I have, for some years, been a member of the Southwark Poetry Stanza, one of a network of local groups under the general umbrella of the Poetry Society. We have run a number of events in the last few years, many of which straddle the arts of poetry and theatre; not always easy, since the voice of many poems is not itself theatrical, but interesting in what it teaches one about the relation between the two arts.
Our current venture is a third successive appearance at the Waterloo festival based at St John’s Church Waterloo. The theme for this year’s festival is Transforming Minds, and we have decided to shape our reading around the theme of music and its relation with poetry. We have, in particular, taken the figure of Ethel Smyth, composer, writer and feminist, and are interspersing a narrative of her life and words with our own poems (and a couple of musical performances). The framework is designed to provide narrative momentum while allowing a very disparate set of poems space to be themselves. One advantage is that the peculiar intensity needed for listening to verse is only demanded of the audience intermittently; I think many people find it very hard to retain concentration when listening to a long uninterrupted stream of poems written for the page, because of the particular density of this kind of writing. In our reading the poems become like arias surrounded by recitative, and I hope emerge stronger for this.
I knew very little about Ethel Smyth until recently and have still heard rather little of her music (though a splendid performance of a piano prelude can be found here), but found myself absorbed by her prose. She didn’t start publishing prose until deafness had made composition difficult for her, and she was a less conscious artist as a prose writer than as a composer, but one of her early teachers thought her literary gifts were greater than her musical ones. Her story takes us through the highbrow intensity of nineteenth-century musical Leipzig (via the most splendidly malicious portrait of Brahms, whom she admired as an artist but not as a man), through an intense involvement with the suffragettes and a connection with the refinement of expatriate Florence, to a very intense late friendship with Virgina Woolf. Ethel was born in 1858, a contemporary of Elgar, and her trajectory is among other things the encounter of a late Victorian with modernism. She was also, despite her Leipziger training, a writer of operas, and hence an appropriate figure to use to think about the relation between poetry, music and theatre.
The event takes place at St John’s Church Waterloo at 7 pm on June 15th and is part of an evening where our performance is followed by a buffet supper and then by a performance of Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil by the excellent Gary Crosby quintet. Tickets are available for the evening as a whole here; we are hoping they will also be available for the reading on its own. The Waterloo festival website is here.