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.