It’s always good to ask the public what it wants. People like to be involved, to make their voices heard, to have an input. The problem for those putting the questions is that once they’ve been asked answers generally start to arrive. And something then has to be done. Read them, compile them, make projections, file them. When the Arts Council of England surveyed the public, hunting for data on reading habits, they learned that poetry fans preferred to read verse in single slices. On posters, in magazines, on flyers. Slim volumes (which is what most poetry comes in), apparently, were too dense. Long live the back of the matchbox.
In the past I’ve surveyed literary event attendees asking them what kind of thing would they like to see more of in the future. Novelists talking, perhaps? Children’s authors in discussion? Interviews with playwrights? Sound poetry? It was that last one that struck a chord. I meant the poetry of sounds – the sort of the thing the Dadaists became famous for and which the late Bob Cobbing had taken to new heights at Cardiff’s Reardon Smith and in the Young Farmer’s Club at Felinfach. That choice scored well. I put on Henri Chopin and Lars Gunnar Bodin. Sold three tickets. My questionnaire fillers had thought I meant poetry written to sound, quality principles. Of sonic stuff they’ve barely heard.
I should have known. In the latest issue of Planet magazine in an excellent article on the much underrated French Canadian Welsh poet, Childe Roland from Llangollen, Nigel Jenkins recounts the tale of the only poetry reading on record to have ended with an audience brawl. This reading was given by me in Neath at the height of the experimental poetry boom several years back. I’d been invited to give an explanatory demonstration of concrete poetry to a group of, as Jenkins puts it, “budding writers”. Half way through a recitation of one of my more abstract noise pieces one of the lads began to complain. “This is meaningless,” he said. “No it’s not,” retorted his companion. Brilliant, I thought. Support at last. But the complainer wasn’t having any of it. “Shut up,” he shouted, belting his companion across the head with his folder. His companion replied with a right hook. The two fell wrestling onto the floor and attempts were made to separate them by fellow audience members who themselves got then embroiled. Thus, says Jenkins “ended abruptly what must have been one of the most memorable performances of Finch’s career.”
The remainder of this new issue of Planet is rather less avant garde but still worth reading. Jen Wilson looking for Bessie Smith. Ned Thomas and Dai Smith on Raymond Williams. Craig Owen Jones on the Wicipedia. T H Parry-Williams in new translation. £5.75 at Smiths.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 19th September, 2009