EVENT REVIEW: The Poetry Exchange: Conversations Through Poems

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Sunday 11 October
Burlinson Gallery, Town Hall

Review by Jazmine Linklater

The Burlison Gallery at Durham Town Hall is empty, with a small circle of chairs in the centre of the room. Small, colourful envelopes are waiting enticingly under each seat, with two postcards and a bigger A4 printout of a poem. That dread feeling that always imbues a vacant room in the moments before a poetry event enters me; I hope these chairs fill up.

To assuage my nervousness, I cast my eyes over the poem. I don’t know it, and I don’t have time to read it before people thankfully start entering. We’re here to meet the team group of writers and actors behind The Poetry Exchange (today with Fiona, Michael, Degna and John), though once everyone’s settled Fiona tells us that they’re primarily here as people, talking to other people about poems.

The Poetry Exchange is an ongoing project that seeks to invest in poetic discourse, and share experiences with poetry. They’re aiming to create “a new space somewhere between literary reading, spoken word and performance poetry”, according to their website. Yesterday they spent the day in St Chad’s Chapel, inviting members of the public to come along with a poem that’s been a friend to them in some way or another. They spent around forty minutes discussing each person’s selection and their relationship with it. These are the two ideas central to the project; dialogue around poetry, and poems as friends. In exchange, each participant will receive a new recording of their chosen poem.

So today at Conversations Through Poems, in “this small and important and precious hour” as Fiona puts it, the team are trying to continue their exploration. We’re going to go through a very similar process to the one they went through yesterday, and we’re going to discuss it. Before we jump in, though, we’re offered a couple of the poems that have had some resonance with the team since being introduced.

O’Hara’s ‘Having a Coke With You’ seems like the perfect way to start a Sunday morning, its easy, lilting rhythm flows with Michael’s reading. Degna follows with ‘I Am Like a Rose’ by D.H. Lawrence, outlining that since being introduced to this poem it took her a long while to get into it (prompting a small debate on whether we should ever really ‘get’ poems at all). It was the story of the person that brought the poem, she says, that helped.

In order to try our own hands at this process, we all turn our attention to the printed poem: ‘The Moth’ by Miroslav Holub (trans. from Czech by D. Young and D. Hábová). I have a brief, gut-wrenching reaction upon reading the poem that I am simultaneously minuscule and enormous. There’s no time to contemplate this thought, or to read the poem again, because from somewhere behind me a recorded conversation has started to play.

The woman who brought this poem to the project, Claudia, reads. Her intonation lands in different places than mine; her Central European accent makes the piece seem more itself. She goes on to speak honestly, emotionally – at one point we can hear her choking up – about why ‘The Moth’ is meaningful to her and how it has been her friend. She touches on the transformative process of insects and the similarities of migrating, of struggling with a foreign tongue, of mourning for a mother-tongue. For Claudia, this poem helped to facilitate self-love, self-acceptance, and acknowledging her own limitations with a new strength. It’s touching; it’s almost alarming, getting so close to someone’s personal journey whom I’ve never met, never even laid eyes on.

And somehow, I feel a sort of conflict about letting my own first impressions of the poem slip away so readily. How can I ever be subjective again, what even was that big/small feeling I brushed against? “We sort of have to put our own interpretations on the back burner,” Michael offers. They’re allowing strangers to introduce their friends to them – it’s fair to take on board that person’s opinion.

It’s more than fair: the more we discuss it, it becomes clear that by taking on Claudia’s views before my own means there’s more room to grow into the poem. Before I even reread the piece I am actively in dialogue, not only with Claudia, but everyone in the room. It’s refreshing.

And this is the point in the project, it’s trying to “shine a light on people’s discoveries” Fiona says. It’s all part and parcel of the exploration to share the conversations that arise from a particular reading of a piece, a certain manner of engaging with it. In this way it’s also possible to be re-introduced to poems we think we know, taking on a broader viewpoint.

At the moment there are some readings on their website (, but unfortunately the intimate and revealing exchanges that prompted those readings aren’t yet available. Listening to Claudia speak was an immense privilege. The Poetry Exchange is, however, hoping in the near future to get a podcast up and running -to get poetic discourse happening in a broader and more intimate manner than has been done before.

We weren’t allowed to open the colourful envelopes until we left the room. Written on the back is the title and author of a poem, a prompt to go and find, explore and engage. Delightfully my poem, Rumi’s ’No Room for Form’, contains, within all its complexities and various readings, the most apt line for today: ‘beat the drum and let the poets speak’.

This was a beautiful, surprising way to spend the morning. I hope The Poetry Exchange’s exploration continues to grow, and reaches many more people. The group I shared this event with were passionate, honest, and a treat to chat poetry with. The one thing I came away knowing is that there’s still a lot to be learnt – and dialogue is our best avenue.

Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.