Tentative Tender Tendrils from the Torriano

I am waiting for a delivery from Plamen, my driver. A text has informed me he will be arriving between 13:00 – 14:00. Many of us have been waiting for deliveries in the past months – food, clothes, whatever, as we lockdown and hunker down, but this delivery is part of a strategy to reverse that trend. It is a delivery of bleach and paper towels. And the aim is to bring live poetry back – not necessarily to the masses, but back. In fact, Zoom has been responsible for bringing poetry to the masses, or at least having the potential to. It has opened  up poetry in ways we did not think possible pre-COVID. It was a platform I used to connect with technology companies if I had a journalism commission. I did not associate it with poetry, but now of course we are all Zooming to a lesser or greater degree. It has been a fantastic resource and has connected poets and audiences outside our normal parochial boundaries with its ability to reach anyone connected online anywhere in the world. However, and for me it is a big HOWEVER, I miss live poetry events. The Torriano Meeting House is my spiritual poetry home if I can err on the side of whimsical and I have been going many a Sunday evening for over a decade. Often the audiences are small. It doesn’t matter. And often the small audiences are no reflection on the quality or indeed fame of the guest poet. I have been to readings by well-known poetry names and counted the audience on the fingers of one hand. The trick is with the Torriano to invite people to come along. If you think your name is starry enough to attract Glastonbury crowds you will be severely disappointed. Often, a poet reading for the first time will fill the house because it is a major event for them, and they will invite all their family and friends. Anyway, I digress, but audience size is something I want to come back to.

Yesterday, I cycled to the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town. I have not been there since Lockdown, so around half a year. It has been so long that I wasn’t sure which key from my jumble of keys in various drawers would open the beautiful green door (please if you are old enough to remember Shakin Stevens, do not get a nasty case of ear worm) and reveal the familiar space which has hosted all manner of events including poetry, storytelling, plays, anarchist meetings and birthday parties. Many people are familiar with its history and how it was established by John Rety, his partner Susan Johns, and their daughter Emily in 1982. In 1987, John and Susan founded Hearing Eye publications and to this day it is still publishing wonderful and exciting pamphlets and collections. It is an important landmark in the UK poetry world and beyond. The building should really have a blue plaque, but that is another story.

So, fortunately out of my two sets of keys, one afforded me open sesame. It was strange and lovely to feel the familiar wooden floorboards beneath my feet and smell that musty mixture of books, history and good times that has seeped into the walls. There has also been a lot of red wine spilt over the years, which might explain it. The question is – can we open up again anytime soon? Following a two hour Zoom meeting with Emily and poet Katherine Gallagher, we decided to investigate. We spent some fun time going through building risk assessments regarding COVID and various online advice from the government and council and decided it was worth trying. It is not an easy task and there is a lot of thinking about how the space is used; surfaces; signage; rubbish; eating; drinking etc. etc. We decided for the time being to cut off the kitchen and to not allow drinks and mingling in the interval. Perhaps a BYO bottle could work. Perhaps. But for now, it is a case of let’s see what can be done to bring back the poetry first and foremost.

I was fortified to see The New Factory of the Eccentric Actor has one flyer in the window for an upcoming performance of ‘A Journey Together’ Mr and Mrs Lenin in conversation on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th September, a socially distanced performance rolling on from 1pm to 6pm with only three audience members allowed in the building at one time. This is the new spirit of performance post-COVID. And this is the sort of sprit I hope to bring to poetry events.

Seeing the flyers on the entrance table with the names of all the poets who should have read but didn’t and all the artists that should have exhibited but couldn’t felt melancholy. Likewise, the empty picture rail that could do with something hanging from it, but the Cornell Box that keeps on whirring if you hit the right switch was symbolic of getting cogs in motion.

It felt slightly surreal setting up the chairs as if an event were about to take place. I am used to a bit of furniture shifting, but normally in the knowledge that I will get a few bums on seats. Ghostly bottoms were all I could hope for, but I needed to work out the normal capacity compared to the new normal capacity.

I counted 26 chairs, three spaces on the day bed, two spaces on the trestle at the back and three white stools. A grand total of 34! I do remember occasions with standing room only and audience members sitting on the steps of the stage, but my paradigm didn’t stretch to exceptional.

With my trusty social distancing measurer, going for a minimum of one metre distance with people wearing masks, I took away all superfluous chairs. Room for eight audience members tops, one host in the wicker chair in the corner, two poets on stage and that’s your lot.

I remain excited about the idea….and will give some more updates along the way. How amazing if we can have an event this side of Christmas.

Meanwhile, the hand sanitiser and paper towels have arrived. I’d better line up my panniers and get my Marigolds on.

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