Zaffar Kunial strikes me as a poet whose poems are hard-won. This comes across in the way that he reads them aloud (from memory, giving each word its space before moving on). He began with a poem that seemed driven by an impulse to memorialize childhood but also, crucially, to make something of the recollection. The poem argues for the act of waiting, using the conceit of a cricket match and could, in one sense, work as an illustration of Kunial’s wider poetic project. Kunial also read two poems examining the words ‘Us’ and ‘The’ respectively, giving the audience a sense of the way in which language itself inspires him to write. His final poem, third prize winner in the 2011 National Poetry Competition, ‘Hill Speak’ illustrates this focus on language in a poem that is both resonant and mysterious in its attempt to describe a language for which ‘there is no dictionary’.
Christopher Reid read from his two recent collections Nonsense and Six Bad Poets both of which, in their use of complex structural conceits, illustrate his talent for the long poem. Reid also shared poems that were conceived for musical accompaniment. These poems, Reid explained, allowed him to work in a looser, more colloquial, style. This was an appropriate blend with the poems from Six Bad Poets that bring Reid’s affinity for narrative to bear on the lives of six poets, united in their bad-ness, at different stages in their careers. The satirical bite of these poems drew laughter and nods of recognition from the audience in equal measure.
Fiona Sampson read from her most recent collection Coleshill which muses, in a variety of ways, on place and, in particular, the Oxfordshire village after which the book is named. She began by reading a poem about walking called ‘The Corn Versicles’ which she dedicated to her brother, who was in the audience. The second poem, ‘Orphic’, a meditation on the commuter pursuit of night-driving (which Sampson characterized as both ‘a privilege’ because of the live animals you see and ‘a tragedy’ because of the dead animals you see’) was particularly moving in the way that it captured the essence of the animal but resisted the urge to romanticize. Sampson drew her reading to a close with ‘Hawthorn Milk’ and a sonnet entitled ‘The Death Threat’ both of which illustrate the wildness in humans and in nature to devastating effect.
John Burnside’s reading was peppered with epigraphs and quotations (from sources as varied as Seneca and baseball player Yogi Berra) that served to show something of the processes by which the poems came into being. Burnside read from a forthcoming volume entitled All One Breath, a book that seems, on the strength of this reading, to be more concerned with narrative than Burnside’s last collection, the T S Eliot Prize winning Black Cat Bone. Still in evidence, though, was Burnside’s attention to resonant details and incredible capacity for rendering a scene vivid to a reading and listening audience.