Over the past few weeks, the world around us has become increasingly disturbing and distressing. The homophobic hate crime in Orlando. The murder of Jo Cox. The hateful rhetoric evoked by the referendum. And now this. Brexit. I am still in shock.
I sit at my desk, working on my second novel, and find myself compulsively reading the news online – which makes me feel anything other than creative right now. The UK is in crisis, its politics spiralling out of control. The far right are celebrating. Those who voted Leave were lied to in the most outrageous fashion. I am scared of living in an intolerant country, in which xenophobia, racism and prejudice of all kinds are running riot.
Yes, we will fight this, in all the ways we need to. We will hold on to hope, even when we are jaded and low. Slowly, we will interpret this mess. We will find the right words – and when we can’t, we will look to others to give us those words. Not just those involved in politics, not just campaigners and activists, but also artists, musicians, writers and poets, whose voices we need too, more than ever.
I experienced a few of those voices at a literary event on the run-up to the referendum, and am grateful for the language, the hope, the sense of community they gave me – all of which have stayed with me this week. This event, at Bath’s Central United Reformed Church on 21 June, was Shore to Shore: Celebrating Poetry and Community with the Laureate and Friends. The brainchild of Carol Ann Duffy, she and three other poets – Jackie Kay, Gillian Clarke and Imtiaz Dharker, plus musician and composer John Sampson – were stopping off on their two-week tour across Britain from Falmouth to St Andrews, where they are performing at fifteen venues until 2 July. A local poet joins them at each gig. Our guest that night: the brilliant RV Bailey. The tour is a celebration of independent bookshops and a special anthology accompanies it – Off The Shelf: A Celebration of Bookshops in Verse.
Bath’s night of poetry was hosted by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, one of the city’s two excellent indie bookshops. When the world makes no sense, bookshops are one of the places where I find solace. Mr B’s has a resident dog called Vlashka, a record player, a bibliotherapy room. They will wrap your books in brown paper, tie them with string and seal them with wax (oh yes). Across town, in Toppings, you can drink tea while sitting by the window in the vast art and poetry section. It’s open every day until late evening, so I often find myself there, flicking through newly published novels, reading their opening pages and – contentious, I know – their closing lines. These moments are solitary, yet it’s also like being with an old friend. In a mad world, bookshops feel safe and peaceful. They are places where anything is possible, great feats of imagination, written or drawn. They are restorative, vital. We need to support these precious spaces, these lifelines – because they support us. They make it possible for us to do things like sit and listen to Jackie Kay reading Extinction (original title: Nigel Farage), a poem so timely, so apt, that it met with huge applause.
The power of poetry, spoken out loud, never ceases to impress me. These poems covered subjects ordinary and momentous, personal and political – from love to loss, being gay in the fifties, losing a parent, losing a partner, growing old, learning to swear, climate change, and meeting violence with love. We laughed and cried, often at the same time. There was elegy and consolation. There was anger and wit and political defiance, all spoken in the writers’ unique rhythms. In other words, a sense of shared humanity.
Poetry finds words for the unspeakable. It affirms us, says I know what you’ve seen and felt, I’ve been there, I got through it and so can you. Often it goes further, says you can be better than this – we can be better than this.
Some poems have stayed in my mind. Like Bailey’s British Red Cross. Kay’s April Sunshine. Duffy’s Premonitions. The evening closed with a standing ovation. I felt changed by what I had heard. That’s what poets do. That’s their power. They can soothe us, egg us on, fire us up, show us what we’re missing, make us stop and look at ourselves, our lives and what we are doing to each other.
Speaking to the Independent in March, after her appointment as Scotland’s new Makar, Jackie Kay said: ‘For every place that you might expect poetry to go, I’d also like to take poetry somewhere unexpected, whether that’s in a prison, an old people’s home or a hospital.’
How wonderful, and necessary, especially now.
Rachel's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlisted debut Whispers Through a Megaphone is out in paperback on August 4th.
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