Susannah Herbert: The 600 Citizen Poets of Lockdown

First, a confession.  In the eight years I spent running the Forward Arts Foundation, I was never comfortable talking about my job “in poetry”. For me, those in poetry were the poets and performers, who often doubled as impresarios, editors, publishers and teachers, even while holding down other jobs. These people, it seemed to me, worked in words as potters worked in clay. As makers, they represented something special, luminous – they were touched by the creative spark in a way that set them apart.

Since stepping back from day-to-day involvement with poetry, I’ve thought more about the changes I saw over those eight years: the growing recognition for poetry in the book trade, the media and libraries, an elision of the split between the written and spoken word, a participation surge big enough to win headlines. These days, the notion of creatives as creatures “apart” seems… inadequate.

Take the phenomenon of Haiflu, a portmanteau word coined by the young West Country poet Liv Torc, whose first lockdown response in March 2020 was to wonder what her friends were making of the new normal.

She used her Facebook page to ask for updates: in pictures and words, limiting written posts to three lines arranged in haiku form (5-7-5 syllables). The witty, touching, thoughtful responses kept coming, week after week, each like the opening of a window. Many were breathtaking: all were good in the sense of being true to a personal perception, a moment, a place, a shifting of the light.

I was bewitched by the possibilities of such a simple idea and knew others in the National Poetry Day network – libraries, schools, journalists – would be too. All Forward Arts Foundation had to do was put her in front of the right people, via the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network seminars, the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme or the Arts Council’s library experts.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

A year on, Project Haiflu has directly involved more than 600 “citizen artists” across the UK, with more than 10,000 individual poems shared with Liv for possible inclusion in her weekly short films, tying together pictures and words with music by her composer husband, Richard Monks. Now Liv, who spent much of the summer hospitalized with an auto-immune disorder, has just won a proper Arts Council England grant to turn the project into a participative show touring village halls, plus a book.

I first knew Liv as a poet, one of the dozen working with National Poetry Day and BBC Local Radio as a #BBCLocalPoet in 2019. (See her fine poem about Somerset.) But it’s only when we caught up this week on the usual stuff – health, children, what’s driving us mad or keeping us going – that I realised how much she’d changed the way I understand the working of poetry.

 “2020 turned me into a better artist”, she wrote, “because within the restrictions of lockdown I learned how to adapt my practice and continue to hold creative spaces for people. Feeling inept as an individual to report back on unfolding events, I became a weaver.” 

To hold space, to weave, to feel inept alone. Oh yes, this resonates. (That’s an inadvertent haiflu: sorry).  Liv’s creativity cannot be summed up in her own work, but exists among the furloughed librarians and laid-off office-workers who adapted the #haiflu hashtag for use in their communities, among those who found words for their disturbed senses in response to the tentative attempts of others, lonely and fearful like them… like us

That’s how poetry works. I’m glad to be in it.

Susannah Herbert

Read more about Liv Torc and Haiflu on www.livtorc.co.uk

Susannah Herbert ran the Forward Arts Foundation, the charity responsible for National Poetry Day and the Forward Prizes, from September 2012 to January 2021. She is currently working with St John Ambulance, and learning from other vaccination volunteers – mainly furloughed airline stewards – how to improve her bedside manner.

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.