Why pass on a poem?
I find great hope in that sense of connection with other people, the possibility that the worst experiences might be transformed into a place where we might meet and stand together. It happens. So often after a reading someone will come up to me, someone who has just heard a poem…and say, “You said how I felt.” We need that, I think, as a species ; we are the creatures which represent, which long to be represented….I am always looking to recognize my own experience in others’ work. That’s one of the things I love most…coming across a passage which says what I know but have never been able to say.
Bel Mooney describes the first reading, hosted by her, to take place in Bath. It is reprinted from her Saturday column in The Daily Mail on 28th March 2008:
“A friend came to see me a couple of months ago and told me she’d been to a poetry reading in London, organised by Pass On A Poem,a non-profit making organisation which puts on evenings purely for the joy of poetry read aloud by those “ordinary” individuals who love it
My friend Tessa (publisher of the beautiful Barefoot Books for children) said she wanted to start Pass On A Poem in my home town, Bath. Next thing, I’d volunteered my house for the debut – and in no time, the evening came and (moaning quietly) we were rearranging the furniture to accommodate about 22 people, only three of whom were invited by me.
We put out the wine glasses, lit candles and at 8pm strangers began to arrive clutching poetry books.
How can I begin to tell you what a strange and special and wildly successful evening it turned out to be? People stood up, in turn, simply said why they liked the poem they’d chosen (short or long, serious or funny), then read it. That’s all.
And if you think that sounds somehow “posh” or rarefied, think again.
There was laughter here, an intake of breath there, a “Wow” somewhere else. There was a wide range of poems and readers. I go to many places, do many different things – but can honestly tell you I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in ages. ”
Regular readers say:
‘…I was transported and fulfilled. The best thing was the lack of any pretension or sense that an effort was required – paradoxically a great effort was required but this was deeply pleasant. The people were so lovely – this mattered even though it’s about poems. The poems were breathtaking and moving – elevating, enlightening, entertaining…I love the basic philosophy of just letting things interact’
‘……I really enjoyed it. I haven’t been to a poetry reading for a very long time… it might have been embarrassing, but it wasn’t, at all. It might have been exclusive, but it wasn’t at all. It might have been full of people who went on for far too long, but it wasn’t, at all….. the sincerity was striking. I liked the span of ages among the readers, there was a wide range of poems, short, long, funny, sad etc, mostly well read, some very well read, some engaging and/or brave disclosures… there were poets I had never heard of, which was good.’
‘I really enjoyed the reading on Monday – such a simple form of entertainment, and you can sense in the atmosphere that everyone appreciates the very original way of spending an evening. I was very touched by lots of the poems’
Thanks to you very much to finally find a place for me at the reading. I really enjoyed it! I had difficulties to be on time, it was a miracle that I could finally go. It was my first experience at these kind of events, and I loved it! I enjoyed a lot all the readers that I reached to hear.I am looking forward for the next one.!VIVA LA POESIA!
‘That was such a successful and interesting evening’
‘I enjoyed it all – such a simple idea, so effective’
‘So interesting for each reader to read a poem and explain their choice. The best way to achieve a truly wide choice : far better than if one had tried to select a range of poetry for the occasion. And apposite for the writers of poetry not to be reading their own – but to have had to ‘lift up their eyes to the hills’ and look beyond themselves : exactly what it is about’
The variety was amazing…I liked the way the evening retained a homely, ‘we’re all friends here’ vibe.’
Gillian Stafford describes her experience of starting a PASS ON A POEM group in her own home:
Before I’d heard of Pass on a Poem I’d wanted to join a group of poetry readers. I often talked about trying to start a group up in my local area but never had the impetus nor the confidence to do this until one day I read about the Pass on a Poem initiative. Here at last was an organisation which was promoting poetry in a very appealing way. I made enquiries on the website and was given some sound advice . The Pass On A Poem office were exceptionally helpful. Eventually I started up the poetry readings in my own home as it was obvious that the local Oxfam shop in Bedford would be too small to act as a venue.
To spread the word I asked the local bookshops to display flyers which they obligingly did; the local libraries were very good too but as they are asked to display so many posters, they only put them up for a few weeks. They therefore needed to be contacted on a monthly basis when I first started trying to get people interested. The Arts pages of the local newspapers also helped out and I had quite a few enquiries from that source.
I am pleased to say that now we have more or less twelve regular readers who meet up on a monthly basis, most of whom were founder members. Some people have come for a few weeks and discovered it was not for them, or their circumstances have changed and they stop coming and then we get a new member every few months and so it is an ever-changing group. We meet up at 7.30 pm to read our first choice of poems then we have a tea/coffee/wine break and resume with our second choice. The readings and chat usually finish by 9.30 to 10.00 pm.
From our first meetings when most people were a little timid, including myself, I have watched our group grow in both confidence with their actual recital and their choice of poems and I can honestly say that it is such a pleasure to hear the variety of and enthusiasm for the poetry from so many different kinds of people. We have one lady who is in her eighties and she comes with the most fascinating poetry books that none of us have ever heard of and are at least 60 years old – all lovingly handled by poetry lovers down the years. The group is of mixed ages and predominately female. We don’t structure the readings very often unless there is a consensus. For example one month we chose to have all Shakespeare’s sonnets, which everyone enjoyed and coming up to Halloween we had ghost poems but increasingly we find that we choose poems not by arrangement with each other but by our moods, i.e. seasonally, romantically or any special occasions that the year throws up and we get to hear the wonderful variety of the appropriate published work. Although we comment on what’s been read, we don’t actually analyse the poems, although our various guesses of the meaning is always fun. Briefly then, it’s more of an enjoyable entertainment than an academic discourse.
On the practical side, I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all the poems that have been read as we try not to repeat them. Every month a few days before the meeting, people send me their choice of poetry and I list them on a sheet ready to give out to the readers when they come. This way they can also keep a record of what’s been read before. If any new members join I simply e-mail them the Excel sheet. The group has been going for eighteen months now and everyone seems to really enjoy the evening. I hope it will continue to thrive and would say that for anyone who likes hearing poetry read aloud with a group of people this is such an easy and enjoyable way of accomplishing it.
Kathy Philpot’s tribute to the local library manager who hosted her venue in Sheen, in the Borough of Richmond, West London. Since public spending cuts she has had to move to a local restaurant:
This particular group is now moving into its third year of successful poetry readings and each event sees a loyal and enthusiastic band of followers along with a regular and welcome sprinkling of debutantes. It has also spawned a second Pass On A Poem venue at All Saint’s Church in East Sheen where the Active Retired Group now holds its own annual reading as part of its regular programme of events.
All this has been made possible by the goodwill and untiring support of Jeremy Preston, Library Manager at Sheen, who gives freely of his time and energy to provide us with a comfortable space and welcoming ambience. Pass On A Poem is only one of many events on offer at the Library. Jeremy has created a thriving, vigorous cultural centre in East Sheen which is accessible to all and enjoyed by many. As a result of his initiatives, the community can participate in events such as play readings, talks from local authors and a wonderful Christmas extravaganza where resident celebrities entertain with an eclectic choice of seasonal readings.
Our heartfelt thanks, then, to Jeremy for all that he does and a suggestion to other, would-be organisers of Pass On A Poem groups searching for a venue: check out your local Library and see if it too has a Library Manager of his calibre and commitment.”
Regular reader, Alan Spencer, from Manchester, contributed this poem as a token of his appreciation for the autumn 2010 reading in the Central Library :
As dusk stroked
and softened the city,
I listened keenly
to Kipling, Esenin,
“The Witch of Cos”
by Robert Frost;
a circle of minds
rich with thought.
Mrs Aesop’s grouches
from Carol Ann Duffy,
then Hardy, Darling,
under the ceiling’s
“yet each distinct
and in its place.”
I travelled home
with grateful ease.
The Notting Hill group, which got going in early 2007, has enjoyed the hospitality of two bookshops. The first was our local Oxfam Bookshop, a treasure trove for poetry in itself. The manager, Jackie, and bookshop volunteers, who gave freely of their time, would close the shop at the end of the day, and then immediately start to shift mobile bookcases and bring chairs up from the cellar, all of which had to be put back at the end for opening time the next morning. Most of us spotted books on the shelves we liked, and bought them, partly as a gesture of gratitude. We certainly did bring custom to the shop, but eventually, after a year or two, the long hours were telling on the staff who – mostly – had already been volunteering all day long, and had, understandably, to call it a day.
We were not on the street however, because Saara Marchadour, the legendary manager of the famous, but intimate Travel Bookshop round the corner, invited us in. She too gave us the time and physical effort needed to set up and pack away the chairs etc at the end. After about a year, the bookshop was, very sadly, bought, but we were anyway beginning to think it was just a bit too small and cramped. Since then, we have moved to a private house round another corner. It has a large kitchen, and can fit 45 people. However we do miss the bookshops.
The new Oxford venue is kindly hosted at Blackwell’s Bookshop by Hannah Chinnery, the events manager. She creates a lovely corner in the poetry section facing a small fireplace with old photographs of the founder of the shop above. It is perfect as a start, and Hannah intends to find a slightly larger but still convivial space in the shop once the group grows to a typical size of 30-45 people.Before we found a permanent home in Bath, Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights offered us a space upstairs. The beautiful independent Booka Bookshop in Oswestry in Shropshire has a cafe in its front half, making the perfect combination. The move by bookshops generally towards incorporating sofas and cafes is good news for Pass On A Poem.
Bookshops make good, colourful and neighbourly venues; they offer the host the chance to make a special display of their poetry stock; and there is also something magical about gathering in them after hours. It is essential with bookshops that the venue’s organiser, with others, lend a hand with preparation and packing up. There is an ideal shop size (or space within a large shop), certainly not big, but also not too small. At all these venues there has been wine flowing at a reasonable cost or even free where the shop’s budget factors that in for events.
One of our very first evenings at Oxfam Books on Portobello Road, conceived to herald our arrival in the world, featured some generous celebrities – Fiona Shaw, Richard Dawkins, Jon Snow, Alex James and P.D.James among them – coming down for free, each reading or reciting a favourite poem. It turned out to be a warm summer’s night, there was a beautiful atmosphere, and we spilled onto the pavement for drinks. That night it seemed that all was well with the world.
Check back soon to watch a video of this special reading created by Matthew Stadlen.
Linda Taylor writes: the Acton Pass On A Poem Group began in September 2010. For three years we were very fortunate to be able to use a spacious upstairs room at one of our local pubs, The Rocket in Churchfield Road, W3. The proprietor, Felipe, who is very keen to encourage different kinds of entertainment at the pub, was happy to let us have the room free on the understanding that we would order refreshments at the bar, and that some of the participants might like to eat at the pub before or after the event.
Staff helped to arrange the room before the event and we were able to organise the space, which, luckily for us, had dark red curtains, comfy sofas and velvety chairs. The atmosphere was cosy and had a kind of rakish café feel, somehow very conducive to reading and listening to poetry. Drinks were brought up from the bar. We usually managed to generate a bar bill of between £75 and £100, as the event attracted a large number of people – always twenty or so readers, plus another ten to twenty listeners. And quite a few people ate in the restaurant. Noise from the bar below didn’t penetrate the upstairs room, so that it was an ideal place for people to sit and thoughtfully listen to the poems that were read.
This worked well until Felipe felt that the room just wasn’t generating enough regular income for him to keep it going. He rented it out and we were offered sole use of the restaurant downstairs on a quiet evening. A lovely space but, sadly, voices and laughter from the adjacent bar couldn’t be kept out; it became very hard for people to hear the poems. Since then we have made use of the generosity of participants, several of whom have lent their homes for an evening of poetry. This is delightful too (and very quiet), but we miss our pub.