Drawing on experience: poetry and motion

Simon Armitage and co. at King's Place.

How easy is it to combine poetry and illustration into a cohesive live performance? The charity Poet in the City answered this question at an enormously successful event last night that showed how fertile communication between words and pictures can be.

In an imaginative format, three poets and three illustrators took to the stage two at a time, and while the authors read their poems, visual counterparts to the words were drawn live by the illustrators, whose pens scurried across pages that were projected onto a huge screen. "Like someone doing 'rabbit ears' behind you in a photo," as Simon Armitage noted afterwards.

The poet and performance artist Heather Phillipson's introspective and humorous family saga poems were flamboyantly accompanied by the inkwell and nib of the illustrator Nick Hayes. Man-eating great white sharks vied with mashed potato and recalcitrant husbands for a place at the illusory table, Phillipson's deadpan delivery underscored by Hayes's rapid sketching.

Vertical blinds, Colette Bryce's poem about bipolarism was artfully visualised by Philippa Johnson as strips of masking tape were pulled off one surface to reveal another, a visual metaphor that when combined with the sounds of the peeling tape, leant an appropriately peculiar atmosphere to the piece.

Simon Armitage was joined by Chris Riddell, the Observer's political cartoonist.

"If you had asked me before, whether I thought the format could work, I would have said 'no'," Armitage said later, "but I wanted to do it because it was so different from a lot of readings I do, and I thought it could be a good performance."

Reading some of his more wry poetry, Armitage worked with Riddell to produce a drily funny series of pieces. The English Astronaut, a poem considering the comparatively unglamorous spacemen of Britain, was visualised by Riddell in a glib cartoon as a hammy bald man in a space suit and worked particularly well:

I followed him in his Honda Accord to a Little
Chef on the A1, took the table opposite, watched
him order the all-day breakfast and a pot of tea.

"With illustration, there's the risk of divesting a poem of its meaning," Armitage says when asked whether he feels illustration can always enhance poetry. "But the pictures in books like Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows always stay with you."

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On Wheels

A new poem by Patrick Mackie

The hills swarm and soften towards the end of the day just as
flames do in a fireplace as the evening
loosens and breaks open and lets out night.
A nasty, grotesque, impatient year ended,
and the new one will be bitter,
tired, opaque. Words wrangle in every inch of air,
their mouths wide open in stupid shock
at what they have just heard every time they hear anything. Venus,
though, blazes with heavy wobbles of albeit frozen
light. Brecht, who I like to call my
brother just as he called Shelley his,
has a short late poem where he sits by a roadside, waiting
while someone changes the wheel on his car,
watching with impatience, despite not liking
either the place that he is coming from or
the place that he is going to. We call it
connectivity when in truth it is just aggression
and imitation writ ever larger. Poems, though,
are forms of infinite and wry but also briskly
impatient patience. Brecht’s poem seems to end,
for instance, almost before you
can read it. It wheels. The goddess is just a big, bright
wilderness but then soon enough she clothes
herself again in the openness of night and I lose her.

Patrick Mackie’s latest collection, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints, is published by CB Editions.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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