The International Poetry Reincarnation: Roundhouse, London. 30th May, 2015.
Review by Aki Schilz
Word Made Flesh, 1965
Flesh Made Word, 2015
In June 1965, a buzz was in the air on London’s literary scene. Allen Ginsberg was in town, and had just stormed the iconic Better Books bookshop with a packed reading. Also in town were the American Beat poets Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Spanish poet Pablo Neruda. There were whispers that Bukowski might also be visiting the capital for the summer. Immediately following Ginsberg’s reading at Better Books, Ginsberg’s sometime girlfriend Barbara Rubin rallied with a group of supporters to organise an event that would bring spoken word to the big stage. Along with Michael Horovitz, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Alex Trocchi, the group conspired to bring together the best of the Beat-influenced, counterculture poetry that had spilled from San Francisco and was resonating across the UK, breaking it out of its traditional tropes and forcing it out of the ‘small rooms in universities and libraries’ where they felt it had resided for too long.[i] They wanted a more textured poetry, a felt poetry, a heard poetry, infused with music and the patterns of speech. And they wanted to make it big. They rang the Albert Hall and booked its next available slot; ten days from the call. A press conference and radio appearances were hastily arranged. Horovitz and co rallied to promote what they hoped would be a seminal moment in the history of UK poetry. On June 11th, the crowds gathering outside the iconic London venue were handed flowers from Covent Garden flower market. The main space reached capacity; 7,000 people had come to bear witness to the night, dubbed ‘The First International Poetry Incarnation’.
Fifty years on, and Claire Leavey has put together a new event, the Poetry Reincarnation, celebrating fifty years of spoken word, including a strand of performances curated by the The First International Poetry Incarnation’s originator, Michael Horovitz, now 80. The original 17 poets have been replaced with 25 new acts, though among them one notices in the programme names of poets who were there, or writing, at the time of the first Incarnation. This time, the atmosphere is more subdued, though a buzz has already started on social media ahead of the main event. The venue for the Reincarnation, the Roundhouse, has hosted a screening of Peter Whitehead’s documentary of the 1965 event (‘Wholly Communion’) earlier in the day, around half an hour of 35mm black and white film, starkly shot and rippling with a kind of electric energy from that evening. Allen Ginsberg’s voice rings out, rambling and prophetic, alongside the voices of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, and Ernst Jandl. “I am perpetually waiting”, says Ferlinghetti in the film, “the rebirth of wonder”. In the foyer of the Roundhouse, and in the bar, it’s evident that some of the visitors are returning 50 years on. Some people come with bunches of supermarket flowers alongside those organised especially for the event. Jimmy Page waits at the stage door with the milling crowd, and someone whispers that Van Morrison has arrived.
Once the doors open, we file into the Roundhouse’s main space, which has been set up cabaret style, with numbered tables. The space is lit blue, with microphones set up on stage. In the corner, lightbulb marquee letters spell out ‘LOVE’, a reference to the theme of many of the poems of the original Incarnation, but also to the mischievous proclamation of the word, several times over, by Dutch writer Simon Vinkenoog, who interrupted Harry Fainlight’s performance in 1965 whilst high on mescaline. A small nod, then, to the pulse of dissent lending its rhythm to the first Incarnation.
Playing the role of Alexander Trocchi, the 1965 master of ceremonies, is Dan Cockrill, host of London-based spoken word night Bang Said the Gun, who introduces an evening of “poems that make you love harder, dream harder, and hope harder.” These poems, he tells us, represent voices, old and new, on love, truth, and humanity. So far, so hippie. He believes in the power of poetry to create real, positive change, he says. Especially in the face of an over-privileged, over-elite establishment. And there it is. A dash of the old defiance, made new. Counterculture, it seems, is not dead. Long live counterculture.
The first poet on is Malika Booker, who has just returned from a trip to Palestine. She launches into a powerful poem set in the shadow of a cliff in Grenada from whose heights an entire community committed mass suicide to avoid (or perhaps defy) their invaders. The theme is loss, but also reclamation, identity. The defiant Grenadians of the poem claw back an identity through the ages, through refrain. Rejecting the ‘sour baptism’ of others’ words, they reclaim the land which is theirs, the culture which is theirs. The poem sets the tone for the rest of Booker’s set, in which she meditates on her own identity as a woman, and as a woman from a line of women whose defiance is double-edged. It protects them, but shuts them off from love. She ends with a poem about her mother, threading through the stanzas some of the blues that we will hear throughout the night. The blues of jazz music, the blues of things far away and longed-for. It’s a theme picked up later by Kei Miller, whose Singer-Man carves roads through Jamaica, pouring his blues into the curve and straight of each, and into the journeys they represent for those who walk them. Miller also provides us with a manifesto of sorts, for a ‘light poem of light’. A light poem of light, Miller tells us, ‘cannot be held back’. It does not wait for ‘the perfect occasion’ to present itself. It simply is, and exists, even if it cannot be understood immediately.
Elsewhere in the evening, this lightness of touch is missing. Some of the performances are a little clunky, and some, though competent, feel strangely disconnected from the spirit of the night, which is difficult to pin down. It’s fantastic to have in the same room some of the poets who were in attendance in 1965, alongside newer poets, but the ‘emerging poet’ bracket is under-represented, with only Cecilia Knapp (skilfully) flying the flag for the younger voices in the UK poetry scene, a scene which is vibrant and booming elsewhere. Horovitz has however made a conscious nod to the necessity of a more multi-voiced Reincarnation, and the bill is pleasingly diverse, with plenty of women poets and poetry from a variety of cultures, as well as poems that address the idea of culture in our hyper-globalised society; its privileges and its pitfalls. “The air hums with choice”, says Francesca Beard in a poem that references the overwhelming hypermarket culture of the modern age, and shows how this can be a good, and a bad thing for those trying to form an identity within its fluid boundaries, even as those boundaries are being re-defined and reinforced by the establishment that some of the night’s poets, though not as many as might have been expected, make explicit reference to.
Some of the stalwarts of the UK poetry scene, too, make their presence felt, and joyfully so. Salena Godden is riotously, foot-stompingly good. The audience, who swing between polite applause and occasional whoops and hollers throughout the evening, cheer her on as she storms through a recently-penned poem, ‘My Tits Are More Feminist Than Your Tits’, a poem whose silliness is offset by its underlying frustration at how social media platforms can facilitate snap-judgments and hypocrisy. It’s one of the few references to the modern digital age (Knapp’s poetry is the most explicit in this field), lending to a sense of uncertainty around the moment in time being captured at the event, which shifts, sometimes uncomfortably, between acts. John Hegley steps out of the spotlight for an acoustic rendering of his brilliant (and popular, judging by some shouts from the crowd) Guillemot poem, prompting a roaring cheer, and Patience Agbabi brings us an allegory of racism and immigration, imagining herself as an alien interrogated at Heathrow, too psychedelic for London and too uptight for Lagos. Another meditation on identity comes from Elvis McGonagall, spiky-haired and in a tartan blazer, defiantly (and perhaps most directly in the spirit of anti-establishment of the original Incarnation) parodying the Queen’s speech and calling out David Cameron as a ‘Poundland Poldark’. It is one of only a few references to the Election, and it resonates. Michael Horovitz too makes several addresses reminding the audience that it’s the ‘world bleeders’ we ought to be challenging through our creative output. Answering his call, the closing set from legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, though it starts with a surprised love poem, ends in characteristic fashion, flipping the finger at the BBC’s bleep-happy censorship with an old favourite, the expletive-peppered ‘Evidently Chickentown’.
Some of the evening strains backwards to the time of the BBC’s initial censorship of Cooper Clark’s poem, and even before then, towards the beatnik culture of the 1960s. Libby Houston, who performed two years after the Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall, remembers in a poem dedicated to Ginsberg “the way we grabbed [Howl], and swallowed whole”. Adrian Mitchell, whose anti-Vietnam poem from that night in 1965 has echoed through the decades, is represented by his daughter, Sasha Mitchell, who performs one of his poems – a powerful, bristlingly sardonic vision of the 15 million plastic bags set aside by the government in case of nuclear disaster as body bags – in song. There is other music, too, which sometimes succeeds (often where the music and lyrics are in line with the overall vision of the evening), and at other times feels a little confusing and off-message. Sound poetry attempts, however, are far more successful, and there is a wonderful moment of symmetry between a re-imagining of Kurt Schwitters’s excellent sound poem ‘Fury of Sneezing’ by Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown, following the first, rather drunken attempt at the First International Poetry Incarnation of ’65, and a brilliant sound poem by Michael’s son, Adam Horovitz, who portrays a relationship in three parts, the second part using only “the consonants of hurt”, with modern text language as inspiration, the third using “the vowels of love”, bringing the poem to its orgasmic climax. A fantastic example of using the past as a springboard forward, into a new way of voicing, of writing.
The closest the night gets to recapturing, in a contemporary voice, the essence of the generation of poets present at the original Incarnation is perhaps American poet Janaka Stucky, whose set starts in silence, out of which the words, “Because I love a burning thing, I made my heart a field of fire. In this way I own nothing; can lose nothing,” and whose performance of the poem ‘Thus I Perish in Amazement’ is mesmeric. One could almost transpose him onto the crackling 35mm Wholly Communion film, between smoke-drift and flowers, eyes closed, hands stretched out as if to summon the spirits of the Beats; to reincarnate them on stage.
In the foyer before the show I met a couple, Sandi and John, who had travelled to London especially, having attended the Incarnation of ’65. Sandi was one of the original flower girls. I asked her why she’d come back, why she’d chosen to attend the Reincarnation. ‘Nostalgia, I suppose,’ she said to me. ‘I mean, it’s not going to be the same.’
Sandi’s right. To expect that same energy here and now, fifty years on, is perhaps to miss the point. The Incarnation represented a particular moment in time, as Christopher Logue pointed out when asked about his involvement in the First International Poetry Incarnation. Speaking frankly, he said, “Literary standards were not high that day. It did not matter. It was the moment that spoke.” The moment he references was singular. It was a celebration, in many ways, but also an elegy, as many of the post-’65 critics picked up. The radical counterculture movement, with its beatniks and avant-garde manifestos, its experimental bravura and anti-establishment vigour, was in some ways in its final flowering. Post-Vietnam, the hippie era was beginning. And so a new flowering started. It was a moment we are privileged to be able to hear ‘speak’, in Peter Whitehead’s brilliant documentary, and it’s a moment that can’t be recreated. But the Reincarnation has done something else. It’s captured its own moment in time. And perhaps only the new generation of poets – those performing at open mic nights, festivals and slams up and down the country, those whose voices are forming new movements in the UK poetry scene and beyond – can tell us what this moment represented. They’re the ones who are “making it concrete,” as Dan Cockrill put it when he took a moment to chat to me after the show. They’re more diverse, more creative, and hungry to own the moment. But for tonight, the moment is June 2015, at the Roundhouse. The moment is the Poetry Reincarnation.
The original article stated that Michael Horovitz, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Alex Trocchi rang the Royal Albert Hall from Trocchi’s flat, following the report from this article in The Guardian. We have been informed that in fact, following Ginsberg’s reading at Better Books, he, Sue Miles, John Esam and his sometime partner Barbara Rubin put together the original idea, with Horovitz, Hopkins and Trocchi meeting a few days later. Our apologies for this error.
The full and correct title of the first night, staged in 1965, has been amended throughout to ‘The First International Poetry Incarnation’.
An additional note from Poetry Reincarnation organiser Claire Leavey, now correctly credited in this article, about the flowers. The flowers at the First International Poetry Incarnation were collected by the poets and their friends including Catherine Heliczer (the Warhol factory filmstar) from Covent Garden. The Reincarnation flowers were also specially organised, and a team of volunteers helped to distribute them to the audience.
Photo Credit: All photos © Gabriel Leavey 2015
[i] Adam Horovitz, ‘Liberty, Equality, Poetry’, May 21 2015 http://adamhorovitz.co.uk/blog/2015/05/liberty-equality-poetry/#more-1356