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21 June 2011

Drawing on experience: poetry and motion

Simon Armitage and co. at King's Place.

By Harry Conrad Cockburn

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.

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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.”