Report on the Eric Gregory Awards Readings at The Betsey Trotwood, Farringdon.
Report by Kit Toda
The Eric Gregory Awards have a habit of getting it right. Previous winners include Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Alice Oswald and the reading’s organiser, Roddy Lumsden. The annual award, worth £24 000, is split between around four or five young British poets under 30 for a poetry collection submitted to a panel of judges.
The readings by the winners took place at the Betsey Trotwood, a pub in Farringdon often used for literary and musical events. Despite the prestige of the award, there is a friendly and informal feel to the evening. This is perhaps compounded by an inopportune electricity cut which lends the event a rather impromptu air of excitement. The room is small but crowded and, as the electricity comes back on, there is a happy round of applause.
Roddy Lumsden then ambles onto the stage and gets the evening started. After a few words of introduction, he tells us of his conversation with Christopher Levenson, the first winner of the award in 1960. The panel of judges in that first year included T.S.Eliot. Levenson recalled that Eliot gave him no wise words of guidance as a great man of letters to a young poet; his advice consisted wholly of how to avoid paying tax on his prize money.
Lumsden does not seem to be one given to loud expressions of sentiment but, as is clear from his many activities, his sense of excitement at helping young emerging poets is palpable. He is not part of the judging panel, which comprised Moniza Alvi, Alan Brownjohn, Polly Clark, John Greening, Carol Rumens and Fiona Sampson, but he has been organising these readings for ten years and he maintains a quiet pride in this. Indeed the first to read tonight, Tom Chivers, would not have even entered the competition had he not received encouragement to do so from Lumsden, who is his editor at Salt Publishing.
Chivers is very active in the London literary world: he is the man behind the small publisher and live literature producer Penned in the Margins, he is co-director of the London Word Festival, he has been poet-in-residence at The Bishopgate Institute, he has edited three poetry anthologies, and is the Editor-in-chief of Hand+Star as well as being associate editor of Tears in the Fence. It is a wonder when he ever gets the time to write poetry at all, let alone a collection as fine as the one he reads tonight. He is probably the most advanced in his poetic career (he has already published a prize-winning collection, How to Build a City, with Salt) and is one of the strongest of the winners this year. His poetry occupies an unconventionally prosaic world of ‘trainee customer service assistants’, ‘ISAs’ and ‘colour-drop tool[s]’. The effect, in its poetic context, is exhilarating; his is a fresh and highly unusual voice that can be both humorous and oppressive, as is evidenced by perhaps my favourite lines of the evening: ‘On the fourth day we opened high-yield savings accounts. The refugee camps were fast becoming commuter towns encircling the crater.’
Next up is Kim Moore whose poems take a wry look at the seedy side of life. She starts off with ‘Tuesday at Wetherspoons’, a poem that depicts a scene which – Moore was amused to discover – was compared to the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno by the judging panel. This poem and another describing a visit to the Lake District in which the narrator inadvertently come across a couple in fellatio among the trees, expose the seediness of classical works – or perhaps elevates the seedy into the classical. Whichever it is, there is something oddly scintillating about the comparison of a woman giving head under a tree to an Ovidian ‘long-necked bird’. But that is not to say that she merely provides the humorous gratification to be had by the poetic treatment of squalid scenes; these poems have a discomfiting profundity to them and she is more than equal to producing lines that are somehow right and moving:
When the wind blows east she shows you how
to shadow box, how to hold the world beyond
Martin Jackson’s poetic voice is perhaps the most brusque and aggressive of the evening. The monosyllabic punch of the first line of ‘Postcard’: ‘Books boxed, clothes bagged, you did finally go’ is as arresting as the poem ‘Telegraph’ is darkly discomfiting. He is a graduate of UEA’s famous creative writing programme and also did an MA at Goldsmiths.
Holly Hopkins wields the classic poetic tools of assonance and alliteration with skilful aplomb in lines ‘[…] allowing the thinnest slice/ to curl away from the loaf like a fleece flap lolling back’. She has poems published with Poetry Review and Magma among others and works as a Young People’s Co-ordinator at the Poetry Society.
The last to read, Niall Campbell, is a cause of particular excitement for The Literateur. In 2009 we were the first magazine to ever publish his poems and the owl is puffed up with great pride to see that our (naturally) exquisite taste is vindicated. Roddy Lumsden too was particularly pleased that a fellow Scot won after a dearth for several years and they drink a dram of Scotch to celebrate before he takes the stage. Campbell’s poems possess that subdued loveliness characteristic of the English lyric tradition. The images he conjures up are written simply but they leave a strong imprint, as is the case for a line in ‘A Poem to Old Lovers Regarding the Venus De Milo in Transit’, in which he muses that the crate ‘could now be a store for anything’, and imagines that ‘perhaps inside some ripe lemons/ challenge the heavy scent of wood.’ But our favourite of the evening tonight is the extract he reads from ‘The Songs of Kirilov’. It is a triumph of quiet beauty, as powerful as it is un-meretricious:
Rain in the air, the smoke rose and rose smoke;
the wife of the small town’s perfumer dead,
how he burns her last clothes in the garden.
Their red hours he spent redressing the air
around her. Tonight when it rains, although she’s missed,
the night breeze painfully sweet, is still sweet.
If the poetry read tonight and the impressive list of past winners are anything to go by, then we can certainly expect great things from this quintet of young poets. Here’s to the future!