Poetry and Place, Displaced

Poetry commands a central place in Britain.

Poet Robert Peake, former poetry editor for Silk Road , gives us an update from the London literary scene.

As I travelled by tube to the Southbank Centre to attend the first event of the London Literature Festival, and my first poetry reading since moving to London two months ago, I took with me my American expectations about poetry venues: coffee shops, small community centers, the occasional well-appointed-but-out-of-the way theater or library hall. Seated facing the podium on the sixth floor of this clean, bright temple to art, I kept examining the layers of the backdrop as if it were a painting. First, a Union Jack. Then the London Eye. And on the far side of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. This was not a painting, however, but a window. The statement was clear: art, and for this evening, poetry, commands a central place in Britain.

However, centrality means anything but homogeneity, as the four readers in this “Poetry of Place” event demonstrated. They each came from one of the four countries whose flag had been superimposed to form the Union Jack fluttering behind them: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. But their relationship to poetry, identity, and place was hardly as crisp as the bright-colored crosses that make up their national standard. I had come to the center of a foreign place to witness the complex crossroads and collisions of its poetry, and to experience firsthand a few of my own.

Blue-eyed Toby Martinez de las Rivas took the stage in a Dinosaur Jr. band t-shirt, sporting an earring and bald but for a Hare-Krishna-style ponytail. He looked nothing like the Martinezes or Rivases I grew up with on the U.S.-Mexico border. And although he represented England (ranging from Somerset to Gateshead, though recently living in Spain), the first poem he read was an homage to Robert Burns, written in Scots. His poems were abstract and eschatological, imposing the allegory of Israel upon Northumberland and courting concepts as “bisexual as death” in baroque and inward tones.

Although Toby prefaced his Scots poem with a nod to the poet representing Scotland, when Kate Clanchy took the podium, she spoke with a cut-glass English accent. Having grown up Catholic in Scotland, then studied at Oxford, she spoke of the double-edged ostracization of first being too posh, and not Scottish enough, for her Edinburgh peers; then not posh enough, and too Scottish, for her Oxbridge colleagues. She channeled this liminal otherness into her poems, fusing gorgeous imagery and sonorous delivery in ambiguous-yet-compelling commentary on the subtleties of the British class system and the insularity of academia (where Oxfordshire bluebells “dream only of bluebells being blue.”)

I was strangely comforted in my displacement by four poets whose relationship to “home” was as complex as my own. This in itself can be a kind of homecoming–to unite with other artists struggling in a liminal space, for whom art is the only refuge from this sometimes strange and troubling world.

Owen Sheers was no less a hybrid figure, born in Fiji, raised in Wales, educated also at Oxford. He read poems ranging the world over, including a chilling tale of his encounter with a Zimbabwean despot, entitled “Drinking with Hitler”, reminiscent of Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel.” Another poem, “World Maps,” described the rashes that formed from Kava abuse in Fiji, and which bore the poem’s title as their nickname. And in “Sun City” (Arizona) he explored the eerie landscape of the Superstition Mountains in this retirees-only leisure world, a sun-drenched waiting room for death. Like the others poets, “home” seemed an elusive concept for Sheers, overshadowed by an archaeologist’s wonder at the strangeness of the world in which he finds himself.

Finally, acclaimed Irish poet Nick Laird’s poems detailed a more stark side of The Troubles than the accounts of Seamus Heaney–the quotidian violence of a life lived so on edge that the backfire of a car could bring one to suddenly sob. Unshaven and slightly disheveled, striking a figure not unlike Nick Cave, he delivered dark, lyrical meditations on living memory’s longest-running civil war. For Laird, poetry can be about, but never limited by, place–being itself a place apart and, from what I heard between the lines, perhaps a place of personal refuge as well.

The audience was rapt, and proceeded diligently to the book table after the final applause. As much as the new land, and new poetic landscape, in which I now find myself is foreign, I felt sure after a reading like this that I had found a good place to be. I was over the rainbow, and although I heard Dorothy’s words echoing in the distance–that there is “no place like home,” I was strangely comforted in my displacement by four poets whose relationship to “home” was as complex as my own. This in itself can be a kind of homecoming–to unite with other artists struggling in a liminal space, for whom art is the only refuge from this sometimes strange and troubling world. Art, I decided, is its own place, where blue-eyed Martinezes and English-accented Scotswomen can reconcile the question behind the difficult question, “Where are you from?”

For more on Robert’s reflections on poetry, London and life, visit http://www.robertpeake.com/