Tiffany Atkinson’s introduction to UEA’s 2022 Poetry MA anthology, published by Egg Box and available HERE
It’s break-time, we’re getting coffee and chatting and, somehow, laughing at the idea of ‘Poetry Voice’. Obviously, we all hate Poetry Voice: the affected way of intoning one’s own poetry aloud as if Something Important is Happening. It has given poetry readings, and poets, a bit of a bad name. Nobody wants to be caught out appearing to take themselves that seriously; it’s embarrassing. Then again, I find myself thinking later, we’ve devoted most of the year to exploring in detail how poetry is, precisely, different from other kinds of language use. Why shouldn’t it have a different voice? So what if it makes claims for itself? What if something important is happening? Moreover, given the cumulative affective flatness of almost two years of Zoom poetry events, a poet could intone their poems like Darth Vader himself and so long as they were actually there in three dimensions I’d still be in. More than ever it just feels important to be there.
A printed poem is a crystallisation of voice, of course, and an anthology is a provisional community of voices. By voice I mean a quality of compositional individuality – this may be frankly expressive, but it may equally be combinatory, dialogic, translingual, associative, figurative: all the ways in which a poem reaches deeply into the mechanics of meaning-making and ‘knowing’. This anthology is a record of a year’s individual and collective work: this is the very ethos of the writing workshop. The novelty of being an actual physical community again this year has felt both a challenge and a privilege, perhaps no more so than when Joelle Taylor, our UNESCO Poetry Fellow, delivered a workshop in which all participants were required to write, memorise and perform a new poem in the space of just two hours. This didn’t just mean poetry voice, it meant poetry body: no time for prevarication and revision, no place to hide. For one heart-stopping moment, as Joelle gave instructions, I thought (unaccustomed as we’ve become to sharing the writing process at such close quarters and with so many shy folk among us) that there would be an insurrection. But no. Thanks to Joelle’s absolute confidence in the process, in us all, it was a rowdy and memorable triumph. Well, that was a bit hair-raising, said somebody afterwards. Yes! Wasn’t it just! I said, thrilled by the whole thing, by the reminder of what ‘liveness’ actually means; community too, the fundamental human difficulty of being one among many. And by Joelle’s energetic demonstration that it is the job of the audience as much as of the poet to put some heart into it, to have faith in the process, to create the space for voice to emerge, to sound itself out, to be heard.
Reading as much as writing is also a making of that space. In that space something is always happening. So I say yes to poetry voice, which is the voice of language trying to put itself differently, through one, through many.