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Sifting through the dustbins of history: new anthology turns up all manner of surprises

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Rummaging through a library’s dusty archives – or more likely these days, clicking a few times on Google – can unearth all sorts of historical curiosities.

The anthology Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History, edited by Claire Trévien, pictured, and Gareth Prior, and launched on Wednesday night at the Star of Kings pub in King’s Cross, is full of strange footnotes and bizarre happenings. Some of the information, such as Kirsten Irving’s revelations about the French aristocratic child serial killer, Gilles de Rais, who fought alongside Joan of Arc, you wish you’d misheard. (‘Don’t Tell Joan’). And the truth is often hard to establish. Hel Gurney found it impossible to locate amid the “myth and memories” surrounding the notorious 17th-century Moll Cutpurse, accused of prostitution, clad in doublet in hose.

At Wednesday night’s launch Holly Hopkins told of the cowherd Caedmon, traditionally known as the first English poet, and speculated that his success might have something to do with his boss, Hilda of Whitby, rather than divine inspiration. (‘Caedmon and Hilda’). Harry Man recounted the history of Earth as a social media timeline; Rebecca Goss paid tribute to Marc Chagall’s daughter Ida, who ensured that his paintings remained safe when her father escaped German-occupied France in 1941 and sailed to America. (‘Ida And The Box’).  

One of the most remarkable subjects was the epidemic of mass dancing that occurred in Strasbourg in 1518, with hundreds of people dancing day and night in the street, exhausted but unable to stop. Was it a rebellion, or a collective nervous breakdown? Susan Mackervoy contrasts the elite’s views of the dancers  – “low lifes, shiftless, thin, ragged, smelly and disorderly” -  and the dancers themselves: “Whose shoes are these? We need some shoes. / Whose is this wine? Give us a sip.”   

Tim Wells introduced an element of stand-up into the proceedings, in brandishing a picture of Betty Grable and then berating his startled audience for not knowing who it was: “I thought this was a history night, you fuckers!” His contribution to upturning the dustbin of history was a sonnet about Pickles, the dog who found the missing World Cup in 1966: “It needn’t be a dog’s / life, we all of us can have our day.” (‘A Jar For Pickles’).  

Gareth Prior explained that he and fellow editor Claire Trévien had been looking for poems to “break apart some of the official versions of history”.  The idea came after Trévien went in seach of an anthology of contemporary poetry about history, and found that there wasn’t one: “At a particularly boozy dinner party we decided this was a gap in the market that we were desperate to fill.” He added that they had been “deluged with submissions - and pretty much everything was really good-quality stuff.”

Greg Freeman


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