Creating a Contemporary Poetry Scene: Sounds New Poetry, Free Range and Wise Words
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Kent
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Based on a common research interest in the collaborative poetic of the New York School, and a
commitment to the public value of poetry, University of Kent poets have created a poetry scene of
national and international significance. Together they founded the innovative poetry festival
Sounds New Poetry, which led to the award-winning performance series Free Range. Sounds New
Poetry's significance lies in its creation and intellectual enrichment of new audiences for poetry and
its advancement of the creative practice of major musicians and poets through cross-media
collaborations. Building on the achievement of Sounds New Poetry, the Arts Council-funded Wise
Words enabled PGCE students to take contemporary poetry to `out of mainstream' groups. The
programme extended the reach of the festival by changing pedagogy within regional PGCE
practice and enriching the experience of users from a range of community education groups.
Since the appointment of David Herd in 1997 (Professor 2010-), the School of English has made a
series of strategic appointments to consolidate research strength in the area of modern poetry.
Herd, Patricia Debney (Lecturer, 2004-2009; Senior Lecturer, 2009-), Simon Smith (Lecturer
2009-2013; Senior Lecturer, 2013-), and Nancy Gaffield (Lecturer in English Language, 2003-2012; Lecturer in School of English, 2012-) share a longstanding research interest in the
collaborative poetic of the New York School. As critics and poets they have developed the
aesthetic legacies of that collaborative poetic. In their individual research projects and collectively
as members of the Centres for Modern Poetry and Creative Writing, they have explored the public
value of innovative poetic work.
This collective research has underpinned the impact in three ways. First, it has enabled University
of Kent poets to determine how a new regional audience for innovative poetry can be created.
Second, it has guided the Sounds New Poetry policy of commissioning cross-artistic
collaborations, which have led to changes in creative practice. Third, it has informed the way
poetry has been presented to users of out-of-mainstream groups through Wise Words. The
individual contributions to this collective underpinning research are as follows:
- In his AHRB-funded monograph, Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature (2007)
[2.1], Herd explored the question of cultural circulation in the work of six American writers,
including New York School poets Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. Building on his earlier study,
John Ashbery and American Poetry (2000) [2.2], which developed a theory of collaboration,
Enthusiast! investigated the practices by which writers circulated their reading and developed new
audiences. Through the book's case studies, literary enthusiasm was identified as a crucial means
of cultural intervention. Confirming the value of the research, the TLS reviewer (23/01/2009: 23)
observed that, `in its rigour and urgency, [Enthusiast!] sparks a ... counter-circuit of exchange,
which should be expanded by anyone who cares about the state of reading.' Herd's poetry
intersects with his critical project in staging encounters between lyrically experimental language
and public discourse. His recent collection, All Just (2012) [2.3], brings the attentiveness of
experimental poetry to the politics of human movement. As the reviewer in PN Review 208 (2012)
observed, `Only a handful of English-language poets are writing as uncompromisingly, and as
importantly, as Herd', while the LA Review of Books described the book as `one of the few truly
necessary works of poetry written on either side of the Atlantic in the past decade - because it
seeks a kind of active citizenship from its readership' (28/10/2013).
- As poet and translator, Smith has developed the New York School tradition out of which he
works. The twin strands of Smith's practice are drawn together in London Bridge (2010) [2.4], in
which his experimental urban poetic is in dialogue with translations of Hölderlin, Martial, Catullus,
and Apollinaire. The purpose of the book is to develop the flanêur style learned from Frank O'Hara
by re-situating it in a British urban environment. Through its mix of canonical and contemporary
references, the book links the possibilities of innovative poetry to the resources of the tradition. In
so doing it contextualises experimental work for a contemporary audience. Praising London Bridge
for its `simultaneously accessible and avant-garde poetry', the reviewer in PN Review 200 (2011)
noted that, `As Smith's collections accumulate ... one feels something significant emerging.'
Gaffield was awarded the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and shortlisted for the Forward First
Collection Prize for Tokaido Road (2011).[2.5] The book was conceived as a response to
Hiroshige's woodcut prints and as a development of the modern ekphrastic tradition initiated by the
New York School poet John Ashbery. Taking Ashbery's `Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' as a
poetic model, Gaffield developed an inquiry into the implications of ekphrasis by building on her
longstanding research into cognitive linguistics. Starting from a study of Edgar Rubin's `figure-ground' theory, Gaffield explored the different ways paintings and poems figure the relation
between subject and context. She has since been commissioned by the Okeanos Ensemble to
develop the text as a libretto for an opera to be premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
- With her second collection, Littoral (2013) [2.6], Debney continued her exploration of the
intellectual possibilities of the prose poem. Taking the prose poetry of Ashbery's Three Poems as a
point of departure, Debney sought new ways to articulate change and movement in poetry. Having
undertaken research into the science of geological and coastal phenomena, she built on this
preparatory scholarship by taking up a Canterbury City Council writer's residency in a beach hut on
the North Kent coast. As part of the project's research she staged an on-site installation, setting the
poems-in-progress amid projected definitions of coastal terms and found artefacts, so inviting
public comment on the work at draft stage. The resulting collection stages an exploration into the
language and shared meaning of regional topography. Work from Littoral was `highly commended'
by the 2013 Forward Prize panel of judges (chaired by Jeanette Winterson) and the poem
`Whitstable Spit' was selected for publication in the Forward Book of Poetry 2013.
References to the research
1. David Herd, Enthusiast! Essays on Modern American Literature (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 2007). Pp. 212. ISBN 0719074288. RAE 2008
2. David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
2000). Pp. 245. ISBN 0719055970. RAE 2001
3. David Herd, All Just (Manchester: Carcanet, 2012). Pp. 75. ISBN 1847771637. REF2 output 3.
4. Simon Smith, London Bridge (Cambridge: Salt, 2010). Pp. 80. ISBN 1844714902. REF2
5. Nancy Gaffield, Tokaido Road (London: CB Editions, 2011). Pp. 78. ISBN 0956735908. REF2
6. Patricia Debney, Littoral (Bristol: Shearsman, 2013). Pp. 80. ISBN 1848612931.
Key grants: Herd, AHRB Research Leave Award, `Essays on Enthusiasm', April 2005-May 2006,
£14,013; Smith, Hawthornden Fellowship, 2009 (writer's residency award).
Details of the impact
Concerted work on the creation of a contemporary poetry scene in Canterbury began in 2009. Prior
to that point, colleagues worked independently with leading national and regional institutions to
develop the way modern poetry is practised, used, and understood. Following Herd's appointment
as Director of the Centre for Modern Poetry, a decision was taken to use the shared research base
to establish Canterbury as an international hub for contemporary poetry. Building on strategic
partnerships with international poetry venues - the Kootenay School of Writing (Vancouver) and
Double Change (Paris) - the aim was to create a scene that would reflect and develop new
currents in international poetry, while building audiences and changing pedagogy at the local level.
The impacts have been two-fold in the users and audiences they have benefitted. First, by creating
a highly innovative international poetry festival (Sounds New Poetry) where none previously
existed, and by collaborating on an award-winning performance series (Free Range), University of
Kent poets have built and enriched a new regional audience for international poetry, while, by
using the festival to commission new collaborations between poets and musicians, Kent poets
have significantly altered the creative practice of leading practitioners. Second, through the Arts-Council funded Wise Words project, Kent poets have taken contemporary poetry to out-of-mainstream social groups.
Creating an Audience and Changing Creative Practice: Sounds New Poetry and Free Range
In 2010 University of Kent poets approached the organisers of the long-standing contemporary
music festival Sounds New to propose a parallel poetry festival, Sounds New Poetry. The objective
was to create and enrich a new audience for contemporary poetry while significantly enhancing the
experience of the existing audience for music. Matt Wright, director of the music festival, confirms
the achievement of these objectives: `It would be no exaggeration to say that Sounds New Poetry
has created a poetry scene where none existed before, and that that scene is increasingly
attracting international as well as national attention.'[5.1]
Sounds New Poetry first ran in 2011. It stages readings, workshops, lectures and performances in
major venues throughout Canterbury and the surrounding region (Canterbury Cathedral; Turner
Contemporary Gallery, Margate). Leading poets have included: Marianne Boruch (USA), Steve
Collis (Canada), Peter Gizzi (USA); as well as major British poets Tony Lopez, Daljit Nagra,
Richard Price, and Michael Schmidt. As Matt Wright confirms, audience numbers have been
remarkably large for poetry events.[5.1] For instance, `In 2011 ticket sales for the collaboration
"Rote-Thru" between David Herd, Simon Smith, and Jack Hues and The-Quartet were 123, while
the performance in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral featuring the Cello Quartet Amsterdam and 6
Sounds New Poets (including Peter Gizzi and Richard Price) had an audience of 272.'[5.1]
This new audience for poetry has been further developed by the cross-artistic weekly performance
series Free Range, on which University of Kent poets collaborate through the poetry collective
Zone.[5.2] As organiser Sam Bailey states, the idea for Free Range grew out of the 2011 Sounds
New Poetry collaboration `Rote-Thru'. That collaboration showed him that `more was artistically
possible in Canterbury than I had previously imagined'.[5.3] As Bailey confirms, since Free Range
began in October 2011, almost all the poetry events have sold out, while `The Denise Riley reading
on November 15th 2012 was the most well-attended event so far.'[5.3]
The audiences created by Sounds New Poetry and Free Range have been significantly enriched
by their encounter with new work. After the 2012 Sounds New Poetry collaboration `Feedback'
audience member Sampurna Chattarji blogged, `For forty minutes I am mesmerized as the voices... enter and leave the music ... I feel lit-up.'[5.4] Such representative reaction is confirmed by the
citation that accompanied the presentation of the 2013 Canterbury Culture Award for Cultural
Pioneer to Free Range. As the judges observed: `This award recognises a truly pioneering,
imaginative and courageous project that has collaboration at its heart ... These events are a rich
and creative mix of music, film, poetry, technology and even culinary experimentation ... blending
performances to create cultural experiences that amaze, inspire and excite.'[5.5]
A central aesthetic objective of Sounds New Poetry was to advance artistic practice through the
commissioning of collaborative works. Such collaborations have significantly altered the practice of
leading practitioners. Since working with Herd and Smith, Jack Hues (leader of international rock
band Wang Chung as well as The-Quartet) has gone on to work with the major British poet Kelvin
Corcoran, setting his poems in the sequence `Thesis on the Ballad'. As Hues states, `As a
composer I treated the compositional space [of `Rote-Thru'] in a way that I had not attempted
before. ... This project has been a very creative springboard for my collaborations.'[5.6]
Such advanced creative practice has reached and enriched further audiences. `Rote-Thru' has
since been performed at (among other venues) the `Xing the Line' series in London (again to a sell-out audience of 100+) and the `Sounds of Surprise Festival' (Oxford); a studio-recording and
discussion of the piece have featured in the music issue of the international journal Thinking Verse
(www.thinkingverse.com/rotethru.html). The 2012 collaboration between Gaffield, Debney and the
Common Objects ensemble was broadcast on Radio 3's Hear and Now (08/09/2012).
Reaching out-of-mainstream Groups: Wise Words
Building on the success of Sounds New Poetry, and on Debney's longstanding work in community
education, Wise Words was a collaborative project led by University of Kent poets and including
Canterbury City Council, Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU), and the Canterbury
Festival. Funded by South East Arts (£9,000), the project used poetry to educate and understand
The structure of the project was integral to its achievement. Directed by Debney, four postgraduate
creative writing students from Kent and four PGCE students from CCCU worked in pairs with
combinations of out-of-mainstream and mainstream social groups: young people recently arrived in
the UK using the Riverside Centre, Canterbury; St. Nicholas Special School, Canterbury; the
Whitstable performance group `Desert Island Divas'; the senior dance group `Moving Memories'.
The project's aim was to use poetry to develop communication between the groups.
The project achieved two interconnected objectives. First, it changed the way poetry is used in the
training of teachers in the East Kent region, so enabling new teachers to put poetry to further use
once they entered the classroom. Second, it showed how poetry can be used to educate and
understand out-of-mainstream groups. To ensure the further social reach of the project, work
developed in the groups was subsequently published in the anthology Wise Words.
The impacts of Wise Words were threefold. First, the project altered the training of teachers at a
regional level. Virginia Bower, Senior Lecturer in Primary Education at CCCU, states, `Wise Words
has changed the way I think about teaching poetry and writing, giving students more freedom and
opportunities to decide for whom they are writing and the purpose of their writing.'[5.7] Second, by
its example, Wise Words has stimulated further innovations in community education in the East
Kent region. Inspired by the project, the Canterbury community arts group Workers of Art set up
the Wise Words Festival 2013. As Director of Workers of Art Beth Cuenco reports, `The success of
the Wise Words Project in terms of both process and product, inspired our team to reshape how
we engage with ... the community through our outreach.'[5.8]
Third, the project significantly benefitted users of out-of-mainstream groups. This is measured by
their commentary on the project in the anthology. Invited to write a collective letter to adults in the
community, the young people using the Riverside Centre (who asked to remain anonymous in the
anthology) wrote: `I want to be listened to / I want you to be able to communicate well with me / I
want you to understand my feelings / I want you to have confidence in me and give me
chance'.[5.9] The significance of Wise Words for its primary users lies in the fact that it enabled
these shared thoughts to be voiced publicly. The Wise Words project as whole consolidates the
overarching intention to establish Canterbury as an international poetic centre that promotes the
public value of contemporary poetry.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Corroborating impact through creation of an audience: Letter from Matt Wright, Artistic
Director of Sounds New, 16/06/2013. RSS Source 1.
Corroborating impact through creation of innovative poetry scene: Letter from Tim Atkins,
Corroborating impact through creation of an audience: Letter from Sam Bailey, Director of
Free Range, 15/07/2013. RSS Source 2.
Corroborating impact through enrichment of an audience: Sampurna Chattarji, blog entry
`Fourteenth of May', www.ahundredandonedays.wordpress.com, 05/06/2012.
Corroborating impact through enrichment of an audience: Canterbury Culture Awards
citation for Free Range, 20/06/2013. RSS Source 3.
Corroborating impact of commissioned collaborations on creative practice: Letter from
Jack Hues, musician, 21/06/2013.
Corroborating impact on PGCE pedagogy: Letter from Virginia Bower, Senior Lecturer in
Primary Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, 03/07/2013. RSS Source 4.
Corroborating impact on community education: Letter from Beth Cuenco, Artistic Director of
Workers of Art, 16/06/2013. RSS Source 5.
Corroborating impact through enrichment of out-of-mainstream groups: Wise Words: The
Canterbury Laureate Anthology 2011-12 (Herne Bay: Categorical Books, 2012). ISBN 1904662181