Series 9 of Carol Ann Duffy & Friends at The Royal Exchange took place this week with another exceptional night of reading by Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Henry and student poets from the Manchester Writing School.
Carol Ann Duffy began by talking about Public Poems commissioned by a newspaper or public event. She introduced her recent public poem Lessons in the Orchard, published on The Guardian this Saturday and written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Charleston festival, an arts festival set at the place where the Bloomsbury group met. The poem itself is a mix of alliteration, repetition, rhythm and mischievous words like ‘scumble’ that tease the reader. She then talked about another public poem, “Written to commemorate the deaths of the last surviving soldiers of the Great War.” She talked of the poets of the war, that she said, “Changed English poetry forever, not least by their honesty and truthful witnessing.” The poem, Last Post, published in The Guardian quotes and scatters Wilfred Owen’s infamous poem Dulce et Decorum Est and reimagines the horror of the experience people suffered, but resurrected, as time in the poem reverses.
Liz Venn, the House Poet of the Royal Exchange, introduced the first of the student poets from the Manchester Writing School, Julia McGuiness. McGuiness has the storytelling skill of a novelist but in poetic form and it’s not difficult to imagine the little bridge near The Grosvenor Bridge in Chester she described. Her final poem was about the steamship SS Great Eastern that McGuiness said, “Made its mark on the Chester Wall”.
Khadiia Rouf, a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s distance learning, was then introduced. Rouf previously read at the Series 8 Finale and this time read from a series of poems about death that came about following a conversation with a coffin maker. She read Dance Macabre, strangely sensual amidst death where “talk of death is [an] aphrodisiac”. Rouf’s use of language left the listener uneasy, with a togetherness of a couple alongside dancing skeletons that ended with “No one will decipher how I loved you: how I loved your bones.” The highly original poem left the listener with an idea of eternal love that isn’t just the love of two minds, but two bodies.
The final student poet of the night was Hilary Hares, winner of the 2013 Christchurch Writing Competition. She read her poem Proserpina and began unwaveringly with “a rape at the start, that powers into love” and tells the story of Proserpina’s visits to her mother Ceres then “back, down, she returns by moon” to her husband in the underworld where “casements seep an ancient light”. Hares’ poetry is powerfully rhythmical and merges with the tale as Proserpina steps into living days and back to death.
The top-billed friend Paul Henry took to the stage to end the evening. He seems to take his inspiration from such basic things, but reworks them into beautiful poems, like a barbershop in the poem Daylight Robbery. He read Ingrid’s Husband, the title poem from his book published by Seren, and titled so because he was once asked by a shop assistant on the way to Ty Newydd if he was Ingrid’s husband. He then “spent the rest of the journey wondering about parallel lives.” The poem describes his thoughts as he “wondered what she was like, Ingrid, what soap she used” and “whether she was mad or sane or somewhere in between” or if he would “grow to love her name” and through all the imaginings of what Ingrid might be like, he thinks; “perhaps I should have answered – yes”. Henry held the crowd with his vivid imagery and the wit in his poetry elicited several laughs from the crowd.
Series 9 will close at a special event in collaboration with the Manchester Children’s Book Festival for the Manchester Writing Competition Gala Prize Giving Special on the 1st July. Tickets are available here.