Durham Book Festival 2020: Poetry Book Society Showcase

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Partnering with the Poetry Book Society, the Durham Book Festival on Wednesday 14 October saw the showcase of ‘three thrilling new voices on the poetry scene’: Bhanu Kapil, Rachel Long and Nina Mingya Powles. Poetry, now more than ever, is a necessary outlet and lens to examine contemporary society – both in its written form, but also in its spoken, or more sensitive oral tradition. At a time of instability and separation, poetry prevails and is turned to because of its accessibility. It seems particularly important to read, but also to listen to writers, and the lunch hour read is a wonderfully rewarding watch in its sensitive poetry that deals with love, isolation, race, diaspora and selfhood.

Poetry, now more than ever, is a necessary outlet and lens to examine contemporary society.

Kapil opens the showcase reading from the Poetry Book Society’s Summer Choice; her full-length collection of ‘How to Wash a Heart’ (Pavilion Poetry). The poems navigate the fiction of guest and host and Kapil wonderfully plays with the concept of xenia, or the supposed courtesy of hospitality. It is understood that the literature and the fingerprints of the guest, that is what is non-canonical to the British past, are subject to scrutiny and deprecation. Pointing to contemporary behaviour, the reading makes distinct the citizen’s welcome to migrant arrival, ‘Even though the host invites the guest to say whatever they want to say / The guest knows that host logic is variable’.  Kapil shows how the ordinary is made disturbed – we are taught to drink water from bowls on windowsills and to watch as counsellors melt onto the floor within the confines of someone else’s home. The poems call for tenderness, like ‘a candle on the wonky table at dusk’ and patience, ‘the way thyme migrates’ against a fickle and dismissive host, and yet Kapil’s work is interrogative as we consult a heart that could be ‘animal or ice’.  

Each piece stands like a postcard from a lover.

Rachel Long continues with an equally vivid reading, dealing with relationships, race and selfhood, as she reads from her PBS recommended and Forward Prize shortlisted collection ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador Poetry). Long’s Poetry is unapologetic and punctual; each piece stands like a postcard from a lover as we quickly turn over the landscape photo and devour the underside’s contents. The world is geometric, and autonomous, as seen in ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’ where ‘Every table is white except ours / We sit at a naked woodblock’. Borders and relationships are thrown into question, delineating from the ‘Razor clams [that] arrive in straight lines’ to the ‘bones of [a]dress.’ Simultaneously, the collection celebrates the autonomy of femininity; in ‘Apples’, we witness the liberation of solitary train journeys, powerful mothers and lucid dreams, where even though the narrator is ‘bright green’, they ‘are the most beautiful woman in the world.’ The poems are eloquent, jarring and funny – felt more so by the reading as we are forced to pause when Long chooses, allowing for the imagery of the verse to take full effect. 

The verses ebb and flow to a current that lulls, but also spits.

Finally, the showcase closes with another PBS recommendation and Forward Prize shortlisted collection, ‘Magnolia, 木蘭’ (Nine Arches Press) by Nina Mingya Powles. The collection tenderly deals with ideas of mixed-race poetry, translation and selfhood as it examines the borders of film, food and country. The poems are beautifully intricate, as they explore the intimate and the marooned. As Powles reads, ‘In ‘Girl Warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) in Chinese with English subtitles’, I am reminded of my own difficulty to find Asian characters onscreen, or how when they do appear, they are applauded by their ‘boyfriend with the big American arms’. And whilst a sense of belonging is unpermitted by certain figures, ‘once a guy told me mixed girls are the most beautiful / because they aren’t really white / but they aren’t really Asian either’, Powles confidently carves out home as something in flux, as she navigates between Wellington and Shanghai. Much of the poetry is rooted in the outside elements, as the verses ebb and flow to a current that lulls, but also spits, much like the ‘visible rupture running along the landscape’ of ‘The first wave’. 

The replay of the showcase can be watched here until the 1 November:

https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/poetry-book-society-showcase-bhanu-kapil-rachel-long-and-nina-mingya-powles/?watch.

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