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Poetry at the Print Room: Kayo Chingonyi, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Daljit Nagra

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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
Print Room
6th June 2017

Faber Reading: An Evening with Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, Richard Scott

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Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nargra, Richard Scott

The Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell Close was beautifully lit with fairy lights, and the low chatter of poetry enthusiasts graced the air. A table was filled with books and pamphlets by Emily Berry, Emma Jones, Zaffar Kunial, Daljit Nagra, and Richard Scott, while another table was laid out with glasses of wine. We were here to hear these five Faber poets read from various new or forthcoming collections. Emily Berry and Dalijit Nagra both have books out this year, while Richard Scott and Zaffar Kunial have forthcoming Faber debuts; Emma Jones’s second collection with Faber will also appear soon.

The scene was set, and Faber Poetry Editor Matthew Hollis stepped forwards to introduce the five poets. Each one, he said, was making an ‘exceptional contribution’ to contemporary poetry, all at different points in their careers, but all working towards ‘a long, long fruitful life in publishing’. He praised the distinctive nature of each poet’s work, and encouraged the audience to listen deeply, drink deeply, and to savour the experience.

Richard Scott was the first poet to read. Born in 1981, Richard’s pamphlet Wound was published by Rialto in 2016, with a Faber debut set for 2018. Speaking of Richard’s work, Matthew states confidently that ‘if you haven’t already read Richard, you will’. His urgent and timely poetry, Matthew argues, is propelled by a ‘pounding sense of injustice about inequality’, and his plea for tolerance, while centred on the gay community, extends well beyond. Richard himself notes that his desire to write stemmed partly from his frustration as a gay teenager, unable to access literature that spoke to his own experiences. ‘Public Library, 1998’, the first poem he reads, addresses this frustration directly, and features the speaker writing the word ‘cock’ in a borrowed book to redress the imbalance in Queer literature. Later poems focus on sensual experiences. The most notable of these involves a fishmonger, who visits the speaker in his van, and who ‘fed me prawns, wiped / the brine from my lips – / let me try my first razor clam / unzipped from its pale hard shell / the tip, soft and white and saline’. The poem is erotic, unsettling, and enhanced by Richard’s grave and thoughtful manner of reading.

To read Emma Jones’s work is ‘to drown in it, to accept inundation’, says Matthew Hollis of the next reader. He compares Emma’s work to the sonic equivalent of a Henri Rousseau painting – ‘that sounds complicated, but you’ll understand when you hear the poems’, Matthew assures us. Emma began her quietly intense reading with a poem from her collection The Striped World, published by Faber in 2009. ‘Tiger in the Menagerie’ does indeed conjure images of Rousseau:

At night the bars of the cage and the stripes of the tiger
looked into each other so long
that when it was time for those eyes to rock shut

the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars

This is a world of ‘open oceans and closed cages’, a ‘bright, painted place’, Matthew notes. Emma’s next poem ‘Pietà’ is a complex and bluesy meditation on the image of the Virgin Mary cradling the deceased Christ. ‘What’s always struck me about these depictions is that Mary is disproportionately big, and Christ disproportionately small’, mirroring the image of Mary holding Christ as a baby, Emma says. This portrayal is linked in Emma’s mind with pop songs, where adults often call each other ‘baby’, and the poem riffs on this endearment. ‘Baby, you sure look sick’, the poem begins.

In contrast to Emma Jones’s song-like delivery, Daljit Nagra commands the stage with a comic’s timing. He uses ‘humour as well as rage to pursue multiculturalism’, Matthew Hollis notes, and he is ‘brilliantly vivid and important in giving voice to those who are not always heard’. Daljit begins by saying that Matthew, his editor, encouraged him to ‘strip away’ some of his famous exclamations in favour of a ‘new voice’, and it is this voice that can be heard in his new collection, British Museum, published in May this year. It is the first time that he has read from his new book, and his reading is clear-voiced and exuberant. ‘Can poetry help me think about the world?’, he asks, and his poems think through both personal and national situations. One poem, at once humorous and touching, centres on his mother’s inability to pronounce his wife’s name; another poem recalls the ‘time-compacted rooms’ of the British Museum. ‘I’ve only got one offensive poem in the collection, but I’m not going to read it now’, he says, motioning the audience instead to purchase copies of his blue hardback book.

After a musical interlude, Zaffar Kunial, a ‘guide for modern times’, as Matthew calls him, steps up to the podium to read. Zaffar ‘vocalises what it means to be a human being, planting your two feet on this earth’, Matthew asserts. The poet begins by showing a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which belonged to his mother and was in his family home as he grew up. He is thrilled to now be ‘on the same team’ as Eliot. The first poem Zaffar reads is called ‘Fielder’, taken from his Faber New Poets pamphlet, published in 2014. It is set ‘somewhere between Birmingham and Yorkshire’, but Zaffar notes that it is equally about where poetry began for him: ‘The whole field, meanwhile, waiting for me, / some astronaut, or lost explorer, to emerge with a wave / that brings the ball – like time itself – to hand. A world restored’. A later poem speaks of the mixed feelings – ‘In two minds. Ashamed. Aware.’ – prompted by hearing his Kashmirian father make a grammatical mistake in English, and his own realisation that he is ‘native here. / In a halfway house’ (‘The Word’). Zaffar’s reading emphasises each word, pausing minutely between each utterance, and his deeper speaking voice lifts when he reads.

Emily Berry is the last poet to read. Hers is ‘surely one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged in poetry in recent times’, Matthew notes, with ‘no wastage, no excess, and total focus’. He compares her to Sylvia Plath, and Emily, dressed in a Sylvia Plath t-shirt, jokes that she is ‘smuggling Sylvia on stage with me’. Her rigid posture when she reads makes it seem like the words rise up from within her, unbidden, and her performance is spell-binding and incantatory. She starts with ‘a newer poem’, before noting that it’s ‘not even that new’, but still more recent than her book. ‘Remains of the Day’ exhibits Emily’s typical concentration: ‘my neck aches from studying / a number of compelling thoughts. I am being / observed, it transpires, from a distance by a / huge coral-coloured bird. I may be paranoid, / but I feel like it’s mimicking my movements’. A further poem, ‘Sign of the Anchor’, shows Emily’s skill in writing about the sea, and she finished by reading work that engages with Freud. The evening itself ended with raucous applause, more wine, book buying, and musically-infused conversation.

By Suzannah V. Evans

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