A Poem as a Friend: Review of The Poetry Exchange at Durham Book Festival


tpeMany of us have favourite poems that we cherish and turn to throughout our lives – poems that become our constant friends in book form. Through the Poetry Exchange project, readers get a chance to meet new friends in real life by sharing with other people those words that mean something special to them. Alison McManus swapped poems at Durham Book Festival.

Every so often, the universe sends some poetry my way. This weekend brought me two unique opportunities to engage with verse, courtesy of Durham Book Festival and The Poetry Exchange.  An invitation was kindly extended to participate in the Saturday recording sessions; my instructions were to bring along a poem that has ‘acted as a friend’. Instantly I knew which poem, but I gave little thought to what actually might be involved or how it might affect me, change me even. Armed with three photocopies of my selection, I set off for St Chad’s College Chapel, a very simple, small, and sacred space, perfectly suited to the mood of the Exchange, where I was warmly welcomed by poet Fiona Lesley Bennett and actor Michael Shaeffer.

At the open door of the room I stand and look at the night,
Hold my hand to catch the raindrops, that slant into sight,
Arriving grey from the darkness above suddenly into the light of the room.

– Alison gave Restlessness, by D.H. Lawrence

As I handed over my chosen poem, I realised that I was indeed entering into an exchange, and one that left me very exposed. I felt as hesitant and vulnerable as a child, holding out a handmade and untidily wrapped gift. The poem that I had brought had, more than once, touched something deep within me, and I was about to reveal those hidden thoughts to strangers. Such intimacy might ordinarily invoke panic, but here felt right, largely because Fiona and Michael approach the discussion with a clear sense of readiness and respect. Within moments, we were talking quite frankly about emotions I would hesitate to share with even the closest friends.

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread

– Alison was given The Song of Wandering Aengus, by W.B. Yeats

This is precisely why the Exchange works: the poem, and what it reveals about the chooser, strips back layers of the ordinary and banal, getting straight at something fundamental, perhaps even universal. Poetry, in the words of another Exchanger, is the ‘human voice’, the voice we might seek when we are feeling most ‘lonely, disconnected, or misunderstood.’ Sleepless and angst-ridden, we reach for the book on the nightstand and suddenly, there it is on the page: validation, solidarity, understanding. The poem then becomes a companion, a trusted friend, something or someone we can rely upon in times of need.

What makes the Poetry Exchange so special is the notion of introducing this poem-friend to others, and the resulting conversation with new friends. A space is created where it is safe to divulge and digest that personal meaning, which is one rather exceptional sort of gift. After an hour of conversation, laughter and even a few tears, I leave with another present, an orange envelope containing the title of a poem nominated by someone else, and in a week or so I will receive a third, this time a recording of my poem.

Paul Alexis Reading to Emile Zola, by Paul Cézanne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Alexis Reading to Emile Zola, by Paul Cézanne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The next day, I join Fiona, Michael, their colleagues John and Degna, as well as a small audience, to find out more about the project and hear about the experiences of other Exchangers. We are gathered in the Burlison Gallery at Durham Town Hall, a high-ceilinged, grand room filled with gilt framed, stern-faced portraits, landscapes and (my favourite) an incongruous and thoroughly pampered-looking cat, who watches the proceedings with a somewhat bemused expression. Sitting there, I cannot help but consider elitism and inaccessibility. However, it seems to me that this project aims to remove barriers not only around discussing poems and the deeper emotions that they may elicit, but also to democratise that discussion and invite participation from a wider audience. As Fiona puts it when making her introduction, the co-ordinators see themselves not only as creative practitioners, but also as ‘people meeting as people, and talking about poems.’ For me as well as other Exchangers, that authenticity is another appeal of the project.

The sound of a saxophone is carried into the room. We read and listen to other poems, and debate the idea of ‘a poem as a friend.’ The Exchange is, as I have described above, an inherently intimate experience, something which comes through in the raw emotion audible in the voices recorded, as well as in the discussion among the audience. For some, that intensity is overwhelming; others note that the introduction followed by such a quick and concentrated reading immediately colours the interpretation of the poem.  Some in the audience found that discomfiting, while others rather enjoyed that aspect. Words like shock, shyness and subjective are used; but equally often it is comfort, community and connection that are emphasised.

It is clear that for the participants as well as the project co-ordinators that there is a commitment to expression. The word ‘voice’ comes up again and again: the voice of the poet, the voicelessness of the feelings he or she is attempting to express, the voice of the reader, and the voices captured in the conversation about the poem. ‘Why does poetry matter so much?’ asks another Exchanger in one of the recordings. ‘It is that one person, that one voice, connecting with me.’  The beauty of the Poetry Exchange project is the way that what was a single voice, one half of a treasured dialogue between poet and reader, now can resonate with others, and in so doing becomes a conversation.

Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.

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