My Elizabeth Jennings story (because it is Christmas)
I liked Elizabeth Jennings and I like her poems. When I was 30 I directed my first poetry festivals. While programming I made a decision to ask women poets to read at most of the events. I drew no attention to this engaging balance. I thought the programming made its own point. At one festival, of the 24 poets performing, 21 were women poets. The three men were programmed into one event of their own which I called “Three Male Poets”. I bought myself a Stevie Smith tee-shirt and set about hosting (my tee-shirt bore a photo of Stevie Smith; there are edgier versions available; see image below). The main performance space was a little… well, it was dull. So, using what came to hand from skips and photocopiers and craft shops, I built a high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries. This provided a lively backdrop to the performance area, and gave better lighting and perspective for performer and audience. What happened next? The readings were packed. Sometimes I had to turn people away. And they were really angry at being turned away. Why? Because some of the women poets I had booked simply did not get asked to do readings because these women were – women and some were old. Thus, these readings were rare appearances. In fact, there was a mini-riot before the reading by Elizabeth Jennings because of numbers trying to press in through the door. I had met Elizabeth from the train three hours earlier. Immediately we clicked. She jabbed her finger to my chest. ‘You’re wearing my *friend*!!!’ . Anyway, I introduced her to the keen, standing-room-only audience. She rose to the occasion and read with clarity, magic and total power. As the reading went on so more people took advantage of the fact we were all listening to Elizabeth to sneak in through doors and windows. By the time she came to read her final poem the room was overfull. And the audience exploded with applause when she finished. So enthusiastically! Their rapture took Elizabeth Jennings by surprise and she slipped and fell backwards. With a puma’s speed (I was 30), I was under her, breaking her fall and catching her in my arms. The applause grew louder. But as I caught her we both collided with the ‘high, wide self-standing frieze of poems, images and images of women poets of the last three centuries’. This wall of wonders trembled for a second and then, like the finale of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, collapsed around us. ‘Like an allegory’, cried Elizabeth Jennings. And the audience exploded again - and picked her out of my arms - and carried her away to be loved and adored like the hero she was.