Words by Justine Chamberlain
Poetry lovers packed into the International Anthony Burgess Foundation this week to hear Helen Mort, Liz Venn and Martin Kratz perform their poetry on stage.
The host of the evening Martin Kratz, an associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, opened with his own poetry. Saying he avoided writing poetry about the birth of his child last year because they came out so unsuccessfully, he introduced his poem Candling. Candling, he said, is the process of seeing through an egg, such as a hen’s egg, to see whether there is a chick inside. The poem itself builds an awareness of the beauty of life growing, born out of scepticism of whether the baby was ‘really there’, and feeling the need to grasp the truth.
Liz Venn took to the stage next, characteristically lifting the audience with her smile and annoyance at pencil skirts. Venn, the house poet of the Royal Exchange Theatre, read her poem Glass Case, a poem that makes the speaker sound like she’s at a distance from herself, but with such vivid imagery it’s as if the listener has a clearer idea of her than herself. Venn has a remarkable talent for drawing a listener into a scene, a disturbing gift when in more dark settings.
Helen Mort read a selection of poems from her collection Division Street, which was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot and Costa Poetry prize in 2013. Mort’s work always feels located in a real place, and she introduced her first poem as being written about her hometown of Chesterfield, in Twenty-Two Words for Snow. In this poem, it feels like there’s an absence of something important, where ‘the air stayed empty’, and the speaker is tired of looking for it.
Mort treated the audience to a yet-unpublished poetry sequence about climbing, one of her past times. In the sequence, she uses the voices of those who have climbed Everest, such as Edmund Hilary and an oxygen cylinder that has made its way to the peak. The loneliness of the climb is brought to the listeners with a madness of ‘myths of warmth’ and ‘false visions of the top’, questioning everything the speaker sees or hears. It’s a haunting poetry sequence, with the strong sense of place her other work features.
Martin Kratz joined Helen Mort for the final chapter of the evening, a question and answer session. Kratz asked whether there is a similarity between the running and climbing that she talks about in her poems and the writing process itself. Mort answers that there is a similarity and that while running she often “hears a line like a bit of music” and then the rest will keep coming. On the problem of forgetting lines formed in this way through the practicality of not having pen and paper, she says “the most memorable lines stay with me” so that she writes only those down when she gets home. She calls it a “good editing process” as the poor lines are forgotten. That’s what poetry is about, she says, “memorable lines”.
Mort is asked about how long it took for her to be published, and whether there was a temptation to be published earlier. She responded by saying that she thought the book was ready five years before it actually was, and she even spoke to a publisher. Fortunately, the editor looked over her work and told her that she had more to write. She took the feedback and went away and worked on it. She became impatient to publish but in hindsight, she says, she knows it was best to wait.
Best for the reader, that’s for sure. Division Street is a poetry book unique on the market in recent years and one that stays with you long after you have put it down. Helen Mort is a poet guaranteed to survive beyond her first collection.
Mort will be performing her work at the Latitude Festival in July and her book Division Street is available online and in all good bookshops.
For more poetry events in Manchester this Spring, see the Royal Exchange Theatre’s new season of Carol Ann Duffy and Friends, in association with the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, which will be featuring Daljit Nagra, Julia Copus and Paul Henry.