Places of Poetry: the anthology

By: Andrew McRae

Added: 06 October 2020

Want to know more about how the 2019 Places of Poetry project was translated into the 2020 Oneworld anthology, Places of Poetry: Mapping the Nation in Verse? Here’s what co-director and colume editor Andrew McRae had to say at the launch event, hosted by The Poetry Society on National Poetry Day, 1/10/20.

Thank you, Julia. And I want to thank The Poetry Society, who have been such a great partner for us throughout our journey with Places of Poetry. When negotiating with Oneworld last year, we were pleased to achieve two things: firstly, in place of an advance for editors, we secured small payments for all contributing poets; and secondly, we agreed to pass any further money that is made from this anthology directly to the Poetry Society, to support the work they do with poets of the United Kingdom. They made made our project; let’s reinvest in them.

Places of Poetry was a 2019 creative arts project, now translated into a book. It began with a preoccupation that I shared with Paul Farley – who you’ll see in the film that follows. We were both working – in different ways, from distinct angles of perception – on Michael Drayton’s seventeenth-century epic of national description, Poly-Olbion. This is a poem – all 15,000 lines of it – that aims to encompass everything that matters about the nation. And it uses places as points of entry into that.

Paul and I also shared a commitment to connect. A sense that poetry, academic research, the humanities, have parts to play more widely in cultural life. Paul has demonstrated this over many years through his radio work; for me it was more of a leap in the dark. We wanted to connect with people, and we wanted to help people connect with places.

Drayton never made it to Scotland. He said he was going to, but Poly-Olbion encompasses just England and Wales: maybe finished, maybe unfinished. That was one reason why Places of Poetry, in 2019, only covered England and Wales. There were also technical and logistical challenges, that taught us much about the complexities of nationhood in the UK.

But people from Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to make their presence felt on our map. The Scots started pinning poems as far north as the map allowed. They wanted something more inclusive: just as we would love one day to create something more inclusive. And Oneworld were right to also want us to gather some poems of Scotland and Northern Ireland. So we solicited poems, and we got some wonderful submissions. We had less choice than for our other sections of the book, so the sections are smaller – but excellent.

Oneworld also suggested that we include in each section of the book some older (out-of-copyright) poems: to give some literary context, and maybe establish historical dialogues. We’ve mixed pieces that readers might be expecting with others that might surprise. For example, I’ve loved for many years the seventeenth-century protest poem about the draining of the fens, delivered through the voice of a fish. I think it sits nicely alongside the fabulous watery, fenny poems in our east of England section.

Selecting poems? Well, we had a lot of choice: 7500 poems were pinned to the map last year. Honestly, every time I return to the map I’m haunted by the poems I couldn’t quite place. The ones that got away. And I suspect this is one reason why Paul swerved from the role of co-editor. ‘Andrew,’ he said, ‘I have to spend the rest of my career with these people. You don’t.’ So I guess that as long as I avoid any poetry readings – like, anywhere – for a decade or so I’ll be fine. And in the meantime, poets: I’m sorry, but I also hope you’ll enjoy the selections regardless.

We wanted in this book to capture the feel of the project. Paul would say the ‘vibe’. Places of Poetry was never a competition; we always liked the democratic nature of the map, and we wanted to translate some of that. So you will find some very fine poems in this book, written by some of the most exciting poets working today. You will also find some names you won’t know. And you will encounter two teenaged writers, and one poem composed by an entire primary school class.

This is our twenty-first-century, poly-vocal Poly-Olbion. It contains, as the Greek of Drayton’s thorny, misguided title would have it, many wonders. And it’s structured a bit like Poly-Olbion: in the form of a journey around the nation. Along the way there are poems about the coast – such as Bridie Toft’s ‘Wild Swimming’, that I think about when I take to the sea myself. There are poems steeped in the nation’s history of nature writing, such as Julian Turner’s ‘Craven’. There are poems about urban spaces, such as Cora Greenhill’s ‘Seen in Sheffield’. And there are poems that can make us see familiar places afresh. I love, for instance, Nazneen Ahmed’s ‘Holi in Ruislip’.

There is also Paul’s informative, witty, personal introduction. Thank you to him for this. Rather than list all the other people I’d like to thank, let me just name our project coordinator, Vic Patch, who held us all together last year. And, finally, to our 3000+ poets, who brought their energy and creativity to Places of Poetry: thank you. I’m glad we’re meeting some of them today; and three more join Paul in the film we’re about to see.

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