Perspectives on Poetry Places
New reports are piling in (or old reports unearthed to post on the web) providing an opportunity to glimpse a cross-section of typical places for poetry at any given time through the Poetry Places scheme. In my recent conversations with Literature Development Workers at the Regional Arts Boards throughout England, they keep emphasising that similar projects have the potential to be funded through England's Year of the Artist (2000). After that, we hope to work collectively to maintain the higher profile of poets in public places afforded by Poetry Places and Year of the Artist.
Children figure highly as project participants. In Growing With Trees - with Michael Rosen - over 2200 poems and drawings were submitted to be published in a beautiful full-colour anthology about trees. (A side note: just last week I found a group of these poems and pictures posted on the bulletin board at my local garden shoppe - a great use for those entries which may not have made it into the final anthology. Very enjoyable reading.)
In Moquapi Selassi's workshop with children and teens in Nuneaton and Bedworth, he 'had requested that everyone bring 3 things to the workshop. These were: an item of their choice, a song and a word. The workshops were done to a set format with the main emphasis on having fun and producing a rhyme/poem. ..from the feedback that I received the children and teachers loved it too. It was a joy to see children and teenagers enjoying creating "poetry".'
For Sue Stewart at BBC Radio Nottingham, 'Age and experience varied, giving testament to the power of lifelong learning - two of the students recently joined a local creative writing group in their middle years, having finally decided, as they put it, "we had something to say and we were going to say it!"'
Another placement, dedicated to poetry audience/reader development, took poet Ann Sansome out to new audiences in the Chesterfield Library area. She reports on her work with children, teenagers and adults in a variety of settings.
Graham Harthill's conclusion after working (along with Fiona Sampson) with Older People during the Ledbury Poetry Festival was that 'although we had plenty of people with which to work, my conversations with those outside the institutions proved to be very interesting and generated some excellent work on locally historical themes of interest to the community at large. Were the project to be developed next year, I would recommend a somewhat increased emphasis on work with elderly people throughout the town itself, and a conclusion (be it reading/event, publication or both), that invites the public to attend. Such a finale would also establish the project as a fully-fledged ingredient of the festival proper.'
Poets Phil Bowen and Matt Black managed to convince passengers on the Torrington Shuttle service to listen and sometimes even write poems, during a week in August. When they found themselves the only ones on the bus they composed poems together 'with a bumpy muse in attendance'.
Simon Rae's placement was more of a public art project - he faced the challenge of composing a poem about cricket, to be inscribed on an end wall of the Warwickshire County Cricket Club. His report effectively describes the process and incarnations of the poem.
One of the first commercial residencies, just as Poetry Places was getting started in 1997-98, was Lavinia Greenlaw at Mishcon de Reya. Her approach to this understandably unique and formidable task was thus:
I decided to make my first approach to them by e-mail. The 200 or so staff at Mishcon get around 30 general e-mails.a day about everything from conflicts of interest to missing mugs. Like a parish magazine, these e-mails also record departures and arrivals, births, marriages and deaths. Each week, I slipped a poem among all this, starting with Wallace Stevens who, like Ovid or Donne among others, was a lawyer-cum-poet. Over the year, I gave them everything from Sappho to Paul Muldoon. They e-mailed me back to ask what something meant, to say they loved or hated it, and in one case to say they'd been out and bought the book.
[excerpted from an article in The Observer, October 4 1998]
A year and a half later, Roger McGough has just embarked on his residency as British Telecom's virtual poet in residence. He plans to post poems and a monthly column on the company's intranet to a staff of 100,000 and encourage a virtual dialogue about poets and poetry via an intranet 'BT Poetry Notice Board'. Look for the beginnings of that report in a few weeks time.
More food for thought:
I think that there is room for more residencies, or commissioned poems, in rural areas and those commissioning public art could be made more aware of the benefits of poetry. Unlike sculpture, for example, literature is not visually intrusive. If it is combined with writing workshops, it is inclusive of communities in a way that a sculptor or photographer working alone cannot be. Furthermore, the end result can be used a number of different times.
Jackie Wills in the Surrey Hills