While London was in lockdown, I and my fellow poet Anthony Anaxagorou, curator of Out-Spoken and Out-Spoken Press, decided to choose four poems (by other poets) to read on Instagram live. We discuss the poems and why they resonated with us in these times of uncertainty. We found that these discussions have helped give a wider dimension to the Auden-esque anxieties of our times; the crucial element to it is that it is improvised, unrehearsed sharing.
Coming from the spoken word scene, I know that part of the craft is knowing how to surprise an audience beyond just the words; the voice and body also have agency, in the same way that line-breaks and line length do on the page. In performance, monotony bores audiences – you see it – but this is craft talk for poems in performance, something rarely considered by poets who only think of the readers who come to them on the page.
Anthony’s preference for engaging on his own with poems on the page is significant, because both of us started out on the London ‘open mic’ circuit. We both co-curate poetry nights (mine were Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum, and his was Out-Spoken). Anthony, as well as running a live night, also runs a publishing house (Out-Spoken Press). I miss giving readings where you feel your poems connecting with audiences in real time, but I do also love quietly reading other people’s poems privately on the page. I love geeking out about enjambments and voltas and how to create volume and surprise around the white space. I read poetry collections the way most people read novels; first poem to last poem fast, then going again – first poem to last poem – marking the poems that moved me.
For years Anthony has been the one person I know who has both that kind of sustained, intense relationship with poetry on the page and also comes from the stage. Polarizing stage and page has always felt like a loaded issue to me, in the sense that the open mic and spoken word scene is a lot more diverse culturally than the literary scene. The dismissal of spoken word as low art, from the Guardian to PN Review, came with racial and class undertones; it’s a kind of prejudice hidden in language, but it works both ways. Poets I know who also come from the spoken word scene say literary poets are too posh, that they write poems where you don’t know if they’re starting or finishing. I do understand that, but this is a discussion about the expectations of audience. Those poems that end quietly without declaring some kind of resolve or punch line are often expecting their audience to meet the poem halfway. This requires a different kind of listening – a kind of listening that engages subtlety with meanings that are sometimes less immediate. Often there are no digressions or statements or opinions of the poet guiding the poem; it’s more of a focusing-in on smaller moments or ideas.
Now, I don’t want to privilege one style over the other. To pull off a quality spoken-word performance and a good page poem takes craft and talent. But talking to Anthony about performance has highlighted to me that, as we’ve grown older, our taste has developed and our expectations of poetry have changed. However, there is still a fundamental integrity in what we expect from poems, and that is a kind of widening curiosity and wonder about the world and our existence – an openness. I think an easier way to put it is: heart and imagination.
Raymond Antrobus is the author of Shapes and Disfigurements (Burning Eye Books 2013), The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins 2018) and To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken Press 2017). In 2019 he was awarded the Rathbones Folio Prize for best work of literature in any genre, the first poet to receive the prize. Other accolades include the Ted Hughes Award, Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and Guardian Poetry Book of the Year 2018. He has been shortlisted for the Griffin Prize and the Forword Prize. Raymond is a founding member of Chill Pill and Keats House Poets Forum and is an Ambassador for the Poetry School. For more information see www.raymondantrobus.com.