As a teenager in Bolton, when I dreamt of being a writer I didn’t dream of spending hours by myself in my study. No, in the fantasy, being a writer was a social vocation. It involved hours spent debating philosophy in Parisian cafes, or eating daube in brightly painted Bloomsbury dining rooms. It involved acid-tongued banter around the Algonquin round-table, or Dadaist games, or little magazines. It definitely involved salons.
As an adult my obsession with movements and moments has never really gone away. One of my prized possessions is a swan feather from a visit to Coole Park, where Synge, Shaw and Yeats carved their names on Lady Gregory’s tree. I have pored over Anne Sexton’s descriptions of attending Robert Lowell’s workshops with Sylvia Plath, and their trips to the Ritz afterwards for martinis with George Starbuck (‘Often, very often, Sylvia and I would talk about our first suicides; at length in detail and in depth between free potato chips.’) I have drunk brandies in surrealist bars, loitered over expensive pieces of cake in Viennese coffee-houses and spent hours browsing books in City Lights.
Last month, I read alongside Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland at the National Portrait Gallery, and was invited to choose favourite poems in response to the exhibition of Man Ray’s portraits. Looking through them it was hard not to feel a pang of jealousy – the writers he knew! Imagists, modernists, Beats… I opted to read Helen by HD and Andre Breton’s A Free Union, whilst Luke read a storming version of Ginsberg’s Howl.
But it was a reminder, too, that there are also many groups of writers in London who collaborate and inspire each-other – Luke and Ross are part of the whole Homework / Aisle 16 collective, which has been very influential over the last decade. And then last week I was invited to a salon by the poet Wayne Holloway-Smith. An actual salon! There were miniature cream scones; there was banjo-playing. People passed around a bottle of brandy and swigged from it. There were performances from Matthew Gregory and Inua Ellams and Sophie Cowell and Sam Riviere and the fabulous Matthew Caley, who delivered a lecture with slides in the guise of his altar-ego, Professor Glass. And it was lovely to catch up with many poets I hadn’t seen for a while, like Jack Underwood (who apparently has an opera in the offing).
What exactly is a salon? I guess it’s a kind of curated party. Perhaps if you don’t live in London, the mention of salons will be annoying. A lot of people feel literature is some kind of exclusive club they’re not invited to. And the truth is, with so little money involved, a lot of the poetry world does run on friendships and favours. I’m more likely to write a blurb or donate a poem or do an unpaid reading for someone I like, and similarly, if I’m begging a favour myself, it’s easier to ask someone I know than approach a stranger who might find an offer of unpaid work insulting.
Solidarity is empowering, and this can have a dark side – the cliques, the old boys’ networks. But it also has a very positive side – despite austerity; despite arts council cuts; despite the mainstream media’s constant insistence that poetry is dying, at the moment in London the poetry scene feels vibrant and generous. With zero financial incentive, people are setting up ‘zines and websites and nights and site-specific events and presses. They’re supporting each-other and making a space for poetry that’s social and relevant and fun.
Perhaps we need to follow the example of Homework or Wayne Holloway-Smith. To stop being jealous of movements, and instead get stuck in and start up our own. In the meantime, here’s me performing Phaedra’s speech from Ovid’s Heroides at Wayne’s salon (with wonky camera work courtesy of the wonderful Amy Key and a youtube debut for my bump)
PS – a couple of other links whilst I’m here: last week I was pleased to be interviewed by Carl Griffin for Wales Arts Review, and also be a featured poet on Abegail Morley’s great blog the Poetry Shed.