Maggie Sawkins, the poet asked to represent Portsmouth, was introduced to warm applause in the beautiful memorial library of Portsmouth Grammar School. She read mostly from her collection The Zig Woman alongside some new poems and I was particularly moved by her use of, often surreal, imagery. This aspect of her work informed a poem about Insomnia that began with a line from Selima Hill and spiralled into a litany of methods that sleepless people can use to get to sleep.
Up next was Tim Liardet, who began by speaking a little about the importance of the Poetry Book Society before sharing poems from a selection of his books including The Blood Choir and The Storm House. Tim’s set was especially evocative because he read work that shifted in tone so that the audience would be moved almost to tears at one point and laughing heartily the next. The contrast was thrilling to watch from my vantage point at the back of the room.
The penultimate reader was W N Herbert, who read from both versions of his book Omnesia. His explanation of the title’s significance (that we live in a time of omniscience, with a seemingly limitless field of knowledge at our fingertips, which leads to amnesia, since we don’t feel inclined to retain this information for very long) drew a hum of recognition from the room. I hadn’t seen him read live before and was taken with his animated style which he drew on for his reading of a poem in two voices which introduced the character of Omnesia. He also read a tour-de-force poem about rain called ‘The Black Wet’, written while he was in residence at The Wordsworth Trust.
George Szirtes focused on his latest book, the Spring 2013 PBS Choice, Bad Machine which explores the failings of the body (the ‘bad machine’ in question). As well as work from a sequence called ‘Minimenta’ and a poem called ‘Foot Notes’ written in lieu of donating a pair of shoes to a shoe museum (such places exist!) George read elegiac work from a sequence dedicated to the late Irish poet Michael Murphy and the title poem which uses the repetition embedded in the form to build to a stunning close:
‘My darling look. See, here is a machine,
the bad machine that is our mutual care
I want you now for all those faulty parts
that over years have learned to move with mine
Be bad with me, let bad be good as new.’ (‘Canzone: Bad Machine’)
The tour moves onto Winchester tomorrow night!