A Democracy of Words: Reintroducing Poetry to its Natural Environment | Matthew Clegg

slow perch
                  rise and taste
      meniscus
                  where
pollen phlegms
                  on diesel
         slicks

‘Mexborough, Water-Fronted Properties Released’, Matthew Clegg, The Navigators (Longbarrow Press, 2015)

Back in 2013, Ruth and I had moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire. We were both working part-time – meaning, we wanted to earn enough money to pay our way, but we also wanted enough free time to maintain our creative projects. Someone had told us that rents in Mexborough were the lowest in the country. It took us completely by surprise when we discovered that Mexborough also had a budding poetry festival, organised under the umbrella of the Ted Hughes Project. I was enough of a Hughesian to know that the poet had once lived in a newsagent’s shop at 75 Main Street – roughly from the age of 8 to 18. I was also aware that he’d attended Mexborough Grammar School, where his poetic talents had been nurtured by Pauline Mayne and John Fisher. This is something of a hidden chapter of the Hughes biography – less mythologised by the man himself, and often completely omitted from high-profile documentaries about the poet. Perhaps Mexborough lacks the Brontean glamour of the Pennines; the mystique of Cambridge; or the pagan magic of Devon. It’s the poor relation in this family of places, and possibly the location claiming least credit for the role it played in making Hughes the kind of poet he went on to become. Ted Hughes’s South Yorkshire by Steve Ely tells the tale.

The first Mexborough event that caught my eye was ‘Ted Hughes School Days’ (2016). It featured a discussion panel made up of men and women who attended Mexborough Grammar School when Hughes was a pupil. Memories shared were good-humoured and humorous, and the event was warm and surprisingly hospitable. Perhaps this South Yorkshire community feel was what affected me most. Back then, the prominent organisers were Steve Ely and Dominic Somers. Steve brought a scholar’s knowledge of Hughes in Mexborough, and a poet’s feel for the anarchic energies of the place. Dominic had a free-spirited approach to community engagement – and plenty of creative flair. If Steve brought deep respect for the Hughes legacy, Dominic added just enough irreverence to prevent literary rigor mortis from setting in. I decided to join the ranks. One year later I would volunteer at several festival events: some were conventional readings, some not.

dog shit
or me
the fly doesn’t care

Stanford M. Forrester, Haiku in English (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)

I’d like to focus on one of the least conventional. Democracy of Words (or DOW) began as a participatory spoken word event in Mexborough High Street, on the Saturday of the Festival. Dominic Somers and Ray Hearne are the creative engines behind this, and Ray describes it as a ‘pop-up open-mic-cum-stand-up stunt in the open air. The idea is to move beyond familiar gestures of tokenism, and form an alliance of kindred minds, spirits and attitudes to devise some practical ways of inviting those with a commitment to the area, residents, partisans or passers-through, to dip their toes for an hour or two in the lapping waters of poetry, in all its choppiness.’ In short, the event offers a platform for poets and bystanders to perform in the street and to the street. Democracy of Words has opened its arms to page poets, spoken-word poets, singers, and the occasional beatboxer.  It has welcomed performers not quite in their teens, and performers well past retirement.

Ray Hearne takes on the task of emceeing, and it’s hard to do justice to the skill and spirit he brings to the role. Ray is a poet and songwriter who cut his teeth as a floor singer in folk clubs. He has wit, warmth and the gift of the gab. Ray will usually begin by broadcasting the ethos of DOW to the street, before breaking the ice with the first performance. Volunteers will keep the momentum going, and this will build throughout the early afternoon. There is also a corolla of other activities: haiku are drawn on the pavement in chalk, volunteers will ascend to the carpark above Poundland and recite stanzas of poems through a megaphone to the startled street below. I have seen respected poets like Vahni Capildeo and Yvonne Reddick recruited to do this, and it has been interesting to witness fragments of Crow being floated from above, arresting the attention of grocers and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike.

One year, a worker on her break strolled out of B&M and told the world that she didn’t understand poetry. Immediately, Ray responded, coaxing an impromptu poem from her words. A further challenge was laid down for anyone to improvise poems about objects on sale. For Ray, Democracy of Words ‘offers a ground-level stage on which to perform, in permanent expectation of heckles or the possibility of passing abuse or brickbats – so the incentive is to be unpretentious though never patronising or supercilious.’ Ray manages this without strain or awkwardness. Poetry climbs down from its pedestal. Parts of the street step into poetry. Happenstance keeps everyone alert. The open interaction is an artform in itself.

The tall chimney
is cool now; the workshops
fill with art.

In October 2019 Democracy of Words took flight from Mexborough and migrated to three new locations: Elsecar Heritage Centre, Doncaster Market, and outside Rotherham Market Hall. Elsecar was a softer environment in which to pilot this new phase of the project. The space was semi-enclosed: cradled between bars, craft shops, art studios and industrial heritage. The weather was good and the atmosphere easy-going. A steady stream of poets and writers came along to support the event. As Ray says, ‘if poetry is robust enough to look after itself, human beings are not; all good teachers know that confidence is all, and any willing individual can be coaxed, nurtured and developed from the lowest of bases towards an appreciation of their own potential agency as a crafter or turner or manipulator of words. DOWists are amongst those trying to model by example.’ I talked to Tracey Dawson, who, in mid-life, had found her way into poetry through Ian Parks’ long-running Read to Write initiative in Mexborough. Ian had encouraged her to write and memorise poetry, and this led to one of the most unforgettable moments of the day: 25 lines from Beowulf, recited from memory – and in the original Old English. This from someone not involved in poetry for much longer than two years. It was stirring to hear those eerie vowels from the roots of our culture filling the space between stone buildings, under a clear October sky with Autumn changes threatening. Drinkers sat and listened outside the Maison Du Biere, smiling and perplexed. Later in the day I was chalking a haiku on the pavement slabs. It was by the Japanese poet Issa. An elderly bloke walked up to me: ‘In my day, you’d’ve been caned for doing that…’ The humorous old haiku master would have smiled. I composed a reply:

In Issa’s day
he’d be doing this
caned…

By the time we pitched up outside Doncaster Market, the sky was turning. But Saturday is still Saturday, whatever the season. Here the liveliness was turned up a notch. We were competing against the hurly-burly of weekend trade. There were busy ranks of market stalls, and simply more people scrumming around and passing through. The great thing about where we were pitched was the broad acreage of pavement. This meant plenty of space for chalking haiku, couplets, aphorisms and lines of poems. I’d just mangled a couplet from Tony Harrison’s ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’ on the slabs:

‘[Life’s] one part sweet and one part tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.’

A couple of guys in their twenties bounced over and one of them asked me what the lines said. I assumed I was in the way, and stood back so he could see them better. ‘No, mate, I can’t read!’ He seemed unabashed, so I recited the couplet for him. He gave me the thumbs up and walked off, smiling. If I had Tony Harrison’s email, I’d write to him. It was like a scene out of a gentler, better-humoured ‘V’. Later in the afternoon a pensioner walked up to me to chat. He said, ‘my wife has a beautiful reading voice. She can recite the whole of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ from memory’. Ray tried calling her over to perform, but she was too shy, or distracted. Her husband told me, ‘her talents are wasted on this life…’ I wrote the phrase down, and watched them stroll away, wishing them a world ‘where the Bong-Tree grows.’

A busker blows tunes
for the rain to fall through.
The puddles applaud.

Rotherham was where we earned our Red Badge of Commitment. The trains were scuppered by floods. It rained flat-out all day. We pitched our stall by the entrance of the indoor market, trying to take a little shelter from the deluge. Water dripped from the concrete above and slid down the back of my neck, giving me the shivers Emily Dickinson claimed were the sign of true poetry. Eventually, the market manager came out and told us we were creating a hazard, so could we please move. I wanted to test the authenticity of this charge, so I walked around to another entrance, where I discovered ten large men huddling around the doorway, smoking old-fashioned cigarettes. Three DOWists were a hazard, ten large men sucking on fags were not. We took it in our stride and moved a little further out into the rain. We battled on, reading against the rain, incorporating the rain into our poems, breathing and thinking pure rain, spitting out rain. The market manager returned. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘but you have no right to be here. You have to move on.’ Ray had clearly been in this situation before. He was calm but firm: ‘We’ve got permission from the council. We’re being paid to be here. Here’s the gaffer’s number. You can ring her if you want.’ It was half comical, half edgy, a real cowboy standoff – poetry against health and safety, verse versus commerce. Less committed artists than Ray would have surrendered. Dominic intervened, taking Ray out of the firing line, or the market manager out of Ray’s. He bargained with the bloke for twenty minutes, and achieved a compromise. A gazebo was erected for us to stand under. People slowly joined us under there. They read protest poems from the 1980s. They read surrealist poems. They read nonsense poems. They read survivor poems. They read poems of unknown categories. The afternoon ended with Dominic’s young daughters reading Ted Hughes in their clear Yorkshire voices. We had the full hawk, pike and otter banquet. Poetry held its line against the rain. The day was won.

In last week’s press, X
reviewed Y: One of the best
poets now writing.

In this week’s press, Y
reviews X: One of the best
poets writing now.

‘Nips’, Peter Reading, Collected Poems: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 1995)

There are many reasons to feel excited about the contemporary poetry scene. There are also reasons why a person might become jaded. Poets often feel marginalised, or ignored. Not everyone can find a way into the cliques and factions, or feel at home in them once they have. It can be hard to keep up with trends. There are also the sensitive matters of standing and prestige to be processed, and many poets have a tale about feeling snubbed or patronised. I’ve been practising the art for 30 years, and there are still moments when I feel I am standing outside looking in, like Larkin ambivalently watching the dancers in ‘Reasons for Attendance’. Working alongside Ray and Dominic has been a re-fresh experience. There is nothing precious about Democracy of Words; but plenty to be valued. There is the pleasure of working with a supportive, non-judgemental group. There is the buzz of being in the street, watching happenstance splash against the day’s canvas. There are the moments of genuine interaction, when you encounter unlikely people with a private passion for poems. There is an energy that comes from other performers when they overcome their nerves or inhibitions, and share something authentic. Some of us need to return to street level, and test the power of language in the most direct and immediate fashion – where ego or elitism cannot shield us. As Ray puts it, Democracy of Words provides an opportunity ‘where some of those who purport to live by the word might test their resolve, read, perform, or offer some utterance to the passing world’. That passing world is as impartial a jury as you will find. There are few spoken word venues more inclusive.

After Elsecar, Ray and me sat outside the Maison Du Biere. I wanted to learn more about how Ray found the path he walks now. I heard a rumour that he’d abandoned a PhD in the 80s, so he could devote his energies to community art. He may not have those three letters after his name, but he does have a presence and a reputation in South Yorkshire that should carry as much weight. There won’t be a Ted Hughes Festival in 2020. Instead, the project will return to grassroots events. We have a new creative producer – Dan Ryder – and a refreshed desire to take the power of words outside the usual factions and structures, and back into the topsoil. An anthology of football poetry is forthcoming by our associate publishers (Wild West Press), and readings are planned in sporting venues across South Yorkshire. I’m hoping we can broaden the remit, and celebrate bowling greens, cricket pitches, and all the other grassy spaces where people escape their stresses and strains. As Ray reminds us: ‘the DOWist is always a guest on somebody else’s turf and is there to share pleasantries even when artfully provocative. The DOWist approach might be viewed by some as a kind of aesthetic rewilding, but it is simply reintroducing poetry back to its natural environment…’ I’m rolling that phrase up in my kit bag when I next leave the house. Thanks, Ray!

Matthew Clegg’s collections – West North East, The Navigators, and Cazique – are available now from Longbarrow Press. Click on the links embedded in the titles above for extracts, essays and audio recordings.

Click here for information about the Ted Hughes Project. A gallery of images from the 2017 Democracy of Words event can be accessed here.

Photo credits: 1 & 3 by Dominic Somers; 2 courtesy of the Rotherham Reader.



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