On Speaking Together

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The Oxford University Poetry Society has a long history of hosting open mics: dynamic spaces where both written- and spoken-word artists can share their work and, often, their lives. This term, in an attempt to broaden our thematic and aesthetic bounds, we held both our open mics as collaborative efforts, seeing these sessions not only as fundamentally co-operative but also co-creative.

Our first open mic was co-hosted with the Experimental Theatre Club and the production team of DART, a dramatization of Alice Oswald’s poem which ran at the Burton Taylor Studio in mid-November. 18 poets and a sizeable audience of friends, colleagues, and passers-by filled the ground floor of Jericho Coffee Traders, swapping its regular brew of coffee and conversation for the headier air of wine and verse.

The second, held on Advent Sunday in Turl Street Kitchen, was hosted by the Oxford Book Club, and jointly run by the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford Student PEN in support of Flight, an upcoming anthology responding to the refugee crisis, will be released in Hilary, and features writing from Oxford alongside translations of Arabic poetry, led by Yousif Qasmiyeh. Both open mics saw a truly impressive display of linguistic skills and styles, from the well-loved to the experimental. At the same time, both saw a range of true and vulnerable voices that filled their venues at once with the restless, almost implacable sense of the real.

I found myself remembering the first Michaelmas in Oxford when, numbed by cold and lengthening nights, I discovered that I was unable to write. I was acutely conscious of my voice: how my flat, Singaporean consonants sat uneasily alongside the Scots, Scouse, and Somerset of my first friends in College. Though we spoke the same language, I always felt less readily comprehensible, an accent from elsewhere. I began describing things twice, slowly, in other words; became used to explaining how English, a colonial tongue, had come to be Singapore’s first language. But writing, which requires bending and breathing into a language as if it is one’s own, continued to elude me.

It was through the Society’s open mics that I found my voice again. The community I found at these events was accepting, quirky, and friendly, disarmingly so. We talked about our music, politics, new tutors. And when the time came for us to share our poems (I read, fitfully, a piece I had written before leaving for Oxford, half-expecting blank stares at all my Singaporean references), there was nothing but the most genuine laughter and applause.

I like to think of the open mic – the improvised soapbox, the unfilled spotlight – as a place of warmth, community, and respect: a truly open space. Opening the stage, after all, is a gesture of welcome that says your voice belongs hereyou belong here. In this embrace, the audience plays an equal role to each reader. Let us gather around the fire of your words.

Writing now in the afterglow of the term, several voices from our open mics remain particularly vivid. From the DART open mic, Rosalind Peters’ tender evocation of the Welsh landscape came alive in the mind’s eye despite my upbringing on a densely-built island, hemmed by two oceans. Jemma Silvert delivered an electrifying love-poem that was as powerful in its imagery as it was in delivery, while first-time reader Stephen Durkan’s brutally funny piece on the conundrums of modern life swiftly established him to be a natural.

The Flight open mic kicked off with a set by Oxford-based poet Dan Holloway which included ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, his searing attack on the ‘classics’ and set-texts of the English canon. The mood quickly shifted as poets began to focus more closely on experiences of migration, with Miriam Gordis’ haunting meditation on “a list of things that fly”, in particular: “the sky is full of thousands of birds / caged ones can still feel the tremor in their wings”. Nikolaos Erinakis’ piece brimmed with the undercurrent of his native Athens, while April Elisabeth Pierce’s evaluation of ‘whiteness’ provided a fitting, hard-hitting conclusion.

This year, the Poetry Society turns 70. It is a difficult time for poetry in this country: a shrinking market and funding cuts have meant that even well-structured organizations like the Poetry Trust are facing indefinite closure. Such setbacks mean fewer opportunities for poets and their audiences to hold each other close, fewer occasions for honesty and welcome. As far as we can, our Society – established in 1946 amidst post-war uncertainty – will endeavour to promote poetry as a way to find, and reimagine, community. We ask only for you to join us: to listen to, and participate in, something that’s older than Oxford, on a stage we all share.

Theophilus Kwek reads History and Politics at Merton College, and is President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. Submissions for ‘Flight’, an anthology responding to Europe’s refugee crisis, are currently open. Please send no more than 3 poems, of no more than 40 lines each, to oxforduniversitypoetrysociety@gmail.com with ‘Flight’ in the subject line.

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