Exotic, esoteric, freewheeling: an evening with Long Poem magazine

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Many calls for poetry submissions specify a maximum length of 40 lines. Long Poem magazine, as the name suggests, takes the opposite view. Ten contributors read at the launch of issue 12 on Wednesday at the Barbican library in London, on subjects that included an Iraqi politician who may have suffered a mysterious death; a farewell to a requisitioned first world war horse;  persecution in old Russia and in the Soviet Union; the oppression of a summer heatwave and the political climate in Hungary; exiled Germans’ impressions of Britain; and the hilarious honouring of “two icons of British womanhood”, which paid homage to the film of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and Betjeman’s Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn – and with the employment of only one vowel throughout.

A longer length can give a poem more room to breathe. It was certainly an exotic, esoteric, and, at times, wacky evening. The poets were listened to with respect, but that hushed reverence that you can get at some poetry readings was absent, and there was plenty of laughter as well.  

Salah Niazi, an Iraqi poet who has been resident in Britain since 1963, and whose works include the translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses into Arabic, read ‘The Dilemma of Al-Kamali’, a politician who may have been “torn to pieces inside prison / Like the flag of a hostile state”.

Patricia McCarthy, editor of Agenda magazine, and winner of the 2013 National Poetry Competition with a war-themed poem, here read ‘Another War Horse’, imagining the conscription of a much-loved “other half”.

Norman Jope’s ‘Dog Days’ was as atmospheric as Graham Greene in the Budapest pictures it drew, while Robert Chandler read his translation of Gulag writer Varlam Shalamov’s poem ‘Avvakum in Pustozyorsk’, about Archpriest Avvakum, an archetypal Russian dissident and writer who refused to accept changes to the Orthodox ritual, was exiled, and eventually burnt at the stake.

Poet and artist Sophie Herxheimer, pictured, produced a marvellous sequence of poems, ‘Enklisch Rekortdinks’, with accompanying visual aids, written in a wonderfully Joycean approximation of her father’s family’s heavy German accents after they came to Britain in 1938. This largely comic immigrants’ perspective – “Zis ven I know zat here to settle iss OK. Zis / City vill be Home, verr eefen on ze Buss is Luff” – nevertheless includes more painful moments, such as the reference to a sweater sent by an aunt Frieda in Vienna: “Vizzin Veeks of zat, Frieda, leik zo Menny, / voz seeztd, imprissont, murdtert.”  

There was also a moving poem, ‘Kayakoy’, from American poet Jeri Onitskansky, set in an abandoned Turkish city where she found herself a few months after her father’s death, as well as contributions from John Greening, ‘Skye’, and extracts from a translation of an old Chinese text by Martyn Crucefix.

Write Out Loud’s David Andrew was in his element among such company, as he read from ‘Triptych’, a sequence of individual poems in three parts, written early in the morning as part of a daily ritual, and inspired by lines from other poets, including Tom Paulin, Eugene Dubnov, Kenneth Patchen, and Paul Durcan.  

Timothy Adès concluded the evening, which was cheerily compered by editors Lucy Hamilton and Linda Black, with ‘The Excellent Wessex Event’, a breathtaking, single-vowelled tour de force: “She fells these three fellers, Ms B. Everdene. / Terence weds her, then flees; she tells Peter: Wed me!’ ”

I always find the Brutalist surroundings of the Barbican, unlike the Southbank, a little cheerless. But this freewheeling evening with Long Poem magazine was a very effective antidote - and it ended all too quickly.

Greg Freeman

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