Sam Willetts with Glenn Sharp & Chico Pere, Saturday 22nd October, 2.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery
Words by Sarah Holland.
It is one of those clear, fresh October days. The white, open space of the Whitworth’s South Gallery is radiant as the sun peers through the huge windows that display Whitworth Park. The sun glistens on the green leaves, couples are sleepily lying on the grass and bicycles cycle past. It is a perfect, peaceful setting for this Poets & Players event. An afternoon filled with music and poetry? Don’t mind if I do.
Poets & Players was started in 2004 by poet Linda Chase, who passed away earlier this year, with musical director Chris Davies. This afternoon, appropriate for the setting, Sam Willets is reading from his poetry book New Light For The Old Dark, which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards last year. Now, I never read poetry for pleasure. I don’t possess the patience to decipher the abstract metaphors and ambiguous meanings, hidden like a puzzle. I like stories. I like to be told things. By the end of today though, I feel a little turned.
The event commences with musicians Glenn Sharp (guitar) and Chico Pere (cante) from the group Calaita – Flamenco Son. The only movement in the gallery is the tapping of their feet and the clapping of Chico; who is looking the eclectic musician in baggy orange trousers and a bright red shirt. The guitar is beautiful and Chico’s lungs are powerful indeed. He sings with such passion that his face turns red.
Sam Willetts approaches the microphone and nervously says that he is “very unused to doing this when sober”. He was a heroin addict for over 10 years, and is now in recovery. He is shy, and trembles as he reads his first couple of poems, commenting in between that he does “feel extremely nervous”. He is normally intoxicated when giving poetry readings and it would just “breeze” by. The audience laughs.
He has a fascinating background. He mentions how his mother escaped from the Nazis and came to England as a refugee in 1947. Within three years she was reading English at Manchester University. His poetry is influenced by her experiences and his secular Jewishness. He reads his mother’s guilt-ridden survival experiences from On The Smolensk Road. He revives a visit to a Warsaw cemetery. His poems are not all darkness however, there are homesick poems dedicated to the white cliffs of Dover, and the first poem he reads is Anchor Riddle, as he has always found anchors to be beautiful.
There is a poetry break for more music from Calaita. People start to gather outside and observe through the glass, and one family decide to come in for a look. That is what is lovely about this event. It gives it a relaxed, open vibe. What a way to spend a Saturday afternoon, experiencing talent in such a lovely setting, all for free.
When Sam appears again he is sat down, water in hand and seemingly more relaxed. He reads the incredibly powerful Digging, a poem about his heroin addiction: "I'm back in a basement / heartsick, digging for a vein in February / as in a February gone and a February / still to come, spitting prayers through the tourniquet / in my teeth, licking up tears and pleading / for my blood to plume up in the barrel, please". This second part is so emotional that my eyes tinker on the edge of watering. He recites a poem about his painful separation from his girlfriend. Witnessing him read is witnessing his pain and regret. He recites a poem dedicated to regret, and the time he regrets wasting, on regret. He reads a tribute to his father that describes the time he died in hospital. He balances this compelling content with lighter love poetry, and reads the amorous Coup De Foudre, a poem he eloquently says is about “falling precipitously in love”. He says he chose that title to make it sound a bit “posher and sexier”. He starts to enjoy the reading, assuring more than once that this will be his last one, before adding during the applause "just one more". He ends with a short, surprising poem about a break-up that has the audience grinning as they applaud: “She said / Look / It’s not you / It’s me / I don’t like you."
This has been a personal highlight of MLF 2011. The combination of delicate Spanish guitars and a gifted poet with a lot to express has given the event a unique quality. I approach Sam Willets, holding a newly purchased copy of his collection, and tell him how much I enjoyed it despite not even being a poetry person. He responds that, funnily enough, he isn’t much of a poetry person either. Those that put him up for both the Forward Prize and TS Eliot prize would probably disagree with him on that one.
Sarah Holland recently graduated in English Literature from Sheffield University and now lives in Manchester. She writes about the arts and has a screen blog, Girl On Film.