Can poetry be performed and enjoyed any time and anywhere? Sian Hughes joins a youth theatre as they take a sofa out on to the streets to find out
The poster celebrating World Book Day shows people reading books in all kinds of public places: an astronaut seems to have missed her flight by staying to read the end of the chapter; a footballer is consoling himself with a sturdy volume; and a knight in full armour is so captivated by his book that he has not noticed the sun disappearing behind a cloud. He must have allowed himself one more page a couple of centuries ago and then lost track of time. They all appear to be reading the same hardback, wrapped in a sheet of plain paper. Avid and reluctant readers alike are drawn in - what are they reading? Novels? Biography? Anything, I suspect, but poetry.
Poetry is finding its way into more and more public spaces. It's light, transportable and whole units of it can be digested between stops on the Underground. But if the world of the reader is self-contained, the world of the poetry-reader is surely even more remote. Is it possible to enjoy poetry any time, anywhere?
Chichester Youth Theatre took a sofa out on to the streets to test their theory that poetry can be enjoyed anywhere where you can sit down. Andy Brereton, the education director, explained his inspiration for the project: "Traditionally, reading poetry is seen as comfortable and secure: we aim to make it public and communicable."
I joined them outside Chichester Cathedral just as the main Sunday morning service was drawing to a close. Where the path from the church joined the road a sofa full of young poets blocked the way. Those not performing waylaid passers-by with bookmarks advertising their forthcoming evening performance. Would they pause for a limerick or two? A performance of Christopher Logue's "London Airport", with its reference to "unwanted literature" sent the devout scuttling across the grass to the car park. Some American tourists stopped to applaud. Yes, they thought public poetry was a great idea, but they needed somewhere to sit down, and the performers were taking up the whole sofa.
Our next stop was at a furniture shop where an attractive plaid sofa on a modest dais looked the ideal spot for verse. Kathleen Jamie's "Rooms" and some of the young poets' own compositions soon drew an attentive audience, who, after a brief burst of applause, asked if we would mind standing up for a minute as they wanted to see how much the sofa cost. Maybe we would have more luck in one of the pubs. "Poetry? We're not snobs in here!" The most receptive group were those stuck in the launderette, where the whirring, sloshing backing track turned everything into a kind of rap.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the whole event, though, was not the integration of performance and verse, or the lateral thinking that emerged from improvisations based on poetry, or even the unselfconscious confidence of the young people's own compositions, but the use of the bookmark advertising fliers. In an attempt to bridge the gap between private poetry-reading and the open arena of theatre, "Sit on my Sofa" bookmarks were distributed free through local libraries and public places. One side of the bookmark appealed to local businesses, hotels, residential homes, hospitals, banks and building societies: "Chichester Festival Youth Theatre want to sit on your sofa." They offered free performances "to captivate audiences and unwitting bystanders". Anyone could phone in and book a visit from the poets. The other side of the bookmark invited anyone to read a poem on their own sofa, and send a photograph of the "event" in to a display wall in the theatre. Could this be a unique festival in its public celebration of private reading?
The weekend festival ended in an evening performance where the youth theatre members shared the stage and the sofa with poet Michael Donaghy, who has already spent time with them working on their own compositions.
The stars of 'Sit on my Sofa' will be appearing at the Poetry Place in Covent Garden on World Book Day on April 23 to launch the Poetry Society's Youth Membership scheme and a Young National Poetry Competition. The public can test a range of poetry sofas in the first 'Young Poetry Unplugged' of its kind. This part-performance, part 'open mike' event, allowing spectators to contribute poems, will become a regular feature of Youth Membership. Admission is free, but space is limited, so booka place by calling 0171 420 9894