I have lived in the UK for over twenty years now, and still I’m occasionally caught out by subtle differences between my adopted country and the country of my birth — or even more to the point here, my adolescence — the US. Growing up in the States  and specifically in NY when I did, radio was very closely linked to youth culture. It was all about listening to rock n roll either with the transistor hidden under your pillow on a school night or the car radio blaring out through open windows. Sure, sometimes adults listened to classical music or the news, but I don’t remember being particularly aware of what is now called, I think, talk radio.

But in the UK, everyone listens to the radio and always has. Radio is not the less beautiful, often ignored younger sister of television. It is an important and unique part of the entertainment industry. The British listen to all sorts of radio programs and most  interestingly to me, all sorts of spoken word programs: short stories, radio plays and — oh my God, can it be true? — poetry.

Friday evening I had the pleasure of being the invited guest of the poet, Susan Richardson, at a live taping of BBC Radio 4 Extra’s special program in honour of Thursday’s National Poetry Day called Saturday Live Poetry Pop-Up. I have been a big fan of Susan’s work for several years now, ever since I stumbled upon her blog and  her first collection, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone. We first met at the Polyverse Poetry Festival held in Loughborough a few years back. So I was thrilled to bop along over to Broadcasting House to watch her strut her stuff up on stage alongside…and now here really is the point…seven other poets who have clearly become BBC radio’s go-to poets (Salena Godden, Mr. G, Luke Wright, Elvis McGonagall, Aoife Mannix,Kate Fox and Murray Lachlan Young). These are poets who regularly are asked onto the shows to perform their work. The key word here is “perform,” because that is what this was, an hour of performance poetry. Don’t get me wrong. I love performance poetry. I love the musicality and humour of it. I love the way it is the precursor to rap, the way it wriggles its subversive ways into your consciousness. Susan’s work is not really performance poetry in this way. Hers, like Aoife’s, is a sort of crossroads between two camps of poetry, i.e. the kind that you sit with while you read it slowly in a book, and the poetry that pulses along up on stage. I am aware that I am choosing my words very carefully here. I expect to get bombarded by comments of people saying that these poetic approaches are not mutually exclusive (of course they aren’t), nor is one necessarily more crafted than the other (of course not, again). But I will say that the taping session gave me a look into a part of the poetry world that I know little of, about the poets who make their living performing their work in pubs and coffee houses and theatres around the country. These are the poets on “the circuit,” touring the way stand-up comedians tour. I might be wrong, but you will most likely not see them teaching in Arvon courses or reviewing new collections for Poetry Review.  But…and now for the Real Point (thanks for hanging in there with me)…this is the poetry that the nation listens to on the BBC. And since this is a  nation of radio lovers and BBC 4 is the King, then performance poetry is the poetry of record for the nation. And that I found to be amazing, not shocking, but unexpected.

Flip back the calendar pages to the incredible hoopla over the past months at The Poetry Society. Now think about an audience of a hundred people, most of whom were not themselves poets (unlike the audiences of ten or twenty that you find at most poetry readings). Imagine them hooping and hollering, applauding loudly, giggling and sighing through an hour of verse and you’ll realise that poetry is a very vital part of this culture.  We may not buy many poetry books. We may not be able to name more than one or two poets writing today. But there are enough of us willing to turn on the radio and listen to words  spoken in verse, often but not only in rhyme, sometimes with musical accompaniment sometimes not, that the BBC willingly devotes airtime and money to the art form. Watching it all, I felt like Alice through the looking glass. I was watching and listening to something I always knew was there, but I was seeing and hearing it in a different way. I think we non-performance poets need to be more aware of the performance poets and their work. And I dare say, they probably need to be more aware of the rest of us.

(okay, comment writers. Have a go at me and tell me about my mistaken assumptions…)