Either it was a token of approval from HM the Q, a validation by The Establishment, an opportunity to preen – or a sign of exclusion and alienation. For the majority of us who got the (yes) gilt-edged invitation to the Queen’s celebration of contemporary poetry, it was a source of one unanimous cry: WTF?
I went. Am I a hypocrite republican? Yes. Respect to those like Luke Wright who without histrionics, declined the invitation. But here’s a surprise: it was a real celebration of British poetry. The guest list was arbitrary, but clearly put together by people who know our world. Of course plenty of fine poets, small press publishers, festival organisers and activists were missing. Even that big old room wouldn’t take every fine poet in the UK, every valiant small press publisher, everyone who runs a festival, every activist. We could all name people who should be there and weren’t, but you’d be hard pushed to name anyone who was there and shouldn’t be. It was a fair sample of our poetry nation.
Lemn Sissay was there, a graduate of the Manchester care home system and bright comet of poetry world, full of love and energy. Rody Gorman spoke insistently in Gaelic to Prince Philip. John Agard, firebrand speaker and (oh joy!) token man on the performance bill, was there. Tiny Sally Evans, maven of the Scottish poetry scene, Romani poet David Morley; Michael Horovitz, veteran beat poet, was there alongside Geoffrey Hill, arcane Oxford Professor of Poetry. Joelle Taylor and Dreadlockalien, stars of the festival stage, were as vividly there as Forward winner Michael Symmons Roberts and TS Eliot shortlister Helen Mort. Young poets like Martha Sprackland: old poets like Anthony Thwaite. Movers and shakers like Niall O’Sullivan, Dean Atta. Festival organisers like Chloe Garner of Ledbury.
No-one was grand-standing. No-one tugged their forelock. And when John Agard stood to read his Alternative Anthem, and when Liz Lochhead read Bairnsang, the room shook with real laughter. The words took hold of the room and SANG. It was done with a wink, and a roar of joy in what poetry can do.
What poetry can do…. The Queen walked through the room. She was small and purple and oddly unremarkable. The source of celebration, the source of interest and pleasure, the power lay not with her but with the massed bodies who hold in their heads the best words we can make in English, in Gaelic, in Scots or Welsh. Behind her I saw a room full of people who have made it their life’s work to speak of love, and pain, and the difficulties of human relationships – of politics, and of friendship and laughter, and war.
Difficult people, troubled or crazy people, hurt and joyful people, but always spokespeople. Our work is to speak of life, and all the curious incidents in it. This was one of them.
A celebration like last night’s should come from someone representative of the people of Britain, not someone to whom we are even nominally subject. We deal in words, and that ‘nominally’ is a big and unconvincing word.
But I went into the palace proud, and I came out proud. It was the same sense of deep peace and bright laughter that I’d have at Bang Said the Gun or Bad Language in Manchester. Proud, then – not because of any passing recognition from That Family, but to be part of this family. This tribe, this gathered clan, this group of people who stand up for love, who tell it like they see it, who continue in spite of indifference or opposition to tell their truth. My kith. Thank you for having me.