Bath and Bristol may be geographically very close, but they represent very different aspects of modern city life. Bath is a heritage city of great history and elegance, with streets designed for carriages and the dressy parade of wealth, Bristol is an ancient bombed-out port, that has picked itself up and gone racing into the new century. Old city / new city, page / stage - the arguments rebound the few miles between and are collected by Poetry Can (the local poetry agency) and turned into events.
A quick tour of the area might begin at Windows Arts Centre on a chilly Thursday evening. This is the regular poetry night, hosted by Richard Carder. Sometimes it feels a bit down-home, sometimes a bit café-society, depending on the quality of the art, which stands as a backdrop for the readers. The open mic attracts a very wide variety of poets; could be someone honing a little piece of local invective (the bus company gets a lot of lines written about it) or a couple of MA Creative Writing students from Bath Spa University trying out before the college slam. There are always featured performers and some classy acts brightened last Autumn, notably Rachael Lawrence's delicious, delicate reading of poems infused with her new experience of living in the country and Mary Taylor, off the book, word-perfect and dramatic, with new poems revisiting the emotional complexity of her work as a nutritionist in a hospital.
Few places can boast more splendid venues than Bath, something Nicola Bennett, the Director of Bath Literature Festival is delighted to be able to exploit. Nicola has placed poetry centre stage for the next Festival (2-10 March) with the poets performing in the full crystal and panelling glory of the Guildhall. A very shrewd strategy. The Guildhall invites a big audience and Nicola has placed big name draws with new writers. Jo Shapcott, reading from her new collection Tender Taxes, will be joined by two first-collection poets, Samantha Wynne Rhydderch and Esther Morgan. Also enjoying the Georgian chic will be Elaine Feinstein and Hugo Williams, Carol Ann Duffy, Jean "Binta" Breeze and Roger McGough. Poets pop up throughout the festival, but not always reading their poems: Wendy Cope will be at the Oldies Literary Lunch in the full glory of the Assembly Rooms, James Fenton will be talking about gardening, Lawrence Sail about the west country and Elaine Feinstein about her book on Ted Hughes - so if there is anything you want to know about Ted and Sylvia (and it seems we can never know enough of this archetypal, muse-led story) save up your questions for March, when the bright slanting cold light of Spring shows the best angles of the bear sculptures and ornate cornices of this honey-coloured city. In Spring the hot green waters of the Roman Baths are wreathed in sulphurous mists and the beautiful carved phrases of Alyson Hallett's pavement poem seem to float up from the stone beneath your feet like half-remembered dreams.
If Bath's poetry is set inside the architecture of the town - historically formed by the Pump Room, the Royal Crescent, elegant squares and circles all brought up to date by a proliferation of gorgeous small foodie places tucked away in the Georgian terraces (Quiet Street, Broad Street, Trim Street, Milsom Street) - you can see it as a classic place for "page" poetry as opposed to "stage" poetry. Which may be why the wild performance poet Attila the Stockbroker is a sell-out every time he comes to town. We all need a break sometimes. Or a quick visit to Bristol, which has the reputation of being the ultimate performers' city.
Bristol is young, dangerous, fast and vivid. It is in something of a transition phase at the moment, with still uncompleted city centre works affecting the life of the town, but it's already becoming more modern European every day. It used to be the champion of Slams, hosting regular nationally acclaimed events but energy changes and shifts as time flows by and the slam poets have moved on to other things. Glenn Carmichael and Claire Williamson run highly successful school slams, but if you are lucky you can still catch their performances along with Sarah Jane Arbury and Marcus Moore or Lucy English. There is a real wealth of local poets, many now internationally known. Helen Dunmore and Philip Gross are both much-loved and respected Bristol writers. Philip launched his most recent collection, Change of Address at the Arnolfini Art Gallery, next door to the uncompromising, modern YHA building where the local poets meet each month in an upstairs room looking out over the shining black water of the docks, glittering with reflections from the clubs and bars that line this stretch of the river.
Bristol is far from being only a centrally active city. It's more like a collection of small village communities and each of these has its own atmosphere and viability. You can find the performers here now, on Acoustic Night at the Comedy Club, mixing poetry with cabaret and stand-up comedy. Or you can go to see the excellent Bertel Martin with Bristol Black Writers in St. Pauls, or check out what's happening at the Kuumba Project or in the young poets project at Barton Hill.
Let your energy lead you. Relax, enjoy, be stimulated - poetry winds through both these cities like the rivers at their centres. Float, swim, fish - watch the current.
Poetry News, winter 2001-2