A Swirl of Activity

10625105_10152448722408981_7255422506237288730_nIt has been a swirl of activity lately, epitomised by the sound of my Australian nephew downstairs dramatising epic Hero Factory battles. Mine have been of the more literary sort, though at times it has felt like a limb might snap off.

Straight back from the Swindon Festival of Poetry, I had the privilege of reading with several outstanding American poets at the Troubadour on Monday night. Particularly meaningful for me was the opportunity to meet Tim Nolan, whose prize-winning poem I read in his stead at the Troubadour Prize reading earlier this year. Greg Freeman of Write Out Loud wrote up an excellent summary of the evening’s adventures.

In case you weren’t in Swindon last Sunday at 5pm, with your radio dial tuned to 105.5 FM, you can also catch the spirit of the Swindon Festival of Poetry in the archive of the Rhythmn and Rhyme radio programme dedicated to this event.

The delightful and enthusiastic Sam Loveless sequestered me in a corner of Lower Shaw Farm just after my reading, and we quickly got down to business — talking about the impact of deeply personal writing on loved ones, how to decide what to publish and what to discard in therapeutic writing, and about how the “petri dishes” of British and American poetry interrelate (I switched metaphors to call it “pollination”, but of course what I should have said is that we happily infect each other!).

I also spoke a bit about the impetus behind my forthcoming poetry collection, The Knowledge. The complete interview with Sam is available here:

<a href="https://soundcloud.com/peakepoetics/robert-peake-swindon-interview">Click here to listen to the interview</a>

Speaking of the book, it is starting to feel like a reality as we are lining up readings for next year in the US and UK, and even have a cover design, which you can see below.

Swirl on!

The Knowledge by Robert Peake

Swindon Festival of Poetry

I had a rich and engaging time at the Swindon Festival of Poetry this weekend. At the heart of it all is Hilda Sheehan, with her stated goal to make it “the quirkiest poetry festival in the world.” Set mainly on the delightfully rustic and decidedly bohemian Lower Shaw Farm, it achieves not only this but other goals — being among the friendliest and least pretentious; rich, diverse, and encompassing; pushing past conventional views of poetry in the twenty-first century; intimately global; startlingly fresh.

lsfI had the pleasure of kicking off Friday’s afternoon of readings with poems from The Silence Teacher and my forthcoming book The Knowledge. The full-house audience in a converted calfing barn was among the most attentive I have known, and the conversations afterward rich, honest, and meaningful. Louisa Davison shares her own experience of my reading at the Festival Chronicle website. It was a pleasure to hear Jacquelyn Pope‘s strong, spare work and then dynamic fellow expat Carrie Etter, bringing themes of parenthood and loss to the fore between us, which Louisa again picked up on in her musings. Maurice Riordan and Kathryn Maris then rounded out the afternoon, lending their unique and decidedly expert voices to the day. It was truly an honour to be in the company of these four.

The evening rolled on with a highly experimental fusion of film and poetry as part of Malgorzata Kitowski’s PoetryFilm event. She screened our film-poem collaboration “The Shell of the World”, and I was delighted to overhear many poetry lovers coming up to my wife Valerie afterward to compliment her on the soundtrack (which she wrote and performed for this film). Sometimes pure sound can be sidelined in a word-focused gathering, but not this one.

As if to prove the point, festival-goers and Swindonians thronged to Don Share‘s live poetry-and-music collaborative show “Squandermania” that night. Val and I were riveted — the whole thing having come together with top-notch musicians from the local area all meeting one another, and Don, for the first time earlier that day. You would never know. As much as the show drew us to the edge of our seats like a high-wire act without a net, each performer also seemed at once highly confident and passionately collaborative. Here were five artists really listening to one another in service to the sum of their contributions achieving so much more than the parts. It was a tight and electrifying improvisation, and gave me a new reference point for what poetry-cum-music collaboration can be.

dcI sold books, met new friends, put real-life faces to long-virtual names, and came away with a copy of Domestic Cherry 4, in which I have two poems. The journal is an excellent and deliberately eclectic mix of poems from many well-known names and others I am keen to watch.

Sometimes, the real magic happens, not in the places you’d first expect, but in fertile cracks and crevices, tucked away, where conditions come together perfectly to give rise to new art forms, and poetry gatherings the way you always wish they would be — inviting, encompassing, dedicated to art as a real and necessary force in each participant’s life. That was Swindon for me. It was unforgettable.

Now I am whisking off to The Troubadour for one of their always-exceptional evenings of poetry. Once again, I will be reading alongside fellow Americans. I suppose that’s one way to keep remembering what your accent is supposed to sound like.


The Paradox of Contemporary Poetry (Board-Game Edition)

There is a great paradox in contemporary poetry.

On the one hand, poetry seems to be dwindling — in bookstore shelves and traditional academic curricula — so much so that it has become fashionable for journalists to frequently declare it dead. On the other hand, I have but to scroll through my social media feeds to witness an eruption of poetry being written and published online.

Likewise, an offering like Al Filreis’ Modern Poetry online course has attracted more than 100,000 students eager to read and learn from great poets of the past. Furthermore, as a poet I know that even though the overall fan base for poetry may have dwindled since the advent of the Internet, that same technology allows me to connect with global audiences many times the size of what some of our most respected poets enjoyed as regional audiences one hundred years ago.

So it would seem that poetry is dying in the real world, only to be reborn into a kind of “Invisible Golden Age” online.

My own response to this paradox is equally dualistic. I acknowledge that poetry may never go mainstream in my lifetime, and aspire primarily for the respect of respectable peers. Yet at the same time, I work hard to bring poetry to new audiences, in person and online. In that vein, I have been gathering my thoughts about the fact that so many people are now reading and writing poems, yet poetry is still perceived as a floundering art. Really, how can this be?

The following diagram illustrates how I see people engaging with poetry today.

The Poetry Board Game
  • At the bottom left we have the non-participants, who read and write little. Often, somewhere in the course of their primary education, usually from a teacher they disliked or who disliked them, they got the message that poetry was difficult, irrelevant, or both.
  • At bottom right, we have the self-expressionists, who write much but read little. Many of us entered into this phase in adolescence, when what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” turned in to our first attempts at poetry.
  • At top left, we have fans of poetry. Here we must distinguish between those who, like the students in Al Filreis’ class, are reading historical poetry, and those who read living authors as well.
  • In the upper right, we have living poets. Reading and writing are the in- and out-breath of a life steeped in poetry, and the most prolific poets I know are also among the most voracious readers.

The boxes in blue represent the behaviours most likely to help usher us out of this “Invisible Golden Age” into, well, a visible one — that is, reading contemporary poetry as a fan and both reading and writing it as a poet.

It is pretty easy to see why the health and longevity of the art depends on these things happening. So how do we encourage such behaviour?

Think of the diagram as a board game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is help usher people from the gray areas into the white, and from the white areas into the blue. Fostering some appreciation of historical poetry, as well as providing some early creative outlet for trying one’s hand at writing the stuff, is usually best begun in primary school. Initiatives like California Poets in the Schools do a fine job of this. They move people into the white.

From here, the sheer volume of poetry being written, and the speed at which it races around online and even in print, can be daunting for new readers. What poets who write much and read little really need are mentors — poets who can read what they are writing and say, “Here, try this established contemporary poet. You might learn something from them about the kind of poem you are trying to write.” MFA programmes are one place where this happens, but workshop groups and tame poet-friends can do this too.

Likewise, readers of historical poetry need encouragement, based on their current tastes, to branch into contemporary poets. Like John Donne? Try Christian Wiman. John Keats? Try Li-Young Lee. For me, this started at university, but it is really never too early or too late to try contemporary poetry.

We may not be able to hit a “home run” by ushering people straight from the grey zone of non-participation into becoming overnight poets in the blue. Yet by first opening the doors to reading and writing poetry of any kind, then by acknowledging that contemporary poetry is largely a matter of taste, and trying to accomodate the tastes of newcomers with useful recommendations, we may well do our part to break contemporary poetry free of its current double-bind.

There is all kinds of evidence for the benefits of engaging more deeply with poetry — psychologically and even physiologically. Like every other contemporary poet, I know this to be true from my own experience. If, like me, you have been looking for ways to help others to find their way to poetry, I encourage you to have a look at the board, roll the dice, and join me in playing the game.

Thoughts? Comments? Join the conversation at Huffington Post


When it Rains, it Pours

I am involved with three different poetry events in the coming week.

The PityFirst, the UK Poetry Society commissioned me to design video sequences for “The Pity” — a commemoration of the centennial of the First World War involving new poetic responses to conflict.

As poets Denise Riley, Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, and Warsan Shire read their poems in the Purcell Room on Thursday night, my video sequences will be playing on the big screen behind them.

It was a pleasure to collaborate this way, and I am looking forward to the result. More details are here.

Swindon Festival of PoetryNext, we are off to Wiltshire for the excellent Swindon Festival of Poetry on Friday. I am giving a lunchtime reading at Lower Shaw Farm which promises to be delicious. I am looking forward to seeing friends, and putting real faces to a few virtual acquaintances. That evening Don Share, editor of Poetry will read his poetry to musical accompaniment. The whole festival looks terrific. Hats off to Hilda Sheehan for bringing together such a wealth and diversity of poetry events.

The TroubadourFinally, it is back to one of my favourite London venues, The Troubadour, on Monday night for an evening of American poetry. I am looking forward to finally meeting Tim Nolan, as well as a fine lineup of expats, transplants, and imports who all share the same accent as me. Come join us if you can.

More details about each event are available on my website. Come early, say hello, and bring an umbrella.


Interview with Geosi Gyasi

Geosi Gyasi is an avid reader and blogger based in Ghana who has interviewed a wide range of authors over several years.

He discovered my work through a poem recently published in Rattle, and asked some interesting questions in our interview — about how formal study has influenced my poems, about how I see technology shaping poetry, and the best thing that has ever happened to me as a poet.

I also talk about why the human element is so important to me in world of word-play, and give a sneak peek at what readers might expect from my forthcoming collection The Knowledge.

You can read the full interview here at Geosi Reads.


One Stop (Film-Poem)

One Stop Laurels

Our recent film-poem collaboration “One Stop” was nominated for best music/sound at Liberated Words III in Bristol, where it premiered. The original soundtrack was composed and performed by Valerie Kampmeier. The film commemorates the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

<a href="http://vimeo.com/105005307"><img src="http://cdn5.peakepro.com/files/2012/02/one-stop-screenshot-1024x577.png" alt="One Stop" style="max-width: 500px;">Click here to view the video</a>

 

One Stop

Do you remember beach-combing
for three-oh-three shells,
our little Easter-egg hunt
for exploding chocolate?
I think of you whenever
I snap the pill box shut.
You called our ride in a Higgins
boat "one stop on a busy tube."
We breathed through our helmets,
begging the spume to ricochet,
then leapt the ditch toward freedom
and cleared the snarling wire.
So this is freedom. This side
contains the same amount
of nitrogen in the air.
We won the race with our fists,
hands down, sound bananas.
What was it all for, Charlie?
Nineteen more minutes of linked
hands and holy prayers
to that bombshell divinity?
How do we know this road
leads back to the invisible base?
Go first. I'm right behind you.

Process Notes

I sourced archival colour footage of WWII, and composited this into an animation that I created using Blender 3D. I recorded journeys on the tube with an X1 Zoom, and mixed this under Valerie's music and my voice reading the poem.


Reaching the Next Generation with Poetry

Edwin in the RainI never thought of myself as a children’s poet.

Yet it was thanks to Dr. Seuss that I began to delight in language itself, and I believe this early contact was crucial to my subsequent love affair with poetry. The tradition continues today, with excellent children’s poetry books coming out in print like In the Land of the Giants by George Szirtes (Salt, 2012). Yet I wonder if reaching children where we increasingly find them — affixed to the glow of a touch-screen device, with the whole of the Internet just a tap away — can be just as effective to instil a love of words and sounds.

As I explained at the award ceremony for our film-poem “Buttons”, this was part of the impetus for the film’s creation. Video has taken on a new life online. The next generation is growing up on YouTube in the same way that we grew up on radio and television.

Our film-poem was a labour of love — both in its conception as a collaboration between my pianist wife Valerie and me, and in its dedication to our young nephew in Australia. The response that night in the Purcell room, and the following day during an interview and screening of this and other children’s film-poems at the Southbank Centre, as well as the reverberations throughout social media as parent-friends pulled their children close to watch it together — has been heartening indeed.

Continuing in this spirit, I have decided to make a storybook version of the poem available to download for free on both iOS and Android devices. My hope is that parents will be able to read the poem and watch the film with their children in the same way that I turned the dog-eared pages of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish with my own mum so long ago.

You can download the book and watch the film right here.

Download for iOS/MacDownload for Android