The highly successful Humanities in Public (HiP) series ended this week with a Poetry Gala celebrating multi-sensory experiences.
The atmosphere was relaxed as people came from all over the country to see the finale of the series. The audience were greeted by a gorgeously gothic cake, created by the infamous Annabel ‘Lecter’ de Vetten of The Conjurer’s Kitchen – almost too devine to eat! David Cooper, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Campus hosted the gala at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The final leg of the HiP series has focused on ‘Sensing Place’ and the way in which we perceive our environment. With sight having dominated the way we represent and engage with the world, from paintings and TV/film culture, ‘Sensing Place’ has tried to demonstrate how the other senses can find their way in. The poetry, and especially the informative introductions of the guest poets, showed how someone can perceive the world, without relying on sight.
Sean Borodale said the space that interests him the most is the place from where creativity comes, and finds even the constraints of naming creative output a confine. During his Wordsworth Trust residency in 1999, he would walk the paths Wordsworth took during his time there, and what he experienced would affect the way he felt. After the residency he took to walking in his more familiar London where he was forced to drop images and thoughts from moment to moment as the world changed around him. “In London,” he said, “You cut across the grain of a thousand different narratives.” Borodale is not simply a poet, but showed on stage lyrigraphs – art made of poetry. “Lyrigraphs are like a makeshift stage for poetry,” before reading several of his poems, including Geography.
Jean Sprackland, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Academic Director of the Manchester Writing School, talks of place as the people that move through it and the objects they leave behind. Sprackland’s poetry and prose have demonstrated this, her book Strands being about the objects found on a stretch of Lancashire coast over the course of a year. She talks, too, of finding inspiration from a place so immediately un-poetic as the central reservation of the East Lancs road between Manchester and Liverpool. She reads from her book Hard Water, about the town she came from (Burton-on-Trent). Even the title of this book is inspired by a sense other than sight, the water being a familiar taste, more familiar than the soft water she had on holidays as a child. But the scent of the town’s brewery, fueled by the naturally hard water, was always in the air, she said, and in her poem Yeast, she says “You can get drunk on the air in this town.”
Michael Symmons Roberts, Professor of Poetry at MMU, also guided the listeners around the place he grew up as an older child after having moved from the North West: Greenham Common in Berkshire. Famous for its nuclear USAF base and nuclear protests, he said the high imposing fence around the base was defining. In later years, teenagers would tempt the patrols by driving along the fence, stop, and the patrol would follow, stop. They had a sense of being watched whenever they were near the fence. When Roberts returned in later life and saw the wall had been taken down, he is almost unable to describe the feeling of simply being able to see across the airfield, and then dog walkers and joggers. He reads from his poem Lament that he acknowledges was built out of a strange sense of loss for an airbase, and Fauna for when the missiles left the base. Both poems are from his 2001 book Burning Babylon and there are many others there that were inspired by place, unexpectedly so, he says.
Deryn Rees-Jones says that landscapes elude her but “every poem is underscored by the poem you can’t write” and focuses her poetry on the small. She says she has a preoccupation with placing herself as a woman within a landscape and her poem Cell is like a piece of origami. As small as cells are, opened up, they are a tiny part of a wider landscape and her poem opens up the cell and how it relates, repeating words in a broader way that is like opening understanding of a place through the senses or thought. Notable in each of her poems, are the animals and people moving through it, from walkers across a field to a slug sliding into a house, or birds flying over towns, all experiencing where they are, and being watched or heard by the poet.
As the audience ended the evening by finishing off the wine and cake, one visitor, Emily Watts, who had also been to the Sensing Place Symposium, said, “The different ways they all talked about the senses made it seems like another thousand people could come in and talk about it in different ways.”
The Humanities in Public 2013-2014 series has ended but Cooper says it will return for a new series later in the year.