Spring Semester 2022: Poetry at the Outbreak of War

As the train pulled into Waterloo Station, I got a text from Emily.

I’m in Foyles.

It was 6:30pm, February 24th 2022, a Thursday. That morning Russia had launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine. There had been plenty of intelligence throughout the preceding months to indicate that this would happen, but a part of me had still believed that it was posturing on Russia’s part. It shocked me that the Kremlin hadn’t even bothered to try and justify their actions to the global community. This was a war of naked imperialism. That afternoon I’d spent hours watching the live coverage on the BBC before finally feeling too sick to go on any longer.

I closed the tab on my computer and my own life returned to me. It now seemed so trivial, but it was here in front of me, and the war was not. I tried to go about the rest of my day as usual, but the war lingered in the back of my mind, resurfacing every few minutes to twist my gut in a bout of nausea. Life doesn’t wait. I thought about that. In a myriad of places, it was someone’s birthday, someone’s wedding day, someone’s best day ever. I thought about them checking the news and feeling that twist of nausea in the context of their own private happiness.

It was our privilege that we could forget about the war for a few minutes as the present asserted itself. It was Emily’s text that evening that snapped me back once again to the present. The war contracted in my mind as my immediate circumstances- getting off the train, putting one foot in front of the other, locating Emily- demanded my attention. But as soon as I had a moment to pause, it would expand again and the cycle would continue.

At this hour, the station was especially busy. Commuters crisscrossing like atoms in a constant state of flux. I figured Emily was just a few streets over at the Southbank, but as I looked upward, I noticed that Waterloo had a Foyles as well. It struck me as funny that there would be two of them so close to one another.

The shop had two floors. As I ascended the stairs, I spotted a tall woman in a tweed coat bent over the poetry section.

“This is one of the poets we’ll be seeing tonight,” she said, handing me a slim, caramel-colored volume.

C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor. I wondered how the title was meant to be pronounced.

As Emily and I made our way through the bustling floor of the station toward the exit, a big statue caught my eye. I didn’t have my glasses on, so at first, I took it for a velociraptor. As I approached, its form became pleasingly familiar to me.

“Em, hold on a sec,” I say. “I need to get a picture of this.”

It was one of the machines from Horizon: Zero Dawn, a Watcher to be exact. Beautifully recreated to scale, right here in the middle of Waterloo Station. As we shuffled out into the night air, I told Emily that the robot is from a game I’m fond of, the sequel of which is about to release.

“Is it Horizon?” Emily asked, pointing in the distance. I followed her gaze to the looming, cylindrical façade of the Southbank IMAX, the entirety of which was lit up in a brilliant advertisement of Horizon: Forbidden West against the night sky.

“Fuck me, the Horizon marketing budget must be through the roof!” I exclaimed. Now I was even more excited to play the sequel.

Emily and I decided to get some dinner before the event started. We figured an hour would be plenty of time, but it turned out we underestimated just how busy the Southbank area was in the evenings. We tried half a dozen restaurants and all of them told us we couldn’t enter without a booking. As the minutes ticked by, we grew ever more anxious. The event was due to start at 7:45pm and we were walking farther and farther away from the venue in our search for grub. Eventually, we were able to get a table at a chain called Gourmet Burger Kitchen that Emily was fond of. We sat down around 7:20pm. It’s kinda like Spoons in that you order from an app, which helped expedite the process for us.

Both of us ordered the same thing: a pesto fried chicken burger with fries. I got a rum and coke and Emily opted for a Prosecco. By the time the food came it was half past, so we had to eat quick- something that’s not easy for me. Everyone that knows me knows that I’m a notoriously slow eater. It’s probably a mental thing- a longstanding fear of choking, maybe. I take cautious, birdlike bites and masticate until the food becomes a paste on my tongue. I have the same thing with drinking- I can’t chug anything. And every time I take a pill, no matter the size, I often have to crunch it first. It’s all part of the same problem, and it’s one I’ve had since I was about fifteen or so.

Emily, on the other hand, polished off her burger with clinical efficiency. She urged me not to rush, but I knew deep down that we were gonna miss the whole show if I didn’t hurry up. Thankfully, we had already paid via the app. At 7:45pm, I insisted we had to get going, and took a mammoth bite of my remaining burger whilst getting up and pouring the rest of my rum and coke down my gullet as I chewed.

“Oh my god,” Emily said, giggling. I felt like a cartoon. I grabbed my untouched fries in their paper cone, and we hauled ass out of the restaurant. Emily led the way, her leather boots clapping down briskly on the sidewalk. I followed in her wake, stuffing fries into my mouth. By the time we reached the Southbank Center, I felt like I was going to barf.

We arrived too late for the first poet, but were let inside the theatre in time for the second performer. We sat near the back of the crowded hall, relieved to have finally made it.

I wasn’t sure what to expect beforehand. I had pictured a raucous, boozy open-mic poetry slam, but this was more of a concert. There was something fancy about the whole setup. The first poet was Anthony Joseph, who read a series of poems reflecting on his relationship with his father back in Trinidad and Tobago. All of his poems were straight fire, and he was an excellent performer. I soon realized that this wasn’t the amateur poetry open mic night I had expected. These were some of the biggest names in the business. The host, Joelle Taylor, was a recipient of the motherfucking T.S. Eliot Prize for fuck sake. In addition to poets, we also had musicians, one of which was award-winning pianist Guy Chambers, who wrote many of Robbie Williams’ most famous songs. As he sat down at the grand piano, he turned to the audience and said he wanted to dedicate his performance to the people of Ukraine. My stomach twisted once again at the thought that at the same time we were all out enjoying ourselves, ordinary people were being murdered, traumatized, and displaced at the hands of Russian cruelty. Up until that day, Ukrainians would have lived just as we were living now- meeting up with friends, grabbing burgers, going to live events. Now everything was being snatched from them and they were powerless to stop it. The thought that your whole life could be turned upside-down like that by forces beyond your control was very chilling to me.

Guy Chambers ended his performance with “Angels”, for which he received thunderous applause. I suspected there were more than a few mums in the audience nostalgic for the late nineties, perhaps intent on cornering Mr. Chambers at the bar later on. We broke for halftime and Emily and I headed for a table outside where a representative of Outspoken Press- the organizers for the event- was selling books and CDs from the performers. Anthony Joseph was sold out already, which flabbergasted me as it was only the interval. I’d really enjoyed his work. Emily and I scanned the books and I ended up buying Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson. She was due to perform in the second half, but I liked the description of her work and took a chance.

At the bar, Emily treated me to a rum and coke, while getting herself a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Thirsty from the burgers and fries we had scarfed down half an hour ago, we gulped down our drinks within minutes.

“Goodness,” Emily said, patting her chest, “You might see Drunk Emily come out if I’m not careful.”

We debated introducing ourselves to Anthony Joseph, but he was constantly surrounded by adoring fans asking for selfies. I’ve only ever met a famous person once, and that was the lawyer David Rudolf (from the Netflix documentary The Staircase) at a lecture in Bristol circa 2018. Back then I was surprisingly confident. I was nervous as I waited in line for a picture with him, but when I got up close, I was able to get my words out coherently and smile like a vaguely-normal person. Hopefully, I could do the same with Anthony Joseph if the chance presented itself.

The moment passed, and we filed back into the theatre for the second half. It was Fiona Benson time, baby. She read from her new book Ephemeron and we listened in enraptured silence. It was different material from Anthony Joseph, and Fiona Benson was a different performer, but she was no less spellbinding. Our enjoyment was somewhat ruined by the people in the row behind us though; as Benson read a poem about her sexual awakening at an all-girls boarding school, they couldn’t stop laughing and commenting to one another. Every time Benson said a word like “fuck” or “tits”, they snickered like schoolchildren. Except these people weren’t teenagers but grown-ass adults. Emily even turned in her seat and gave them an admonishing scowl, but to my relief there was no confrontation. It was a shame, because Benson’s poems were so raw and confessional, and the immature mumbling really messed with our immersion. That’s the thing about poetry- as an audience you really have to concentrate and use your imagination. A good poet like Joelle Taylor, Anthony Joseph, or Fiona Benson, will make you forget where you are and what you’re doing. It was like we were right there in the boarding school with her, feeling the agony of her own unexpressed desires as our own. When she finished the reading, there was a moment of absolute stillness, which she then cleverly shattered with the witty remark “Mum almost disowned me after that one” which cut the tension and returned us to the real world.

Joelle Taylor read some of her work- and once again she was a completely different type of performer. It was like she put her whole soul into every word. Each line was like a punch. She spoke from the gut, gesticulating aggressively, speaking from a place of total and naked vulnerability. It blew me away. These were performers, not just writers. It’s a completely separate skill, and an absolute treat to watch in person.

We finished the show with some jazz music, before exiting the theatre. Outside we spotted Anthony Joseph free from the company of his admirers, and this time we took our chance. I shook his hand and told him how much we loved his performance. I tried to suppress the feeling that I would come across as an idiot when stood next to this legend, reminding myself that beneath his talent there was still a human being, and one that would probably appreciate being complimented on his work.

On our way out of the Southbank Center, Emily bought a copy of Fiona Benson’s new book, Ephemeron. Now we would both be reading her at the same time and could trade our respective books when each of us had finished. As we trotted leisurely back toward the station, I asked Emily if tonight’s performances had stoked a fire within her. She said yes, 100%. Emily’s a poet too. I couldn’t help but imagine that in a decade or two, she would be reading her own poems up there on stage at the Southbank Center, smiling patiently during the interval as young, aspiring poets asked her for selfies in the lobby. I had no doubt- I Kwisatz Haderach-ed the image in my head, the future as clear and tangible to me as the present.

A few years ago, I’d wanted to be a poet myself. I’d written a lot of poems in the last year of my undergraduate degree at Winchester and in the couple of years following my graduation, all of them themed around my travels to Wisconsin. Somewhere along the line I discarded the idea, though I still write the odd poem here and there. I don’t consider myself a poet anymore though, and I don’t think I have what it takes to write something publishable.

I couldn’t help but feel happy on the train ride home. It felt surreal in the context of the outbreak of war in Europe, but I’d had a great time. I’d gotten to bask in some insane talent in the company of my best friend. It was everything I had dreamt of prior to moving to London. Now, all of a sudden, it was my life. I made sure to text Emily to thank her for taking me out on the town. I’m a sentimental prick at the best of times, but the war only exacerbated things. Life was precious. Nothing was guaranteed. Take opportunities while they’re around. Let the important folks in your life know that you love them. And enjoy yourself.

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