Poetry Reading

More on project 154


I received my copy of the Live Canon Project 154 book a day or so ago. All of Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a response by 154 contemporary poets including friends like Robin Houghton, Antony Mair, Sue Rose and many more.

As a rule this kind of intertextuality isn’t my bag. Nor do I need prompts for what to write about. But rubbing shoulders with the Bard wasn’t to be missed. I wrote my response to sonnet 19 very quickly, as I only had a week, and it was a busy one. I had a decent idea. I pictured the lover trapped between the lines of the Shakespeare sonnet, like a prisoner looking through bars. I wanted the language to the similar in tone to the sonnet, so I avoided contemporary language so not to seem anachronistic.


I went to the Victoria & Albert museum on 24th April to hear the first couple of dozen sonnets and responses read. Maybe I’m letting the side down as poet, but the phrase poetry marathon (glimpsed on the sign outside) always makes me shudder. I LOVE poetry, but the idea that it becomes some kind of an endurance test is not for me.

When it came to the moment when my own poem was read out, the poem was read by a single person in the same voice so was unintelligible. I found this very embarrassing, and it left me a bit miffed that a theatre company devoted to reading poems hadn’t sussed that this could be read in two voices. But it’s my own fault. It was however a gorgeous setting for a reading, and I heard lots of other good poems (plus the Willie the Shake stuff of course).


In the book are some genuinely interesting responses to the sonnets. Many braved a sonnet reply, such as my pal Robin Houghton with her Suggestion from The Rival Poet, or Abigail Parry whose Shakespeare in Space replied to No.18, possibly the most famous sonnet of all, with ‘Shall I compare thee to the Milky Way?’ and uses the language of astronomy. while leoemercer’s extraordinary poem called this depict the sad moment when you realise your beatuiful relation hip clearly hasnt workt out (an anagram of shaxespeares 107st sonnet) really has to be encountered for yourself.

In reply to sonnet 70, Mo Jones’s poem is easily the most stark of all, so stark it can be quoted in full:


My fuck up + my shiftiness = your fuck up + your deceit

We’re quits.

All in all, a collection that is thought provoking and well-worth checking out.



Bard at work

Been hard at work this week on my poem for the mysterious sounding Project 154. It involves writing a response to Willie the Shake’s sonnet 19, perhaps not one of his best but nevertheless magnificent about time and love. Directly responding to other poet’s work is not something I’ve done much (other than renga experiments with friends long ago) so good to start at the top with the Bard himself.

Thanks to my pals The Shakespeare Heptet I’ve been thinking lots about the sonnets lately, so quite nice to put that to work.

On the 24th April all the poems will be read out in a marathon reading at the V&A museum in London. LiveCanon is an interesting organisation, and one I’ll clearly be learning more about shortly.



The Shakespeare Heptet – the greatest unknown band in the UK

The Shakespeare Heptet L to R Dipak Chanda, Rebecca Macmillan, Aaron Power,  Sylvana Montoya and Richard Gibson

And great Art beaten down was the phrase suddenly rolling doomily in my head last night. I was drinking a nice pint of bitter in a pub called The World’s End in Brighton while hugely enjoying The Shakespeare Heptet playing in the corner of a pub. As usual, their musicianship was near immaculate. This despite the fact that outside in London Road a shop alarm was wailing peevishly, and that the pub was noisy. Of course people coming in for a drink are perfectly entitled to chat and enjoy themselves. But I can’t help but marvel at how some people can be so willfully oblivious to the miraculous music happening in the same room.

This is just me being an old curmudgeon, of course, the band played with enjoyment and expertise, and those who had ears loved it.

I have written about Richard Gibson’s plan to set every Shakespeare sonnet to music before here before. Although it seems at first a madcap scheme, the results are stunning. While the music is rooted in an absolute immersion in the sonnets, the results are completely contemporary.

In his quest he has been abetted by exquisite guitarist Dipak Chanda and a band featuring Aaron Power on percussion and vocals, Nick Fuller on bass guitar, and Sylvana Montoya and Rebecca Macmillan on vocals. The music is hard to categorise – but the word that always comes to mind for me is timeless. They blend so many influences that they have their own distinct sound. These are fabulous songs and if the Gods were at their desks doing their bloody jobs right, The Shakespeare Heptet should be in the throes of a major tour with a couple of renowned CDs behind them. But instead we’re here. With groundlings like me able to watch them for the price of a pint or two in The World’s End.

I’d love to see them in a setting where those perfect words and the fabulous playing can be heard. More than that I wish I could write something that makes the world wake up to the Shakespeare Heptet. But instead I’m writing this: The Shakespeare Heptet are the greatest unknown band in the UK.

This recording of Sonnet No. 20 below is from the early days of the band, when they were known as the Shakespeare Trio. Their sound is fuller now, positively ballsy when it has to be. But I still love the crystalline clarity of Richard and Dipak’s playing in this track and Richard’s excellent voice.


Left unsaid, negative space and Robin Houghton

My art teacher called the space around the object being painted its countershape. This is a term that seems to have fallen out of favour, but the countershape or negative space around an object can be as beautiful as the object itself, as in the sinuous darkness around the bodies or flowers in a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

Having spent some time in Japan lately, it is easy to see how the use of space and emptiness is ingrained in the Japanese aesthetic. Often objects within a composition are there to draw attention to emptiness. Even this randomly chosen picture from The Korin Album, 1802 by Nakamura Hôchû displays an attunement to negative space. Buddhism invites people to experience emptiness as something welcome and comforting.

Things are a little different in the West. But I am drawn to writers who imply without explicitly saying. It’s as if they are pointing to the emptiness, and showing just how populated it really is.

Leaving room for the reader’s imagination to infer meaning, and allows writing to contain something of the consciousness of the reader. It also opens the door to ambiguity. Sometimes this is done with silence. When in Shakespeare’s Othello, the Machiavellian villain Iago is finally confronted he says Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. This infuriating silence has given us a legacy of centuries of wondering about Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’ as Coleridge called it. If Iago had explained why he hated Othello and destroyed his life, he would be a little less memorable and perplexing.

I recently met an excellent poet called Robin Houghton. Her new pamphlet, The Great Vowel Shift frequently manages to imply a great deal in many of her poems without concretely expressing it. This is best exemplified in her poem Ellipsis which talks about playing scrabble with a woman whose memory is failing. The poem is about the gaps where everything important is deftly implied.

I lay a blank tile    tell her it’s a D    five minutes
noises in the corridor    she asks about tea

I say    that nice young man from the kitchen
will be here soon    let’s listen out

she asks   is it my go    asks   about the blank
I tell her it’s a D   her face   a perfect dot-dot-dot

While in The Last she writes about something that ‘My mother wouldn’t explain’. I just love the simple and yet completely successful way this poem addresses a change in a woman’s life without ever being explicit about what in childhood was unmentionable. Just lovely. Find Robin’s excellent blog here.

The Last

They’ve been coming since posters were invented:
sometimes in dreams, to the tipping of cowboy hats

or dressed in Liverpool shirts. Each one appeared
in my diary, in code. My mother wouldn’t explain,

I couldn’t ask. And still they would come, insistent.
They left my body as they found it: I never wanted

them to stay, or change things. It’s been a while since
I wrote a diary. I don’t know how many there were,

I wasn’t counting. Too busy getting on with
the business of getting on. For the last, though,

I would have thrown a party, marked the occasion
in some way, worn something red, if I had known.

               Poem (C) Robin Houghton 2014.