As far as I know Mark Antony Owen’s project iamb is one of a kind: an online journal which exclusively publishes poets reading their work. I was really glad to have three poems featured in the most recent edition. iamb was inspired by the Poetry Archive, but works like a magazine of new poetry. If I was the Poetry Archive (which is also a brilliant resource) I would be knocking on Mark’s door for help.
I think I have always had a funny relationship with the spoken word. I don’t, I tell myself, enjoy live readings: I’ve been writing poetry for over a decade and I can count the number I’ve been involved in on my fingers. The idea of an open mic, let alone a poetry ‘slam’, fills me with something like dread. Dread and, if I’m honest, a little distrust. There is a particular kind of poetry, written for performance, which has such a direct design on the listener that I’m suspicious of it. Perhaps too suspicious.
Poetry, after all, is impossible to detach from performance, on the page or off it. Perhaps what matters most is the environment in which the reading takes place. In poetry slams, which were popular when I was at university (I don’t know if they still are) the goal is to elicit the biggest immediate response. Hence pieces get written to manipulate the audience. But all art is a kind of manipulation. The question, surely is how provoke a reaction without treating your readers (or listeners) with contempt.
For me, reading poetry aloud rasies another occaisionally sensitive subject: memorability, whether it is increasingly rare in contemporary poetry (I think, on balance, it is), and whether that is something we should regret (I think we should). A common figure of fun for poets is the non-poetry reader who asks why the stuff doesn’t rhyme like the good old days. If only they knew better! Even mentioning rhyme is probably proof (so the exagerrated version of the argument goes) the person doesn’t understand what poetry’s about. We don’t have to worry about people like that.
But if you think of ‘rhyme’ as simply a word that stands, for the irregular reader, for every trick that makes a poem tick as a machine, then don’t they have a point? Memorability isn’t everything, and what I find memorable might not be what you find memorable. I don’t believe memorability is the same thing as form, either. Some of the most memorable poems break all the rules. All the same, I find it hard not to believe that a lack of interest in lodging lines into their readers heads from the very people who you might expect to care is one of the things that has contributed to poetry’s marginality over the years.
One of the most enjoyable part of the process with iamb was choosing the poems to include. Mark, very generously, gives you free reign. I found that invitation a powerful one. Suddenly the question wasn’t which were my ‘best’ poems – but which were the ones I most wanted to read. In doing so certain things came to the fore, none of which should really be a surprise – rhythm, rhyme and repetition (not just repetition within lines but across the poem).
I also took it as an opportunity to include an unpublished squib, ‘The Vandals Remove the Ark of the Covenant’, which (wrongly, perhaps) I hadn’t even thought of sending anywhere before, because it is a sort of so-called nonsense poem. Nonsense verse of course demands to be read aloud. A lot of my favourite poetry is nonsene verse – Edward Lear, Stevie Smith, Spike Milligan…
We live in a text-based world. When I read a book of poems it is usually in silence. But my interest in poetry has always had something to do with songs, with prayers, plays and children’s ryhmes. At some point those pleasures were sublimated almost entirely onto the page, but I don’t think, for me, the page makes much sense without them.