Last Saturday I went to the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, an annual event held in Conway Hall, Holborn. It's the biggest gathering of nice people in the world.
The day began (for me, at least) with the Henningham Family Press (the artists David and Ping Henningham) joined by the poet James Wilkes for a reading of a section of David's modernist epic An Unknown Soldier. This took place outdoors in Red Lion Square and the speakers, unamplified, had to compete with the noise of building works and the clatter of the nearby cafe. The audience had to strain to catch their every word, and it was worth the effort.
Moving into the main hall (which was already buzzing and would be heaving by midday) I began a three-hour immersion in what nobody these days would have the nerve to call, after George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie. What the Fair confirms is that real poetry has a powerful and abiding presence in our culture, even if it no longer enjoys any centrality. And you'll know what I mean by real poetry.
More than sixty publishers - most of them tiny independents - were packed into a hall the size of a tennis court. The admirably even-handed organisers give all exhibitors the same amount of space, so the corporate behemoth that is Faber and Faber had the same-sized trestle table as plucky independents such as Scotland's HappenStance Press and the avant garde Manchester outfit zimZalla.
The latter presented two memorable readings. The first was Pascal O' Loghlin's 'Mintchocoholochismo' (surely he's the first poet to be published in Wonka chocolate bar form - see below) and the second by the American poet Jesse Glass, who had arrived that morning from Japan (where he teaches) and, clobbered by jet lag and with only ten minutes in which to make a big impression, made a big impression. His voice was a modulated growl reminding me of the late Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Between poems he scrabbled intermittently in a briefcase for more sheets of his dense cryptic verses, which he delivered like a tub-thumping preacher man.
|© zimZalla Press|
After the reading I bought his latest collection Selections from The Life and Death of Peter Stubbe (weirdly dated 2015 by his publisher, Knives Forks and Spoons Press), which includes colour reproductions of the author's unsettling Blake-inspired paintings (now in the Tate Modern's collection). The title is a reference to the 'Werewolf of Bedburg', a ghastly 17th century tale of lycanthropy, and is a redacted and reworked version of a poem originally written in the early 1980s. Also on sale was his Play [Day] for [Of] the Dead: A [Decryptive] Dance For Mirror and Word ('Inverted text to be read with a mirror. Comes in a miniature wooden or cardboard coffin with book, image, gold mirror, skeleton and skull bracelet.') Tempting, but I'd already overspent my modest budget on a dozen generously discounted books and pamphlets.
Free Verse is a chance to find out what's happening in a vital if under-reported part of our culture, to meet old friends and to make new ones. Young (and youngish) crowds filled the various venues and readings continued until late in the evening at a nearby pub (by which time your reporter was at home, writing this blog). The event is funded by the Arts Council of England and ACE monitors (are there such things?) would have been delighted by the range and diversity of participants and attendees. It was, as last year and the year before, a brilliantly organised day. You can see what you missed, and what you can look forward to in 2015, here.