Susannah Herbert: Poetry Bubbles

Poetry bubbles – or how to throw a National Poetry Day party anywhere

A confession. I’ve been involved with National Poetry Day for eight years, but I am still – a little bit – scared of poetry. My favourite Burns Night guests can recite William McGonagall with gusto, glorying in their rubbish Scots accents. Another leaves us spellbound by Christina Rossetti or reduced to gulping laughter by Michael Rosen. I envy them: they enjoy themselves, break the rules. Their relish in the tumbling rhythm re-charges us all.

And that’s the funny thing: once someone has set the poetry ball rolling in a small gathering, self-consciousness dissolves and the rest clamour for their turns. My husband has an incomprehensible weakness for Edwin Morgan’s The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, which starts

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?

And he is not alone.

One holiday evening this summer, round a fire, a retired engineer drew my teenage daughters’ attention away from TikTok with a mesmerising Jabberwocky. In German. (Their faces brightened with each stanza as the universal language of nonsense kicked in.)

Eins, Zwei! Eins, Zwei! Und durch und durch
Sein vorpals Schwert zerschnifer-schnück

I suddenly realised I too had something to say that’s out of the ordinary, and permission to say it. I could be someone else, no longer the all-purpose cook-and-bottle-washer but one of Shakespeare’s crazed royals – Leontes, Lear, Richard II – or, better still, the narrator of Tara Bergin’s At the Garage, which begins with an innocent challenge:

Ask me:

Have I fallen in love with the mechanic?

(And just gets, well, dirtier and dirtier):

Perhaps – perhaps, for a moment.
He doesn’t know what it is.
It’s his hands –
so thickly black with engine oil,
so hard-working, and in such high demand.

National Poetry Day has always been about sharing poetry, but 2020, the year of  bubbles and shields, presents a new thrill: sharing poems with neighbours, colleagues, friends and family, rather than with strangers in public places.

Here are some tips, gleaned from experience – and from The Reader Organisation’s Pass on a Poem whose poetry get-togethers throughout the UK are perfect models of community delight.

1) Feature food and drink prominently in your National Poetry Day celebrations on Thursday October 1st. Chocolate biscuits work well: toffees guarantee sound effects. Cake is superb at elevenses, tea-time or moments in-between.

2) Invite people who can’t physically be there, because they’re shielding or just too far away. This is what Zoom is for.

3) A mix of generations means a bigger range. Lots of children have a second language, invite them to share a poem in it and give a translation, as approximate as they please. Grown ups can also do this, if their poem is short.

4) CRUCIAL: Invite people to share a poem that’s not written by themselves. This means that all – poets and poetry-lovers – are equal, and egos are under control.

5) Ask guests to send in their poems in advance so you can print them – or at least the titles – out. I am a sucker for recommendations: National Poetry Day recommended anthology reads include Nikita Gill’s SLAM: You’re Gonna Want to Hear this, Gyles Brandreth’s By the Light of the Moon, Chris Riddell’s Poems to Save the World With, Ana Sampson’s She Will Soar and Cerys Matthews’ Tell Me the Truth About Life. (See below for how you can win copies.)

6) Nominate an EmCee to introduce each reader and call time when you need to eat, or empty the house.

7) Give your National Poetry Day gathering a name and postcode – the Ultimate National Poetry Day Knees-Up, Oct 1, John O Groats KW1 4YT, or The Slap Up Poetry Elevenses, Oct 1, Land’s End TR19 7AA – and log it on the National Poetry Day map by September 10th. Post pictures and playlists using hashtag #NationalPoetryDay and #ShareAPoem.

We’ll put all the poetry parties into a hat, and if yours is pulled out, we will send you three gorgeous anthologies from our National Poetry Day recommended reads.

PS. National Poetry Day’s Poetry Map link is here:

Events

Susannah Herbert

Susannah Herbert is the executive director of Forward Arts Foundation, the charity that promotes knowledge and enjoyment of poetry through National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes for Poetry.

She was once paid a penny a line to recite ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by her doting parents, who subsequently paid her still more to stop. A national newspaper journalist for 20 years, she is the former editor of The Sunday Times books pages.

Mónica Parle, Word Play: A Case for the National Poetry Day Trade Campaign

As a Mexican-American teen growing up in suburban Texas, the poems I read in school—all wildflowers in wooded forests and elegies to centuries’ gone battles—bore no resemblance to the Chihuahuan desert where I was born, the Mexican border town where my abuelos lived, or the curlicue highways of my hometown. And they certainly made no mention of what it was like to live a life eternally in translation.

If you had asked me then, I would have said I had no time for poetry. But if you had asked me if I loved language, even surly teenage me would have told you yes, without hesitation.

This was largely due to my mother, who spent summer afternoons teaching me Spanish. Our workbooks were filled with activities my mother wrote and illustrated with pictures cut from magazines and pasted onto construction paper. This was only the first shift for Mom, who spent her evenings teaching night classes at the community college.

Her main route of engagement was rhymes and word play. Even now, when I get rattled, one runs through my head: “erre con erre cigarro, erre con erre barril, rápido corren los carros en el ferrocarril.” Not only did it teach me to roll my rs, but it still serves as a calming charm for me. (The phrase is a nonsense tongue-twister, literally meaning: “rr with rr cigar, rr with rr barrel, the cars go fast on the rail line.” I always liked the way it clattered across my tongue like a railroad car.)

I will admit that my siblings and I only learned Spanish to decipher my bilingual parents’ private conversations, but Mom gave us a gift I only now fully appreciate: Spanish was a gateway. In Latin American literature seminars at university, I discovered Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, who provided a bridge to Whitman and others writing in English. From there I discovered the ways experience can overlap, even if cultural context differs.

I’m thinking of Mom’s lessons today, as I type at my kitchen table. My kids are in fits of giggles in the adjoining living room, “Mummy kicking” to Joe Wicks’s PE lesson on YouTube. I’ve tried to channel my mother’s playful spirit, as I struggle to learn the new methods of teaching math or to identify the best of the thousand teaching links I’ve been sent by their schools during the corona-crisis.

I’m far more privileged than my mom. There’s a wealth of materials available online, but I also recognize the value of her subject expertise: there’s so much to wade through and it’s hard to know what’s best.

This makes me reflect again on what teachers face, especially when it comes to a generation of teachers (and parents like me), who might bear a certain hesitation toward poetry.

This is why I fervently believe in National Poetry Day’s Trade Campaign. It aims to highlight the diverse forms and ranges of poetry books published in the UK. Through our lists of recommended books for teens and children, we make it easier for teachers and parents—and students themselves—to read inspiring new work. We get a wider range of voices into schools and libraries.

We have recommendations for reading groups, too, and a general Best New Poetry list, which last year featured books by two of my favourite poets: Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Ada Limón’s The Carrying.

How can you help? (I’m sure, you ask!) The 2020 lists will be published soon on the NPD website, and it would be a great help if you could share them widely through your networks.

If you’re a publisher, please consider submitting titles for next year. The NPD team spends a considerable amount of time chasing titles down, and we’d love to see an even wider range of poets represented.

And it’s still not too late to help curate for 1st October 2020: we also feature poems on the theme of Vision on the National Poetry Day website. If you have any recommendations for out-of-copyright or permission-cleared poems on that theme, please e-mail them to me.

Mónica Parle

 

Mónica Parle is National Poetry Day Manager for The Forward Arts Foundation.