Including (brief!) review of ‘Fiere’ by Jackie Kay.
On 25th June, I travelled back to where I grew up for a very special poetry event. Over a fortnight, Carol Ann Duffy led a tour across the country, starting in Falmouth and finishing in St Andrews. I was over-excited enough to see the event on this tour hosted by Booka Bookshop in Oswestry, and reading the other featured poets was like a dream.
Just to start – Carol Ann Duffy. Poet Laureate. The first modern poet I really read and engaged with, subject of my A Level English Literature. Carol Ann Duffy, the poet who made poetry something of the Now, rather than just of Then for seventeen-year-old me – something people still wrote, a format with more to give, more to be created, innovations still being made. At a time when I was yet to read Goblin Market, unaware of the existence of Sappho, when I thought that Sonnet 43, How do I love thee, was by Shakespeare. Prior to the revelation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, there was Carol Ann Duffy, a woman poet, a woman who commanded words about women, describing women’s experiences in so many ways. Carol Ann Duffy changed my relationship with poetry, as a reader and as a writer.
With her, Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, whose work I found while at a Welsh University. Those three years were infused with an affection for her work. Imtiaz Dharker’s poetry I read often through University, and fell a little in love with them separately, in seminars or within anthologies, not connecting them as from one voice for some time. Jonathan Davidson, local poet for the night, I hadn’t heard of before but am grateful to have been introduced to his writing.
And then, and then, and then – Jackie Kay. Jackie Kay. Author of Trumpet, which was the subject of a lecture which made definitively choose to go to University, prompted me into realising that I loved modern fiction. Jackie Kay, whose collection Fiere I had bought at Topping & Company, Bath, in March and not yet read cover-to-cover but picked little bits, here and there. Jackie Kay, Makar of Scotland. There was no missing this.
I cannot adequately describe the significance of the evening: a full audience in a church, rapt attention focused on the poets, and the music. I had to wonder about the setting – did being in a church affect the attention we gave? Words spoken in that space are always different to me than words spoken elsewhere, but is that because I’ve grown up in the church, because I am religous? Is it a distinction I make from assocation, or did everyone else feel it?
This was the Saturday after the EU referendum result, and there was shock and perhaps a little tension, a little uncertainty. But as the evening began with the brilliant musician John Sampson, he did a wonderful thing in making the audience laugh. As the evening went on, the room warmed and relaxed. Poems written years ago were full of fresh relevance, the voices of the poets full of emotion and renewed emphasis.
I’ve never been part of a more engaged audience for poetry, applauding almost every offering except those which left us in quiet contemplation, grateful to laugh, not always willing to wait for the end of a poem to cheer the brilliance of a line.
I hope the poets’ experience was just as positive, but a tour schedule is tiring enough – given the intense political climate they were doing it in, I expect they were ready to collapse. I have to thank them, for what they gave that evening.
The poetry that evening in some way brought me to life; infused me with admiration and inspiration. I was sometimes at the edge of tears and then laughing. I had poetry hangover for a week – the lasting effect of the evening for me, as a reader, as a writer, as a human, will be far longer. I will always savour the memory of that church, full of words.
So, I came home on Sunday and plucked from the shelf Jackie Kay’s collection Fiere, which I had now heard her read from. I heard her accent in the rhythm of the lines, read more closely poems she had spoken aloud. I adored almost all of this collection. I will revisit it as fondly as I read Carol Ann Duffy’s work, and I cannot wait to read more by Jackie Kay. The whole experience of the event and reading this collection was like a falling in love.
The Shore to Shore Tour ended in St Andrews on 2nd July 2016. You can read the poets’ tour diary at the Guardian here, and find more info and some of their poems at the links below!