An interview with Alex MacDonald, curator of Selected Poems

-Interviewed by Claire Trevien

Alex MacDonald is the organizer of Selected Poems, a monthly poetry night at the V&A where invited editors of magazines and anthologies showcase selected authors. He is also a poet in his own right with his work appearing in such things as Claire Askew‘s beautiful chapbook Starry Nights (work inspired by Allen Ginsberg).

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Talk us through the origin of Selected Poems – did the venue or the idea come first, or was it an organic collaboration with the V&A? Is there something about the V&A space that works particularly well with poetry?

The idea definitely came first. I had always admired how the people who were passionate about poetry, who organised readings and workshops, would create books themselves. I really wanted to do a series celebrating these publications, the editors behind them and the writers in them.

I visited the V&A Reading Rooms to hear a talk by Jonathan Faires (head book-buyer for the V&A) and I was so impressed by the space. I met Jonathan afterwards and it turned out he was as passionate about the idea of indie books as I was. I set up a meeting with the V&A and proposed the reading series focused on indie poetry books.

The space is intimate enough for a poetry reading and I liked it because it was a different type of venue – one purposely built for browsing books and having a drink, nicely between bar and bookshop, the archetypal poetry hang outs.

In these evenings you put the spotlight on an independent publisher/anthology – in what state would you say the British poetry indie scene is in at the moment? 

Personally I would say that its very strong – I believe the focus will be more centred around the indie scene by next year as Arts Council cuts start to take effect on poetry publishers. A lot of anthologies and publications are coming out of new post grads, so there’s a very ready supply of new talent and ideas. There’s also a lot of good up-and-coming designers who are interested in making poetry books, too.

What are the greatest challenges of hosting a poetry night?

I would say my biggest challenge is keeping it interesting and keeping people interested. So far I have had a lot of good people reading, some wonderful editors and three great headliners who have given longer readings. It gives people a reason to come but making that quality continue is giving them a reason to keep coming back.

Who are your favourite contemporary authors? Do you think it’s necessary for poets to be performers as well as writers?

Two people I think I would constantly go back and see read are Sam Riviere and Emily Berry. They have carved out two very individual poetic styles, but their readings bring out aspects of their work that doesn’t resonate as well on the page. They’re both very witty writers, for example, but this really shows in their readings and works well with an audience in the room.

I wouldn’t say they have to be good performers, but they have to be able to read in a way that supports their style of work. The amount of times I have seen poets who write long detailed poems read piece after piece with no gap or any variation of tone in their voice – it destroys an audience and makes you very apprehensive about finding out more about them.

Who are your main poetic influences?

I would say the three main poets that make me consider my own writing are T.S. Eliot (because he was my first poetry fascination), Paul Celan (because of his sparse and restrained language but rich subjects) and Frank O’Hara (for his intimacy and frivolity). Recently I’ve been reading a lot of David Harsent, Ian Hamilton and Jo Shapcott.

What is your favourite magazines?

Poetry Magazine from Chicago hands down – interesting poetry and essays, amazing letters and their online presence is excellent. For the UK I would say The White Review, The Rialto and Anon are at the top, as well as Poetry Review, but to be honest the most interesting magazines on the UK are all online – Night & Day & Five Dials are great as are the Clinic & Days of Roses blogs.

What question would you have liked me to ask you? Please answer it!

I was wondering whether you asked what my favourite poetry nights were. So to answer it – I would say the London Review of Bookshop’s poetry readings are stellar, always worth going to. Roddy Lumsden’s Broadcast nights at the Betsy Trotwood are worth going to. There is a new series that’s started in the Highgate Oxfam Books store, which I went to last month that had a great line-up, which I would thoroughly recommend.

The next three hosts for Selected Poems are Days of Roses (September), Silkworms Ink (October) & Like Starlings (November). To keep up to date, join the facebook page or follow the twitter account.