Poetry in Portsmouth

Denise Bennett on laughter, discussion and... cake in this harbour town

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by...


These lines from 'Sea Fever' by John Masefield, voted the nations' favourite sea poem, remind me how lucky I am to be living on the edge of the land; that at any time I can watch the tall ships jostling with the ferries and draw inspiration for my poetry from the mood of the waves. Just as the waters are always bobbing with boats so the city is ready to receive poets bearing their literary cargos. Here in Portsmouth there are classes, courses, open mike readings, day and evening events to suit every taste and level. If you read or write poetry or enjoy listening to it there is a venue waiting to welcome you.

The longest running poetry group, as far as I am aware, is the Portsmouth Poetry Society, which celebrates its coral (35 years) in October. This friendly group assembles on the first and third Wednesday of the month in St Mark's church hall, Derby Road, North End from 7.15–9.30pm to discuss their own poetry or to read and explore the work of past and present poets. The first meeting is free (full membership costs £12.00 per year; casual attenders pay £1.00 per evening).
Another informal group is the Citrus Café poets who gather in the Citrus Cafe, Albert Road, Southsea on the second Tuesday of each month from 2.30–4pm. In this workshop, group participants are requested to bring copies of their work for discussion. There is no fee but poets are expected buy tea and coffee, etc.

If you fancy an evening out, enjoy listening to poetry and want to flex your poetry wings, visit the Cha Cha Café/Bar in Palmerston Road, Southsea on the second Wednesday of the month for open mike readings. Or, if you prefer cake with your words, come to Piece Of Cake, a poetry class which includes laughter, discussion, thinking and – cake. This class, run by an experienced poet and creative writing tutor, takes place at the Third Floor Arts Centre at the Central Library, Guildhall Square Portsmouth on the first and third Tuesday of the month from 1.30–3.30pm. Anyone who enjoys reading or writing poetry is welcome. Themes and forms are explored, class exercises are done to stimulate writing, plus there is discussion of the group's work and that of established poets. Fees are £5.00 per session, payable termly.

Perhaps having a go a Haiku may be more to your liking? In which case Southsea has a small evening group which meets four times during the year to air and develop any work in progress. This is an offshoot of the British Haiku Society.

One of the most vibrant and lively poetry groups to spring up in the city during the past two years is Tongues and Grooves which takes place at The Florence Arms in Southsea on the last Sunday of the month. This event, which has growing audiences, is a wonderful mix of poetry readings, folk and rock music. Each session hosts a guest poet, and several well-knowns including Myra Schneider, Wendy French and Stephanie Norgate have graced the stage. Most recently the organisation has been supported by an arts grant to put on workshops and a mentoring scheme to help budding poets and to run a poetry competition. A high-profile evening of poetry and music takes place at the Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on 13 April, with guest poets John Hegley and Brendan Cleary. More live events are in the pipeline and next year, there are plans to run a festival in Portsmouth to link up with 'Jazzmouth' in Portsmouth New Hampshire, USA.

If you are looking for a daytime class in creative writing, which incorporates a fair amount of poetry as stimulus for other kinds of writing plus sessions on writing poetry itself, you may like to know that Portsmouth College offer a Thursday morning class from 10–12pm. This is a well-structured class which gives feedback and support to both new and experienced writers and poets. Wanting to take your work further? Portsmouth University offers a wide range of courses at BA level which include a strand of creative writing. They also offer an MA in creative writing full- or part-time.

Portsmouth has much to offer the budding or practising poet. One of the most famous poets to draw inspiration from the sea was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. According to his son Hallam, one of his best-loved poems, 'Crossing the Bar', was written as he crossed the Solent to his home on the Isle of Wight. Whether you want to dip your toe in the water at an open mike reading, find out about a particular poet, join a relaxed, friendly group, enrol for a creative writing class or discover your talent at degree level, it's all here for the taking.

Denise Bennett won the inaugural Hamish Canham Poetry Prize.