Words by Justine Chamberlain
This week, Season 8 of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry series at The Royal Exchange drew to a close with laughter and applause.
The night began with the customary introduction from Carol Ann Duffy, this time reading The Woman in the Moon from her 2011 Costa award winning collection The Bees, before moving into more controversial work. She introduced the poem Mrs Schofield’s GCSE as written in response to her poem Education for Leisure being banned from an exam board. The crowd cheered Duffy, poetry fans liking nothing better than a poetic controversy with their wine. Later, Duffy stole a GCSE anthology from one of the crowd and read Hour, one of her poems on the current GCSE list, much to the delight of the students in the room who later gathered around for her autograph.
Liz Venn, the house poet, introduced the first of two students from the Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Manchester Writing School. Khadija Rouf read from her collection in progress House Work in which she writes of parenthood and domesticity. The tone was different, though, when Rouf read from her work Femme Maison, inspired from the same titled artwork by Louise Bourgeois. A rhythmical poem, it explores the painting, then relates it back to the speaker, repeating ‘She is me’ and describing the artwork, before asking if this ‘strange beetle, flightless bird’ will ‘be herself once more, one day; I need to know’. The artwork – a series of three ink pieces – each feature a woman’s naked body, but the heads are replaced by buildings. Rouf’s rhythmic questioning evokes an interrogation of what it means to unpick the workplace and modern world from the mind and ‘be herself’ in echoes from her work in mental health for the NHS.
The next poet, James Roome, a self-confessed lover of Seamus Heaney, was invited to the stage. Inspired by reading Death of a Naturalist while still at school, the copywriter, teacher, and editor of The Hour of Lead, broke into a series of poems entitled Porthleven. Roome flexed his mythological muscles with The Cyclops, The Black Dog and The Clear, with the latter taking the rhythm ‘over the lull of stratosphere, exosphere, then sleep’.
Both students are working through the Creative Writing MA at the Writing School, and are in their final year.
Venn took to the stage again, this time with her own characteristically vivid poems. In The Glass Blower she quotes her grandmother’s catchphrase of ‘you want the moon on a stick’ throughout the poem, cleverly built around the manufacture of handmade glass and dedicated to her family. Venn, always a great host for the show, is one of those rare poets who immediately has the whole room under her spell, making them laugh between poems, and watching the audience intensely as she recites her work.
Retaking the stage from graduates and students from her writing school, Duffy read The Counties, which she cited as inspired by the Post Office asking customers to stop writing counties on envelopes due to them confusing the electronic post codes scanners. Duffy recounted a time in her childhood, which had many people smiling and nodding along, when she would write her address from her road name, through to ‘Stafford, Staffordshire, England, Great Britain, Europe, The Earth, The Solar System, The Universe, (my parents are Catholic), Near God’.
Duffy then introduced Lachlan MacKinnon to the stage, the visiting poet and critic, whom she has known since they both won the Eric Gregory award early in their careers.
MacKinnon began his reading with Pigeon, a poem inspired by the long lined poetry of Derek Walcott and a bird that apparently irritated MacKinnon frequently: ‘any time I happen to open my front door, a pigeon batters out of the bay tree opposite and stumbles as implausibly into flight as a jumbo’. The poem takes the light-hearted initial subject matter into a more sombre tone, ending with ‘most nights most people are not afraid to sleep’, leaving one of those pauses in poetry audiences that tells the poet his lines are being mulled over.
MacKinnion brought the evening to a close with a new piece of work. He told the audience of a series of poems based around the death of a close friend, and of the part that was read, a recognisable longing was found. In those moments when ‘the dead are often seen among us’, a quiet sadness is temporarily fooled away ‘in the trick of a gesture or shade of hair’ that only brings the sadness back, but louder. In another new work, Nocturn, MacKinnon explores the cheapness of life, the useless descriptions of us after we die, that are only words and places that don’t describe us, just what we did. MacKinnon’s new poetry collection is due to be released in 2015.
The next season of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends – Series 9 – begins on 14th April, continuing to 12th & 19th May at The Royal Exchange. Tickets are available now.