EVENT REVIEW: Poetry Book Society Showcase

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Saturday 7th October 

Palace Green Library

Review by Julia Atherley

The Poetry Book Society was founded in 1953 and has since been chaired by innovative poets and thinkers including Philip Larkin. Now based in Newcastle, the society remains a hub for upcoming writers. The event at the Palace Green Library showcased three female poets with Irish roots but strong links to the North East. Despite being in the grandeur of the library, the performance remained intimate, drawing upon the festival’s strong ties to this next generation of poets.

Colette Bryce came as a student to England and has since been a Northern Arts Fellow as well as holding links to Durham University. Her work ranges from long ballad-like pieces to shorter witty poems, showing a control over language and memory. She tells us that poetry is often something between “what is true and what is imagined”- a concept which runs throughout her performance. Her reading of ‘Derry’, a poem about her childhood in Ireland, was a warm yet stark recollection of a Catholic upbringing. Bryce both opened and closed with sections of this poem, lending a sense of homecoming to her work. Her poems are often surreal (blood appeared as “HP sauce” in one) and her readings become a form of magical performance.

Tara Bergin completed a PhD on Ted Hughes’ translations from Newcastle University and her poetry debut ‘This is Yarrow’ won the Seamus Heaney first collection prize. Her most recent publication, ‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’ is a 2017 Poetry Book Society recommendation and is filled with dark yet seductive energy. Bergin tells us how she became fascinated with the suicide of Eleanor Marx and her collection gives a voice to a previously overlooked story. Contrasting to Bryce’s softer recollections, Bergin’s poetry often takes on personas and characters. The result was often unnerving and intriguing in equal measures.

T.S. Eliot prize winner Sinead Morrissey has previously been the Festival Laureate of Durham Book Festival and her recent collection ‘On Balance’ has been shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize. Beginning with her poem ‘At the Balancing Lakes’ ensured that the audience were aware of her mix of playful word play and sinister imagery. A drowning child is described as bobbing “like a milk bottle”, juxtaposing the everyday with the tragic. Morrissey also read the poem she was commissioned to write for the 2015 book festival. She describes her father’s mining roots through the “fallen sun of his headlight”- a poem both celebrating and denouncing the mining community. Morrissey ended with a firmly playful poem about her young daughter’s perception of the world. The physicality and realism of her poems ensured her performance connected with the audience on an intimate level.

The Poetry Book Showcase was a warm and inviting insight into some of the most exciting contemporary poets. Although they each have Irish roots, each presented a very different view of our world and connected with us in different ways. Framed in the Palace Green Library, the three performances complimented one another and brought both depth and clarity.

Cuckoo Review is an arts journalism programme for young writers aged 15-23. Through the Cuckoo Reviewers in Residence programme at Durham Book Festival, young people have reviewed festival events and books, and have interviewed featured authors. For more information about Cuckoo Review visit