Poetry at the South Bank Centre has a glorious history: in 1967 in an unforgettable week in November, Pablo Neruda, WH Auden, William Empson, Bella Ahkmaduna and Hans Magnus Enzensberger were amongst the glitterati to read from the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And the first Head of Literature and Talks here, Maura Dooley, is a distinguished poet who steered the direction of the Poetry Library in its new home on Level 5 of the Royal Festival Hall when it moved here from the Arts Council in 1988. This shift can be read as a significant statement acknowledging poetry as a performing art, by establishing it in a performing arts space with a programme of readings, as well as marking a democratizing moment in the long march of arts policy which sought to make literature available to a wider audience in 'the People's Place', the national home of the arts.
Over the last fifteen years, then, there has been an uninterrupted commitment to presenting poetry alongside music, dance and the visual arts in the largest arts centre in the world. This is a unique and awesome record.
The jewel in the crown is, of course, Poetry International, our biennial festival of world poetry. Last year this featured 38 poets from over five continents. It is the largest poetry festival held in Britain and was revived here in the late 1980s, after its conception by Ted Hughes and Patrick Garland in 1963. The Festival offers many opportunities to commission new work, such as the opening night which is traditionally a re-working by several poets of work by a great dead one – last year Lorca. And to work with other artforms to create new hybrids; one of the highlights of 2002 was a sensational night to celebrate Langston Hughes in his centenary year. We commissioned young British jazz composer Byron Wallen to write new music inspired by Langston’s poems. This work was cited as amongst the pieces for which Byron received this year's prestigious BBC Jazz Innovator of the Year award. We see our role as not merely reflecting publishers' product, but also actively intervening as a producer. For example, the Festival is an opportunity for us to have a poet working in residence, writing new work and encouraging young Londoners to create their own poems, as well as stimulating the reading of poetry. We contribute to the notion of the writer as professional by paying all writers who work with the programme.
We are constantly looking for opportunities to introduce poetry to new audiences, to challenge the notion that it is ‘difficult’ or ‘unsexy’. I think that being in a performing arts space gives us a head start: we can demonstrate that poetry is the most performable of the literary forms, but that doesn’t mean a triumph of style over substance. The poetry has to be excellent. One of the most successful ways of facilitating encounters of new audiences with poetry has been our month long installation on the Ballroom in the Festival Hall, created in partnership with the RFH Education team. This wonderful space is at the heart of the building and receives thousands of visitors weekly who may wander in after their trip on the Eye or to Tate Modern. Spread out before them is a colourful and inviting world full of poetry written by local children and presented in deliciously innovative ways. They might lounge on a chaise-longue upholstered with a poem and watch film poems whilst enjoying their coffee on a table inlaid with poems. It's free and people love it. The visitors' book is full of people who say they want it there permanently.
We are extremely aware of our place in the poetry community, in London in particular, and beyond. London has a terrific network of organizations actively involved in the promotion of poetry which represent a pool of tremendous skills and knowledge. I have always believed in the power of working in partnership as a way of sending out the message, and also in strengthening the place of poetry in what may seem like a hostile world. I believe that Lit & Talks has put this into practice. Besides our primary partners, publishers, we also work in partnership with organisations like the Poetry Book Society, for example, in setting up a regular autumn platform for the winner of the TS Eliot Prize, this year Alice Oswald; we will be supporting a big push this autumn to celebrate Apples & Snakes' 21st Birthday; we host writing workshops led by the Poetry School; we offered Cats' Night Out a residency last spring to help grow their audience. We have also initiated a forum for those groups marketing poetry in the capital to share information and help run joint campaigns. The Poetry Library holds the largest collection of modern and contemporary poetry available to the public in the World and is therefore a great resource for readers and writers of poetry from all backgrounds and cultures.
Times have clearly changed since Ginsberg plaited flowers in his beard backstage at the QEH in 1967, we have very few poets who can command such a huge audience, but a poetry gig can still take your breath away, as in May 2003 when the QEH was packed to the rafters to celebrate the Poetry Library's Fiftieth Birthday.
name: Martin Colthorpe
phone: 020 7921 0904
The South Bank Centre
Royal Festival Hall