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Carol Ann Duffy & Friends welcome poet Elaine Feinstein

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By Bridget Taylor

“We imagine what the chemistry will be like – there’s a wide group to choose from so we think about the main reader and how the poets will fit with each other – it’s like putting a collection together.” This is John Fennelly’s description of the process of putting on the now institutional Carol Ann Duffy and Friends events, with last month seeing the beginning of the twelfth series at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

The format of this popular series of events is well known by now; the first half features readings by MA poets from the Manchester Writing School, while the second is dedicated to a well established poet, which this month was the glorious Elaine Feinstein.

The three poets of the first half – Belinda Johnston, Emma McGordon and Paul Stephenson – were “three very distinct voices”, as they were described by one audience member, and yet the quality of the writing and the performances meant there were no jarring notes. Although they each tackled very different subject matters, their styles complemented each other well. Belinda began with a “sexy sushi poem”, which sounds very unlikely, but by the end of it, with lines like “he dissolves effortlessly into her soy sauce”, the audience seemed convinced. Belinda’s poems were drawn from the sometimes grim realities of everyday life, such as her mother’s recent operation, but were full of warmth and humour. She further filled them with well-realised details – “a child’s lost glove paralysed on a wall” – which gave them a very visual quality ideal for performance.

Similarly, Emma’s poems defied the notion that poetry is somehow in a separate realm, divorced from the everyday. Her first poem was set in a Cumbrian pub and she evoked that setting with the language you might typically expect to find there, but it never lost its richness or musicality. In fact, it suggested that there is a richness and musicality in our everyday speech, if only more poets would look for it. Emma also touched on the way women are treated in this often still male-dominated space, but without emphasising the fact, so the readers were left to draw their own conclusions. Each word of Emma’s poems was elevated, which further contributed to the feeling that she was celebrating our everyday language, language which might ordinarily be dismissed as ‘unpoetic’.

Paul Stephenson added a very different dimension to the evening. His latest pamphlet The Days That Followed Paris details his experiences of the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Again, these poems did not shy away from the realities of everyday life, and stunned the audience with the brutality of the events involved. The poems recounted the fear that afterwards permeated Paul’s experiences. One poem delved deep into that reaction: “Fear is a fire escape that’s locked…fear is your head in a fours… fear is a flaneur on a rush hour boulevard.” Paul finished his set with a list of the names of the dead, which emphasised both the commonality and individuality of the people that died that night.

Poet Elaine Feinstein was the special guest of the evening, engaging with the audience in an easy and familiar way. Elaine was upfront about her marriage and her relationships with her parents, and this confessional quality drew the audience in. She also recounted, as the only woman in a house of men, her experience of being expected to be the main caregiver, the audience getting a sense of the frustrations this must have caused her as a working writer.

Elaine is another poet who is able to imbue the more mundane elements of everyday life with poetry, for example with her admission that she has always been attracted to men who were “not exactly losers” but whom she describes as “boldly pursuing glory in second hand clothes.” She went on to read an elegy she wrote for her late husband called ‘Mackintosh’, which has come to symbolise the poet’s early married life: “clumsy, unfastidious, tender” and serving to remind her “how easily we loved”.

Although the two house poets – John Fennelly and Mark Pajak – self-deprecatingly described themselves as the “accident and emergency of contemporary poetry”, they have put on another successful and well-executed event. Despite the absence of Carol Ann Duffy herself due to illness, Manchester Writing School Manager James Draper described the evening as “a triumph. The combination of styles and performers are really cleverly worked out and the new house poets are a dream team”.

The next event in the series will take place on March 20 featuring guest poet Adam O’Riordan.

For more information, visit the Manchester Writing School website or the Royal Exchange Theatre website.

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