Last night, a collection of some of Manchester's finest poets gathered in the upper room of the Thomas St restaurant to protest against the completely over-the-top convictions of the Pussy Riot protesters in Russia, now languishing in Putin's gulag for the 'crime' of being critical of the state in a public place. The poets included Richard Barret, reading from Ariana Reine's Mercury; Lianne Bridgewater performing an elegy for an animal rights activist over a backing of avant-garde noise that was quite painful to listen to, but somehow entirely appropriate, Anna Percy's feminist performance poems that skirt the edge of stridency by hiding an unexpectedly lyrical heart, David Keyworth's poems with a Russian theme, and a host of other delights.
It's questionable, of course, whether such an event can achieve anything directly, beyond giving some comfort to the Pussy Riot girls that they are not forgotten, nine months on from the original 'offence.' Except that it adds to the record of dissent: that the powers-that-be are not going to silence those that want to stand up and protest against the status quo. Last night, there were issues aired that went beyond the particular incident that we were meeting for: especially with regard to the treatment of women in Anna Percy and Stef Pike's poetry; but also, in John Calvert's poem from the book Catechism, 'They Spruce Themselves Up', the wider issues of top-down political and economic power. This was also addressed in Gareth Twose's Top Ten Tyres.
I actually think that the girls' protest, in the power centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, was as profound a spiritual act as Jesus' cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem, something which ultimately led to his execution. The association of the church with the powerful has had a terribly destructive and corrosive effect on Christianity over the centuries, such that its original message of reconciliation and love has got buried under a pile of guano known as 'orthodox theology.' So, in the end, I think they were right to do what they did, and were not guilty of 'hatred of religion'. Instead, they were guilty of 'love of the oppressed, the poor and the so-called sinners' that the church rejects in its bid for power and influence.
But - rant/sermon over - back to the event. What I really liked about the event was its variety. - from Susan Birchenough's hastily-written but rather beautiful pieces about climate change, to a delicate love-song; from experimental to performance, to mainstream, to Judy Kendal's lovely bird-poems (especially the one about the chaffinch with its gorgeous use of word-sounds.)
I hope Tim Atkins doesn't mind, but I ended with his wonderful, angry version of Tsvtayeava's 'I Love The Rich' - a poem full of viscious irony even in the rather more sedate Elaine Feinstein version. It led to the possibility of poets who want to speak about politics getting together in the future, and hopefully we'll find a way to be more engaged in future, and poets and artists across Manchester will be less timid about being political.