Brighton Fringe 2023
If treating of some poets more fully than others, it reflects on what sticks in the aural memory without notes. It was however a memorable evening; the poets themselves will remain present, now their presence at least remains indelible.
Direction Alexandra Loske, Jeremy Page, thanks to Katie Brownings, Strat Mastoris, Ian Amos, Carrie Hynds, Ian Black, and FOH.
June 2nd 2023
Returning after their last visit in 2019, Frogmore Poets at 40 celebrated its 40 years at New Venture Theatre on June 2nd 2023 with a seven-poet reading.
Introduced by Managing Editor Alexandra Loske, who firmly placed co-founder Jeremy Page as the presiding spirit, we enjoyed a four-three split with 15-minute interval, each poet reading 15 minutes, and ending a little after the two-hour start at 19.30.
How to summarise the Frogmore ethos? Civilised conversation? Possibly. There’s a lighter edge to the poetics here, an often playful way with themes in a plainer, cleaner language. In one sense it recalls a Donald Davie approach – though not thematically.
Expressive weight and heightened intensity aren’t noted hallmarks, and above all one feels the poets offer a common sharing of language, heightened with pattern, discourse, variety including a noted internationalist slant, but all refracted through – one might call it – a Lewes of the mind. Al Alvarez might riposte with his ‘gentility principle’ but there’s a place for neatness, clarity, sharing and a lack of vatic utterance.
In any case, Frogmore possess the opposite: a personable civilised generosity to each other, and reading others’ poems, those not here to read themselves for instance.
That lack of the vatic or romantic can also lend a conversational tone to the proceedings; and the one drawback is that few of the poets are performers: and the poetry itself, not richly imagistic, tends to need it. This isn’t always the case, as we’ll find out. At least two poets burst these bounds.
What follows is slightly frustrated by not having poetry titles. I can amend these if anyone contacts me.
James Flynn is perhaps the most urbane of all the poets, almost the epitome of a Frogmore poet. Living abroad, published in distinguished places like Smiths Knoll, and a collection with Eyewear in 2016, he also pays much tribute to Page, and reads others’ poems. His is the art of civilisation itself, generous, witty, rather self-deprecating.
Janet Sutherland is extremely distinguished in the quiet modernist end of publishing house Shearsman, all five collections I think, certainly including her latest The Messenger House (2023). Taking her theme as snow, Sutherland writes of her life on her father’s farm, with milk-fever cows, with the 1962-563 freeze when she was five. Sutherland’s litanic endigns produce an additive rhythm providing a quiet epiphany.
Sutherland’s latest collection treats of the life in Serbia of her great-great-grandfather, a colleague and an explorer who arrived there. It’s a remarkable collage of letters and prose documents interspersed with Sutherland’s own poetry somehow sashayed throughout. Sutherland reads like most of the poets quietly, but you are compelled.
John O’Donoghue (with Waterloo twice, and Wild Geese Press) is never in danger of quietness. Nor are his themes. The pity of it is that he rushes his fences, when he can read so well. Nevertheless, O’Donoghue’s witty use of complex rhyme schemes (which he deliberately obscures, as he might put it: glottal artifice concealing art) and extraordinary subject matter is cause for celebration. A long poem based on an Anna Madrigal character out of Arisitide Maupin, transplanted to Brighton. It’s a hilarious gallimaufry of characters a long poem with a shaping serpent’s tail. It deserves reading and being read aloud.
O’Donoghue also read a ballad of Iraq war soldiers under friendly fire, and an exchange of sonnets between himself and his third son, both formal (Autumn-Winter) and experimental (Spring-Summer).
Ros Barber is the best-known poet (though Sutherland too, in modernist circles) a poet who declares she’s given up poetry for novel-writing. Well, for now. Barber’s most famous for the 2012 Marlowe Papers, a novel in blank verse which makes the only attractive alt-Shakespeare argument, however one takes it. One doesn’t need to agree to enjoy either it or the 2016 play extrapolated from it. Her second, latest collection Material was a PBS Recommendation.
Barber can charm the dust from the eaves and the contact lenses from our eyes. She’s a hypnotic, careful, and gesturally expressive performer. Barber focuses on a poem rejected by her publisher, or one too ‘cruel’ she thinks to replicate. Two poems on her long-term lover who married someone else (as she discovered) in 1999, one is delicious and I think the man deserved it in black and white. The second was gentler. Barber enjoys both witty tropes and expressive dovetailing with her hands and pitching a variety of tonal inflections. A difficult act to follw, which is why a break here is perfect.
Robin Houghton’s been distinguished by winning a Poetry Society Award in 2013, and Live Cannon Pamphlet Competition in 2019 – the group of actors who perform poetry live, most notably a series of six at Jermyn Street in 2021. Her quiet work is difficult to describe, and vividly conversational in tone.
Caroline Clark is extremely good at quietly devastating news, of herself and others. Her collection Saying Yes in Russian (2012) is the apex of her time in Russia her work in translation, and her work. Now – in Russian – for Ukraine refugees. Using this backdrop, er work is rich in associative language, the title poem of that collection memorably rendered as a physical act. There’s a quizzical richness to her work, and again one would love to hear it again.
Jeremy Page, like Flynn is the epitome of Frogmore, which is hardly surprising. Like Barber though, if in a quieter way, he’s a master of expression, and puts his work across beautifully. The Naming (Frogmore, 201) is his latest collection. There’s much about the proximate relationship of Lewes, Eastbourne and elsewhere, and the boundaries of common humanity.
If I treat of some poets more fully than others, it alas reflects on what sticks in the aural memory without notes. But this can be amended on receiving further information. It was however a memorable evening; the poets themselves will remain present, now their presence at least remains indelible.