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Lauren Gauge on why poets are the new rockstars... with Hollywood actor Michael Shaeffer and Founder of The Poetry Exchange Fiona Lesley Bennett

Sod chefs. Poets are the new rock stars. Getting a grip on poems, plays and the growing trend of artists oscillating between forms to explore a real, deeper human connection, itís clear that there has never been a more exhilarating time to catch up with two incredible artists to learn more about their project The Poetry Exchange.

Hollywood actor Michael Shaeffer, star of Star Wars film Rogue One and fresh from The Old Vicís rapturous critically-acclaimed production of Girl From the North Country, has been collaborating with writer and founder of The Poetry Exchange, Fiona Lesley Bennett, to create audible treats about one of the fastest growing arts forms: the humble poem. When all is said and done, instagrammed and tweeted, we all need a friendship and sometimes in this fast-paced world we forget to turn to our actual friends, our people. The Poetry Exchange meets fascinating people and explores stories of how their friendships with individual poems have blossomed. A poem as a friend, is a friend indeed.

Fiona, youíre a writer and theatre practitioner, how did you come to develop this brilliant project?

Fiona Lesley Bennett: It was a very fortuitous organic beginning. I was invited to contribute something to a literature festival called Wise Words in Canterbury, Kent. I was thinking about the idea of wise words and how most of the wise words I had come across in life were from being in conversations with friends. Friendship is the space where I get the wisdom I need. I then also quickly recognised that it is also when I am reading a poem; learning about myself and world whilst reading it and being in conversation with it. So then came the idea of Ďpoems as friendsí. I wondered if that was true for others, so I had this idea of inviting people to talk to me about a poem that had been a friend to them. Whatís been amazing is that people come along in response to that invitation with a really specific poem. I also felt that if I was going to ask for these people to come and talk to me about the poem itís only polite to offer something back. Hence the idea of recording the poem inspired by our conversation and gifting that back to the person, thanking them for the conversation.

They have incredible insight into the poems and how they affected the personís life. These conversations were mind blowing. Then I was asked if there was anyway everybody else could hear these conversations that were happening in private. Then we created the podcast and we now share these incredible conversations more widely.

...and what are your aims for the project?

FLB: Exactly that, exploring peopleís connections to poems and sharing that as widely as we can.

The Poetry Exchange podcast does what all great theatre stages do, it gives platform to words, relationships and allows them to be experienced aloud by a wider audience. Do you need to know or have read poetry to be able to connect with your podcasts?

Michael Shaeffer: No. I donít know a lot about poetry but I have found that through being introduced to a poem by somebody who has a really strong feeling or personal connection to it, I am able to access it in a whole new way. At school I didnít connect with poetry, I couldnít get it. It felt like a cryptic crossword. But by being introduced to a poem by someone else saying let me introduce you to my friend, it really allows me in. You donít have to be a poetry fan. As much as anything you are learning about a person through a poem and a poem through a person.

We at The Offies became aware of The Poetry Exchange through your contacting me regarding your Exchange with our wonderful patron Paterson Joseph on National Poetry Day. Could you tell us more about the Exchange with Paterson and his friend Ď5am by Roxy Dunneí?

MS: Iíd got to know Paterson when we were both working on the same TV show. When he came in to talk to us about 5am he was the most extraordinary guest. He has such a love of language and he loves communicating. We didnít have to probe too hard, he just went off and incredible stuff came out about the poem and his relationship with words, with his background and heritage.

FLB: One of the things he kept saying in a self-depreciating way being the humble man that he is, is ĎIím terribly verboseí and that he didnít Ďgetí poetry, or it didnít Ďgetí him. But that this particular poetís work had. What came through from our conversation was that he does Ďgetí poetry. He is an incredibly skilled man at the written and spoken word. Most of the poems he loved growing up were the longer poems, like Wordsworth and the great classical lyrical poems. Yet here he was sharing this young writerís work, which was incredibly succinct and distilled. It was amazing that this work had enabled him to connect and enjoy shorter poems that are more compact. It was an incredible insight not just to this poem but to peopleís relationship with more contemporary poetry in comparison to more traditional works.

LG: I listened to Patersonís podcast and also to your Exchange with Maxine Peake, and itís fascinating how revealing it is about the person. Poems have incredible ways of rooting right into the person. Who else do you have exchanges with and how did the idea for Exchanges come about?

MS: We often do Exchanges at literary festivals, so anyone and everyone. People sign up at these events and we often donít know who weíre going to meet. We get the most fascinating insight into these peopleís lives through their relationship with a particular poem. We had a woman come in who in later life had gone to Open University and been introduced to a Carol Ann Duffy poem and she was blown away. She asked, how does Carol Ann Duffy know all about me? It was a revelatory experience for her. That is just as satisfying for us as when we get a wonderful conversation with Maxine or with Paterson.

As poetry is such a wide and now especially an ever-changing medium, itís quite a shape-shifter into the music world into grime, into comedy Ė there is a cross over between spoken word artists and stand-up comedians Ė what kind of poems get brought to you and do you discover new artists along the way?

FLB: I think thatís a brilliant question and one of the really satisfying things about The Poetry Exchange. In fact, before The Poetry Exchange was called The Poetry Exchange my initial title was The Poetry Survey, because we were almost conducting a survey into what poems were out there and surveying those connections. But then we decided it was quite an off-putting word and changed it to exchange! But the survey that we are undertaking and the poems that people come in with are incredibly diverse. We regularly discover new poets; sometimes people come in with a really well established contemporary poet but who perhaps not as many people will have met the work of. We are now undertaking the conversations online internationally and that is opening up the cannon of work that is coming through Ė thatís really exciting. It brings us closer to poets we donít hear about so much in this country where our education systems educate us to a certain set of writers. That is changing now as well, which is great. Poems of all kinds shapes and sizes get sent in to us and there is no dominance of anything in particular.

Youíve always facilitated the Exchanges with an Actor and a Poet Ė often you, Fiona and Michael. What are both of your roles in The Poetry Exchange and how do you work together?

MS: Fiona and I have known each other for a long time and what we found when we first began doing the Exchanges is that she and I started to facilitate the conversations in a way which was quite natural. We felt the one-on-one approach would be a bit too intense so we try to turn it into a conversation between the three of us. In terms of our different roles it depends very much on who comes into the room. Sometime I will have a more instant connection with someone, sometimes Fiona will be the one that have that stronger connection. The thing about the actor and the poet, is there is a different kind of perspective, a different ear and way of hearing the language.

FLB: There is also the gift that we send to the person, so a week after the Exchange they receive this audio file of their friend being read. That collaboration between both of us is really enjoyable and satisfying. Itís a blend of the skills Ė the poet who is perhaps more used to focusing on the craft of the work on the page and then the actor who is really lifting that into the voice.

MS: If we have a guest that comes in and they are really knowledgeable about poetry I will tend to defer to Fiona, because her knowledge of poetry is so much greater than mine. If that happens I might then find myself in the role of trying to tease out a little bit of their personal story. All actors are interested in that arenít they?

FLB: You used a lovely phrase Lauren, you actually said that in your experience of the podcast it was incredible how rooted a poem became in the person. That is a really great description of it and thatís really what the process is. Taking off the top-soil and finding that root. Very often that is revelatory for the person themselves. People often come in and think they know what theyíre going to say, then somewhere through the conversation something additional is uncovered about what that connection is really about or additional layers to that connection. It is that discovery that makes the podcast really engaging for people listening.

Michael, youíve worked on many incredible projects notably Rogue One and London Road on film and in theatre and Girl From the North Country transferring from The Old Vic to the West End, which is a new kind of musical by Conor McPherson with Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan. As a fellow actor and writer engrossed by poetic and cross-genre musical productions like Girl From the North Country, what was your experience of creating this production and whatís your relationship with poetry and songs?

MS: My experience of creating it?

LG: Yes, because itís not your typical kind of musical is it?

MS: My experience is one of trying to hold my nerve. Because itís not like I knew exactly what we were doing. Itís not like Conor had a grand plan or vision for it and we had to try and make that vision work. We were all discovering it as we were going along. Because as you say, itís not a typical sort of musical, itís a slightly new thing. I guess I had a similar experience with London Road; we were creating a form that nobody has really done before. For me there is some sort of connection between that kind of work. London Road was about the poetry in everyday speech that Alecky has captured so well with her verbatim. The music and lyrics and Conorís writing had that too. People struggled to tell what were his words and Dylanís because of that sense of poetry and rhythm.

LG: That kind of cross-form collaboration fascinates me. Recently my work has been very collaborative using music, lyrics and beatboxing to underscore narrative and when taking my work to Edinburgh the poetic form has been likened to a modern-day Shakespeare.

FLB: Itís funny because when I worked in theatre I did a lot of work with Shakespeare. But, I stopped doing theatre when I realised I wasnít as interested in story as I was in poetry. But that connection and space is very interesting, the narrative drive vs. ĎI just want to spend time with what it feels likeí. Poetry is a space where you can come off the narrative drive and drop into the other space.

What do you think the relationship is between poetry and plays that makes both mediums so evocative and though public, and presumably once published intended for mass audiences, so profoundly personal?

MS: Itís the point when a poet or novelist taps into something universal. Thatís why weíre still doing Shakespeare plays, because they speak of humanity and the human condition that hasnít changed over the ages. Thereís something very primal about our need for stories. It helps us to understand ourselves and the world that we live in. But youíre probably best asking an academic for a better answer to that question!

FLB: There is something about the human voice in song, theatre and poetry Ė the idea of conversation, as with The Poetry Exchange, being in conversation with whatever it is that is that grapple in that piece that makes the whole thing a lot less lonely!

There are poems that are written and there are poems that are performed. Some poets choose not to perform their poems, to only publish them in writing; some more contemporary and typically younger poets are eager to perform their poetry. What do think about non-performed poetry and performed poetry and anything that transforms in the performative side of hearing work aloud that youíve experienced through the exchanges?

FLB: I think itís fantastically exciting time for poetry. It is explosive. Walls are falling down between one form and another. Weíve been talking about your work and the layering of different mediums that you were working with, Girl From the North Country, being another example. What happens in that space is very exciting.
When youíre studying poetry one of the first things you learn from all good teachers is that a writer is a reader. So however, youíre putting your work out, youíre wanting to be with both the written and the spoken word, and youíre absorbed and fed by that. Itís about an addiction really. Thatís my realisation that I am addicted to poetry!

LG: Could be worse!

MS: When I read the poem out loud I get different things from it and when I hear it read I get different things from it. I rail against that and say no its not itís a play it is written to be performed. I donít know about poetís intentions, but I like hearing them more than having them on the page.

FLB: It is an oral tradition they are being written to be sounded out. That is a major part. Whatís nice is how much people enjoy reading out aloud the poems for the podcasts.

What have some of your highlights been since founding and making The Poetry Exchange podcast?

MS: We laugh a lot! We could talk about Claudia. Claudia was from Columbia and she brought in a poem by a Czech poet called The Moth. Her connection with it was when she talks about the moth realising that it had wings and that it could fly. It was very much about a point in her life where she had left home and moved country and she herself realising that she had wings and that she could fly. It was beautiful, almost like watching this young woman blossom in front of our eyes; it was amazing.

FLB: The most recent exchange, an international exchange with somebody on the telephone from Athens, and reading that poem in the Greek for us and then the English. It was a poem that had changed the course of his life, literally. The poem was called Return, sent to him as a gift from a woman that he had met while travelling. It was the beginning of a love affair that became a marriage and involved him moving country. He was telling us that story thirty years later. Mind blowing.

What makes The Poetry Exchange different from other poetry podcasts?

FLB: We spend a lot of time with one poem. People say I thought I knew that poem but I havenít really heard that line in that poem like that before.

MS: I donít know many other poetry podcasts. My understanding is that they take a more academic approach. For me The Poetry Exchange is as much about the people as it is about the poem. We are not trying to prove that we know anything about a poem or that we are right, itís about people having a conversation.

FLB: Though it has poetry right at its heart, I donít tend to think of it as a poetry podcast, I think of it as people coming in and talking about a connection. Itís about a poem and a person. The difference is then the difference of it being about poetry or about a poem.

You must by default and your own cunning Fi, get the widest cross section of poems because youíre not in any way putting any thematic device on it to corner it into any specifics. You are literally saying these are exchanges with people from all over the globe from all walks of life, which is a really wonderful wide net to cast.

MS: The only theme we employ is the idea of a ĎPoem as a Friendí. It is a really powerful invitation to people. Itís not favourite poem, it is a poem that has been a friend to them. There are lots of different types of friends in our lives and there are lots of different ways in which poems act as friends to people. Sometimes people will come in and say this poem has been a challenging friend or a comforting friend to them. We hear the different ways in which these poems play a very active dynamic part in people lives.

FLB: The next episode features Dulce et Decorum Est. You would not think that would necessarily come through the door as a friend, but it has been by someoneís side and helps keep them or hold them to account with the world.

In keeping with your concept of Poems as Friends Ė I wondered if you both have Friends you would like to share with our readers? Or, if either of you had a play that might be a friend to you?

MS: Fiona, youíre going to have to fess up. Fiona has fairly recently been a guest in an exchange. She brought along a poem Ė I feel like I am telling on you now Ė A Kite For Aibin by Seamus Heaney. Fiona realised something about the poems that she hadnít realised when she came in and it was a very beautiful moment Ė quite incredible.
Iíve never done an exchange and thatís partly because my relationships with poetry are still very new. So, the friends Iíve got in the poetry world are all fairly new, but I am waiting for those friendships to deepen. I was very struck by Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, that one really spoke to me.

FLB: It would be really naughty to say Girl From the North Country, not just because you were in it, though I did enjoy that. I did go to see it three times because of the fusion of poetry from Mr Dylan and beautiful storytelling.
An adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinberg stayed with me for a long time.
Itís interesting in this question that I am separating play from production, thereís quite a difference about how plays live in your mind, like productions might sit with me like a friend but perhaps not the play.

MS: With a poem as a friend, for example the woman whose friend was Wild Geese, she used to keep it by her bed. But with a play you canít quite do that, certainly not with a production. You might see the production once maybe twice, or if youíre Fiona three times! But itís the memory of it and the feeling it created. So, in that sense plays are all friends that we donít see very often. Fleeting friends.

My first thoughts are the pieces Iíve enjoyed doing the most. From the ones Iíve been in, Mr Burns was a special friend to me and remains in my heart, as does London Road and Girl From the North Country. Certainly, when I was growing up Pinter, The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter stuck with me. Iím talking now about the plays on the page, there was something about the dialogue the rhythms of them that I was excited by.

Thank you for sharing your friends with us. Finally, how can we get listening to the podcast?

Itís once a month and please follow the link to our Listen Page with a list of all the podcasts weíve produced and episodes to choose from... we look forward to sharing them and learning about your friends, which you can tell us all about through our website. You can even leave us a voice message and you can subscribe via the website as well.






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Nouska Hanly reports on the launch of PARK THEATRE's fundraising campaign before opening in Autumn 2012

Time Out announces a good year for Off West End theatre in this week's edition....

CLARA BRENNAN wins 2012 ADOPT A PLAYWRIGHT AWARD

REBECCA ATKINSON-LORD and RACHEL BRISCOE talk to Tom Wicker about their vision for OVALHOUSE

Tom Wicker talks to Guillaume Pigť and Adam Taylor about THE GAMBLER at The Space..

MESHAUN LABRONE talks to Tom Wicker about exploring the life of legendary American rapper 2Pac

CHRIS LOSCHER and MIKE LEES talk to Tom Wicker about the UK premiere of COUNT OEDERLAND......

"What we do isn't polite and it's not middle-class - those things are, I think, death to theatre." KERRY MICHAEL from Theatre Royal Stratford East talks to Tom Wicker

NPPF MUST NOT BE SILENT ON CULTURE ......

Tom Wicker talks to HAMISH MACDOUGALL about THE LIGHTS at The Spring

In this second installment, MARK SHENTON talks to Tom Wicker about producing, reviewing and the theatres he loves...

Tom Wicker interviews theatre critic and journalist MARK SHENTON about the changing role of theatre criticism...

Tom Wicker interviews RICK BLAND in THICK at The New Diorama from 13 September

FREE workshops in the Olivier theatre for actors and directors at the POEL EVENT 2011

HOW TO REDEEM YOUR TIME OUT VOUCHERS BEFORE 23 SEPTEMBER......

BEN OCCHIPINTI talks to Tom Wicker about Mack & Mabel at Greenwich Theatre....

SOUTHWARK PLAYHOUSE needs your help NOW to lobby and tweet for their survival!

Amy Tez talks about FOUR DOGS AND A BONE with Tom Wicker

WILTON'S to remain open - hurrah!!

PATRICIA CAMPER to leave Talawa Theatre Company

BOY GEORGE at GREENWICH THEATRE!

WILTONS are turned down by the Heritage Lottery Fund!!

GIANT OLIVE THEATRE CO talks to Tom Wicker about celebrating women playwrights, performers, directors and designers as part of the Gaea Theatre Festival at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.....

TOM WICKER talks to the creators of an uncompromising new play about the death of Baha Mousa...

RoAm Productions and Madison Theatre Company talk to Tom Wicker about RUMOURS.....

THRILL ME transfers to Charing Cross Theatre from 17 May to 11 June!

Tom Wicker talks to JAMES HADDRELL about the new Emerging Artists season, Greenwich's break with the past and the problem with pigeons....

CATRIONA MCLAUGHLIN tackles life and directing while staging IRISH BLOOD, ENGLISH HEART....

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part 5

How far would you go for love? THRILL ME tests you until 30th April at Tristan Bates

JOSIE ROURKE appointed new Artistic Director of The Donmar

Award-winning NEIL MCPHERSON talks candidly to Tom Wicker

HOMOS PROMOS: Peter Scott-Presland talks to Tom Wicker

THE BLOGGER BLAGS IT TO THE OFFIES! Part 4

OFFIE WINNERS GALORE!!!! READ ALL ABOUT IT!!

Sisters Cindy and Sheila Rhyme are updating Alice in Wonderland at The Courtyard....

MATTHEW CRITCHFIELD and JAZZ FLAHERTY talk about The Black Death, conspiracy and friendship...............

OFFIE SHORTLIST ANNOUNCED after a day of contention, controversy and too much coffee.....

ANTHONY ABUAH talks about putting his heart and soul into writing....

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part3

Interview with writer Philip Ridley

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part2

JAMES BURN introduces Legacy Burns

HOW NOT TO RUN A FRINGE THEATRE Part 1 in an endless new series.....

POLIS LOIZOU talks about life, art and CLOTHES TO FALL APART IN

Glenn Chandler and Scouts In Bondage

What is Paul Clarkson doing at The Union?

Bill Bankes-Jones talks about Salad Days and surfing

Carole Carpenter on tour with Jane Austen

Dan Barnard is SHOOTING RATS at an epic new venue

Zimbabwe-born David Dinnell talks about HOW TO COOK A COUNTRY

Director Sarah Norman talks to us from The Finborough

Amy Molloy Interviewed (appearing in Kitty & Damnation at the Lion & Unicorn from 11 Aug 2009 to 12 Sep 2009)

Charlotte Gwinner talks about ANGLE

Kenneth Emson talks about Whispering Happiness and what inspires him....

THE FRENCH ARE COMING to The King's Head!

Paolo Rotondo talks from New Zealand

Writer Stephen M Hunt wishes he had written Slueth

Writer Jeremy Green talks about THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF CHOOSING A MATE

Andrew Olay talks about inspiration, character amd Tom Courtney

Ellie Turner performs with LOVE&MADNESS

Sondheim's Saturday Night with Helena Blackman

Alistair Green directs The Thingumywotsit at The Hen & Chickens

Racky Plews directs Into The Woods

Robert Lloyd Parry is at Baron's Court

Interview with The Umbilical Brothers at The Leicester Square Theatre

Interview with Iain Pears at The Riverside Studios

Interview with Tim Roseman directing Overspill

Interview with Melanie Wilson

Interview with Gillian Plowman, author of Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe

Interview with Alex Helfrecht

Interview with Michael Gieleta

Interview with director Rhys Thomas

Interview with writer James Graham

Theatre Student Patricia Low posts her Malaysia Blog

Sabina Arthur performs in Under The Veil

Fin Kennedy talks about UNSTATED

Interview with Andrew Keatley

Interview with Ben Hales

Interview with Ali Taylor

Interview with Matt Ball

Interview with Tim Fountain

Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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