Poetry London Summer Readings: Rachael Allen, Andrew McMillan, Vahni Capildeo and Emily Berry

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Poetry London’s summer launch opened with an impassioned speech by the poet Karen McCarthy Wood, who is a trustee on the magazine’s board. The magazine is known for its support for ‘new and emerging poets’, Karen says, noting that one third of each issue is devoted to poets who have yet to publish a first collection. New names are featured alongside those of ‘distinguished writers’, and Poetry London also completes important work through its mentorship schemes and reviews. As a charity, it is dependent on the funding it receives from the Arts Council England, who have promised to match any donations made by members of the public who would like to support the magazine. In the current context of arts cuts, these donations are ever more necessary, and Karen urges the audience to consider taking out a subscription. ‘This is the end of this pragmatic part of the evening’, she announces. ‘But not quite the end – think of it framing the whole evening!’

Martha Kapos, Poetry Co-Editor of the magazine, offers a further frame for the evening, introducing the poets who will read. ‘We have quite a line-up’, she says, citing some of the highlights in the published magazine, including Ocean Vuong, who features on the cover, and Mark Ford, Martha Sprackland, Anita Pati, and others. It is often the newer or unknown poets who come up with ‘some of the most exciting work’, and Martha references Ella Frear’s poem, which is titled ‘After the Lie, Donald came in a vision to Donald’, as well as the Syrian poet Riad Saleh Hussein, who was arrested in 1982 and died in ‘ambiguous circumstances’. She then turns her attention to Rachael Allen, who is our first reader. Rachael is a ‘rising star amongst the young poets published by Faber in the Faber New Poets series’, Martha notes, with ‘intense, exuberant, skillfully constructed’ poems. When she read for Poetry London four years ago, Ahren Warner, the Poetry Editor, commented that she is ‘the real thing’. Quite an introduction, and when she steps on stage, Rachael hopes that she will ‘live up to it’. After reading a quote from the horror writer Thomas Ligotti – another frame for the evening – she plunges into her reading of ‘Kingdomland’. Eyes shining, back straight, she tilts forwards as she reads, her black outfit merging with the dark curtains behind her. The poem has an incantatory feel to it, with its repetition of the word ‘impassable’ and reference to a ‘superstitious wife’ who ‘throws salt’. Rachael’s level tone means that the clearest indication of the poem’s denouement is her silence, although it feels as if the words stretch into the pause after she reads: ‘The glass and salt my petulant daughter, / the glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt’.

‘I’m a hypochondriac’, Rachael notes with a smile, and the next poem she reads is a clever play on her tendency to google possible ailments and symptoms. These include accidental iron overdose, fizzing feelings around the ankles, and the side effects of donating marrow – all of which intrigue and amuse the audience. Later poems address ‘the position of the animal in our society’, with Rachael explaining that ‘as well as a hypochondriac, I’m a vegan’. The poems are visceral, questioning why we eat some animals and not others, and are heightened by Rachael’s intense and unwavering style of reading.

Andrew McMillan, the next poet to read, has made ‘an astonishing first appearance on the scene’ with his award-winning debut collection Physical, Martha asserts. His poems have been praised as exhibiting ‘tenderness, candour, sensitivity, and vulnerability’, and he launches his reading with ‘Martyrdom’, a poem remarkable for its haunting repetition of the word ‘father’. On stage, his posture is relaxed, one leg balanced behind the other, and he informs the audience that his reading will focus on newer poems. He also speaks of his experience as a gay man: ‘I’m part of a very lucky generation of young gay men – I was born in 1988 and came of age post the worst of the AIDS crisis’, although this period of history has nonetheless cast a ‘shadow’ over the gay community. ‘Blood’ is a poem that deals with this shadow. Other poems delve into childhood and ‘how we might grow into our physical selves’. Andrew refers to the ‘awkward moments after PE’ at school, reading his poem ‘Things Said in the Changing Room’. His lilting way of reading makes him easy to listen to, and he gestures as he reads. Sharon Olds has been a particular poetic influence, he says, citing her collection Odes as a source of inspiration for some of his own writing. ‘To the Circumcised’ takes Olds’ idea of writing odes to things that normally wouldn’t be addressed in a poem and runs with it, inquiring into the foreskin’s fate after circumcision. This is followed by ‘Praise Poem’, which lingers on the words for different body parts, and ‘Clearance’, a visceral poem on sex. Andrew relates how when he gave his new book to Helen Tookey, hoping for critical feedback, Helen ‘walked back into my office on Monday morning and just said, “Oh, your poor mother!”. . . I’m thinking of using that for the epigraph to the whole book!’

After a short break and a few words from Sam Buchan-Watts, the new Reviews Editor for Poetry London, it is time for the next reader. Born and schooled in Trinidad, Vahni Capildeo now lives in the UK. That ‘straddling of two cultures’ informs her work, Martha believes, and she cites Malika Booker, Chair of the Forward Jury, who notes of Measures of Expatriation that ‘When people in the future seek to know what it’s like to live between places, traditions and cultures – they will read this’. Vahni’s work goes even further than this, Martha asserts, ‘to place the language of identity under scrutiny’, questioning words themselves. Vahni begins her reading with ‘Interventions Around a City’, before reading another new poem, ‘A National Literature’. She emphasises each word, and while her performance of the first poem is quieter, the second showcases her skill in building and dissipating intensity as she reads. At one moment she cries out, and the reading speeds, containing flashes of anger, before easing again into a slower pace. ‘I promise it gets more cheerful after this!’, Vahni says, regretting that she had not brought her own circumcision poem along to complement Andrew’s. ‘The Brown Bag Service’ further highlights Vahni’s talent with voice and performance. Her eyes spark mischievously as she reads, parodying the language of customer service to the delight of the audience, who hang on her words. Vahni also reads ‘Utter’, the title poem of her 2013 collection published by Peepal Tree Press: ‘Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws / a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth. / Night hands back the bucket to sailor. / Night, blue-shirted, wades arrhythmically’.

Emily Berry has also published work ‘to great acclaim’, Martha says. Her second collection, Stranger, Baby, is ‘self-aware but bleak, self-mocking, comic, and at the same time intensely moving’. Emily begins with a piece she wrote a year ago, which was published as a limited edition pamphlet by If a Leaf Falls Press, edited by Sam Riviere (who also published Rachael’s poem relating to hypochondriacal tendencies). Sam ‘must be dealing with a lot of material about anxiety of one kind of another’, says Emily wryly. Her own poem emerged from ‘a series of anxiety dreams’ about her cat going missing, and before she reads ‘Aurora’s Escape’, she notes that ‘one thing you need to know is that Aurora is a cat’. The poem is pierced with moments of humour, so that a cat with a basket across its body is ‘literally hampered’, while at another point the speaker regrets not saying goodbye to the ends of her partner’s hair before he has it cut. Emily’s delivery is serious and crisp, so that the funnier parts of the poem seem almost shocking in comparison. She then reads ‘Sign of the Anchor’ from Stranger, Baby, with its captivating images (and sounds) of the sea: ‘I stood at the dangerous shore / Sleeves rolled to my shoulders. / My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back. / Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea’. Her poem ‘Aqua’ also addresses water, and as the speaker ‘praised / it slightly a feeling / of daughterliness / came over me’. After reading her ‘state-of-the-nation’ poem ‘Remains of the Day’, written after the referendum result a year ago, the evening ends with a flood of people leaving the room, talking energetically about the poetry they had heard, and clutching copies of Poetry London.

By Suzannah V. Evans


Poetry London Summer Readings
Kings Place, Wednesday 7 June 2017