A Letter from the Director

Christina Patterson

 

Britain is having a ball. At the time of writing, we've been celebrating fifty years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and, perhaps more enthusiastically, the fact that England has made it to the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Both enterprises have been considerably more successful than anticipated. The Golden Jubilee was rescued from apathy with carefully stage-managed concerts of both classical and rock music. In terms of popular appeal, that covered a pretty broad spectrum of the population, but what really clinched it was the longest bank holiday in history. For a country known for its tea-breaks, that was a master stroke.

 

In the past couple of weeks, the tea-break has turned into the beer breakfast as millions who normally struggle to wrench themselves from their duvets have risen with the lark to watch their country at play. In a country where flag-waving is usually associated with the BNP and the kind of far-right politics currently so fashionable in Europe, the St George Cross has been fluttering proudly from car aerials and balconies. There may have been more than a few sickies, but, amazingly, "we" don't seem to have trashed, bashed or vomited quite as much as usual. Is this a new model for celebration?

 

More people, we're frequently told, write poetry than go to football matches. Over 1200 schools entered the Golden Jubilee poetry competition, organised by Andrew Motion and Buckingham Palace with help from the Poetry Society. Even the mighty Sven-Goran Eriksson has stated a prediliction for Tibetan poetry. "Poems", said the poet Charles Simic, "are other people's snapshots in which we recognise ourselves". Parties, at the Palace or the pub, for monarchic continuity or for pedal dexterity, are actually about celebrating and marking our sense of community, the shared joys and challenges of our common humanity. Poetry does much the same.

 

The "Ingerland" flag flutters in a country more multi-cultural than at any time in its history. About a third of the English team is black and nearly 30% of the population of London is now non-white. We've been celebrating the cultural diversity of our capital with a poetry slam in London schools, as part of the GLA's 'Respect' festival. Performance poets Malika Booker, Charlie Dark, Skorpio Da Nemesis, John Paul O'Neill, Dorothea Smartt, Steve Tasane and our own Joelle Taylor have been going in to schools to help pupils hone their performance skills. The quarter-finals on 7 June, at Chats Palace in Hackney, proved an electrifying occasion and we're now looking forward to the showcase events for finalists in Victoria Park on 20 July.

 

Diversity of a different kind was the theme at the Literatures of the Commonwealth Festival in Manchester, which preceded the largest ever Commonwealth Games at the end of July. The Commonwealth is made up of 1.7 billion people in 54 countries - a third of the world's population. The festival brought together writers and poets from many of these countries in a programme of readings, debates and discussions exploring its rich literary legacy. I took part in a discussion on "the transmission of literature", chaired by Carcanet chief, Michael Schmidt. Other guests included Margaret Atwood, Sujata Bhatt, Lorna Goodison, Nadine Gordimer and Les Murray.

 

The Ledbury Poetry Festival ran from 4 to 14 July, celebrating the best in contemporary poetry in one of our most beautiful market towns. This year's line-up included our own new editors of Poetry Review, David Herd and Robert Potts, in an "amiable and freewheeling discussion about the pleasures and perplexities of reading poetry". The contents of their first issue, which comes out at the same time as this Poetry News, have until now been a closely guarded secret. They include an essay on 'Happiness' by Ian Sansom, a comic strip by John Tranter and a response by Lavinia Greenlaw to the Matisse-Picasso show at Tate Modern. "Readers of poetry", say the new editors, "are a rare breed: discerning, intelligent, irreverant, witty, knowing, exuberant, passionate, coy".

 

Today the sun is shining and there is much to celebrate. At the Poetry Society we're happy to engage with poetry in all its diversity, from the challenges of a Geoffrey Hill or a J H Prynne through a range of readings and critical debates to the performance of a young teenager in a poetry slam. This year's National Poetry Day, on 10 October, takes celebration as its theme. We're producing a booklet and a CD-Rom for schools and a toolkit for promoters, but most of all we'll be encouraging people to join us in celebrating poetry and its power. "Prose is walking"; said the American poet Galway Kinnell, "poetry is flying".

Poetry News, Summer 2002