Journalism

Following the flame

The following is the very first piece of published journalism I ever wrote (including all its annoying imperfections) while working as a sub-editor for Grocott’s Mail, 2010. Poetry at Reddits has changed venues but is still going strong.

The atmosphere was serene and intimate under the trees at the third installment of Poetry@Redditt’s on Friday 31 October. In an inadvertent celebration of autumn, butternut soup was served. “I love poetry so much I wanted to create a forum where other people who love poetry can share this,” said Harry Owen, the organiser and MC of the evening. Owen was named as the poet laureate of Cheshire, England in 2003 and moved to Grahamstown in June this year.

As night fell, the readings started gently with poignant poems by National English Literary Museum researchers Marike Beyers and Crystal Warren. The closing line from one of Warren’s poems stood out: “Take a chance, follow the flame, walk on water”. This served as the undercurrent of the theme for the evening. Readers not only read their own work but also read and recited other poets’ work. This makes listening (and for some, reading) as easy as Sunday morning – clearly, words- not people’s egos- come first at this gathering.

Aside from the familiar faces were three guests from out of town. Stephanie Day from Port Elizabeth works with Congolese writers and read from her new anthology A Growing Heart. The companionable chalk and cheese were Norman Morrisey and Lara Kirsten from Hogsback. Morrisey read two moving poems and introduced himself by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “I often use poetry to heal myself. I am called a depressive with schizophrenic overtones.” Kirsten impressed by reading in polished, proud Afrikaans with drama and clarity. Her play on words was even picked up on by some non-Afrikaans speakers.

Grahamstown’s professional poets were represented by Don Maclennan, Dan Wylie and Robert Berold. Maclennan’s recital of an anonymous 17th century lyke-wake-dirge (an English song which follows the soul’s journey from earth to heaven) was utterly astounding. Despite noisy passing aeroplanes and motorbikes, the night became still as he spoke. Wheelchair bound and frail, his halting voice took us right into the room in where a wake was taking place. Before reciting Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge he commented: “Drummer Hodge died in the Karoo. He [Hardy] never came to South Africa but it’s amazing what he knew.”

Wylie then regaled us with tales of his mother Jill and her travails in Zimbabwe with a large bushpig named Tedious. One of her oft-quoted poems is: “I hate knotty cotton, it’s rotten.” In beautiful contrast, he read a poem by the Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai, “in a rip of sharp pain, a man becomes a prophet”.

Another entertaining segment was Nigel Bell with his two beautifully read villanelles by Elizabeth Bishop and Hayden Carruth, witty and moving in unexpected ways. Bursts of laughter ensued when a Canadian English literature student read a short poem by Wendy Cope entitled Making cocoa for Kingsley Amis: “It was a dream I had last week, and some kind of record seemed vital, I knew it wouldn’t be much of a poem, but I love the title.”

Listener and occasional writer, Anna Christensen said she found the evening very enjoyable. “A lovely setting and a nice mix of professional and amateur poets.” Throughout the evening I felt like I was coming home and was reminded of exactly why we read poems to each other- to be transported to another world by the particular kind of magic that is poetry.

You can visit Owen’s website at harry-owen.co.uk to order copies of his work. Jill Wylie’s Search is available at Redditt’s Books and Coffee, as well as copies of Norman Morrisey’s anthology Triptych.

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