A great day out at the Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair

Free Verse magazine fair graphic

Sometimes someone comes along and does something that, once it’s done, seems like it must always have been this way. Charles Boyle did one of those things when he started the Free Verse Poetry Book Fair, however many years ago it was now – five? Six! That first year it was a pretty small affair, in the hall of the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Exmouth Market, with readings organised by Chrissy Williams.

Fast-forward to 2014 when Charles left, and Chrissy Williams – with Joey Connolly – took over the fair, which has grown exponentially to fill and overfill Conway Hall and now includes readings and workshops all day as well as a full evening line-up in a nearby pub.

And they’ve done another thing, now, by going back to the starting blocks and putting together yesterday’s Free Verse Poetry Magazine Fair. Now it’s been done, it’s easy to say, Of course! Back at Holy Redeemer, it felt informative and intimate (though crowded enough that it wasn’t possible to have a chat with everyone one wanted to, and totally missed many) and then the Betsey Trotwood for an evening of really exceptional readings, programmed and presented by Will Harris.

I went with my Independent Poetry Tutor hat on. Gathering insights, information and hard copy on behalf of my students (both those in the Advanced Workshop group and those who come to me for mentoring and one-off tutorials). It was hard to circulate in a room full of friends, but  I chatted to most of the stallholders, I think… & came away with a bag so heavy that by the time I got home (past the dreaded diversions due to Essex Road being shut northbound till mid-July, damn it) I kind of hurt… But it was worth it! My guys are going to be hit with a deluge of leaflets, bookmarks, subscription forms, competition info, and a copy of the brilliant Poetry Almanac 2016 to pass around the group. It looks well-nigh indispensible; I have one for myself now as well.

Now, each of these things has a particular significance or rationale as to why it’s in the pile from yesterday. I did go over budget. But I’m glad I did, because the over-budget bits were the Test Centre Magazine (I knew they made ineffably beautiful and experimental books, but I didn’t know about their magazine – I bought one issue and my friend bought another and we will swap, and I’ll also lend mine to workshop members – and Poetry London, featuring Roddy Lumsden (in a really beautiful old photo) on the cover. I didn’t get home till after 1am, and have been running around all afternoon, so haven’t had a chance to read any of them yet, but am particularly looking forward to La Errante, the quirkily designed and beautiful multi-lingual magazine started by James Womack and Martha Sprackland (& others).

Now. The readings. Really just tremendous. Standouts were almost more numerous than non-standouts, who were only non-standouts because of the frankly insane calibre of the standouts. If you see what I’m getting at. Actually the whole damn think was standout. I particularly loved hearing Richard Scott reading  for Swimmers from his series on gay shame which will feature in next year’s collection with Faber; Theo Kwek for Oxford Poetry, reading (really beautifully, I know I’m over-using this word) about his forthcoming national service in Singapore; Ed Doegar for Ambit – I’d never seen him read before; and Richard Price for Magma. Particularly impressive was the fact that I saw Richard read only a few weeks ago from his new collection, Moon for Sale, at the Oxford Poetry launch in the LRB bookshop, and last night the set he read was completely different, and felt just as urgent and mesmerising. It was also really good to hear Anna Robinson read from Long Poem magazine – an Edwardian working-class day out at the seaside, as seen through an old photograph. She really captures voices. [Editing in here to say that I really wanted to give a nod to Raymond Antrobus, who brought the curtain down in great style, but it’ll look like I’ve deliberately left out the tiny handful of people not mentioned… basically, the readings were a total cracker.)

I was sorry not to get a copy of Long Poem to add to my pile, and also the Rialto. I didn’t even get to speak to the Rialto table, and Ive been very happily published there several times. But I was already over budget. One more (to say nothing of two more) would have pushed me to double budget, and there was still the issue of having had no lunch that I had to contend with…

Some thoughts, or notes really. One contrast between this and the Book Fair is that this felt a little less like a good way to learn about the more experimental, visual, conceptual sides of poetry; I think those guys are probably doing more online. So there’s still research to be done! But it was great to see things up close and to talk to people, and learn more about what they’re up to. You can have the virtual experience by clicking the picture at the top. Their website features a list and descriptions of all the magazines that exhibited.

Anyway, the upshot is that it was a great thing, that poetry periodicals – even by a small sampling of them, as this was – appear to be in rude health, and that NONE of us needs to be just submitting to the same three magazines over and over. And there’s an awful lot of great work out there – so up your game!

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