Reading at the Royal Academy

Robert Peake reads at the Royal AcademyLast night I participated in a truly unique poetry reading sponsored by Ekphrasis. A dozen of us poets dispersed ourselves amongst installations in the Sensing Spaces architectural exhibit at the Royal Academy. As patrons wandered through the exhibits, we read poems to them, which we had written in response to these very spaces.

It was challenging. Bursting into poetry as the spirit moved me felt a bit like trying to be a one-man flashmob. Having never done any busking, I was unaccustomed to people wandering into or out of a room while I was reading a poem. Based on their responses, I think it was challenging, too, for the patrons. I saw many a bemused and bewildered smile.

Often, when we encounter something surprising like a provocative art installation, we seek guidance--in the placards on the walls, or the words of a knowledgeable guide. Yet we poets were the opposite of guides--raising yet more questions in response to their questions, bringing our own thoughts, music, and imagery to bear. The patrons were therefore simultaneously experiencing their own responses to the installations, and responding to ours. Challenging, indeed.

Yet challenge is not a bad thing in art; far from it. Being of service to an artistic experience, even if it is a bit personally uncomfortable to pull off, is always a privilege. To do something truly original like this is rare. We are so accustomed to the conventions of performance, so comfortable in knowing our place on either side of the "fourth wall".

A film crew was on site to record the evening's antics. Having individuals dressed in black point high-end videography equipment at you pretty well guarantees that people will gather in the form of an audience, and clap at the end. It is a familiar format; it tells us our roles. Yet some of the most interesting moments for me involved a more causal mix of reading, conversing, and admiring the spaces. I also managed to experience several other poets reading as well, which was fascinating, and made me feel proud to take part.

The challenge of it also brought us poets together with a sense of solidarity. For the patrons, I think it added an element of surprise. There was an atmosphere of playfulness last night that I had not experienced in my previous visit. You never knew when you might round a corner, and there would be someone reading a poem. I felt a bit like a poetry ninja.

Ekphrasis also put together a handsome anthology of the poems, which they made available to us all on the night. Hearty thanks are due, and congratulations, to Emer Gillespe and Abegail Morley for pulling this off with such grace, as well as Owen Hopkins of the RA, Kate Goodwin the curator of the Sensing Spaces exhibit, and of course the six remarkable architects who realised these installations for us all to enjoy. Here's to more layered and provocative artistic experiences to come.

You can read all six poems I wrote in response to the Sensing Spaces exhibit, and listen to audio recordings, on my Sensing Spaces, Wandering Words page.

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