Having once sat through a reading featuring 100 poets – and only had to look for a fire escape once, when the reader began by stating the poem was in honour of her daughter’s menarchy – I reckoned 19 in an evening was a bit of a cinch. The Queen’s Hall hosted this extravaganza to raise funds for Haiti (and Chile), and, wonder of wonders, it only ran overtime by seventy-five minutes. Poets, as Don Paterson sagely remarked, couldn’t run a bath left to their own devices.
For the permanent record, the score minus one comprised Ron Butlin, Gillian Clarke, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Aonghas Macneacail, Frances Leviston, Robert Crawford, John Glenday, Imtiaz Dharker, Don Paterson, Jackie Kay, W N Herbert, Kathleen Jamie, Rody Gorman, Sean O’Brien, Vicki Feaver, Andrew Greig, Douglas Dunn and Carol Ann Duffy. Even with such a line-up of luminaries, there are a few things about poetry readings that I just don’t understand. Why do poets begin by telling the audience what the poem’s “about”? What is that “poetry noise” that audiences make – somewhere between a sigh, a moan and an intake of breath, signifying – sympathy? comprehension? It’s like the opposite of a laugh.
The highlights were John Glenday and Frances Leviston, with a special mention to Jackie Kay for doing a poem about Ma Broon’s vagina. Hopefully the entire event has been recorded, as I’ve not heard Kathleen Jamie read a poem like “The Queen of Sheba”, or Don Paterson read his humanist funeral poem, with such elan. Among the eye-witness moments that will be left on the editing floor if it has been recorded for posterity were such intriguing asides as Don Paterson confessing to his adoration of Bioshock 2; Carol Ann Duffy referring to Scotland as “your country” (does this settle whether she’s a Scottish poet or not? Catherine Lockerbie then referred to Duffy herself as “our” laureate); and a letter from Gordon Brown, which I think was in spondaic hendecasyllables.