Versatile Versifiers

The Duke's CutOn 31st January, Thursday evening, the Oxford Poetry Society – soon to be, by permission of proctors and paperwork, the Oxford University Poetry Society once again – had its first open mic night of Hilary Term.

The event, scheduled to begin at 8pm, filled up rapidly until soon it was standing-room only in The Duke Cut’s function space. It was here, in the cosy room with a piano in a corner, low couches, black-and-white flowery wallpaper and wooden tables and chairs that I found April Pierce, one of the women who has been running the Poetry Society since the middle of MT’12, when I arrived some twenty minutes before the crowd gathered.

The Oxford Poetry Society was founded in 1946 by Martin Starkie. Pierce described it as “well-established”, and as always being based and “contingent on the community that exists within the University.” She went on:  “It’s taken on different forms and changed shape. This year our approach has been to be very inclusive. Typically it [the Society] has had academic poetry more than performative poetry, and our goal is really to include both. The way I see it is to provide a space for poets to come and learn and perform their poetry.”

At two pounds for non-members (free for OPS members) the price was cheap and the money well-spent. The poets ranged from members of the Oxford community to DPhils, graduate students to undergrads. The youngest member of the audience looked to be about 16, and she sat with a woman in a bright red skirt-suit and dark sunglasses who seemed to be in her late 60s. The two spoke to one another often throughout the event; my eavesdropping skills determined they hadn’t met before that evening. There were two breaks throughout the evening, and Pierce encouraged the crowd to mingle, saying: “You’re all poets.” Her message was taken to heart, and people really did.

Fourteen read or recited their poetry, and no two were alike. The low-pressure feel of the evening (no actual microphone) and the welcoming crowd (people were polite, clapped loudly, and didn’t check their phones too often during the readings) meant that each poet felt comfortable introducing his or her work in whatever way they liked, some going without an introduction altogether, others explaining that their writing came from a place of “the political is personal” or from “a trip to Morocco.” The poems took different tones, some funny (one about the first Word creating shoes before light), some taking on unexplored parts of myths (Leda’s story rather than the swan’s; the male water sprites of Czech folk tales), some tragic (loneliness and death are themes that, no matter how often we hear them discussed, always ring true since they are always present).

The night ended with Erica Lombard and Arlyn Culwick each performing a song influenced by their own literary leanings – Lombard sang about her struggles with literary theory, and Culwick said his lyrics were influenced by, among others, E. E. Cummings.

The OPS’s next event is “an evening of words and music” for the launch of ASH, a creative arts ‘zine, on Wednesday, 6th February, at Turl Street Kitchen.

PHOTO / Kake Pugh