The last poetry reading you went to - what was it like? A handful of people on the bill, readings from the latest books interspersed with cheery patter, enquiries as to whether those at the back can hear? I love hearing and seeing poets read, it deepens my appreciation of their work ... but I'm also a sucker for razzmatazz. Sometimes I want words delivered with more magic than the format of a standard poetry reading allows.
I'd been earning a living as a poetry tour organiser for a while, most notably for the Poetry Translation Centre
, but was still inspired by my first job in a small arts centre in the Cotswolds. The centre had a 120 seat theatre housed in a converted barrel store, and every week, we'd host a different touring show: a one-man version of Under Milk Wood, staged Russian folk tales for children, Indian dance on a five square metre stage. I wanted to combine live poetry with some of the small scale theatrical thrills I'd experienced early on in my career, so I started to produce poetry shows.
Tilting the Mirror was a poetry show featuring a love story by novelist Ray Robinson, and the love poems of Greta Stoddart
and Jean Sprackland
. Romantic, parental, requited and rotten love - we wanted to make a live anthology of writing which nudged audiences to reflect on their own love lives. A theatre director shaped the show, had the writers reading their poems, reciting them, standing up, sitting down, moving from one side of the stage to another, interacting with a set and a music sound track. No patter, no chat with the audience - just words, silence and beauty. The show toured to arts centres and studio theatres round the country, to many people who were not at that point regular poetry readers. Producing poetry shows is my way of introducing new people to the pleasures and provocations of contemporary poetry.
I tried it again. You Are Here
was the touring show I produced most recently, working with Colette Bryce
, Daljit Nagra
and Jo Shapcott
and a selection of their poems written in the first person voice. Was Jo a Mad Cow, Daljit a female factory worker, Colette a spider caught under a glass? Not literally, but writing from these perspectives allowed them to play with ideas about autobiography and identity. These poems and others we arranged in groups according to mood, and these moods enhanced with movement, a subtle soundtrack and lighting design. We wanted the poems to ask audiences Who are you? Where are you and where are you going? ‘I am here' said an audience member in Liverpool ‘hearing another side of life, art, reality'.
You Are Here has been and gone but I've been browsing the poetry bookshelves again, and the designer has been leafing through his lighting catalogue. We've got an idea for a new show on the theme of power - personal, political, electrical. We know who the featured poets are likely to be (a dynamic combination of silverbacks and whippersnappers) and where we'd like to take them. PBS members will be among the first to find out who and where.
Julia Bird used to work for the Poetry Book Society, and now works part time for the Poetry School
and also as a freelance literature promoter
. Her first collection Hannah and the Monk
was published by Salt in 2008. She's on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juliamarybird
Photos of You Are Here (c) Liam Davenport