Monday, 3 May 2010

Wanting a word

"Can I have a word?"

It was early evening and I was walking down Leicester's New Walk. I looked at the young man who had accosted me. He was polite, hesitant, holding a clip-board and pen.

"I'd like a word," he said. "Just one. Any word you like."

This was difficult. There are so many words. I paused for a few moments and thought.

"Insubstantial," I offered.

He looked hesitant, then held out his clip-board. "Would you write it down, please?"

I wrote it as clearly as I could, in capital letters, at the bottom of his word-crammed page.

"Thank you," he said as I handed back the clip-board.

I smiled, wished him a good evening, and walked on.

When I tell friends about the encounter, they assume I'm making it up. I don't know why. I often want a word. Asking people for words seems an altogether sensible endeavour. I did my best to respond with a good one - I wouldn't have wanted to fob the young man off with something like "nice" or "tomato." And I didn't want to ask why he wanted a word. That was his own business - a question would have seemed too intrusive and familiar. It would have wasted his time. After all, there are lots of words out there and he needed the time to track as many as he could. I hope he made good use of them.

I thought of that young man again when I headed to the Turkey Café for an evening of poetry. I'd been looking forward to the launch of Cleaves Magazine's East Midlands section. But it had been a long day and I wondered if I was tired enough to concentrate on an evening of difficult poetry. At the bar I was persuaded to try a Cosmopolitan cocktail - it didn't take much persuasion and was worth it for the sight of flaming orange peel alone.

Poetry seems to pull in the punters in the East Midlands. As soon as the doors were opened, there was a dash for the chairs. The young were asked to sit on the floor instead - but soon the floor was full too. Late-comers stood by the door. Dazed by heat, crowds, tiredness and a cocktail,
perched on a high stool in a hot room, cocktail in hand, I wondered if I'd be able to concentrate.

That's when I remembered the young man making his assiduous collection of words. I didn't have to take in every poem in all its complexity - as if this could ever be achieved when hearing a poem for the first time. This was a poetry reading, not an exam, and it was up to me how I enjoyed it. If all I could take in was a few words and the curving melody of a rhythm, that would be enough.

I settled down as comfortably as I could, and listened without straining. If I wanted, I could find the poems elsewhere and read them.

Readers performed in alphabetical order. Jennifer Cooke offered harsh words and disturbing images, pushing the boundaries of a sonnet. Kerry Featherstone offered English and French words; they almost mirrored each other but not quite - there are no exact translations. Mark Goodwin offered a kingfisher and the mountainous slopes of Ullswater.

There was an interval. Then Daniel O'Donnell-Smith offered modern technology and loss. I love his poems. They move reader or hearer without the easy tricks of modern sentimentality. Finally, as I was tiring, Simon Perril read and summoned up werewolves.

I was unsurprised to see clouds streaking a full moon as I left - an image from silent cinema, I thought.

I ran. Words from the reading clattered and echoed in my brain.

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