Sunday, 8 October 2017

Poetry Bookshop Launch

Only a couple of days ago, the shop by the clock tower was full of boxes, and the shelves still seemed half built - but yesterday, the transformation was complete. The Poetry Bookshop looked as if it had always been there!

They were open for business all day, but at 2pm the first event to celebrate the opening began.
This was Strings of Song, put on with the assistance of Swansea University, which did a larger scale version of the event a few days ago. Packed into the open space at the front of the shop was an enthusiastic crowd, on the stackable stools and standing up around the doorway, with small children crawling around on the floor (being exposed to quality culture early!).
Strings of Song was an appreciation of a poet called Vernon Watkins, who died fifty years ago. I have to admit I'd never heard of him, but quite a few poets I had heard of thought very highly of him. He was a friend of Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin admired his work, and he was considered for the position of Poet Laureate. But for him, it seemed, it was the act of making poetry that was important, not gaining a reputation. He spent the Second World War at Bletchley Park, where he met his wife Gwen, and after the war he settled in Swansea, got a job in a bank - and wrote poetry.
The three poets (there were five at the original event) were asked to read some of Vernon Watkins' work and write a response to it. Rhian Edwards found this hard - she writes domestic, small scale poetry, and Vernon Watkins was all sea and sky and huge vistas - but she found a poem about a mother and child which resonated with her, and wrote her own poem about the difficulty of dressing her child for school when she was suffering from a form of arthritis ("I went into hospital to have a steroid injection last week, so I'm really healthy at the moment!"). Her second poem was made up of all her favourite lines from Vernon Watkins' poems, re-arranged to comment on what was happening in her life.
Jonathan Edwards chose a poem about Swansea, and answered it with one about Newport "which is just like Hay, but without the bookshops and with knife crime". He apologised for the length of the poem, because it had turned out that Newport was pretty mouthy when he got started. His second poem was about horses escaping from a field onto the road just on the edge of Cardiff, inspired by one about a mare in a field.
And Robert Minhinnick said that he responded to the geological aspect of Vernon Watkins, writing about limestone country along the Gower and to the east, including the promontory at Porthcawl. He had also translated the Welsh language poem inspired by Vernon Watkins, written by one of the poets who could not be there yesterday, into English.
So now I have a copy of Brood, by Rhian Edwards, to read, and I'll be looking out for work by these other poets I'd never heard of before - the event really stretched my horizons, poetically!

I was back at five o'clock (and it was quite nice to hear the Town Clock chiming outside the window of the shop) for the second event, which started with drinks, and led into Recollections of life in the book trade in Hay in the 1970s. One of the founders of the Poetry Bookshop, Anne Stevenson, sent a letter which another lady read out, talking about the beginnings of the Poetry Bookshop in the old workhouse near St Mary's Church, which Richard Booth had bought, and re-named Frank Lewis House after his friend who committed suicide. That was very damp - the floors were just earth! - so they quickly moved to 22 Broad Street, which is where I remember them when I first came to Hay.
They talked about getting stock from a bookseller in Oxford to start off - stuff he couldn't sell - and boxes of poetry from small presses which Richard Booth had bought when he took the entire stock of a shop that had gone bust in London, which they got for £20 a box. Nobody was selling secondhand poetry from small presses back then. And they talked about doing book deals late at night in local pubs - particularly the Blue Boar.
The founders quickly moved on to other things - jobs in academia, mostly, and Alan Halsey ran the shop until 1997. He's a poet himself, and read some of his work after the chat. After that, Chris and Mel took over, and moved to the Ice House - and from the Ice House to the shop by the Clock Tower.
The other guest for the chat was Glenn Storhaug, a printer and publisher who was also involved with the Poetry Bookshop in those early days, and printed books of poetry by some of the booksellers. He also read out a stanza of a poem which had been printed in the TLS, by Anne Stevenson, which mentioned him and Alan. One of the books he was responsible for was The Kilpeck Collection, which contains poems by the poets from the Poetry Bookshop and some of their friends, including Seamus Heaney! He read out his own poem from the collection.

In the evening, John Cooper Clarke was on at the Globe - a sell out event!

What a great start to what I hope will be many successful years for the Poetry Bookshop in their new venue!

1 comment:

Emma Balch said...

Great report! Thanks Lesley. I felt so sad about missing this. Sounds like it was brilliant from beginning to end.