I originally wrote this snapshot of the Poetry Takeaway as the last installment of three Harriet posts about the many events of the Poetry Parnassus, a 2012 London event that gathered poets from all 204 Olympic nations and which I served as Translator in Residence. With the Summer Olympics over the Olympic-themed essay didn’t make much sense for Harriet, but since I consider it such a great project I thought I’d go ahead and showcase the Poetry Takeaway here. You can read about Chilean collective Casagrande’s Rain of Poems or Tishani Doshi’s Everything Begins Elsewhere on Harriet. You can read my poem for London Paralympian Oksana Masters on the Huffington Post. —DS
Tim Clare came up with the idea for the Poetry Takeaway two years ago, to exploit a loophole in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival’s stage assignment system, which is awarded by lottery. Stalls offering free goods and services—like poems—did not have to pay to set up along the Royal Mile, so Clare bought a folding table and chairs and put out a sign advertising free poems. The journey of over 1,500 customer-commissioned poems began with just one, written by Clare himself, at the 2010 Ediburgh Fringe.
Soon thereafter Clare partnered with Tom Searle, of show + tell, the London-based arts organization that now hosts the Poetry Takeaway, to buy a van on eBay. “[That] was the first real plunge into Oh my God, we’re committed now,” says Clare. Because of his admitted dearth of design experience—“hence” he says, “the original version’s being a camping table set up next to a bin”—Clare and Searle partnered with designers Niall Gallagher of House of Jonn, Nicola Read of the 815 Agency, and Ellen Turnill-Montoya of Ellen TM to design everything from the Takeaway’s attractive red, white and blue exterior to its mock-burger-style poem packaging.
Takeaway Poets have included Dan Cockrill, Rob Auton, Katie Bonna , Jonny Fluffypunk, and Dominic Berry, who Searle commends for really listening to their customers, for “really [trying], to quote Henry James, ‘to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.’” The first three poets above, along with several others, worked the Poetry Takeaway at the Poetry Parnassus, and judging from the long lines—I was unable to commission a poem despite heading down to the van early each afternoon, finding them sold out already—they succeeded in attracting an important new crowd to the events of the Parnassus, most of them local employees on lunch break, London tourists visiting the Eye, and families walking the Thames.
Searle explains his continued enthusiasm for working the Takeaway:
Working on the Poetry Takeaway is the antidote to reading online comments sections—it really brings the best out in people, and you have a series of fascinating, intimate conversations with strangers. People will open up about their problems, about the things they hold most dear, tell you anecdotes from the most important moments in their lives. It’s a real privilege to get to chat to them and hear their stories, and it makes you feel like we live in a pretty special world.
Sounds good to me! Young British poet Holly Hopkins—who was unable to fill her Takeaway shift because of an unfortunate dental accident involving several Parnassus poets and a foosball competition—even suggested the Takeaway might offer some important job experience for the young poet’s future:
My dad always said my stalwart rejection of both accountancy and the civil service (his preferred career options for me) would one day lead me into wearing a greasy uniform and asking customers, “Do you want fries with that?”