Plush red cushions. Red floorboards. Flickering candles and the walls hung with a myriad of mirrors. We were sitting in the luxuriously lit Print Room at the Coronet theatre in Notting Hill, admiring our lush surroundings. On one side of the sloping room, a grand piano had been transformed into bar, where poets and listeners were ordering wine and warming spirits. Another piano was tucked away in the far corner of the room, and the shelves behind the podium were decked with photographs, paintings, wine bottles, and books. The room itself, with its tilted angles and darkened interior, looked like the belly of a great ship, where we were gathered to hear readings from Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Daljit Nagra.
Kayo Chingonyi has been to the Print Room many times before as a listener, and was pleased to be returning as a reader. ‘It’s a really beautiful quality of attention that you get from the audience here’, he says, thanking Marion Manning, the Poetry Coordinator of the Print Room, for his invitation. He begins his reading with ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’, noting that his fellow reader, Karen, was excited by the poem’s dedication to her brother Steve McCarthy. Conversations with Steve prompted some of the phrases in the poem, Kayo explains. His voice when he reads unfolds into the red room, accompanied by the quiet whirring of fans, and the audience’s attention as they listen is palpable. ‘I wanted also to honour my other fellow reader by reading this’, Kayo says of his next poem, ‘Legerdemain’. He speaks of Daljit’s skill with voice and personae in his work: ‘this is something I’ve also tried to do’. After advising the audience on how to appear knowledgeable about basketball, and reading his poem ‘H-O-R-S-E’, Kayo talks about other people’s impressions of his work. He is ‘fascinated by the manner in which someone reading your book deeply, on more than one occasion, can give you an insight into the book that you as a writer didn’t have’. Someone recently was relating to him ‘ideas they had gotten from reading the book and certain patterns that I’d created, and isn’t it nice that this chimes with this’. Kayo ‘wanted to say that it was all very designed […] but really it’s a subconscious process working’. The next poem that Kayo reads is called ‘How to Cry’ – ‘which seems to be a tragic poem, but it’s actually a celebration’:
I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, already the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back
Looking up wryly after his reading, Kayo says ‘It’s not all that joyful, is it?’, although he praises the benefits of ‘having a good cry’. His poem ‘Curfew’, set when Zambia was a British protectorate, also has sombre undertones, although it is related through vivid dialogue between the speaker, his aunt and uncle, and possibly other family members. The aunt ‘smiles a knowing smile at our scandalised / faces’ as she recounts her experiences.
Karen McCarthy Woolf is the next poet to read. A Londoner with English and Jamaican parents, Karen began writing poetry as a teenager, and later worked in publishing. Her previous poetry collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, was published in 2014 and described by Kate Kellaway as a ‘beautiful, painful, pitch-perfect debut’. She is currently working on a doctorate at the University of London, and is particularly interested in ‘how a poetry of protest can also be infused with awe’. Her new book is called Seasonal Disturbances, and she begins by reading the title poem – ‘it felt apt, given the weather’, she notes, referring to the ferocious June downpour we had experienced earlier. The poem turns from a meditation on the disquieting meteorological conditions to other unsettling situations:
[…] My train
was the only train running, so
I got on, made my way in to the office
where everyone else was white
and the two typesetters I managed always
queried my edits and all along the way looking
out of the window from the empty carriage
I could see trees blown over,
their roots curling up into the air.
London is a city that features heavily in the collection. While Karen’s first book was one of elegies, the second is also ‘elegies – of sorts’. The collection is ‘a little broader – a book that mourns lost loves’, including cities. ‘Men, hollyhocks, and cats have also featured in this litany of grief’, Karen notes, smiling. ‘The Hollyhocks’ is the next poem that she reads, and while the first was read with urgency, here Karen adopts a more conversational tone, smiling and acknowledging the audience’s shifts of emotion. ‘I was very obsessed with hollyhocks for a while’, she explains, while the poem exclaims ‘O hollyhocks of Ile de Ré / O tunnels of pollen / O wooden boardwalks across the marshes / O pastel petals crushed by bicycle tyres’. Her reading also encompasses a range of poetic forms – including one invented by the American poet Terrance Hayes and titled the ‘Golden Shovel’. This particular form ‘references your reading – transforms it and makes it something else’, she says, and as she reads her own Golden Shovel, ‘Ars Poetica 101’, she gazes out at the audience as if she is addressing each listener individually.
Daljit Nagra has ‘leapt into English poetry with an exclamation mark’, according to Jeremy Noel-Todd, and he fills the Print Room with a similar exuberance. He is currently Poet in Residence for Radio 4, and it is easy to imagine his chatty, natural style working well on the airwaves. His reading of ‘Vox Populi, Vox Dei’ – ‘I don’t know any Latin – just popular Latin!’, Daljit notes – is assured, and he punctuates his speech with hand gestures, gazing levelly at the audience. ‘I’m going to read a poem about going to the tip’, Daljit says next. And with a comic’s timing: ‘Being lower-middle class now, we have lots of things to get rid of. Our Ikea products don’t work anymore’. He speaks of listening to a T. S. Eliot CD on these trips to the tip, and being caught by the poet’s ‘anxious voice’. Equally interesting to him is the way that Eliot was ‘recorded and shipped over to India, during the troubled colonial times, as a way of winning over the intellectuals in Calcutta’. His poem ‘He Do the Foreign Voices’ plays on Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land, which was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a line taken from Dickens’ last completed novel:
. . . ah Weialalaah! you say in time with Eliot
as you head for the rubbish dump on Sunday morning
listening to your CD of those free rhythms
for Mistah Kurtz – he dead, for stranded Tiresias
and Lil, for Krishna, for the Datta
and Da Da Da.
Where he grew up also influenced Daljit’s writing, and he states that he ‘wanted to write about childhood and being a British person’. Watching cartoons as a child, with Punjabi as his first language, he would sometimes miss subtleties of language. ‘Ode to England’ plays on this, and is a complex love song to Daljit’s country of birth, as well his way of ‘talking to England’. ‘That’s part of the strain of the Englishness of this British Museum collection’, Daljit explains after reading the poem. He also reads a personal poem, ‘Father of Only Daughters’, written when his youngest daughter was turning two. The poem is the first one to appear in the book, and Daljit expresses his thanks to Matthew Hollis, his editor at Faber, for suggesting that he open the book in this way. ‘When you write a really personal thing you want to hide it away, and editors don’t do that – they make you bold’. The evening ends with a sense of privilege at having shared poetry with strangers and friends, heightened by the intimate red surroundings of the Print Room.
By Suzannah V. Evans
Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra
6th June 2017