Oldham Library 19th September, 2013: TS Eliot Prize
The evening weather was not an awe-inspiring start to a poetry event but thankfully the performance space at Oldham Library made up for the poor weather. There is a feel of the old library lecture theatre about this venue; a hidden jewel in Oldham. This is certainly something Oldham should be yelling about, this is not just a library but a brave building, designed well to accommodate changing audiences in a new world of poetry, fiction, multimedia and performance. Chris Holifield hosted the evening to a packed theatre. As the Director of the Poetry Book Society she spoke to a mixed audience of various ages, from teenagers to the retired about that the past, present and future of the PBS. It was good to see such a mixed audience at a poetry event. A common complaint in poetry is that audiences age with the poets, and no new audiences come in but both PBS and Oldham Library have actively engaged in bringing in new people to events, challenging preconceptions and engaging with a wider audience. This was reflected in the distinctive poets on the bill.
Shamstad Khan has worked collaboratively on the Manchester poetry scene fusing art, video and performance with her brand of poetry. Khan showed during the reading her skills not just with a honed voice but with a sharp pen. She dug down into fertile ground, bringing up images of the body, religion and domesticity. It is such lines as, ‘paradise is under your Mother’s feet’, that left listeners chuckling but at the same time challenged about the role of women, of the idea of control and power; not just in the home but in society. Khan is an effortless performer, there were moments of trance like, collective hypnosis with the audience as silences between the stanzas became poems within themselves, a challenge to be one with the poet. It is this ability of Khan’s to ask you to step into her world that leaves you lingering over her words long after she has left the stage.
Jane Draycott showed that she is a poet with pedigree, of a finesse of language. She was reminiscent of Lyn Hejinian. This is a poet grounded in a very English way of life as she traverses her own world; from fears of her daughter’s independence after passing her driving test to the sterile nature of golf courses. In the latter she plays with the image of the nomad striking out across a desert. X-ray machines at passport control and R.L. Stevenson all come under the Draycott pen revealing science within the poet. Her poetry considers doppelgangers and timelines never taken. Scientific themes give way to scientific fears with the idea of our descendants living for hundreds of years and how in the end science loses to our nature. It was Draycott’s translation of the medieval elegy ‘Pearl’ that left an audience on the verge of tears. A powerful poet with powerful ideas.
Jen Hadfield delves into places at that are real and imaginary. There are echoes of Heaney in Hadfield this is seen in the poem, ‘Hydra’. In this simple poem there are echoes of the classical images beside the methodical turning of the soil, which roots up a past, in turn burying these images into the seasons and the rhythm of the land and bodies. Hadfield is self-deprecating but above all she is fierce about the idea of frontiers, that there is active life outside cities, outside towns and countries. This is a refreshing change to the idea of ‘city’ being the hub of activity; both of the everyday and artistic. There is wanton way in this poet, she is throwing down the gauntlet to the poetry scene and the audience to consider the communities they inhabit rather than looking at the horizon or pigeon holing the world they inhabit. For Hadfield the frontier is belittling and inaccurate. Hadfield shows the complex rhythms of life in communities, concentrating on her Shetland home. She strips away layers of courtesy and secrets, shows how ripples in an island community, an answer phone and a Neolithic wall have far reaching implications. Hadfield has lines in her poetry that sting and I wouldn’t have her any other way.
Ian Duhig is drawn to folklore, music, origins and religion. His poetry revolves around exodus, the Irish moving up the M1 to Leeds, and his frustration/humour found in his inability to speak Gaelic. There is always a sense of transition in Duhig’s poetry, a poet that uses humour to capture the audience in his palm before closing an iron fist around them. Duhig does not shy from the political, or highlighting bigotry, stupidity or the fool in us all. Duhig explores misunderstandings, ignorance and he does so in a way that highlights misconceptions in society. Duhig is never aloof though, even in the use of complex ideas and musical forms he is always accessible, stripping away the layers to reveal the everyday and the forgotten. Like Khan, Duhig shows that he has a love of musical rhythms, lyrics and folk songs. This is a poet who through his warmth, humour and language challenges the audience to notice the world around them. He is a poet that understands the implications of what society is, what society does and what society could be. He mocks but understands what he is mocking.