening” than a whole collection of poetry – and certainly cheaper.

Wright said that her potential pamphlet buyer might be “busy, or tired after a long day’s work. It needs to be something that will zing into their minds, make them think, this could cheer me up, this could be fun on the train.” She added: “I don’t know a huge amount about the structure of the poetry world. The poems have to move me in some way.”

Nelson said: “I want to see something I haven’t seen before. A lot of what I publish is what you’d call mainstream – I like a lot of mainstream poetry – and one constraint is that I publish in A5. “ She added: “It’s not always useful to say, look at the kinds of pamphlets we print. If you send me something similar to something we’ve already published, I won’t want it.”

Hughes warned that because it was easier to send submissions by email these days, rather than by post with SAEs, “I don’t think people do so much research into who they’re sending stuff to.” He added: “I think it’s dangerous for poets and presses to have too much idea of where they’re going. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’m delighted when I find it.”  

Free Verse events continued into the evening, with a number of readings in the upstairs room of the nearby Rugby Tavern. A team of willing and friendly volunteers were on hand throughout the day, handing out the impressive programme/anthology, and holding the fort on stalls when publishers needed a break. This was the fourth poetry book fair I’ve attended. It took a further stride this year with director Chrissy Williams and manager Joey Connolly, particularly by breaking out of Conway Hall and into nearby Red Lion Square – or “Poetry Park”, as it was becoming known by the end of the day, with the excellent Park Café at the centre of the outdoor readings. They furnished me with a much-needed and tasty pasta bolognese after the queues had gone, and the caravan of NHS demonstrators had passed by.   


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M.C. Newberry

Sun 7th Sep 2014 12:40

An entertaining and informative view of an
unusual pairing of public and private interests
here in the heart of the capital.
I'm not sure that poetry is suited to being
bawled out over the heads of a crowd. In my view it is a medium that needs careful and
considered appreciation - far removed from
the amplifications of public speaking. The
concept might just work in a very limited environment (hall/room) but I for one wouldn't
want to spend time with it anywhere else.
It's good that there are differing opinions
about poetry and what works (or not) - but it
often comes down to poets writing for poets
from what I can see. It is almost
miraculous that a national newspaper like the
Daily Express promotes popular verse on topics
of interest by its skilled in-house writer -
and was also responsible for the three volumes
of "Forgotten Verse": invaluable collections
of yesteryear's poems. By all means, let's be
new but not forget the lessons and the
disciplines of the past that provide the
signposts to success and longevity. Poetry
should reach across the ages but that doesn't mean it has to be shouted to be heard and

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