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