Last week I was lucky enough to be part of the Poetry Exchange – both as a participant AND an interviewer. It’s a simple and yet wonderful idea. You book a slot and bring along a poem that has acted as your friend – not necessarily your best friend, or your wisest. It could be the friend you’d like to go clubbing with, or wish you’d known at school because you’d have learnt so much more. Maybe even a sexy, smouldering friend. This is perhaps what I like most about this project – it gets away from the myth that poems have to be worthy. Or serious. Or difficult. Even when they are, and we don’t quite understand why they won’t let us go, but they won’t, and we haven’t got to the bottom of everything they are saying. You know – that ‘interesting’ friend. Anyway… then you share this poem with a writer and an actor who have been paired together, and trained to ask questions about what this poem means to YOU, not them!
When I had my slot, I took along Douglas Dunn’s Dining. It’s a poem I’ve loved for many years, but only when I had my half hour slot talking about it, did I realise just how much it meant to me. And why.
Of course, I cried. But in a good way.
And then I got to be the interviewer, with two different, wonderful actors. What a privilege. To have the surprise of what poem people would bring, what it meant to them, to hear them read it, and to be able – in just a half hour conversation – to concentrate on what really matters in life with strangers.
Poetry can do this. I’ve known this for a long time, but it’s a good reminder. With one poem we discussed, it got me thinking how the same poem – just ten lines of it – can get across new important meanings at different stages of life.
But this isn’t the end of the process. The actor and writer then get to discuss the poem together again – AFTER the person who brought it has gone. And then record it as a gift to them. So yet another layer of meaning is given to the poem.
Poetry Exchange is the brainwave of Fiona Lesley Bennett, and has gone through many incarnations before it reached its present one. I can’t imagine it being bettered, but knowing Fiona, I bet she’ll think of some in the future! She’s a true friend to poetry. The kind who always has the best ideas of where to go, what to do, and how to have the most fun doing it!
But for now, who is your poem-friend?
And if you are in Canterbury next weekend, and fancy having a go yourself, you can book a slot at the Wise Words Festival. I can’t recommend it enough as an experience. Do let me know how it goes!