Slim volumes, deep waters: Chatto poets at the L.R.B.

 

Sarah Howe reading

Sarah Howe reading

‘Save your tickets, because in years to come,’ predicted poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, ‘people will pretend they were here.’

And it was quite an event. The London Review Bookshop was packed with people who’d come along on a Tuesday night to hear three young women poets read from and discuss their work. As a sign of just how spoiled for choice we are in London, Chatto had brought to us not just the Bard of Barnsley, but three poets with distinctive voices – Birmingham’s Liz Berry, Sheffield’s Helen Mort and Sarah Howe, from Hong Kong.

I’d heard Liz Berry on the radio, reading from her bewitching first collection, Black Country. If you think the Midlands dialect is unpoetic, you haven’t heard Liz. She mines it for plum-rich, satisfyingly precise phrases which take flight into poems of passion. She didn’t disappoint last night, her lilting tones bringing out the tough sweetness of young lust in The Silver Birch. I bought her book and savoured it over dinner; the tasty, chewy words washed down with red wine.

Helen Mort was new to me, although she’s well established as a star of the contemporary poetry scene. Hers is a poetry of puns and allusions, found phrases and everyday words newly juxtaposed, the results witty and fresh. I particularly liked Skirt, a poem from her work in progress. Sarah Howe’s work seemed more cerebral – as Ian McMillan almost said, one of those slim volumes of verse that is deeper than it is wide. Her poem Tame took in Chinese folklore and Greek mythology, combined with some breathtaking imagery in a bleak but beautiful elegy.

After the readings, the women discussed their writing processes and how they get started on a poem. It was like listening in to people discussing a magic spell – you know that however well it works for them, the same process is unlikely to have the same results for you! The common theme seemed to be finding a way to bring the unconscious in to a poem, to bring an idea to life with unexpected perspectives. From running or walking while an idea forms, to picking random words from a book or pages of scribbled free writing, the alchemy is individual.

 

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