It’s a dark, blustery evening and I’ve taken refuge in the Hoxton Holborn hotel’s cosy mid-century style ‘apartment’ room - with about 20 others – to enjoy an evening of live poetry. Half-way through, Rose McGowan slips in quietly. Later, she gets up and reads from Erica Jong’s Alcestis On The Poetry Circuit. (The best slave does not need to be beaten / She beats herself…). Post-performances, there’s scenes of red wine consumption and mingling with strangers, as well as a renewed appetite to put pen to paper. I have, to put it simply, caught the Literary Night Out bug. I’m not alone: there’s been a surge in popularity in people swapping a boozy pub night for bookish events (more on that below). Why? In an era of never-ending political turmoil and Instagram captions judged ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ in mere seconds, a fun evening that is both enriching and scroll-free really deserves more of our time.
“People are craving a dialogue of meaning and of substance,” says poet Scarlett Sabet. “And the lines and rhythm of poetry compel you to be precise. It has always been the most natural, instantaneous language for me.” Adding that, importantly, “Poetry is truly for the masses, it's not elitist.”
Ⓒ SCARLETT SABET
“Social media and new ways of sharing writing and other audio-visual media have helped this art form reach a broader audience today,” explains musician, DJ and poet James Massiah, who describes his work as “party poetry” (“I tend to find my inspiration from philosophy, life events and heightened states.”). “Poetry’s future lies in its continued creation,” Massiah adds. “But for in as much as there are new mediums through which to share it, I am sure it will be shared.”
There are more physical experiential spaces now which help, too. Such as the non-profit theatre company Platform Presents – founded by actress Gala Gordon and producer, Isabella Macpherson – which aims to support and nurture the talents of emerging actors, directors, playwrights and poets (with a particular interest in female voices). “Poetry was the genesis of our company,” Gala tells us. “I put together a company of 12 actors to perform their best-loved poems to an audience of 200 people and recognised in that moment how powerful poetry is as an art form. We have grown from 200 seats to now 1,200. It is the shortest form of storytelling and is still so hard hitting.”
The company’s annual Platform Presents Poetry Gala - now in its fourth year - will take place on February 9th at the Savoy Theatre London. Directed by Gemma Arterton, speakers will include stars from stage and screen, from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Alice Eve to Holliday Grainger and Rhys Ifans (you can book tickets here). Later this year Gordon and Macpherson will also host a special poetry workshop at the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo in Sicily, on the hotel’s literary terrace (where D.H. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, no less).
Undoubtably, spreading the word is intersecting with fashion, music and film more than ever. Lana Del Rey describes her latest album, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass (released next month), as “freestyle poetry”. Clothes and prose are closely entwined, too, in 2020; it’s likely there’s at least one person in your friendship circle suddenly dressing a lot like Jo March in Little Women. This year’s Met Gala muse is literary icon Virginia Woolf, taking inspiration from her novel Orlando. And there was a definite nod to Joan Didion’s ever-desirable, 70s uniform on the Celine spring/summer 2020 runway (the essentials: high-waisted jeans and ginormous sunglasses).
Okay, so, you’re now on the hunt for a literary fix - outside of the bedroom? From cosy haunts to sit and read (and yes, drink some wine) to London’s hottest poetry nights, step inside a book lover’s paradise.
Best for: A nightcap
For those whose ideal Friday night is a glass of pinot noir and a good book, indulge in one of the smattering of library bars popping up in the capital. Some of our personal favourites include the Standard Hotel’s Library Lounge, where you can perch yourself on a plush leather sofa and pick from their extensive book menu, vino in hand. As well as the Library Bar at The Ned, which feels like you’ve stepped into a secret drawing room.
“My ideal literary night out? I would take a friend to go and see George the Poet live. He is a British spoken-word artist, poet, rapper, and has a fantastic podcast called ‘Have You Heard George's Podcast?’ After the show we would wind up at The Bloomsbury Club Bar, which takes inspiration from the lives of the famously hedonistic Bloomsbury Set. And one of my favourite places to read is the Seamus Heaney Library, upstairs at The Bloomsbury Hotel is named after the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet.” – Gala Gordon
Best for: A mid-week friend date
“Two of the places I love and read regularly at are The Troubadour, on Old Brompton Road in Covent Garden and the Poetry Society's Poetry Café on Betterton Street. The latter is a really accessible point for someone that is interested in hearing a lot of poetry and maybe is considering wanting to write and read it in front of an audience. They have a different style of open mic events almost every day. One of my favourite nights, and the one I go to most regularly, is Poetry Unplugged - you sign up to perform between 6:45-7:15pm, the night starts at 7.30pm and ends at 10.30pm. Sometimes almost 50 people will be packed into the basement and it's completely democratic, but you get four minutes and if you go over you'll be lovingly stopped by Niall O'Sullivan, the host. I love trying out new material at Poetry Unplugged, when I've written something new and want to christen it with the electric energy of a live audience I go there and see for myself how it feels to read it out loud.
The Troubadour Coffee House Poetry night has been run by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe for 20 years. She curates the evening and invites poets to read their work. She really championed me right when I self-published my first book. Alongside this, journalists (such as war correspondent Fergal Keane), university professors, and also legendary poets like Ruth Fainlight read (she was friends with Sylvia Plath). There is such a great range of quality work to be heard. I love performing there but it's also such a treat to just listen, sit back and be inspired.” - Scarlett Sabet
Best for: Rainy Sundays
Want to hear from award-winning female novelists in a luxuriously intimate setting? The Sunday Salon at The Ned is for you. It begins with journalist Alice-Azania Jarvis interviewing that month's guest before taking questions from the audience (previously hosting the likes of Nimco Ali and Elizabeth Day, to Holly Bourne and Laura Freeman). To attend, you need to sign up to Alice-Azania’s website: she announces each one on email and spots are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis (it’s a free event but be aware spaces fills up fast!) “It's a very uplifting start to a Sunday - some people bring a plus one, but many come on their own as there's a sense of community,” Jarvis says. “People start chatting and friendships can be made. Also, I think people are looking for ways to learn and grow and expand their mind all the time - it's not like you just leave education, start work, and then only have an interest in one thing for the rest of your life. The fact that it's in the gorgeous surroundings of The Ned helps too, of course!”