The Dream House | Matthew CleggPosted: June 15, 2013
On Saturday 8th June I read (and listened) at the Sheffield Poetry Festival. This stimulated many thoughts, mainly on the venues employed to host poetry, and on the manner in which poets are introduced. These thoughts recur with each public encounter I have with poetry, and I’ve been reading and attending since the 1990s. What makes a good poetry venue? What does an audience need to be told about a poet before they perform?
The pragmatic answer to the first question is worth mentioning: the venue that’s available. We’re not spoilt for choice, so let’s make the best compromise. But to pursue a more utopian line of thought – what does poetry need most from a space in order to resonate? I think it’s probably more than just passable acoustics and good lines of sight.
In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard states that one of the important functions of a home is to shelter daydreaming: ‘The house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…’ Wallace Stevens referred to the imaginative world of the poem as its ‘Mundo’; Yeats called it the ‘phantasmagoria’ (a choice between the cryptic or the grandiose, perhaps). Whatever word we use, we’re surely talking about the poem’s dream life, or its imaginative ‘trance’ – something intimate and strange; something concentrated.
One problem poetry faces is that it doesn’t have a house of its own. It borrows spaces employed by other mediums: the pub function, the lecture, the music gig, even the conference. I can imagine the venue I read in on Saturday really coming into its own when a band is amped up loud and the crowd is buzzing. This isn’t a dig at the organisers. Obviously, they’ve been experimenting – feeling towards a compromise that fits. They’d had to work hard, just to make events happen at all. The venue experiment is ongoing.
I feel there’s a structural challenge with festivals too. With four or five readings taking place within the same space throughout one day, what antidotes can be employed against that intimacy killer – the conveyor belt? How can we support each poet in making their event feel intimate and unique, rather than ‘standard’?
A lot seems to rest on how a poet is introduced. Or does it? To repeat the earlier question: what does an audience need to be told about a poet before he or she reads? Well, at a rock concert all you need to be told is that the artist is about to climb the stage. At a poetry event, it’s more likely that the host will recite a list of the poet’s publications or prizes: in short, their ‘credentials’. This is the language of status and prestige creeping into the potential dream house. I find it distracting and intrusive – even when the credentials are my own. So, if we leave the CV out of the question – what does it leave us with?
I need to make a fine distinction. One of my problems with the CV litany is that it scrambles my ‘peace to dream’ with its racket – as well as encroaching on my right to make up my own mind about the poems I’m about to hear. I don’t want the voices of Prize judges in my ears; or the values of the machine that supports commercial publishing. I want something that illuminates the world of the poems. On the other hand, what I do enjoy from a host is a feeling for why they’ve invited the poet. If they can project why they care about the work, then I feel I’m being invited to share something valuable. The advocacy feels human, not institutional.
I’m not complaining about how I was introduced on Saturday. My ‘MC’ had performed in the previous set. Having just climbed out of the spotlight himself, he was clearly anxious not to embarrass those about to step into it. But drawing on years attending poetry events, I’ve noticed that many overlong, overassertive introductions tend towards the institutional in tone and content. Not only do they intrude on dream space and kill intimacy, but they drain the battery of the listener’s concentration.
I’m interested to hear what poets and poetry listeners think about these questions. What’s the worst or best introduction you’ve heard or received? Which venues have ‘sheltered’ poetry best for you? I was fascinated by one experiment at this year’s festival: the Hex Poets’ decision to project a colour palette into their performance space. What other kinds of experiment could build a dream house for poetry?
Matthew Clegg‘s debut collection, West North East, is published by Longbarrow Press this summer. Listen to Matthew Clegg reading from ‘A Letter From Tu Fu’ (from West North East) below.