Follow Harriet on Twitter
Letter from London
I’m just back from a whirlwind peek at the ins and outs of the British poetry scene, and I have lots to report. Before AWP I thought I’d post a few snapshots, snap judgements, and other impressions about a poet’s lot on the other side of the big puddle. . . .
Inside the Poetry Cafe, Poetry Society, Betterton Street
My first day in England, I head out to Magdalen College, Oxford for the memorial service of poet Mick Imlah, obviously much-beloved poetry editor of the TLS. As the elegant mourners file out into the gorgeous 15th century courtyard and the full, solemn weight of a nation’s traditions celebrates the poet, I have the first inklings that the poetry world is something different here than it is back home . . .
Fast forward to a reading in Bloomsbury that night. Three new poets reading from their first chapbooks, just out from Rack Press. Small chapbooks, cheap wine — and a graying and respectable crowd. My own unconscious assumptions hit me in the face; I realize that in the U.S. I have grown used to the fact that most poets who are active on the scene either really are young and marginalized, or try to act as if they are.
Can it be that poetry here is simply more mainstream? During conversation at a pub called the Princess Louise that feels like the inside of a polished chandelier, my suspicion is confirmed, and a reason revealed: there is less here. Fewer reading venues. Fewer presses. Fewer magazines. Fewer design choices for book covers (many consist of a black cover with title in white type, or vica versa). In this sparser climate, it seems, more energy is held at the center, less at the fringes.
I’m not sure how much this “lessness” is simply about relative amounts of money, or even about the size of the population. It seems as if there may be something else involved also. A culture of reserve vs. willingness to take risks? The strength of connection with the past? Something to do with empowerment, with the role of class in the society? (Many informants tell that me that one aspect is sexism, a subject I will take up in a different post later on).
Whatever the cause, is certainly sobering. And I confess, it is also somewhat refreshing. My own reading turns out to be the best-run bookstore reading I’ve ever been part of. Host Todd Swift explains that he designed the series, held in the Oxfam Bookstore (a charity thrift shop for books), to fulfill his own fantasies of the ideal reading. From the reserved seats for poets to the wine and chocolate to the informed introductions to the fully attentive house, he has succeeded. I happily donate half of the night’s healthy book sales to Oxfam, and wonder why I’ve never felt quite this way after reading in the U.S..
Here’s a guess: I think the U.K. may still have a grip on that elusive general poetry audience that the U.S. has pretty much abandoned as a chimera. It’s true, some of the passion and grit that makes U.S. poetry so exciting seem to be missing during my 3-day random conversations and samplings of British poetry events. I keep asking about open mics, and the only one I can find during my visit (except a women’s series that conflicted with my reading) is run by the Poetry Society, the single national poetry organization. It seems a strange idea–why would the Poetry Society of America, or the Academy of American Poets, or the Poetry Foundation, bother to run a cafe with an open mic, in addition to everything else they do, surrounded as they are by so many dozens of open mics? But in London, it works. The food in the cafe is awesomely good, and the open mic reading I attend is packed to the corners with people who look like they work in offices. They are there to hear an editor for the Financial Times read his poetry.