Poetry is for Everyone
A Review of Off the Page, Hamilton Gardens
On Saturday I went to watch Steve Toussaint, Hera Lindsay-Bird and Robert Sullivan read at the “Off the Page” poetry event. The reading took place in the Japanese Garden, a peaceful and somewhat intimate space within the larger Hamilton Gardens, and was emceed by Matthew Harvey.
Harvey, a Yorkshire man by heritage and nature, introduced the event in what could be described as a gregarious variety show style or Michael Parkinson on speed, though he was obviously, and endearingly, nervous too. It was an appealing combination. However, in his paying deference to the poets as he introduced them:
Are modern letters different from the old ones we use?* (To Toussaint)
"The Guardian, ladies and gentlemen" (Re: Lindsay-Bird)
"A proper poet" (Re: Sullivan)
he managed to simultaneously pay respect and pierce the bubble of pretension that has developed about their reputations through the various media and review coverage their works have attracted.
Far from deflating the event, however, the irreverence set the perfect tone for this public event in the semi-open air, on a day that was so humid it might otherwise have been remembered limply as a gathering of sweaty poets. The beers helped too.
Lubricated by Harvey’s one-style-fits-all introductions, the audience were equally as receptive to Toussaint’s eloquent, understated political poems and pared-down language as they were to Lindsay-Bird’s replete-with-expletives past pop-culture cynical skits, and Sullivan’s wry, perceptive and persistently politically prescient lyricism.
Toussaint’s poetry contrasted so keenly with his introduction that the audience appeared utterly stunned by his sombre delivery of what is the most accessible and elegiac of his poetry I’ve heard to date, poems covering his recent return to his native Chicago in the days leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration, to the linguistic specificity of an Italian word close in meaning to re-vision yet aeons away in terms of poetics.
Hera, Hera, Hera, Hera, Hera, the mother of the young girl in next-to-back row might have uttered, given the content of Lindsay-Bird’s self-titled debut poems. But this was an event Shakespearian in scope and audience demographics, and far from clashing, Lindsay Bird’s poems were the best fit with Matthew’s bawdy bier haus interlude pieces. To recommission a line from his sausage poem, If Lindsay Bird’s linked the best, his were the wurst.
Sullivan demonstrated the full spectrum of emotions over the poems he chose to read and recite from his various collections, and showed the most flexibility to adapt to the audience, perhaps because as a Māori poet (and probably the only Māori in the event?), he is the most at ease with the oral tradition and adaptability is a staple of his public reading survival kit. Indeed, a little resuscitation felt in order as he was being introduced (“Is that how you pronounce it?”).
The most startling result of this event was that it showed that much of what one perceives poetry to be is down to hot air and a lot of waffle, which is to say, it’s whatever people want it to be. There’s little actual difference between a slim volume and words spoken at volume to a room of people receptive to poetry.
Whatever I say today is art (Matthew, on poetry). And so it is.