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A day at the Poetry Book Fair

Free Verse Poetry Book Fair 2014

Ooh, poetry books. Trestle tables. Shouty snatches of conversation trying to be heard in the hubbub. “I wasn’t sure about his last collection, it it didn’t quite work, did it?” … “Oh yeah, did you hear? I got divorced – she buggered off to Germany, thank God”. It has to be Free Verse, the Poetry Book Fair, now an annual event and eagerly awaited by poets, small presses and poetry organisations nationwide. Last year I was a volunteer helper and a bit overwhelmed, to be honest, so this year I made a point of trying not to feel awkward, saying hello and chatting to people. This was greatly helped by having fellow Telltale Poet Peter Kenny to browse the exhibition with.

Having enjoyed the company of Lewes poet Clare Best on the way to London, my first port of call was the free readings in the open air teashop in Red Lion Square. Poets from Knives Forks & Spoons press were reading, one of whom was Sarah James, who I virtually met many years ago in an online poetry forum. It’s always great to put a real person to a name or a blog. Sarah was lovely and I ended up buying her collection Be[yond] in a sort of end-of-the-day buying frenzy. More about that below. Anyway, I then to-ed and fro-ed a bit between the room in Conway Hall where readings and discussions were taking place, and the park cafe. I was pleased to catch D A Prince reading at the Happenstance session. When a poem card came through the post from Happenstance with one of Davina’s poems on it, I knew I wanted to read her latest book ‘Common Ground’, so this was my opportunity to grab a copy.

josh ekroy at freeverse
Josh Ekroy

Back at the park cafe, it was spitting with rain but no-one else seemed to notice. Great to hear Josh Ekroy read and to tell him how much I’ve enjoyed his poems in various magazines over the years, as well as his Nine Arches Press collection ‘Ways to Build a Roadblock’. I hope I didn’t distract Martyn Crucefix too much by sitting with my raincoat over my head. (Worse was to come – later on I noticed the whole square was crawling with police and demonstrators on an NHS rally, but no doubt the poets gamely carried on amid all the banners and ‘oggy oggies’.)

I was planning to get to a couple more readings in the afternoon, but I confess to a long lunch break in the pub with three poet friends, even though there was no food available, so it was just crisps. Then Peter arrived and after we’d been around half the exhibition decided we need to take a load off, so back to the pub it was. So there was only half an hour until the exhibition closed and I still hadn’t spent my poetry book budget, let alone visited all the publisher tables. By this time there seemed to be even more ‘two for one’ type offers,  and I was starting to fear for the financial health of the publishers present. (“Three pamphlets for £11? Are you sure?”) Cue a bit more buying, and my feet were telling me to get them home rather than stay for the evening readings. This was my final booty (not including the various freebies which also found their way into my bag):

poetry books & pamphlets bought at Free Verse

Goodness knows when/how I’m going to find the time to read them all, but the first pamphlet I started reading on Saturday night, Isabel Palmer’s Ground Signs, published by Flarestack, I have to say is stunning. I foresee a blog post about it very soon.

I was very sorry to miss the Royal Holloway MA Students reading, as poet friend Jan Heritage was among them. Sorry Jan, I was in the pub and lost track of time, a very poor excuse I know, but I hope it went swimmingly.

Very nice to meet & chat with Roy Marshall, Emma from the Emma Press, Jenny Swann of Candlestick Press (who produce the brilliant poem cards), Meredith & Jacqui from Flarestack, Davina Prince, Marion Tracy and many other lovely poets and poetry-related peeps. Huge thanks to Chrissy Williams and her team of organisers & volunteers. I sort of hope the event doesn’t get too big for Conway Hall, as it has real charm as a venue.

Next year I’ll try to have a bit more stamina and stay for at least part of the evening. Eating properly would have helped – one piece of cake, one cup of tea, two bags of crisps and a pint and a half of lager later, I was happy to get home to a proper dinner.

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  1. Ha ha! yes, I will factor that in next time… wasn’t quite prepared for the fact that pubs around there just don’t do food on a Saturday because there’s no business generally. There were a couple of cafes which we probably should have investigated, but there’s something about poetry that puts me in the mood for a pub rather than a cafe.

  2. Antony Mair Antony Mair

    How did I manage to miss seeing you at the Happenstance session? did you have your raincoat over your head? I buzzed off at twelve or so, feeling as you say a little overwhelmed by it all. But the Happenstance chox were good. There were some totally incomprehensible people reading in the Caff outside when I first arrived – my stale almond croissant didn’t help! My most successful purchase was a small pamphlet of poems by a gay female poet that was such a hit with our hostesses that evening that one of them said she’d spend half of Sunday reading it in her bath. I don’t think poetry has even begun to tap into its marketing possibilities – chocolates, bath salts, booze. It obviously needs to be seen as an ingredient in a cocktail of sensations rather than on its own.

    • Ah! You were there? I was flitting about rather – I only stood at the back for part of the Happenstance session because I knew I’d be leaving halfway through to catch Josh Ekroy et al in the square. And then after that my planning went a bit pear-shaped. I wasn’t too fussed about the chocolates although a quick glance through Clare Best’s copy of the Montezuma anthology suggested there were some fun poems in it. Including one by Jo Grigg! How great that your one purchase was such a hit – you must contact the poet concerned and tell her! PS I think booze has been well tapped into by poets, but having said that I’d probably have something suitable to submit to a ‘Poems to Get Drunk To’ anthology.

  3. jaynestanton jaynestanton

    I’ve heard so many positive reports, next year’s a definite! As soon as I hear the date, Free Verse will be in my poetry diary, Robin.

    • Wonderful, Jayne, see you there if not before! I had a good chat with Davina about Soundswrite by the way, and thanks again for passing her your copy of ‘Vowel Shift’.

  4. I had a great day at the fair too. Went to the Happenstance readings – really good as were the chocs! Enjoyed the discussion on pamphlets and seeing Emma Press. Ran out of cash even though I tried to pace myself, managed one session at lunchtime over in Red Lion Square and caught the end of the Royal Holloway MA students reading their poems. It is a bit overwhelming – I didn’t know where to start! My first foray into this fair and I enjoyed it very much.

    • Thanks for commenting Heather, and it sounds like you managed to cram in quite a bit of stuff – I was sorry to miss the MA students session, that would have been interesting I think. Next year we should have a ‘readers of this blog’ meetup!

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