The Prehistoric Gallery at Manchester Museum might not be the most likely venue for a poetry reading (at least poetry that isn’t about dinosaur digs), but as mentioned in the introduction, we were in fact travelling back in time with Fleur Adcock. And the museum really does create a unique atmosphere – I never expected to be at a poetry reading whilst staring Stan the T Rex right in the face.
Adcock’s father was born in Manchester, and returned to the UK from New Zealand just before World War 2 in order to complete a PhD. Throughout the war, both her parents worked for the ambulance and first aid services, before returning to New Zealand in 1947. Memories, family and childhood are key themes in Adcock’s writing, and she treated us to a reading of 18 poems, from her new collection Dragon Talk and other volumes of work.
‘My father’ is about her father (Adcock admitted, “I’m terrible at titles”), and the moments she spent tracing the streets of Manchester on hearing that he had passed away. She examines the importance of geography and location – a more recent poem explores the technological bridging of a gap when she speaks to her youngest grand-daughter on Skype – and the way in which we process emotional memories. In ‘Direct Hit’, she presents 3 versions of the same story during the war when her father had swapped a shift, to later find that the team he was meant to be working with had been bombed. Drawing information from her father’s letters, her own memory and local newspaper archives, she shows how the documentation of events affects our memories of them; it is also a touching tribute – she noted that there are no official war memorials to the civil defence workers, so this was her own. The poems are full of beautiful detail, and even those dealing with dark subject matter – war, death, loss, grief – are spirited and uplifting.
There is warmth and humour in Fleur Adcock’s poetry; she is sharp but not scathing, and particularly in poems such as ‘Strangers on a Tram’, she is able to capture the indignation and naivety of childhood - in the poem her mother gets on a tram when she’s with her friends. Embarrassed, the young Fleur ignores her mum but is mortified to find that her mum is ignoring her too, sharing only a knowing wink, “how dare she have the cheek to understand me!”
In the Q&A following the reading, the humour in the poems was discussed. Adcock acknowledged that whilst she never wants to be too knowing in her writing, particularly when remembering how she felt as a child, it is inevitable to an extent because as you get older, your memories and view of the world becomes shaped by more and more experience. She also referred to ‘Blitz humour’, and the importance of having a sense of the ridiculous if you are to survive this world. There is also a relief in joking having come out the other side of a turbulent period in your life.
As the readings went on, we caught glimpses of modern technology, the births of new generations and the mind of a woman who is getting older. Adcock explained that as you get older and words begin to escape you, there is more urgency in making connections, in understanding your memories lest the words to describe them be lost. She has a no-nonsense approach to mortality, describing a point at which you must think you’ve simply had enough.
She told us about an aunt who is 100 years old, and doesn’t want to be here anymore, not through a morbid desire to die, but because her friends are no longer around her and she is losing touch with the person she once was. Adcock ended with a frank, funny poem about death, and about the boatman who ferries people across the river Styx into the Underworld: “Where is Dr Shipman when we need him? / Shipman, boatman, ferryman”
Adcock hails from a family of writers, poets and novelists, and she was asked to comment on the ‘Poem Vs Novel’ debate. She had spoken earlier about pinching an idea from a novelist relative who then asked why she had written the poem – her response was that the story was put to better use in a poem, it being only one page rather than reams and reams of paper. She told us that she loves facts, so when she writes prose, it tends to be factual family history; with poems, she doesn’t feel that you need facts and feels more freedom in exploring memories and stories creatively. To differentiate between poems and novels, she simply said, “a poem is a thing with white space around it...selections, picking things out. It’s what photographers and artists do.”
Fleur Adcock is a wonderful reader and storyteller, animated and entertaining, speaking to the audience rather than at them. Time to revisit some of her poems and hope they sound just as good in my head.
by Alex Herod
Alex is Deputy Editor of For Books’ Sake. She has just finished her MA (Performance Works, Leeds Met) and is keen to meet writers, makers and do-ers through her Collaborate Here project.