Spring Reading Series: Open Mic

A change to the line-up of the last Spring Reading Series from a poetry double-bill to – well, a slightly different poetry double-bill, with side dishes. As Jane Monson was unable to join us, Patricia Debney joined forces with fellow Kent poet and tutor Nancy Gaffield, followed by an open mic featuring staff and students.

The premium spots of the evening gave us five minutes apiece of poised, polished poetry Patricia Debneyfrom experienced readers. Debney began, offering a change from her prose poetry (as seen in collections How to be a Dragonfly and, more recently, Littoral) with some works from her ‘newish collection’ Baby. Here were open planes of poems, free verse forms with the odd catch and hook of internal rhyme and assonance. Within each frame, microcosms of emotional relationships and the hovering presences of parental figures. ‘I can’t see your face’, we were warned, ‘it is some kind of horror space’. Seeing and not seeing: vastness and minutiae. The ‘I’ of the poems charted ‘water of biblical proportions’ and the rolling fog that ‘settles into valleys’, obscuring the view through a windscreen. Under the same scrutiny came a litany of material objects, ‘coral, gold pendants needing chains, kaftans’, the stuff of tasteful but empty riches that prove ‘hard to live with’. And as if a piece of trumpery can pass judgement on its wearer, the ‘single eye’ of a silver pearl ring ‘stares right at me…until it closes’.

Gaffield’s recent experiments have been with mathematical poems, employing geometry and the Golden Ratio. Working with the Fibonacci sequence has produced syllabic verse reflecting structure in sound as well as providing ‘attraction of form’ on the page.Nancy Gaffield Gaffield has been working on a sequence of these with fellow poet David Herd for performance at the forthcoming ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival (see below), ‘but I’m saving these’… Instead we were given a poem inspired by Da Vicni’s Vitruvian Man, exploring the ‘harmony of symmetry’, while other pieces expressed and reflected upon sound and form. These were poems full of atmospheric landscapes, plays of light and natural forces. Wild weather and the wilful elements are not to be shifted with ‘soft syllables’ or ‘antiphonal phrases’. Even the laws of language and abstract mathematics are no match for a proper Kentish flood.

After our scheduled readers, MC Ben Hickman opened the floor to those brave / foolish enough to sign up on the door, whether they had planned to or not. The rules were clear – one poem or one page of prose. Offerings could be rough and raw works in progress or finely tuned and edited finished pieces.

There were plenty of takers.

First up was MA creative writing student Jane Summerfield, whose poem ‘Batteries Included’ – relating the exploits of a hormonal slumber party – has been created under the supervision of Gaffield.  Tutor & PhD poet Kat Peddie followed with a two-line poem in honour of the lost word ‘owhere’ (inspired by Gaffield’s recent pamphlet of the same name), committed to memory but jotted down ‘just in case’. Neelam Saredia, a final year CW undergrad, performed a memorised poem ‘Dress Sense’, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Gulbenkian Poetry Slam (with prompt notes, ditto). In the only prose offering, I slipped in a page from my recently finished novel Eden (thanks for the cheers at this announcement). Tutor Juha Virtanen gave us another paperless piece, a word explosion extracted from a long sound poem, read from the screen of his phone. Geography and otherness peeped through the poems ‘My Friend from China’, read by Edward Greenward, and an extract from Sam O’Hana’s long poem, also written under Gaffield’s supervision. O’Hana was followed by three fellow final year CW undergrads: Tom Cox, who read his prose poem ‘Citizen’s Advice’, featuring cannibalistic chickens and chronic dissatisfaction; Joe Hill, whose joyfully silly and poignant ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’ chronicled a life of bad decisions and loss of body parts, and James Richardson, who gamely read a poem of muddy sinking and slippage, fresh from the clay of a recent seminar, which he titled on the spot ‘Already Stuck’.

after the open micAfter the readings and the consumption of all remaining wine, the talk and drinking moved downstairs to the Keynes bar, where the evening was balmy enough for us to sit outside and pretend it was already Summer Term.

This may mark the end of the Spring Reading series, but there is plenty more to come. Next term the Centre for Creative Writing will host a series of evenings with publishing professionals and readings from MA students. Many staff (as seen and heard above and elsewhere) will appear at the ‘Sounds New Poetry’ festival in May: for more details see the listings at http://soundsnew.org.uk/sounds-new-poetry . Some of Kent’s dedicated CW students, led by organiser Sam O’Hana (also see above), will be hosting the UK’s first Creative Writing Undergraduate Conference, ‘Vox’. The programme will run during the exciting ‘Full English’ literary festival taking place at Kent this June. Undergraduate creative writers from all universities are encouraged to submit proposals to ‘Vox’: the deadline for abstracts is 15th April 2014. For more details and the call for papers see http://voxconference2014.wordpress.com .

Look out for a last spring blog celebrating our students in print, a final flourish over the Easter vacation…




Spring Reading Series: In Protest

Another packed room for Wednesday’s reading, and a subtle shift in demographic. Alongside students, staff and alumni of the School of English: law students, social scientists and human rights activists. What had they come to witness? The radicalising power of poetry.

editor and poets gathering; familiar School of English faces await the reading

editor and poets gathering; familiar School of English faces await the reading

As every Creative Writing undergrad at Kent will know, poetry is potentially dangerous. It can expose, persuade, exploit. It makes the reader see the world differently. It can shake things up. Here was an audience keen to see the process at work. In Protest: 150 poems for human rights is a new anthology produced by the University of London’s Human Rights Consortium and Keats House Poets. The evening’s readers were contributors to the anthology, an experiment, according to one of its editors Laila Sumpton, born of modest aspirations. Putting out a call for poems of exile and protest ‘to create a pamphlet’, the editors were overwhelmed by more than 600 poems. The resulting publication was launched in October last year and features work from established and emerging poets. Sumpton explained how the book – divided into themes such as ‘land’, ‘sentenced’ and ‘expression’ – seeks to ‘rethink the frame of human rights poetry’ and ‘find new directions and ways in’ to the subject.

First to read was Alia’ Afif Kawalit, a PhD research student at Kent and tutor in the School of English. An Arab and English speaker, Kawalit’s poem ‘Turning a Blind Eye’ explored the discrepancies between media reports of violent clashes close to her homeland, Jordan.

Rooney and Kawalit beneath T.S. Eliot's youthful gaze

Rooney and Kawalit beneath T.S. Eliot’s youthful gaze

Sharing a mango with an Indian friend, notions of hospitality are set against the poet’s fears for the future. Imported fruit, like imported journalism, can lose its authentic taste. In ‘Dry Times’, the Arab upheavals (Kawalit shuns the term ‘Arab Spring’, another appropriation) crash into consciousness, where ‘little dreams wake…like whistling bullets’.

These were subtle poems whose power lay in expressive imagery rather than tub-thumping remonstration. Hubert Moore followed with poems of contrast, stating that poetry alone can present unlikely associations to its readers ‘with a straight face’. His poem ‘At the Approach of Dieback’ brought together diseased ash trees and the ‘slippered voice’ of a refugee’s aging parent speaking from afar. Similarly, ‘V Formation’ linked the image of a flock of flying geese with the ‘eleven locked doors’ between the poet ‘and the detainees’.

Kate Adams, an East Kent poet and Kent Refugee Help volunteer, brought personal and professional experiences to the reading. Her poem ‘Five Broken Cameras’, written following the death of a friend and fellow caseworker, set ‘sleet on the streets’ of Britain against ‘blood in the dust’ of Palestine. ‘Maybe the Rain’, another poem drenched in relentless island weather, spoke in broken English to mirror, as Adams put it, ‘the fractured, fragmented world of the refugee experience’.  Speaking directly from this experience was former detainee Ruhul, who Adams first met in the Dover centre. Ruhul shared a single, highly personal work written while in detention. A poem of apology and separation, the poet addressed his children with a string of ‘I’m sorry that’s, a reminder of some of the less publicised consequences of detention.

Last to read was the School’s Professor Caroline Rooney, an arts activist whose self-proclaimed ‘soap-box poems’ presented sharp images of war and protest. These are, said Rooney, ‘poems that won’t stay on the page’. Here were lines which – as dangerous poetry should – climbed in to the audience and slapped them around. We were drily warned that ‘stapling the mouths, not feeding them’ does not make good government. Bombed-out buildings lay open ‘like abstract paintings’. Here were the specifics of attack, the sim cards saved in shoes, the eggs thrown at embassy buildings, the flotilla of aid ships raided en route to Gaza.

the debate continues

the debate continues

Can poems be a force for social change, a tool for campaigning? Kawalit and Rooney cited the orphic quality of poetry, its authentic voice and its transformative power.  Adams and Moore spoke of raising awareness and reaching those otherwise ‘cold’ to the issues. The debate continued beyond the reading, but Ruhul summed it up: voices shout and journalists create headlines, but ‘a book is always there’.


In Protest: 150 poems for human rights is published by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Next in the series, an eclectic evening with writers Maria McCarthy, Maggie Harris and Maggie Drury. Wednesday 12th February, 6pm.

See you there.



Spring Reading Series: Outcrop

The Spring Reading Series began on Wednesday 22nd January with three poets from the recent anthology Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land.

So, what was radical about it?

Michael Farrell; David Herd introducing

Michael Farrell; David Herd introducing

Michael Farrell set an offbeat tone with his first poem, a continuous rendering of the line ‘baa baa black sheep’. Eyes on the page, he actually appeared to be reading. How many times had he said it? 30? 50? The audience stiffened, the air drew tight. A mischievous glint appeared in the poet’s eye; he looked up for a second. Listeners gave a titter of relief. Then the line again, over and over, beyond discomfort and into hypnosis. 100 times? 400? As the glaze set in there was a sudden shift, a prompt line, and voices in the audience called out answering stanzas.

Suddenly we knew where we were. Sort of.

The sounds of a jazz band tuning up hovered in the room above. Farrell and the readers who followed embraced the challenge; foot-stamping glee club choruses were answered with sonorous lines and heightened voices. Farrell gave us phrases in backwards Latin, Spanish and Italian. The devil emerged on horseback in urban Sydney ‘like Voss’ from the desert. ‘You can’t drink paranoia’, we were assured. The Earth said: ‘let’s get a coffee in that little Italian café we know… the Sistine Chapel.’ Ears caught fire. The glee club showaddywaddied approval.

Next up was Claire Potter, whose organic poems wreathed their way through the room.

Claire Potter

Claire Potter

Potter’s stunning lines showed how assonance and alliteration can woo the ears of an audience, and the distant stride piano evaporated. Phrases such as ‘a ribbon of tea coils into my cup’ and ‘a simmering of sound’ hung in the air long after the reading was over. There was flora and fauna, a blending of ‘plant into night, night into plant’. ‘So yes’, Potter declared, in lines from her poem ‘Misreading’: ‘I pushed her flat into the dirt of this difficult country; and it is true that I write as I read – mistaking wreaths for wraiths, spires for spines, girls for orchids.’

Laurie Duggan took the stage next. Now based in Kent, Duggan is a familiar face on the UK poetry circuit. He began with a section of a long poem in the anthology, ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’. (Droll eye-roll to Gershwin fans and singing ceiling.) Written in his thirties, reading the poem was, Duggan said, like reading out his teenage diaries. Undaunted, he delivered a litany of interior details: crazed paintings, the green glaze of an overflowing ashtray, frozen figures in old

Laurie Duggan

Laurie Duggan

photographs, broken typewriters. This was a very different landscape, and Duggan gave us every inch of it, a flâneur collating threads of worn upholstery and old magazines. ‘I would like to write poems like Edward Hopper paintings’ he read, ‘but the eye doesn’t work like that’. Duggan followed with a couple of newer poems not in the anthology, one of which name-checked John James at last year’s Veg Box reading.

So, what was radical about it? Australians in the audience had plenty to say. The poets seemed less concerned with radicality, although Farrell pointed out that ‘radical’ is a problematic term. ‘Putting the land first is a difficult thing in a nation that is all about using the land,’ he claimed. And with a timely cymbal crash, the show was over.


Outcrop: Radical Australian Poetry of Land is published by Black Rider Press.

Next in the series, Kent’s own Frank O’Hara: Simon Smith reads from his new poetry collection 11781 W. Sunset Boulevard, published this month by Shearsman. Wednesday 29th January, 6pm, Eliot SCR.

See you there.



Michael Farrell’s books include Open Sesame, published by Giramondo in 2013. He won the prestigious Peter Porter Poetry Prize in 2010. Farrell is currently Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Modern Poetry at the University of Kent.

Claire Potter’s collection Swallow was published by Five Islands Press in October 2010.

Laurie Duggan’s latest book of poetry is The Pursuit of Happiness, published by Shearsman in 2012.


Tuesday Reading Series: Tony Frazer/ ZONE event

Juha reading and Simon Smith into it.

Juha reading behind a flower and Simon Smith really into it.

So, Tony Frazer from Shearsman Books came to give a talk at Kent for one of the Tuesday Reading Series which was awesome. He talked about how he set up Shearsman and offered advice to those interested in starting a similar endeavour. Also, Natalie Bradbeer’s poetry reading was great as always.

Apart from that, what really stood out this week was the ZONE event in the veg box café. ZONE is a Kent-based poetry collective and they organised an event that lasted two days called the San Francisco Renaissance. During the day they had conferences and in the evening there were live performances. The one that stood out for me was Juha Virtanen’s. I think he’s crazy. Before he reads he sits down on the pavement alone and smokes in silence. Then when he performs he’s so so loud and so fast. I’m not sure if the papers he carries have any writing on them because I do not believe anyone can read that fast. Plus, if they were all white A4s, then it would confirm my suspicions about him being absolutely crazy. The fire alarm went off during his reading because someone burnt some toast or something, and there were people going into the kitchen and standing on tables and waving their hands to a machine that simply does not understand human gestures. And Juha kept reading and it was amazing. He got so many claps you couldn’t even hear the alarm. But then we had to leave until it was over.

I also very much enjoyed readings by Simon Smith and Tim Atkins, as well as Natalie Bradbeer’s Lorca translations. Find them all and read them.

Next week it’s the last Tuesday Reading Series event before the summer break. There’s a literary agent from RCW coming to give a talk after a few readings by students.

See you there!