@ The Punter in Cambridge – 28/02/2012
– reviewed by Seán Hewitt –
Venue and Atmosphere
Coming in from the cold, I wait in The Punter’s main room, looking around awkwardly until admitting defeat and asking the girl behind the bar where the poetry reading was. She points me outside again, over the small yard and across to a small converted building, barn-shaped and cosy. Inside, candles adorn the tables and give the audience (who probably average double my age) a rosy, red-wine glow. It looks to be standing-room only (though there’s always the option of a welcoming, middle-aged lap to perch on), but I find a nice chair in the corner, and sit down, happy to dodge some of the mothering glances I’m getting from certain wine-warmed women.
CB1 Poetry started a major new series of readings in Cambridge city centre in 2007, which serve as a welcome antidote to the often-insular and esoteric style of the so-called ‘Cambridge school’ of poetry, which centres around the University (as most things do in this small, picture-book city). And tonight’s offering promised an impressive line-up of accomplished writers.
The Open Mic
The evening sets off with an open-mic. Here, we’re treated to poems that move from love- to folk-song and back comfortably, with each poet getting two minutes in which to flex their metaphorical muscles. Though the threat of amateur archaisms lurks just beneath the surface, and often rears its head in rhymes like ‘sorrow’/ ‘morrow’ (I mean, who actually uses the word ‘morrow’ without first placing tongue firmly in cheek?). Similarly, dreaded Sentimentality stands hand-in-hand with Mr. Cliché, waiting in the shadow like a pair of unwelcome party guests which the poets desperately try to usher away, unnoticed. However, the crowd are pleased, and the open-mic offers an easy introduction, a nice warm-up for the main act.
The Features – Escalator Award Winners
The three poets who are our ‘headliners’ tonight, so to speak, are all winners of the Writers’ Centre Norwich Escalator Award (2010/11), and together have a list of awards to rival a post-Grammy Adele. Sarah Roby, admired by Ms. Carol Ann Duffy herself, kicks off her reading with a poem called ‘Protest Song’, which gave us pop-culture references galore, though often tends to just say things outright, not letting her obvious poetic skill work as hard as it could. Likewise, her reading didn’t always do justice to her work: when an audience only gets one chance to hear a poem, we need to feel it in the voice and to be able to grasp its importance from the delivery. Maybe we could reapply Pope here in saying that ‘the sound should seem an echo to the sense’.
Maitreyabandhu (who has been, I’m told, ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order for the last 20 years) is the second poet from the Escalator scheme, and seems to favour narratives and sequences to shorter, more economical poems. Again, I felt like it was hard to envisage the original poem from the performance, since the latter gave little audible sense of line-breaks or rhythm, doing a disservice to the poems’ structures.
Maitreyabandhu plumbs his childhood for inspiration, which he tells us often comes during meditation, but this often gives the sense that his poems are too well-mapped from the beginning: it’s as though he knows exactly what he’s going to write when he starts off, which means that the poems miss their chance to take leaps of faith, and to really soar. However, this all changes when he reads selections from the 21-poem sequence in his pamphlet, which are much more assured, and more certain in what they want to mean.
In the case of this evening, it was definitely true that the best was saved until last. Tom Warner, who has picked up an Eric Gregory Award alongside having a pamphlet published by Faber in 2010, stole the show with his imaginative and varied range of poems, which give us such a sense of their speakers’ characters that they are conceivable as Browning-esque dramatic monologues. He takes us confidently through desert islands, networking events and mining strikes, all the time maintaining an impressive surety of voice despite the wild variety of his subjects, and his reading polished off the evening enjoyably.
There was plenty on offer here, and there’re plenty of events to come in the series, so if you missed this, it’s definitely worth checking out CB1’s calendar. It may not be have the instant buzz of a spoken-word event, or a slam, but CB1 has something you don’t often get in Cambridge: most of the people aren’t there just to be seen, they’re there for the poetry.
You can find more about CB1 Poetry on their website at http://www.cb1poetry.org.uk/