The first half was situated upstairs in the coffee shop. The people in charge of Blackwells had cunningly set up a free wine stall so that people could still use the comfy chairs and, should they feel thirsty, they could quench their thirst without having to pay. Genius!
A multitude of literary types from numerous different genres with names like Marcos, John and Dada Meinhoff were rotated in front of the mike seemingly at random: Many of them having absolutely nothing in common with the person before. A load of different themes were bounced around, children’s stories – there were no children present –, abortion – from a man and a mother of twins –, the ‘illegal’ war in Iraq, modern life. It seemed that I was the only person not there to read my own poetry or listen sympathetically to a best friend’s. As the evening wore on, those reading something other than poetry were gently weeded out and the audience got smaller. The closest anyone came to actually putting one in the back of the net (if we’re to carry on with that metaphor – everyone else did) was a woman called Helen’s abortion twist on a fairy tale. It was odd but faintly touching – a shot only just wide.
For the second half someone better known took all the comfy seats, filling the room with their audience. Meanwhile the poets were moved onto the floor of the Norrington room. This time it wasn’t poetry we were hearing – thank God – but stories. This time the authors got to spend even longer on their writings. It was whilst listening to Robin Courage’s Chelsea Arts Club’that I caught something about how ‘poets declaim their vanity’ – how deeply ironic. The most interesting moment of the evening came when Meinhoff upstaged another act from the sidelines. Using expletives, he loudly exclaimed that he’d come to hear f***ing poetry, and this wasn’t poetry. What was even better was when the whole room turned on him as one and quietly pointed out that it wasn’t meant to be poetry. Much like a manager rugby tackling the man with the ball and then being bundled by the spectators; for the rest of the game he was shot disapproving glances.
I left disillusioned; if anything could be suggested to the Oxford Fringe, it would be that, while its artists might be brimming with emotion, the audience are just hearing words. Sorry.