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In Conversation With The National Poetry Library

STRAND Magazine gets a special insight into the world's largest public collection of modern poetry.

Photo by Pete Woodhead, Courtesy of Southbank Centre


I talked with three librarians at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall: Troy Cabida, a Filipino poet and producer from south-west London; Nina Mingya Powles, a New Zealander and one of three winners of the Women Poets' Prize; and Will René, presenter of Plastic Language on NTS Radio. They discuss what it is like to work at the National Poetry Library, their own practices of poetry, and how poetry can be relevant for us all.


Firstly, I would love to know, how did you get involved with working at the National Poetry Library?


Troy Cabida: I first heard about the National Poetry Library through the London poetry scene around 2017-18, and it has since become a really important space for me and my writing. When the job listing for a full-time library assistant came up in 2022, I leapt at the chance to apply and was really happy when I got the role! Having worked in public libraries previously, I’ve found the transition into the National Poetry Library really easy and exciting because it’s the perfect mixture of the two things I love doing most.


Nina Mingya Powles: A friend told me about the National Poetry Library before I moved to London, and I couldn’t believe a place like that existed. I became a member in early 2018 and it quickly became one of my favourite creative spaces. I had worked in a couple of libraries before, and I was looking for a job that involved poetry somehow. In summer 2018 I was lucky to join the team as a Library Assistant.


Will René: I started working in the library in 2016 after keeping my eyes wide open for opportunities to work in libraries. I was working at a bookshop in Brighton at the time and hadn't known about the library before. When I first saw the scale and depth of the collection I was awestruck - I couldn't believe it existed, much less that I found work here. To be honest that sense of awe hasn’t really gone away!


Can you explain how the National Poetry Library works, for someone who has never been?


TC: So the National Poetry Library collects poetry published in the UK from 1912 onwards, and we’re both a reference and lending library for those who have a membership with us. We have a focus on contemporary poetry and we’re always on the lookout for new and exciting work by poets working today. The space is dedicated exclusively to patrons reading and researching poetry and for those who would like to access our collection, so if exploring poetry is something you’re interested in, come down!


NMP: We also have a free e-books lending programme where you can borrow lots of digital poetry collections that might otherwise be checked out from the library; anyone in the UK can sign up by emailing us.


WR: I would add that membership to borrow books from the library is totally free - but anyone can come and browse, even if they're not a member. Our opening times are quite accessible (we open at weekends and during most weekday evenings), so people can come and visit outside their regular working hours. We also keep our study spaces reserved for people using the collection, so there's always somewhere quiet in London for people to read or write poetry!

Photo by Takis Zontiros, Courtesy of Southbank Centre


What is working at the National Poetry Library like? What is your favourite thing about it?


TC: Working at the poetry library feels like having a front row seat to all of the new work coming into the literary landscape, as well as access to writing from older voices that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I love being able to share new work to the wider poetry audience, recommending my friends’ books and pamphlets, finding them the right reader, and sharing them as staff picks around the library for curious patrons to discover.


NMP: It is incredibly creatively energising to work amongst such a brilliant archive of poetry. I regularly discover poets I hadn’t come across before, both new and old. It feels like the centre of a thriving literary community and a place where poetry intersects with other art forms like music, fashion and visual art. I also love that it’s a place where families and children are welcome.


WR: One of my favourite things about working in the library is the variety, both in the material we collect and the people who come to look at it. Poetry is such a versatile artform, so people come to us for so many different reasons. From families coming in to read the children's books, to students doing deep research into obscure small presses from the 70s, to performance poets quietly honing their craft, every day brings new and unexpected encounters, both at the desk and among the shelves.


How did you get started with writing poetry?


TC: I first got into poetry through my GCSE English Literature class in Year 11 when we were introduced to work by Derek Walcott, Carol Ann Duffy, Sujata Bhatt, and John Agard. At that point I wanted to be a novelist but when we were encouraged to explore writing poetry, the bug never stopped biting!


NMP: I found poetry really intimidating when I was at school. We only studied Romantic poets and First World War poets and I didn’t feel I could connect with their words, though I enjoyed some of the language. I think my first emotional encounter with poetry was actually through lyrics: I used to copy out Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana lyrics in my school books. Much later, at uni, I discovered poets who are actually still living, such as Anne Carson and Sharon Olds, who showed me the playful and expansive possibilities of what a poem can be. From there, there was no going back.


WR: I'm not a poet myself but I came to poetry through music. I spent a lot of my teenage years listening to (…and imitating) overtly literary songwriters like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, which led me to the poets who influenced them — mostly beat generation stuff like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso.

Photo by Takis Zontiros, Courtesy of Southbank Centre


What, or who, are your biggest inspirations?


TC: I’m a huge fan of Kim Addonizio, Savannah Brown, Rachel Long, Joseph Legaspi, and Terrance Hayes. I love Joe Carrick-Varty’s latest collection, too. Poets that I grew up performing and producing events with also inspire me, such as Amina Jama, Gabriel Akamo, Jeremiah Brown, Kareem Parkins-Brown and so on. Outside of poetry, artists and craftspeople like Elsa Peretti and Salman Toor come up in my work a lot.


NMP: Victoria Chang, Bhanu Kapil, Emily Berry and Natalie Diaz are some of my all-time favourite poets. Lots of films and TV shows also find their way into my work, as well as music and art. I’m inspired by many artists and painters whose work intersects with poetry, like Louise Bourgeois and Etel Adnan.


WR: What I find myself inspired by changes on a pretty regular basis, but in terms of poetry, people I’ve found myself revisiting over the last few years, in no real order, have been Inger Christensen, Pratyusha, Pierre Reverdy, Renee Gladman, Kyra Simone, Stephen Watts, Roger Robinson, Andre du Bouchet, Eve Esfandiari-Denney... Without wanting to sound corny, I also find myself pretty consistently inspired by both the staff and visitors at the library, from whom I'm always learning new things.


What excites you most about poetry?


TC: I love the malleable nature of poetry. The idea that there is, and could be, a poem about anything and that being a valid representation of the genre. Working at the National Poetry Library has exposed me to poetry that mixes with other mediums like sound, zines, and objects. I’m always left feeling like I’m able to pursue that project that’s been percolating in my mind and not be afraid of it being judged as not poetry when it can be.


NMP: I feel like my relationship with poetry is always evolving. Right now I’m most excited by the physical possibilities of poetry; the way a poem can be a textural object, something you can feel and hold in your hands. I am interested in how poetry can be intertwined with textile art and other crafts. I’ve also been making poetry zines for almost 10 years, and that still excites me!


WR: I guess for me the exciting thing about poetry is that it can communicate things on a very fundamental and immediate level — even if, or especially if, the experience of reading or listening to poetry can be weird and baffling. I also agree with what Troy says about the malleability of poetry — this makes it feel inherently accessible as an artform, while at the same time giving it an infinite capacity to surprise you.

Photo by Pete Woodhead, Courtesy of Southbank Centre


For Troy: I really loved 100 Queer Poems — what was it like to be included in this popular anthology?


Being part of 100 Queer Poems feels like a validation of my queerness and of my identity as a poet, so I’m very grateful to have my work included in this very important anthology. I always enjoy hearing from people who come up to me about the poem because it gives me a chance to understand how my work comes across to different audiences. Recently, the anthology was featured in a scene on the second season of the Netflix series Heartstopper, which probably is one of the best things to have happened to me as a poet so far. Shout outs to the editors Mary Jean Chan and Andrew McMillan!


For Nina: What is it like running your small press Bitter Melon苦瓜, that publishes limited-edition pamphlets by Asian poets? How did you get started with this?


Handmade books are special objects; when you hold one in your hands, you can tell that care has been taken with the weight and colour of the paper, the binding, the design of the text. Inspired by presses such as Seraph Press and Guillemot Press, I decided to start my own very small press that would focus on Asian poets. It was really rewarding and inspiring to publish the first few Bitter Melon pamphlet collections. This happened mostly during lockdown, at a time when many of us were feeling very isolated from each other and feeling the impact of anti-Asian racism in the news and in everyday life. Running a small press alone is quite challenging though, and after publishing four pamphlets Bitter Melon is currently on a bit of a hiatus, but I hope to be able to return to it soon.


For Will: Can you explain how you got the idea for your show Plastic Language? I am so interested in how you combine poetry with jazz, ASMR, and more.


The idea for Plastic Language was inspired by working with the library's incredible collection of recorded poetry, in particular the vinyl records. There are a huge number of poets working with sound and music in interesting ways, and a radio show seemed the most effective (and most fun) way of exploring this. Being able to put stuff like the feral vocal acrobatics of François Dufrene within the same context as the jazz poetry of Irreversible Entanglements feels like a nice way to convey the excitement of perusing the library shelves. My hope is that poets might listen to the show, discover the collection, and feel inspired to make their own sonic experiments and collaborations.

Photo by Pete Woodhead, Courtesy of Southbank Centre


What do you think the future holds for poetry? The arts keep facing cuts, but I really think literature and poetry are essential. Personally, I hope that it is becoming increasingly accessible, pertinent, and inspiring for more and more people.


TC: There was a time before the pandemic when poetry was growing more and more intertwined with mainstream media, like poets performing in television adverts and press covering poetry nights as the next place to be. While I do think that poetry is slowly finding its footing again to where it was, I am aware of the growing circumstances surrounding logistics that make creating and maintaining these spaces harder than they were before.


That being said, I’m very excited for the new nights that are coming up for emerging poets to experiment and build communities in, such as Deen & Dunya, Everything, t’Artopia, and Crunch, which tells me poetry is thriving and that there is still very much an audience for poetry. I can see a lot of that interest while working at the library desk, too, which is great.


NMP: I do think that despite the ongoing crisis in arts funding, the global audience for poetry is growing. The fact that there is little money to be made in poetry doesn’t seem to dissuade poets from continuing to develop their craft, though more investment in the literature sector will be crucial to ensuring people from all backgrounds can pursue writing as a career. Hopefully with the help of more development programmes for new and marginalised writers such as Southbank Centre’s New Poets Collective, getting into poetry will become more accessible.


WR: One of the great things about poetry is how democratic it is as a form — beyond the time and space needed to think and write, there are no material or financial barriers to writing a poem. While it's disheartening to see the current arts funding cuts, and the number of independent publishers closing as a result of them, the passion and dedication I see at the library desk make me optimistic that poetry will continue to thrive and flourish, and to grow in surprising and innovative directions.


Finally, what advice would you have for younger or emerging poets?


TC: Check out the Young Poets Network for any opportunities and submission calls that may be of interest to them and their work. Hit up an open mic night and just sign up to read. Explore the Young Adult section at the NPL and have a look at the kind of work that young people are producing today. And any doubt you may have about your work is natural, but always remember that there is value in what you do, and that someone out there will be thankful to have read your work one day.


NMP: Read as much as you can, and widely — not just poetry, but anything you find interesting or any kind of writing that inspires you to write. In reading widely you might also discover which styles of poetry don’t work for you, and that’s useful too.


WR: My advice would be to keep an open mind, to read as widely as possible (and draw inspiration from outside poetry, too! Novels, music, films, art, conversations etc.), and to be patient with your work and with yourself. Also, come and talk to us at the library desk! We're always happy to meet new people and help them find what they're looking for, whether that’s the next step on their creative journey or their next favourite poet.

Photo by Pete Woodhead, Courtesy of Southbank Centre

 

The National Poetry Library is in the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, located on the fifth floor. It is the largest public collection of modern poetry in the world and membership is free, but you don’t need to be a member to browse or use the space.


The library holds more than 200,000 items and is growing all the time. The collections includes books, magazines, audio recordings and children’s books:

  • over 2,000 audio recordings including several hundred vinyl LPs, including one-off readings by significant poets such Anne Sexton, e.e. cummings and Langston Hughes.

  • a collection of around 1,500 posters, ranging from the Poems on the Underground series to rare prints from the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s and 60s including work by artists such Ian Hamilton Finlay.

  • about 2,000 postcards and poem cards (an expanded form of postcard, that includes a poem) capturing an ongoing publishing practice of poetry in an ephemeral form. These postcards often capture poems in their only print manifestation. The collection includes rare pieces, such as the Dada series from Redfoxpress and Poems in the Waiting Room, as well as some signed items.

The library holds free exhibitions in its exhibition space and hosts events exploring poetry from new and unique perspectives. Special Edition is a monthly series of events brought by proposal from a broad range of organisers, poets and people new to poetry. Every year, the library calls out for submissions, which transforms the library into a backdrop for debates, Q&As, collaborative performances and live readings of poetry.


Opening times:

Tue 12 - 6pm

Wed - Sun 12 - 8pm




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