When I first encountered the Poetry Cafe, it reminded me of one of my favourite events in Sheffield, Basement Rhymes, which used to take place in a tiny cellar beneath an inter-cultural cafe. Basement Rhymes was a mix-up of poetry and multimedia performance, and the cramped conditions helped create the feeling of being at some kind of happening. It needed just a handful of people to feel busy, and with an audience of twenty it was packed, with a trail of people up the steps giving the impression there were crowds queuing to get in.
The performance area in the Poetry Cafe is thankfully about twice the size, and can comfortably seat forty people, but also benefits from the basement effect, which helps bring intimacy and atmosphere to the space. Situated beneath the Poetry Society and close to Covent Garden, the Poetry Cafe hosts a different event virtually every night. A glance at the events calendar gives you a sense of the vibrancy and diversity of London’s literary world, with well-known performers and respected writers represented alongside open mics, music and multimedia adventures, international writers, launch events, and the gatherings of various communities and coteries.
One of the most memorable evenings I attended at the Poetry Cafe was an Exiled Writers Ink night back in May 2007, featuring the Algerian poet Yvan Tetelbom accompanied by Senegalese accordionist Christiane Bonnay. Tetelbom leapt about the place with great vigour, pacing up and down the length of the room as he declaimed his poetry, bringing an unusual degree of physicality to his performance. His delivery was intense as well, and sometimes it felt as if he were tearing the consonants from their sockets, although he could be accused of having only one tone, at the persecuted, angst-ridden end of the spectrum.
I was also struck by Bonnay’s accompaniment, which showed the accordion to be a far more versatile and sensitive instrument than I had ever realised. With its deep creaking bass and the wheezing, two-tone textures she built up, it sounded more like a synthesizer than an acoustic instrument.
More recently, I went along to the monthly Loose Muse, which features readings from women writers. The readers on the night were short-fiction writer Tania Hershman and poet Isobel Dixon, who then fielded questions from the audience after their sets. This format really took advantage of the small, intimate setting of the Poetry Cafe, allowing the audience to interact with the guest writers and gain different perspectives on their work.
Another lively event that takes place every week is Poetry Unplugged, a cheeky and cheerful open mic that has always managed to throw up something fresh and exciting whenever I have visited.
Inevitably, however, for a venue hosting such a range of events that are generally on a very low budget, not every event will please everyone, and some will please only a few. Part of the appeal of attending the Poetry Cafe, unless you already know exactly what you’re going to see, is the sense of discovery as you dip into other people’s creative worlds. Since most events only cost a few pounds, there’s no great loss if you feel like slipping off at the interval.
One event I attended, for example, which described itself as an ‘experimental arts group’, had an intriguing atmosphere. The genteel, mildly flamboyant host greeted us as we entered and referred to the audience as ‘my dears’. His emphasis on symbolism and beauty, truth and freedom had a dusty ring to it, as if he were trying to resurrect some avant-garde of the past century or two. The first half, however, consisted entirely of decidedly unexperimental poetry, and I got the feeling the event was targeted at mystical and occult circles. When the host, in introducing one poet as ‘feminine’, pointed out, ‘I said “feminine”, not “feminist”—that’s dead, get over it!’, I decided not to patronise the second half.
The Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9BX