There was not a table or chair to be had. The stock of china cups and mugs was exhausted. A warm mist appeared on the inside of the windows obscuring the curious glances from passers- by, late comers stood . The occasion? The first birthday of Poetry at the Coffeehouse, whose genesis I witnessed with a dozen or so enthusiastic kindred spirits in 2012 and whose imaginative format and strong bill has enabled the event to prosper and grow.
That growth and success has been led by Liz Lefroy whose vision, dedication and commitment has been richly rewarded, she still greets all visitors personally as old friends. Those that are not, soon become so.
A birthday party warrants something special. Liz’s address book ensured this was achieved with two local writers supporting a duo of eminent London based writers, continuing the house policy of bringing fresh talent to the Borders.
Opening the evening we heard Ludlow based Jean Atkin who read from her new collection, The Dark Farms (Roncadora Press 2012), which focuses on the Galloway Forest Park, a remote and marginal region of shrinking agriculture, depopulated glens and extraordinarily dark skies. Jean Atkin is a previous winner of the Ravenglass Poetry Prize and the Torbay Prize. Her other pamphlets are The Treeless Region and Lost At Sea (shortlisted last year for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Prize). She worked on The Dark Farms for eight months during 2011, walking the Forest, talking to residents and reading old books and maps. Its tone is wistful, and elegiac. She describes the lonely, majestic landscape with the eye of someone in love with the place , for her a “hoverfly hesitates”. In so doing the significance, or insignificance , of humanity inevitably comes to the fore and was wonderfully explored in her strongest piece of the evening, “What’s Human?”
“We hold in a creel of air what’s human
And stretch out our fingertips to the whirl of galaxies
To feel for what’s not there.”
Jack Edwards runs “Notes From the Underground” at the Hollybush PH in Cradley Heath, he is also a performance poet of burgeoning repute. Looking more like the late Marc Bolan every time I see him his gentle humour, and relaxed delivery are always underpinned by a strong central idea and good writing. His poem titles are an intrinsic part of his poems, not an afterthought. In “ I Don’t Have The Cash to Take You to France” he won over the audience as a love poem before he even embarked upon the first verse. Although Jack is happier comparing love to a kebab, rather than a rose, his favoured sonnet form demonstrated an astute mix of contemporary imagery with traditional form, which he visited to particular effect in his ghazal, “Leaves”.
In the provinces we have a healthy suspicion of London poets, some of whom regard travel , and poetry, beyond the Underground network with bewilderment. Julia Bell and Rosie Shepperd are not in that mould and shared the headline spot to great effect. Their visit was a delight.
Julia is a senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London and wrote, and co-edited ,the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook while working at the University of East Anglia, which is also published by Macmillan . Born in Bristol but raised in Wales she has had two novels published for young adults – Massive and Dirty Work, both published by Macmillan in the UK. In the US Massive is published by Simon and Schuster and Dirty Work by Walker Books. Massive has also been translated into ten languages, including Thai.
Two things immediately struck me about Julia’s work. The first was the apparent profound effect of her childhood spent as the daughter of a vicar whose religious devotion bordered on the extreme. The second was her considerable ability to speak and write plainly and effectively , eschewing high literary artifice.
She is currently working on a memoir in verse with a working title of Hymnal from which she read extensively. Her humour shone through in her voicing of Martha from the Bible- “It will take a miracle to get this done in time”. Her coming of age piece, The Wallpaper I Outgrew, brilliantly evoked the universal poignancy of transition from childhood to adulthood. It was Unhappy Clappy that proved to be her signature poem from Hymnal, a withering tirade cleverly juxtaposed to its subject matter.
Sharing the stage with Julia, Rosie Shepperd offered a complimentary counterpoint. Studying for a PhD in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Glamorgan University, her work has appeared in magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. She was a finalist in the inaugural Manchester Poetry Prize, the Ware Poetry Prize and the Café Writer’s. She won the 2007 Writer’s Inc Bursary , the 2009 Ted Walters/Liverpool University Prize and was a winner in the Poetry Business Competition, her current collection, That So Easy Thing, is published by Smith/Doorstep which includes generous endorsements from Carol Ann Duffy and Phillip Gross. Her instantly authentic pronunciation of “parapluie” was the clue to her mother’s place of birth in French Mauritius, her urbane internationalism far more evident in That so-easy thing.
Thematically Rosie’s material was wildly eclectic; a silk umbrella, the difficulties that sudden death poses when arranging one’s own funeral, insomnia and an overheard brutal condemnation by a mother of her own overweight son in Lump. What united them all was a fierce intellect, quirky off beat observation, and compassionate humanity served with lashings of acerbic wit. Reading , she pauses to telling effect, teasing the audience with what might come next, goading them to fill in the spaces for themselves.Her verse is always economic, and littered with memorable imagery, I loved the idea of an “acreage of shoe cupboard” in her insomnia poem. She made poetry seem like that so-easy thing, which it was to listen to, but undersells the craft of its composition.
Shrewsbury was fortunate to lure such distinguished talent and Liz promises more as the year unfolds, Coffeehouse Poetry next plays on March 7th, 7.30pm start, free entry.