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  • Fiona Bennett

Encounters with Poems as Friends

Updated: May 18, 2020

Published in Poetry News 2019.

Celebrating the act of reading with The Poetry Exchange

The Poetry Exchange grew out of my curiosity about the act of reading poetry. A conversation takes place between a reader and a poem, a conversation that happens in the moment of discovery, over time and through the journey of a life. I noticed a resonance between the ebb and flow of conversations with good friends and my experience of reading poems and I wondered if this was true for others. I took this idea to my close colleague and friend Michael Shaeffer, and together we began to invite people to come and talk about the poem that’s been a friend to them. It seemed only right that in exchange for their thoughts we should offer something back and so we developed the idea of creating a bespoke reading of their chosen poem inspired by the conversation and sending it back to them as a gift. We found the conversations so absorbing and illuminating, offering a completely new way in to a poem, that we wanted to share them beyond the intimate experience of the exchange itself. The Poetry Exchange podcast came into being in 2016 and is extending the conversation about poems as friends with thousands of listeners in over 150 countries around the world. It won the silver for “most original podcast” at this year’s British Podcast Awards.

Spaces we have held the exchange in so far have included a teepee, a 14th century chapel, a victorian library, a shop and a pottery! A wonderful team of poets, readers, actors and producers has gathered around the project. Our visitors come from all walks of life and we have also had some well-known guests including; Maxine Peake, Andrew Scott and Paterson Joseph. You can find all the episodes on the website: The Poetry Exchange | Listen.

Many people who have experienced the project have remarked on the distinctive nature of the conversations. It seems that the triangulation of three people, the framing of poem as friend and having the objective of creating the gift recording to guide the conversation sets up a unique set of boundaries.

“It was intimate, welcoming, the conversation was both friendly and thought-provoking. I came in thinking I know this poem and then something new started to reveal itself. It was a unique and unexpectedly profound experience.”

- (visitor to an exchange at The Poetry Library)

The invitation for people to bring a poem that has been a friend to them has proved to be a very rich seam of exploration. Friends like poems come in many forms and friendship can be both unifying and dissonant in equal measure. In her collection of essays, “What is Found There”, Adrienne Rich wrote:

“We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to experience the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend.”

This sense of challenge and diversity as much as recognition and affirmation chimes with what we are discovering in our exploration of poems as friends. It is part of the defining quality of friendship that it can enable us to connect as much through difference as through shared experience. The poems and connections that we have catalogued so far have been as diverse, unexpected and as dynamic as the readers who have brought them to us. We have been introduced to poems that strengthen people’s courage and risk-taking, that have borne witness to anger and pain caused by social or personal rejection, as well as poems that have opened a door into a new world or a way of being that until that moment of encounter, was closed. We have re-met poems we knew well, been introduced to poets whose work is not well-known and travelled into different cultures and languages with poems in their original language and translation. We have not been inundated with “the usual suspects” but when we have been taken to Wordsworth’s Daffodils or Yeat’s Lake Isle our visitors have brought something startling and fresh to the encounter with these well-known poems.

Often there is a moment in the conversation, perhaps twenty minutes in where it feels like we have covered the ground of the connection, referenced some of the gems locked in the language and form of the poem and that we could all leave it there. We have learnt to resist this temptation, to let a silence settle. Often in this moment of waiting a new connection reveals itself, taps our visitor on the shoulder and opens up a new layer of the conversation. Going just beyond the comfortable moment, waiting in the emptiness, just as we would in the writing process, offers a quality of time and space that is increasingly hard to find in a disruptive and distracted world.

When we hold these conversations we experience the physical being of a poem, the way it can sit with you in a room and you can feel its company. The editing team listens closely and curates the audio material so that the podcast offers listeners a kind of eavesdropping experience on this same intimacy and discovery.

To listen in, head to the website and to find out where our next Exchange day will be sign up to the newsletter on the contact page.

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