KEITH ARMSTRONG COCKS A SNOOK AT POETRY READINGS
Not long ago, I was on a flight to Stuttgart on my way to give a poetry reading in Tuebingen, Durham’s twin-town. Normally, I’m not given to chatting to strangers on aeroplanes, it’s calculated to be strained and, above all, boring. This time was an exception – I got talking to a pig farmer.
Helmut Bugl was his name and he was on his way home from a ‘swine-seminar’ in Montreal. Over a glass of wine or two, he asked me my role in life. Being in the mood, I responded ‘Poet’. And it turned out that he lived just up the road from one of the English lecturers I knew at Tuebingen University.
Helmut invited me for an ‘English’ breakfast so it was the least I could do to autograph one of my poetry book (‘Dreaming North’) for him, hovering in mid-air as we were. Feeling the need to reciprocate, brother Bugl reached into a pocket and drew out a photo of six of his litter, which he promptly signed on the reverse. I still treasure it.
The plane duly landed and we waved goodbye as a pretty lady friend drove me off to pretty Tuebingen.
Naturally, I got a poem out of all this. The title (you’ve guessed it!): ‘Pigs Might Fly’. I hadn’t the time to take up Helmut’s offer of breakfast as it turned out but, once home, I popped a copy of the poem in the post to him. I never heard back from him.
Until, that is, a trip to Tuebingen one July. I was performing with the North East folk-singer Jez Lowe at the University’s English Club, a gig arranged by the English lecturer referred to above. Whilst I was nervously getting my act together in the seminar room, a character bounded towards me in a suit, firm hand extended in greeting. After an awkward pause, the pfennig dropped. Yes, it was Helmut Bugl, pig farmer, come to hear me read.
Naturally, I delivered ‘Pigs Might Fly’ to our special ‘guest of honour’.
It had all come nicely full circle!
I’ve recounted this little anecdote in some detail because it raises some interesting points about ‘poetry’ in this country and attitudes towards it. A Guardian reviewer once said that ‘Poetry is in a frightful fix these days. No one reads it. No one knows how to read it.’ Figures show that out of 80% of the British population that attend cultural events only 2% go to poetry readings. This might be because, as poet Adrian Mitchell put it, ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’ ‘Only connect,’ you might say. So it pleased me, indeed inspired me, to make contact with Helmut Bugl. After all, you don’t get many pig farmers at Newcastle’s Morden Tower these days! And, so far as I know, the Arts Council isn’t issuing bacon and egg breakfasts to deserving writers! Perhaps because they’re mostly vegetarians, I don’t know.
For the truth is most poetry is most boring to most people. It doesn’t very often strike a chord with their lives. And a poetry reading isn’t their idea of a night out. I’ve got the horrible feeling that any so-called ‘poetry resurgence’ is a fantasy in the ever-inventive imaginations of poets themselves and the arts administrators some of them brown their noses with.
I have fond memories of being physically ejected from a ‘New Generation’ reading at Newcastle’s Bridge Hotel by a smooth-talking steward from Bloodaxe for muttering dark thoughts at the bar during a mumbled reading by a ‘New Generation Poet’. Maybe this happening livened up the show. It certainly needed a kick from somewhere. In fact, I once heard from a reliable source within the sanctum of the Arts Council that such incidents have become known on ‘the scene’ as ‘that Keith Armstrong moment’!
The idea that ordinary/real people are going to sit on their butts for up to two hours to hear an indistinct reader render incomprehensible verse from inside a book is scarcely credible. Especially when ‘SILENCE’ is the order of the day, when there is no space for dispute or
discussion and, above all, no music and very little booze. One must, apparently, revere the mumbling poet and the imprecise wisdoms and insights they are supposedly imparting. Strictly no heckling and certainly no instinctive behaviour!
Of course, it’s not always like this. I remember, for example, helping to organise a reading by the Russian poet Yevtushenko at a packed Mining Institute in Newcastle during the seventies. His passionate rendition was memorable. I’ve also heard the reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, Scots writers Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan and, of course, the great Adrian Mitchell, put it across with real verve. And I’ve enjoyed the humour of our own shipyard poet ‘Ripyard Cuddling’ and Wallsend’s ‘Herbert Mangle’. I’ve even seen an Edinburgh poet read whilst standing on his head! Yes, poetry readings can be memorable. But, these days, in the North East at least, such occasions are few and far between.
I recall being in Iceland with fellow poet Peter Mortimer during the Cod War and hitting the headlines there with my treasonous poem ‘Cod Save The Queen’! I love poetry when it connects with everyday life, when it is song-like and echoes the lyricism you sometimes hear in pub conversations. Gone, I hope, are the days of the egg-head poet reading only to fellow poets. Let’s celebrate the music of words, the flow of wine and good conversation.
Let our poetry dance!
Back to the seventies. I’m with the Tyneside Poets in Elsinor, Denmark. The poetry evening’s wearing on as only poetry evenings can. ‘Cullercoats’ Mike Wilkin is on stage. The organiser’s worried that we’ll miss the last ferry back to Sweden. ‘Please finish now!’ he shouts to Mike. ‘Poets do not have watches,’ comes the response. ‘But if you don’t finish now we’ll miss the last ferry home.’ ‘In that case, I’ll finish,’ says ‘the poet’, sobering up somewhat! Yes, even poetry has its limits!
Once in Georgia at the ‘Palace of Culture’ in a provincial steel town, after much wine, I swapped shirts with a well-built worker-writer. His shirt was like a tent on me, and he couldn’t fasten the buttons on mine. But what a great night out it was! :
‘Last night we swapped our shirts.
They didn’t fit our bodies too well,
But they fitted our mood exactly.’
Now that’s the spirit! As an ‘Old Generation’ poet, I remember launching a booklet called ‘Giving Blood’, with blood dripping from my upper lip, having been attacked by another poet before my reading!
Those were the days! Poets for the Revolution! Maybe they’ll come back? Yes – and ‘Pigs Might Fly’!