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Eric Gregory Award Reading 2009

Eyewear attended the Eric Gregory readings last night at the cool Farringdon-area pub Betsy Trotwood - Ms. Baroque was also there. This annual event was created 9 years ago by a former Gregory winner, Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden, an indispensable force on the UK scene (few do more for young emerging poets). Lumsden hosted with an informal, informative style, and the readings were in three sets, spaced by 15 minute breaks, that seemed to go on forever; they were needed though, the venue became stifling at times, and a no open-windows rule was enforced. There was a good crowd - maybe sixty or so, mainly younger people, with a few parents and older types like me. The little stage is ideally placed, and the sound system was crisp and clear.

It was an immensely positive vibe - everyone seemed glad to be there, and generally happy for the winners. It felt like an ideal situation - new poets being welcomed to the pack - not with envy, but admiration and support. This sort of event should be the model of how poets engage with each other at each stage of their careers. I felt blithely free of ego, since I had brought a poet I mentor along (22-year-old Kavita Joshi, a fine emerging poet) to see another of my Poetry School students, Alex McRae, read.

I'm very pleased that McRae's work was given the nod this year, especially as I had included her in the recent round-up of younger poets I put together for the Manhattan Review. I'm sorry another very good younger poet, Nathan Hamilton, wasn't a winner - but the five who read did themselves proud. I would think they all have a more than good shot, in a few years or less, at a debut collection from a good press.

McRae read well, selecting poems that showcase the imaginative clarity of her poems that often express a potent and deep central image as the formal governor of the text, and, since I have already included her work in that section, I will move on to the others in this post. Sam Riviere, who I mentioned in the Intro to the MR, but did not include, is now doing a PhD at UEA, and is someone to watch. He seems intelligent, down-to-earth, effortless, and free-wheeling, with the lanky slim energy of a rumpled rock star, but without the immodesty. He's funny, and his work has range and brains, a little like a Muldoon who'd spent time with O'Hara. Faber is publishing his pamphlet soon, so he's on his way. He read last, and was slightly tipsy, it seemed, or maybe just adrenaline-powered. To some, he was the best of the night.

I actually think that nod might go to James Brookes, by a hair. I didn't really know Brookes work. I do now. He is only 22, so his win on his first try was most impressive. His poems commanded immediate respect from the assembled - they were both supple and traditional, richly informed by classical images. He came across as brilliant, inspired, good-natured, decent, and in formal control of his aims. I think his debut has some of the immediate gravitas of Geoffrey Hill's in the early 60s. Someone should snap his first collection up, he feels like the genuine article.

Everyone was good, though, so let's not split hairs. Liz Berry (another Berry wins a Gregory!) read first of the poets, and was glamorous, poised, very sure of her self as a performer, and her poems, unknown to me previously, were well-made, often very funny, and sometimes startlingly moving. Again, a poet I could imagine becoming one of the best of of the next decade.

The most unusual of the bunch was the one with the most delightful name: Swithun Cooper. Cooper is handsome in a camp way that he cultivates by wearing Buddy Holly glasses, and his hair in a conservative science teacher style. Tall and confident, he delivered poems at once the most hip of the night, and perhaps the most ethical (one was about the feminist approach to slasher films). As a performer, it was hard to keep one's eyes off of him, but to my ears, while he is very promising, a few of the poems, in their complexity, still felt unfinished. It may be his style and themes are the closest to my own, in some ways (pop culture and authentic feeling) so I might be too close to see his work whole. He's one I want to come back to, and see more work from, before I make a more certain claim. I hope he emails me work for Eyewear (that goes for all the five) so I can feature them in the autumn.

The Eric Gregory Awards turn 50 next year. No other nation has such an impressive example of an award that has almost single-handedly supported and announced so much talent. Reading the list of former winners is a blueprint to mainstream British (and Irish) poetry of the last half-century. These five join that august tradition. Time will tell. but the odds are at least a few of those young poets we saw last night will be respected older poets one day.
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