Poets and Players (and Big Patchwork Monsters) @ The Whitworth
Since its inception in 2004, Poets & Players has become a staple of the Manchester poetry scene. A mixture of poetry, music and other – often quirkier – elements, its original aim was to combat what poet and founder Linda Chase saw as the blandness of some of the typical poetry events at the time. Chris Davies, musician and co-founder, has continued that legacy, saying, “We aim to open it out as much as possible; to include something pretty unexpected. At past events we’ve had Indian dancers, puppeteers… We want to keep it lively and fresh.”
The focus is still very much on the poetry, however, and the organisers’ stated aim is to attract and support the best contemporary poets in the country. Janet Rogerson, one of the volunteers who helps run the monthly event, elaborated, “We try to reflect what’s happening in the contemporary poetry scene, to incorporate all the diverse elements that exist within it, but also to encourage new voices and give people a platform who wouldn’t necessarily have one otherwise – to get them some exposure.’ Hilary Robinson, a regular to the event, confirmed that the group seem to have a knack of showcasing new poets just before they take off.
There was a huge amount of talent on display, ranging from the faintly ridiculous – a grey, patchwork, overgrown monster attempting to tap-dance to ‘Singing in the Rain’ but unable to fit under its inside-out umbrella – to the sublime – Chris Davies’s and Henry Botham’s duet on the keyboard and oud (a Middle Eastern stringed instrument) was a real highlight.
As for the poetry, I’d arrived fresh from the anti-Trump women’s march, and was wondering whether politics would stop at the door. But this was not a light-hearted respite from the political struggles taking place outside. While a poem from Becky Cherriman drew on her own experience of being vulnerably housed – “Our Sundays were the opened up dog ends of rollies” – Fiona Benson tackled the subject of civilians being bombed, and Ian Duhig spoke about his work with refugees “plunged into the Kafkaesque world” of the British asylum system.
As the event proceeded, Duhig further developed this theme of turning up the volume on the voices of the disenfranchised. Reading from his collection The Blind Roadmaker, he chose the poem ‘The Blue Queen of Ashtrayland’, which merges the lives of a gang of dispossessed youth with the stuff of English legend. Ashtrayland has become their word for England, and the poem includes a reimagined verse from William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ where the ‘Queen’ demands, ‘Bring me my Milligrams of fire!’, highlighting their feelings of alienation from a traditional English culture that doesn’t speak to them. Similarly, Fiona Benson read from her latest series, in which she uses the narrative structures of Greek myths to speak about the enduring misogyny in our society. Here Zeus has become a prisoner on parole, kept electronically tagged for the crimes he has committed against women.
There was lighter subject matter, such as a more traditional love poem dedicated to her husband from Benson, and a tongue-in-cheek sonnet for a wedding from Duhig. But, all in all, it seems as if the poetry scene is reflecting the darker mood in the country at large. It is often in times of crisis that people turn to poetry, and so perhaps the worsening political landscape will mean the re-energisation of the poetry scene. It will be a vital place for exploring the human impact of recent political shocks, and, based on the evidence of this event, Poets & Players’ free, accessible and inventive nature will make it an essential part of that process.