I’m ashamed to say that until Monday, I’d never been to Chester before. Not properly, anyway, just zoomed past on the way to Liverpool, or North Wales, or wherever. So, it’s always good when a poetry reading allows you to fill large gap in your knowledge, and it won’t be the last time I visit. For starters, it was surprisingly quick and easy to get to, now that there's a quick cut-through from the M1 to the M6.
More to the point, it’s a lovely small city. No surprise there, really. Roman ruins, a medieval street layout including almost intact city walls and gateways and plenty of half-timbered houses (although a lot of these are actually Victorian). What’s not to like?
The main business of my trip, though, was to read as guest poet at the Zest! Open Mic, at Alexander’s Jazz Theatre Bar. Zest! is a monthly event, run by fellow HappenStance poet Gill McEvoy (her pamphlet Uncertain Days is highly recommended, and she has a full collection forthcoming from Cinnamon Press in 2010).
Alexander’s is a terrific venue. Tucked just below the city walls, it’s intimate enough that you feel part of a tight-knit group, but large enough to accommodate audiences of 70-80. I’m not sure how many were in on Monday – maybe 40-50?
Anyway, there was a good mix of young and old, and a fair few got up to read poems too, whether their own or other people’s. And read them very well, for the most part. Among the highlights were a chap called Miguel’s heartfelt and animated recitation from memory, Len’s beautifully scanned elegy, Aled’s use of Welsh, and (I think) Phil’s excellent poem on Klimt. Oh, and Gill read two fine pieces, and her Zest! colleagues Leih and Caroline also read very well.
There was also Chris Kinsey, whose name I know of old from countless magazines and whose Ragged Raven collection Kung Fu Lullabies I must get hold of (not least for that great title). She read very well, and when I got to work this morning I flicked through the new issue of BBC Wildlife and found that she’s the winner of this year’s BBC Wildlife Poet Of The Year award – fully deserved, too, because her The Morning After The Clocks Went Back, in the space of 12 short lines, manages to observe nature acutely, remain beautifully understated and poised, and still spring a surprising image on the reader.
I’ve already posted my set-list, but it was interesting that chatting to people afterwards, the one poem that people kept mentioning as a favourite was Knots. I’m glad, partly because it’s always intriguing when people pick out less obvious pieces, and partly because I always worry that it’s a bit too bird-y. And I sold a few books and pamphlets on the back of it, which is a bonus!
The following day, I was out at Ness Marshes by just after 9. There are wide grazing marshes overlooking the Dee Estuary, and although it’s a bit early in the year for most of the waders and wildfowl, there were good numbers of Lapwings and plenty of corvids and small passerines around the path. Ravens gronked over at intervals, two Buzzards and a handful of Kestrels hunted close to the road, and then things really hotted up, with a female Hen Harrier quartering the fields, a Peregrine perched on one of the fenceposts, and a male Merlin on another until it was chased away by an irate Crow.
After that it was back into Chester to soak up a bit of history, and of course to search the bookshops. Bluecoat Books, on the city walls just next to Alexander’s, was excellent, so I bought Robin Robertson’s Swithering for £4, to replace a copy I lent to someone. It’s reminded me what an excellent collection it is. In the little Waterstones in town, I bought Bernard O’Donoghue’s Selected and a history of the Spanish Civil War. I’ve been meaning to get the latter for a while, because my knowledge of it is very sketchy – at university, I remember realising in horror the day before my Industrial Europe exam that it was one of the mandatory subjects, and spending 12 hours reading a book on it from cover to cover in an only-just-successful attempt to avert disaster.