So your poem’s on a shortlist? So what?
“I look at some anthologies and wonder why these poets have been published.”
That was the most striking line in Glyn Maxwell’s speech yesterday. He judged the Live Canon International Poetry Prize, and was speaking after the performance of all shortlisted poems. Full disclosure: one of the twenty-one on that shortlist was mine. We had just seen half a dozen professional actors – some from the RSC – perform our poems on the stage in Greenwich Theatre. Some had made us laugh, some almost cry. The breadth was huge. How anyone could choose a winner out of all of them was impossible to imagine. As Helen Eastman (founder and director of the Live Canon Ensemble) said, they felt any one of the poems on the shortlist could win, and deserved to. In the end, it was a matter of taste.
Glyn’s taste. Which is why the audience shifted a bit too nervously when we heard him say that. What he went on to say was that when he read through this anthology, he wondered why some of these poets had NOT been published before. Oh how we laughed.
Live Canon is an extraordinary group. They perform poems, by heart, in all sorts of places to all sorts of people. Performances, installations, interactive work: they make poetry come alive in a way that sometimes – let’s admit – it doesn’t when it’s read in a room above a pub to a couple of people and half a pint of flat beer.
Glyn made the point that these actors knew what they were doing, and their love of poetry made for dazzling performances. We nodded conspiritorially when he mentioned a ‘recent event’ at which terrifically famous actors had read poems at an awards thing, to the dismay of many in the poetry community. (Is there a poetry community? It makes us sound like a club. Are we a club?) Some actors are better at reading poems than the poets themselves. Some are not. Live Canon get it right.
In the end, mine didn’t win. But since I had gone to the performance with genuinely no expectation of it, there was absolutely no disappointment. Frankly, there was no room for that when we all heard the spontaneous gasp – a real gasp – of shock and delight from Tessa Foley after Glyn announced that her poem ‘Love Story’ had been his favourite. A very worthy winner: the performance of her poem had got a great reaction.
I caught up with some poetry friends I’ve made on Twitter, some of whom I’d met before (Mark Cooper) and some I hadn’t (Josephine Corcoran, David Bowe) and there were still more I didn’t get around to chatting to. We’ll keep in touch on Twitter. We are the Shortlist Club.
I was also delighted that another literary friend originally made through twitter, novelist Isabel Costello, joined me to hear the performance.
If you fancy reading all twenty-one poems, the 2013 Live Canon Prize Anthology has been published. I recommend it heartily: most of them are much better than mine.
My contribution is here:
The cost of living
The checkout girls observe
opportunity costs of poverty.
Arthritis swells away
intimacies of small change.
Stork margarine. Daz. Value scones.
They see her carefully save
a plastic charity token, knuckling it
into a purse with tens and coppers.
Roast beef and Yorkshires microwave meal for one.
She talks – of weather, grandchildren,
the hurrying year – while her capacious bag
swallows its meagre ration. She lingers,
prolonging sight of the day’s only face.
Cat food: one tin. Powdered milk. Custard creams.
A queue ticks beyond her hearing aid.
(Smoked salmon. Organic lemons. Tuscan olives. Wine.)
She sees only cataracts and smudge,
every day. Every other, if she ekes out the marge,
trading conversation for a slice of toast.
Tinned pears. A potato. Leaf tea.
Third jersey. Gloves. Turn off the fire.
Hot water bottle. Woolly hat. Bed socks.
Fig rolls. Crab paste. Small sliced white.
They remark on her lack, unable to say
when they last saw her nameless familiarity.
They didn’t know her, how far she walked.
Just all she ate for a year
and precisely how much it cost.
Bravo, Isabel. That’s a beautiful, wretched poem and it did make me cry.
Thank you. And sorry about the crying …
You’re going to have to get used to the whole ‘crying’ thing, Isabel. Having had the privilege of an advance viewing of this piece, I still can’t read it without a catch in my throat.
On a broader note, I love the idea of a group of actors committed to performing poetry – as long, as you say, they are the right actors. A good actor really appreciating (and not being afraid to fully engage with) the rhythms of poetic language is an absolute joy. I’ve heard it can work pretty well for that old Shakespeare chap, anyway …
Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry … but you’re right about words being spoken bringing another side to a piece of work. It was an illuminating experience.
Well done Isabel! Another success to add to your CV. I feel as if I know this woman and feel her loneliness. A poignant poem indeed.
Thank you Helen. We could perhaps all be a version of her one day.
Well done again – I loved your poem.
Thank you! It was a great afternoon.
What a great poem and it sounds like a great evening too. It almost makes me want to get back to my poems… haven’t written any in a while and they weren’t very good… but I think writing poetry helps to make us a better writer, whatever we write. Congrats on getting as far as you did, fabulous.
Oh, you should. (Thank you.) More poems in the world have to be a good thing.
I’ve found my way to your blog through serendipity – and I’m glad I did. It’s interesting to hear your report of Glyn Maxwell’s remarks. More than that – your poem is a rewarding discovery.
Thank you John. It was an extremely rewarding afternoon, hearing everyone’s poems!
[…] Award-winning poet and playwright, Glyn Maxwell, who presented the final award on stage and who works frequently with Live Canon, made reference to the controversy surrounding this year’s Forward Prizes when actors, rather than the poets themselves, read at the awards ceremony. But the Live Canon Ensemble, knowledgeable and passionate about poetry, really are in a different league. Isabel Rogers also makes reference to this in her terrific blogpost about the afternoon which you can read here. […]
[…] 2013 Anthology (which is available with a 10% seasonal discount at the time of posting) along with this great poem, The Cost of Living by Isabel Rogers, and about 20 other mostly great poems. (Well, probably all […]
[…] got to meet her at The Live Canon Poetry Competition Prize Giving. Here’s her fantastic blogpost about that […]
Touching, beautiful poem. Thank you. I hope it gets read by lots of people, especially the ones who tut-tut at elderly folk who hold up proceedings at the till.
I’m on a short list with my novel and going to the Exeter Novel Prize awards ceremony in March. If anyone who sees this is going, do hope we can say hullo.
Thank you, Barbara. And congratulations on your shortlisting! Fantastic.