Saturday, 8 October 2011

Poets Abroad

Poetry Sans Atlantic

Oscar Wilde once observed that the British and the Americans are two peoples separated by a common language. In this little 'blast from the past', two Bradford writers discovered that the language of poetry can bridge the divide...

By Mark Cantrell

BRUCE Barnes and Lynette Shaw McKone are no strangers to performance at West Yorkshire poetry venues, but their last tour took them a little further afield - across the Pond (the Atlantic Ocean) to southern Texas in the United States.

It was the trip of a lifetime for Lynette. Ever since she was a child she has wanted to visit the States because her birthday falls on the 4th July - American Independence Day. Thanks to Yorkshire Arts funding, she was able to realise her ambition in style, and found a vibrant poetry scene waiting to adopt her.

For Bruce the reasons were more complex and personal. He enjoys travelling on the US freeways, and is fascinated by what he considers the 'informality' and the 'weirdness' of the place. He also feels it is somehow unavoidable, because as, he points out, it exerts such a large influence on contemporary English culture. Here is an alien land, so familiar yet so strange. An excellent place for the poet to express and explore the strange affinity that exists between the English and the Americans.

Lynette Shaw McKone
"Poetry is huge in Texas," Lynette says. "It seems to be almost the national pastime. In particular jazz poetry and cowboy poetry, which are quite rhythmical and are art forms in their own right. At every venue there was a mixed bag of performers and a diverse range of writing. The American poets were so supportive and welcoming that we were virtually adopted in the extended circle of writers."

It's a daunting experience, travelling abroad to perform, but Lynette was in good hands. Bruce is a veteran performer and has travelled in the States before. In 1999 he went as part of the Bradford Six - a group of West Yorkshire poets who toured with their anthology and CD of performance poetry - Release the Bradford Six.

Both also benefited from the experience of Thom the World Poet, an Australian resident in Austin, who organised the venues during their tour. He is a frequent visitor to Bradford and he was instrumental in persuading Lynette to take the plunge at becoming an international poet.

Thom wasn't the only international poet they performed with. They shared the stage with Richard Healey from London, Rupert Hopkins, the Bristol poet responsible for the 'Waste Warriors' project, and Australian poet Pauline Brooks.

In the first week they covered 700 miles, performing across southern Texas - from San Antonio to Houston, from Austin to Temple and Georgetown. Many of the venues were the familiar café or bookstore, but some were unlikely places, such as their readings at a New Age Church, a Bedouin tent and a '60s fancy dress party.

For Lynette, one of the highpoints came at a genuine speakeasy in Austin, the Victory Grill. "A woman who was a poetry fan but not a poet and who had never performed before, got up in front of the audience and performed one of my poems," Lynette says. "Just the thought that one of my poems touched someone so much that they did that, well, I found it a very emotional experience."

The pair were struck by the vibrancy of the US scene - an event every night in the week in Austin for instance - but at the same time, they found the differences enlightening.

"I think there is a much clearer delineation between 'page poetry' and 'performance poetry' in the US," Bruce says. "I rarely heard anything that I would describe as a page poem being performed. To me page poems are more cerebral, and are to be mulled over: they don't arrive at the mike to meet you."

Local poets also noted the differences between styles and delivery as practised on either side of the Pond. According to Bruce, one Texan poet, Jean Guthrie told him that English poets 'always seem so much more talented and cosmopolitan and witty'.

"I don't believe this displays an inferiority complex, more a recognition that performance poets in Texas have their own agendas," Bruce explains. "These include a recognition of the immediacy of 'white' history, the importance of vernacular story telling in building that history, and the need to express the vitality of the working class American experience. When I listen to Texan performance poets I am often reminded of Raymond Carver's short stories."

Bruce Barnes
If he was impressed by the quality of the poets, Bruce was also struck by the quality of the venues during his tours. Used to slumming it in Bradford's 'boozy and potentially noisy' places, he finds the Stateside experience refreshing.

"Austin and its venues seem made for performance poetry - small, intimate, good acoustics, low noise levels. They have good coffee and snacks too - after all, poets don't live on words alone," he says. "But I have to accept that I am not comparing like with like. Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, whereas Bradford is teetering on a knife's edge between sink city and slow revival."

Despite the differences, a connection was made. As Lynette explains: "The best thing about the trip was discovering that poetry is a universal language with a beauty of its own. It cuts across the barriers, regardless of age, sex, creed, colour and any other man-made barrier. It gives everyone who wants it the chance to say what they think and feel about their world, their lives, and their planet."

Bruce put it slightly different: "I returned from the afterburn of freeways with some photos, a wedge of chapbooks, happy memories and a recognition that behind the hype of a grasping superpower there are folk who are downright hospitable and generous."

The trip proved to be a rewarding - if exhausting - experience for the both of them. It boosted their confidence and developed them as writers and performers. "I feel that people do want to listen to what I have to say and I developed a more relaxed performance style," Lynette says. "I felt able to talk about my poems, explaining the events behind them, and also discovered that I am a closet comedian - that I could make people laugh with some of the sillier experiences that have sprouted poetry."

Bruce adds: "I think the more you perform, the more confident you are in reading and in providing the extras, like hanging around afterwards to talk to people from the audience and explaining just what you meant in that last line. I love performing, but I still dread the extras so each time I do them it's aversion therapy."

Mark Cantrell,
Bradford, June 2001

First published on UK Authors (, circa December 2002. Subsequently republished in Carillon #15, July 2006. ISSN: 1474 7340. (

Copyright (C) June 2001. All Rights Reserved.

Category: FEATURE



Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More