Southbank Centre’s longest running festival, Poetry International, celebrates 50 years this year by joining with London Literature Festival for the first time. Here Chris McCabe, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Librarian and programmer of this year’s Poetry International, looks back over its 50 year history.
Amongst the audience for the first Poetry International gathering, which took place in July 1967, was London writer Iain Sinclair. He’d come along to see Charles Olson, all six foot eight of him, but due to the American poet’s decision to sit in the aisle rather than taking a seat on stage, Sinclair got much closer to him than he expected. Amongst the other poets reading that evening were W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Giuseppe Ungaretti and Allen Ginsberg.
Sinclair remembers: ‘Olson put himself in with the people. He sprawled across the aisle, wearing a dirty white suit’. The young Sinclair offered the poet his seat; Olson refused to take it: ‘Olson preferred the space on the floor, not paying attention to incomers who were forced to negotiate a passage around his notable bulk.’ When Olson did get up to read, just before the interval, Sinclair wrote in his diary later that day: ‘It was an excitement, heart in mouth, to listen.’ A statement which has echoed through audience reactions to the festival over the past 50 years.
The awkwardness of Olson was symptomatic of the times and, perhaps, of the growing pains of the festival in those first years. Ted Hughes had initiated the idea for the festival as a response to the global polarisation of east and west during the Cold War, writing in his introduction to the 1967 brochure: ‘The idea of global unity is not new, but the absolute necessity of it has only just arrived, like a sudden radical alteration of the sun.’ Despite, or perhaps because he wasn’t fluent in any other language than English, Hughes firmly held the notion that poetry could be ‘a universal language …. in which we can all hope to meet’.
Behind the scenes Hughes had already relinquished his main directorship of the festival which he handed over to Patrick Garland. Hughes hadn’t wanted any English poets but the Poetry Book Society who were administrating the festival had persuaded him to include some English ones ‘for box office reasons’. As it turned out only three English poets came, but the imbalance was skewed elsewhere with only two female poets being invited (Anne Sexton – who one reviewer commented had appeared on stage wearing ‘shocking pink’ – and Ingeborg Bachmann). There was a lot more work to be done.
The audiences, however, flocked, with one reporter saying that 500 people were turned away from event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as they didn’t have tickets. As The Observer wrote, aware of the various problems off-stage and behind them: ‘Getting an audience is about the only problem the organisers of Poetry International ’67 have not had’. If audience sizes have varied over the years one thing that has been consistent is the precariousness of putting together a festival of this scale, the least of which is in negotiating the travel and arrival of dozens of poets from around the world.
Poetry International was initiated to address political tensions in the world but humour quickly became a part of it. ‘An Evening of Innocent Australian Verse’ was programmed as part of the 1973 festival in which the host, in mint-fresh BBC RP, apologised because one of the speakers on the panel, Dame Edna Everage: ‘couldn’t get into her head that any hall seating fewer than 6,000 people could be one in which she expected to appear and we’ve heard that she’s gone by mistake to the Albert Hall'. Barry Humphreys, of course, was on stage, switching at the interval to enter as Dame Edna and read a series of Australian poems, one of which was called Pigface.
There was a long lapse in the festival, between 1977 and 1982, when it re-emerged for a few years, bringing together ageing American Beats (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso) with UK performance poets (John Cooper Clarke, Joolz Denby, Benjamin Zephaniah). If poetry hadn’t quite come down from the shelf it was compact enough to fit in the pocket and City Lights Editions flooded the South Bank. Archival photos from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s show poets we now take as state figures caught in mid-flight between juvenilia and imago. In one shot Andrew Motion looks like he’s arrived from the set of Grease; in another Paul Muldoon appears as a schoolboy who’s been caught bunking off.
Behind these attempts to open up poetry to new audiences there’s a sense in which the festival had, for a while at least, lost its way. The programming of the 70s over-cooks the American beef, and that of the 80s is extremely UK-centric – everything that Hughes had been against. What might be seen as the modern era of Poetry International began in its re-launch in 1988 (the first festival for four years) when the National Poetry Library moved from its home in Piccadilly to the fifth floor of our Royal Festival Hall. The poet Maura Dooley was Head of Literature at the time and she saw the potential for this collision of two great institutions to combine their legacies and bring the festival into a new era.
Looking through the brochures for that period shows this focus on the international and translation to be at the core of the programming with poets such as Joseph Brodsky, Goran Simic, Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Tadeusz Różewicz, Valerio Magrelli and Piotr Sommer coming to read. Weaving through these European legends, figures coated with the dust of previous epochs on their shoulders, was a new streak of youthful glitz which came in the form of the New Generation poets. The future GCSE syllabus had just come out of school and was gaining a wide readership; it was inevitable that the new UK cool would be fused with the lesser known and more mysterious forces of the continent. Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Simon Armitage and Lavinia Greenlaw appeared to read a number of times during these years with some critics taking issue with it, including Daniel Weissbort, who had partnered Ted Hughes in launching Modern Poetry in Translation the year before the first festival.
Poetry really began for me – at least in the sense of showing what was truly possible – in 2002. I’d started working in the National Poetry Library earlier that year and came to every event at the festival in the Autumn. The library was already asking me to rip-up-and-start-again with what I thought I knew about the artform, pushing me towards the weird and offbeat, the challenging and original, and there were elements of the festival that perfectly extended that. If the National Poetry Library collections contained the underwiring for everything that was possible in the form then the festival was the lit-up, unmissable realisation of that in the live instant.
The French Oulipian poet Jacques Roubaud applied his mathematical training to the experimental poem and took his lines for a walk around Paris and the screen behind the stage. This set off a love affair with Roubaud’s writing which, I’d discover time and again through the years, was exactly what the festival was there to do: to connect audiences with poets from around the world who were performing tricks with language they would never forget.
A focus on the Middle East, foreshadowed in previous years by the Iraqi poetry of Saadi Yousef, began in earnest with the 2010 festival Imagining Peace, bringing the festival into a new era of urgent and direct programming which has continued since. It was this urgency which saw the one-off, impossible, dizzying and unforgettable 2012 Poetry Parnassus festival take place. As the festival was due to fall in the year of the London Olympics, Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director Jude Kelly CBE aimed to do something on an epic scale. Simon Armitage became the curator and the festival organisers Anna Selby, Bea Colley and Martin Colthorpe worked for over a year to make the impossible happen. The idea was simple: to invite one poet from each of the 204 countries competing at the Olympic Games. After the easy bit of sending out the invitations came the administration around Visas, booking hotels, organising translators and crucially, giving the poets something to do when they got here.
London’s South Bank was overrun with poets speaking the universal language of their art: running late, asking for directions for somewhere they were meant to be an hour ago. In the most ambitious of events the Chilean Arts Collective Casagrande's Rain of Poems involved a helicopter which dropped poems written by each of the attending poets over Jubilee Gardens, landing on the grounds of the Shell Building, onto the roof of ITV studios, melting like London snow into the Thames. It was discovered later that one of the poems had fallen onto the lap of a cyclist who then looked at the poem to find that he knew the poet who had written it. Poetic visions sent like business cards from the sky. The dream logic of poetry as a waking reality.
Throughout the week of the festival the National Poetry Library created a unique, one-off edition called The World Record for which each attending poet hand-wrote a version of one of their poems in its original language. In addition a modernist desk with a leather surface – blank green to begin with, an open field – was prepared for each poet to sign as a relic of the incredible week. The poets came to the library to sign the desk and write their poems, leaving their mark in space before returning to the cities and villages they came from. On the final day of the festival Seamus Heaney, who’d arrived to read at the climactic gala event in the Royal Festival Hall, wasn’t able to make it up to the library to sign the desk. We did what we had to: picked up the desk and worked our way back of house through three floors of the Royal Festival Hall, narrowly missing walking on stage where the audiences were beginning to gather, until we found the dressing room he was in. Seamus saw the humour in the predicament: if the poet doesn’t go to the inscribed memorial desk, the inscribed memorial desk will come to him. He raised his pen saying, cryptically, ‘let the fox see the rabbit’.
Since Poetry Parnassus the impetus for addressing issues in the Middle East has continued, with essential programming inviting Afghan women poets to come to the festival and read their landays: short, acerbic poems that they write secretly – out of the male gaze – harbouring and venting their anger at their social and political reality. Pakistani poets were invited to share their experiences of being forced to flee from the Taliban. A mushaira – a gathering of poets by candlelight – was held on the Clore Ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall.
This year’s festival presents a strong line-up of poets from Nordic regions, tying in with Southbank Centre’s year-long Nordic Matters programme, celebrating Nordic culture, and many more from further afield. There will be a focus on endangered languages activated by Southbank Centre’s Translator-in-Residence, Stephen Watts, who will host an event called Seven Thousand Words for Human in which poets, including Joy Harjo, have been commissioned to write new poems in a language that is under threat.
The Wall of Dreams exhibition, in collaboration with award-winning Danish artist Morten Søndergaard, will project the dreams of refugees onto the Royal Festival Hall building exterior and the festival will culminate in World Poetry Summit, a stellar line-up of poets including Claudia Rankine, Sjón, Choman Hardi, Anne Carson and Yang Lian. Five of the seven poets are female. The sun is altering. As the programming team, led by Ted Hodgkinson, gear-up for the poets to arrive there is a sense in which the festival, now in its fiftieth year, is only just getting started.
Poetry has changed so much since 1967, we now demand that any festival is inclusive of a broad range of experiences and can showcase the variousness of the developing artform, from the conceptual to the digital. The ideas that will surface and invite engagement reflect this. At the heart of the festival is the notion so important to Hughes, and to many poets today, that poetry continues to provide a space in which divisions can be met face-on. Or as the female Afghan poet Sahira Sharif said at the 2015 festival: ‘A poem is a sword. It’s our form of resistance.’
Poetry International is held in October and showcases poets and poetry from around the world.
Chris McCabe is the Poetry Librarian at Southbank Centre's National Poetry Library and programmer for Poetry International. He is also a poet and writer, his most recent book being Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery (Penned in the Margins, 2016).