In Person. 30 Poets, ed. Neil Astley, filmed by Pamela Robertson-Pearce

(272pp + 2 DVD, 12, Bloodaxe)



I like this book so much. I think a lot of the poetry in it is the sort of mainstream lyric I don't usually read or enjoy, and I hate most poetry readings, but In Person bypasses my prejudices and has won me over: this is exactly the kind of project poets and publishers should be publishing in the 21st century. Perhaps it shouldn't be such an event in 2008, in a world where most of us can burn DVDs and CDs, but it is. Bloodaxe have got there first* and I'm sure a number of publishers elsewhere are scratching their heads and asking 'Why didn't we think of that?'


In Person is a fairly straightforward anthology with a couple of DVDs tucked in the back. Each poet gets to read to the camera in informal settings, and the poems they read are printed in the book, with a short, mainly bibliographic and biographical, introduction for each poet. There's an interesting Introduction to the whole book by Neil Astley, which reveals both the genesis of the project (an arts salon in New York) and its practical development, as well as a short discussion about poetry and oral tradition. Whilst I' not always convinced that poetry needs to be read aloud (it really does depend on whether the poet can read their own work or not, or whether it's written to be read out [and there's no reason poetry should]), in this case all 30 poets bring their work to life in various ways.


Obviously, this is because it is either performance poetry or mainstream lyrical work that has been selected for inclusion; and the poets have been carefully chosen for their reading skills. Adrian Mitchell chants and sings his work as he always does, Penelope Shuttle reads her sequence of loss and mourning for Peter Redgrove in stately annunciated tones, C.K. Williams seems brusque and eager to get on as his wide lines roll off the tongue. George Szirtes is warm and affable toward the camera, whilst the late Ken Smith - whose work is offered as a 'bonus track' - clatters around his kitchen with a cut head before staring the viewer down.


Disappointingly, C.D. Wright, probably the most innovative poet included here, is represented by the most mainstream examples of her work. She and Peter Reading are as far into the experimental this volume tentatively navigates, but then it doesn't claim to, and I think we all know that Bloodaxe wants to give the people what they want, not try to open them up to the wonderful things language can do.


But I'm not going to go there... I emailed Neil Astley a few days ago, because I wanted him to know that he'd got it right, that this was an exciting and innovative project. And that I hoped it would be a success. And I do. I have ordered multiple copies for the college library and will be using it on the poetry units I teach - in fact I think I'm going to use some of it this week with the first years. In the same email I said I could have done without the misplaced, chest-beating history of Bloodaxe Books at the back, and I still wish it wasn't there, but even so this is a brilliant book/DVD.


And I want this review to say the same really. My doubts and questions, my wish that other authors and schools of poetry should have been included, are irrelevant when faced with such a great idea so well executed. Inside the book, there are mentions of similar forthcoming projects: I look forward to those, too. Meanwhile, it seems to me that In Person is a real achievement that needs taking note of, needs reading and watching. I can't believe the effect it's had in our house - on me, on the kids. Who's that? What's that poem sound like? How does that work on the page? Etc. (And I haven't even started freeze-framing so I can read the book titles on the shelves behind Adrian Mitchell).


Books and DVDs eh? Well I never... (exit muttering and smiling)


      Rupert Loydell 2008



(*Of course, several educational publishers already have issued packs with videos and books in... but that's hardly mainstream in the way Bloodaxe is.)