A Letter from the Director

Christina Patterson

 "Writing poetry is like talking down the toilet," said Simon Armitage in a recent interview on Newsnight Review. It was, perhaps, not the best advert for the artform and led to instant speculation that one of our leading poets was abandoning his craft for the more lucrative lure of fiction. It was also a statement he instantly regretted. "I said it in the heat of the moment," he told me in an interview for the Independent in connection with his first novel, Little Green Man, "and I should have put a lot of back-spin on it, because it's going to go rumbling on… At the time I started writing the novel I was a little bit exasperated with the effort that goes into writing a poem, the amount of work you put in for what feels like a little reward. That's all that I meant. A poet is what I'm always striving to become," he adds unequivocally, "and that's what I want to do for the rest of my days."


Many poets less ostensibly successful than Simon Armitage might sympathise with these sentiments. Advances for poetry collections tend towards the honorary rather than the telephone number end of the spectrum. Poetry publishers are publishing less these days and bookshops are placing more stringent demands on them and stocking fewer books. A high proportion of poets struggle to eke out a living from workshops, readings, teaching and, of course, writing. As if to make matters worse, a computer program has been developed in the US to write poetry. Could poets become redundant? Does the computer, like the chess-playing Deep Blue, risk making poets obsolete?


Not surprisingly, the answer to this seems to be a resounding "no". I was recently asked to comment on some poems written by the so-called Cybernetic Poet. The program uses complex mathematical models and algorithms to simulate the human creative thought process. Drawing on the linguistic structure and rhythm patterns of a selection of poems by various American poets, the computer had come up with new poems of its own. The results, of course, were terrible. Poetry, as Peter Porter once said is "either language lit up by life or life lit up by language". Whatever else a computer might be able to achieve, I think we can safely bet that the fundamental ingredient of poetry – that electrical spark that brings it alive – can only be produced by living, breathing human beings.


So we will continue to celebrate the work of those living, breathing poets and create opportunities for more people to enjoy the fruits of their labour. We will also continue to find ways to create opportunities for paid work for poets and to encourage the belief that poetry, like much in life that's worthwhile, is worth paying for.


Our Studio Poetry series continues this autumn with a wide-ranging line-up. On 11 October Helen Dunmore, acclaimed for her haunting and luminous poetry as well as her fiction, joins Pascale Petit, whose work "generates a glittery, concise magic realism, which explores the erotic, the wilderness and the faraway" (Ruth Padel). On 8 November there's an opportunity to sample the surreal satire of Sean O'Brien and the erudite wit of Peter Porter.


On 20 October, to celebrate Black History Month, we're hosting, in association with the Poetry School, an all-day workshop with poet Archie Markham. Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, Markham will talk about 'Our Literary House', drawing on the work of writers such as Nancy Morejon, Andrew Salkey, Dionne Brand, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott to explore the literary meaning of "black history" and identify literary survivors and survivals.


As always, the focus of much of our poetic activity this autumn is National Poetry Day. This year it's on 4 October and it's busier than ever. We start early with a poetry power breakfast for city workers with guest of honour Roger McGough, alongside Poets in the City John Mole, Eva Salzman, Jane Duran, Adisa, Lindsay McRae and Coral Rumble. We continue with a poetry balloon-race for children, launched outside the Royal Festival Hall and sponsored by BBC Worldwide. This is followed by a special poetry event at Buckingham Palace (the details of which will be announced on the day) and by the Simon Elvin Young Poets of the Year Awards. Throughout the day, here at the Poetry Society, there's a poetryclass special workshop for teachers with Matthew Sweeney and in the evening we join forces with Faber and Faber and Borders to present 'Here to Eternity', an evening of poetry with Andrew Motion, Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw and Hugo Williams. The reading will take place at the magnificent St Paul's Church, Covent Garden and the ticket price (£5, £4 concessions) includes a glass of wine.


There are hundreds of other activities across the country, together with special poetry programmes on BBC 1, Radio 4 and Radio 3. For more information, do look at our website and let us know if you're planning anything special.


Finally, don't forget our Poetry Society Christmas Party. This year, it's on Wednesday 12 December at the Poetry Café and the guest of honour, who will say a few words and read a few poems, is John Hegley. It's a great opportunity for us to meet our members and for you to meet Poetry Society staff, friends, Council Members and, of course, other poets. Tickets are limited, so please book early (see page 7 for details).


In the flurry of activity, it's perhaps important for us all to remember that poetry is primarily about reading, reflecting and re-reading. In our hectic lives poetry offers us the chance to stop and think and dream. Poetry is not "like talking down the toilet". It's like whispering to the soul, something that most of us could do very much more.

Poetry News, autumn 2002