John Siddique is a poet, story-writer and essayist. His poetry collections include Recital – An Almanac, Poems From A Northern Soul and The Prize; he's written for Granta, The Guardian and Poetry Review; and his children's book, Don't Wear It On Your Head, was shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry award in 2007.
This year, John was jointly commissioned by Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Art Gallery to write a series of poems responding to the exhibition Exporting Beauty: Pilkington’s Pottery and Tiles, which is on display in the Gallery at the moment and features over one hundred pots and tiles made by Pilkington’s Tile and Pottery Company between 1893 and 1938. John's weeks of research in the gallery's archives culminated in a selection of poems that can now be downloaded from the Festival website, and on Friday 22nd, he read from them in front of a crowd of eager festival-goers.
First up was Lustre, a piece which the poet said looked at the role of the artist and the function of art in society, and how the glistening and colourful pots we could see on display throughout the room were linked to the wet earth of the collieries where the coal for the furnace was dug.
Then he read a selection of haiku – accompanied by some very suitable and accomplished chin-stroking from the audience – after explaining that the Zen-like form suited the industrial, pre-war environment in which the pots were made, because the beauty of that poetic form, like the beauty of the pottery, was designed to interrupt the humdrum routine of ordinary, drab life with a flash of something extraordinary. Next came Cypress, and this line stood out for me: 'crowned by sun, shadowing the hands of day.'
In Swan Ship, Siddique took a Keatsian approach and questioned an urn about its own story; in The Fox and The Grapes, a poem for younger readers, he rewrote Aesop's fable, and I loved this bit: grapes as 'the sweet unmade wine of the year.' In Belle Vue Narrative, he took a local setting, Belle Vue Zoo, where the Pilkington artists used to go to find inspiration, and matched it with his own memories of visiting the same zoo as a child with his parents. As he read, Siddique pointed out the various pots and tiles that inspired particular poems and lines and words, so the whole nature of the commission, its process and execution, became clear to the audience, who were sitting clustered in amongst the display cases.
After reading from a few of his earlier works, Siddique opened the floor to questions from the audience. He was asked about the commissioning process and if it was difficult, and he said that it was, that writing to order always seems impossible at first, but that it's also a test that enforces discipline and makes sure that poetry emerges from its hiding places and enters the world. His first ever poem, he told us, was inspired by a ballet, but that we'd never get to read or hear it. He showed us his notebook and read part of an early draft of Lustre to give us an idea of how a single work can change over the editing process. Somebody asked if he was now a fan of pottery and he said he was, but that, sadly, Manchester Art Gallery seemed to have bought up all the good stuff. He said that the Pilkington work showed the other side of Victorian society – the Sapphic, unrestrained passion that works in counterpoint to the stiff, repressed stereotype of that era that still lingers today in our imaginations.
Finally, he read one last poem from the commissioned series. Here's a line from it: 'offer your openness with no thought of loss'. I thought that was a pretty good exhortation to creativity and a fitting end to a very enjoyable reading.
If you're interested in checking out John's work in more detail, podcasts and PDF files of the Pilkington commissions are available for download from the Festival site, and, for those of you based in Manchester, the Big Screen in Exchange Square will be showing films made of two of the poems, so head on over there and just look up.
by Valerie O'Riordan