Rona Luo - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
The latest cohort of Southbank Centre’s New Poets Collective have invented a new term — ‘liquidism’. Coined by Rona Luo, ‘liquidism’ aims to dismantle boundaries, both within poetry and beyond. ‘Fuck your constraints, fuck your funding application forms’, she says — a testament to how art should never be forced into categories to be valued. After all, ‘we’ve seen what happens when we try to enforce borders’. We should all aim to be more ‘liquidist’, to break the barriers of words and between us. As Luo insists, this will save lives.
In the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Saturday 21st October, before this London Literature Festival event started, images of the New Poets Collective’s past year flitted across the screen behind the stage. Photos of the group together, of their weekly workshops, and of their poetry drafts invited the audience into their world immediately, creating an intimate atmosphere that we were all excited to be immersed in.
The New Poets Collective runs every year as a free programme dedicated to supporting emerging poets from diverse backgrounds. It’s co-tutored by Vanessa Kisuule and Will Harris, both extremely talented poets who were leading the event. The warmth of the community they had fostered was tangible — Kisuule described how choosing a collective is like ‘improvising a recipe’, and it seems like the components — the poets — always end up creating something beautiful. This is most likely because of the tutors’ admirable teaching style. In an interview before the showcase, Kisuule underlined how she and Harris do not establish a hierarchy — ‘We pick poets who we genuinely admire and are intrigued by and we consider them peers rather than students. We take for granted that we have as much to learn from them as they do us’.
After Luo’s introductory ‘liquidist’ reading, we saw a short film created by Rowan Lyster. An important skill that the poets learn is how to respond to a commission — Kisuule asks the collective to pitch an idea for a poetry film, and the best one gets commissioned. Lyster’s film featured a Barbie doll in a claustrophobic water tank, slowly filling up as the lines written on the tank were read out when the blue water line reached them. To me, it conveyed the horrifying panic we feel regarding climate change — how rising sea levels overwhelm us and literally threaten to drown our voices out as we feel helpless against it.
Left to right: Hazel Davis, Oshanti Ahmed, Tracey Hammett - Photos by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
In this way, the first poet to perform their work was perfect — Hazel Davis’s poem ‘Occupation’ reminded us how we cannot be ‘tricked into powerlessness’. Following this, we heard from Oshanti Ahmed, who read ‘In Defence of Sultana’s Dream’ based on the feminist sci-fi story from 1905, a book that should be recognised as a pioneering work if not for its quality compared to our modern standards. Then, Oliver Fox’s readings were about ‘writing poetry and the passing of time’ — which pretty much sums up a year in the collective. Firstly, he drew upon his background as an arts administrator — he’s still ‘coming to terms with’ working in the ‘poetry industrial complex’. His next poem, ‘Desire Path’, was about ageing. It’s something he can’t stop thinking about now he’s in his thirties, especially having seen himself at unflattering angles. In a hilarious response, the screen behind him turned into a shot of the back of his head as he read about balding — ‘you can’t teach a bald dog new tricks’, ‘maybe you find sanctity in hats’, and my personal favourite line, ‘don’t call it a comb over, call it a comeback!’ We moved from humour to heartbreak when Tracey Hammett read a poignant poem about the South West London estate she lives on, where over 100 languages are spoken, but which has since fallen into disrepair since the council sold the estate to a housing association — a quintessential London story.
Oliver Fox - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
Sanah Ahsan was one of the most striking poets of the night for me. I felt extremely grateful that she acknowledged how she, and potentially everyone in the room, was feeling ‘tender’ and ‘brokenhearted’ regarding current events in Gaza, and how the media is severing us from humanity. She made a point that I think will always stay with me as a testament to the healing power of poetry — feeling present in our bodies helps us stay connected to ourselves, each other, and the world, and poetry is a way of doing this. Poetry allows us to inhabit our bodies and thus keep us balanced. As a psychologist, Ahsan spoke of how mental health is too often depoliticised. If the mind and body are separated instead of connected, when what’s happening right now is ‘madness-inducing’, we can’t help but spiral. Her poem, ‘Is Depression An Anger Turned Inwards’, was endlessly affecting, with many lines that are still rattling round my head — ‘liberation is pitying us’ and ‘I worry this life is wasted on me’. She wrote it in response to the government’s violent immigration policies, but unfortunately, the poem continues to resonate. She mentioned that she explores this theme further in her upcoming collection, I Cannot Be Good Until You Say It, coming out in March 2024 — I’ll be looking forward to reading it.
Sanah Ahsan - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
The next poet, Oakley Flanagan, was equally mesmerising even if he could not join us in person. On the screen he read a passage from his collection G&T, and his delivery was completely unflinching — the speed reminded me of the inextricable connection between poetry and musicality. Then, Mariana Gardner performed a series of short poems; I especially liked ‘In Pink’, a touching reflection on loneliness. She also read an ekphrastic poem based on her own painting — the collective’s use of multimedia was truly impressive and ‘liquidist’!
I really enjoyed Rowan Lyster’s work — not only her film but her meditations on illness. Specifically, long covid has been an obstacle to Lyster’s writing process in the past year; nevertheless her poems were beautiful, and she described the collective as a ‘ray of light’ amid her struggles. In ‘Health Journal’, someone at the back of the audience acted as the second speaker of the poem, pretending to be that voice on the phone to the doctor we all hate — ‘you are 11th in the queue…’. I was also very struck by Lyster’s description of her body becoming ‘unrecognisable’ — she used to run half marathons and now she calls herself ‘lazy’; her body ‘can’t be trusted’. My heart ached upon hearing this.
Left to right: Oakley Flanagan, Mariana Gardner, Rowan Lyster - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
Kathryn O’Driscoll was also unable to make it, so Will Harris read her poem ‘Girlhood’, which I wish I could have heard her perform! Certain lines resonated with me deeply, such as, ‘I throw personality traits up in the air and only catch the ones that flutter before they kick me’, and ‘somewhere there is an abandoned backpack full of Polaroids other people took of me’. Then, Tim Tim Cheng stunned us by filling the room with a soundscape. At first I thought the mic was broken, but it ended up being a haunting soundtrack to a poem which repeated phrases over and over — ‘have you forgotten the fires? the fires remember…’ After Cheng, Izzy Radford filled the room with laughter — her poem ‘Character Study’ focuses on Dan, a man who leads acting classes that the speaker participates in and who once said, ‘you never know what someone is going through’ — he once saw ‘Al Pacino in a 7/11’. Echoing the collective, the speaker emphasised how these classes helped with ‘keeping each other alive’ — ‘we’re all waiters with no money but we always find some…for Dan’ (nevertheless, the New Poets Collective is free and provides a bursary).
Tim Tim Cheng and Izzy Radford - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
Yanita Georgieva also used film to her advantage. Her poem, ‘My Grandfather Can’t Remember All the Hijackings He Witnessed’, is based on her granddad’s strange experiences while working at a Bulgarian airport. As she performed, videos of planes — of them flying and landing, of passengers and pilots — were projected onto the screen and soft music flooded the room, creating a nostalgic feel. Rory Aaron’s performance was impressive, too, as he read both of his poems by heart. He captured what it’s like to live in the city very well — how much more alienating can it get when you ‘brush past a silhouette’.
Towards the end of the night was April Yee, Leah Wilkins, and Rona Luo again. Yee read a highly unsettling poem about motherhood and performance, and Wilkins’s ‘Poem for Mills’ — after Frank O’Hara’s ‘À la recherche d’ Gertrude Stein’ — was boundlessly sweet, with lines such as ‘there is no better reason to be alive and drink earl grey in the morning…other than that I get to spend these summer days with you’. Finally, Luo’s poem was about Chinese settler colonialism, with the text appearing on the screen behind her like a letter. Certainly, each poet brought something completely different and exciting to the table.
Left to right: Yanita Georgieva, Rory Aaron, Leah Wilkins - Photo by Arnaud Mbaki, Courtesy of Southbank Centre
Luo also read thank you notes to Kisuule, Harris, and Sophie Ransbury, who works behind the scenes and made the New Poets Collective happen — as Harris acknowledged, ‘the greatest form of poetry…is admin’. The poets snuck backstage to come back with flower bouquets, and Harris and Kisuule expressed their gratitude. Harris hoped that we enjoyed this ‘poetry tapas night’ and that we keep reading and following these new poets, and Kisuule said that she’s so happy she gets to do this for a living — it’s the ‘greatest privilege’ of her life. I left feeling grateful myself, to hear all this new, exhilarating work from a brilliant range of writers. I can’t wait to see what these poets do next — and where ‘liquidism’ will take us.
Photo by Lara Mae Simpson
This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.
Written and edited by Lara Mae Simpson