Louise Tickle reflects on a day spent travelling on the Brookes Buses during Poetry on the Bus week.
"What this involves," booms the Oxford-based bard Steve Larkin, "is us, the poets, ranting at you, the unwilling audience".
We’re on the top deck of a bus setting off from London Road, just
next to the Gipsy Lane campus, on our way to the Brookes campus at
Wheatley. Though the bus-travelling public of Oxford probably don’t
realise it yet, it’s World Poetry Day, and the seven passengers who had
earlier handed over their fare to Jimmy the bus driver before making
their way upstairs are clearly taken aback. This being England, they are
also smiling embarrassedly while looking both nervous and tentatively
curious. One bloke stares determinedly out of the window, his headphones
Embarrassment turns to chuckles as Steve continues, "and now, ladies
and gents, you have a choice of poem. I can do Love, or I can do Filth!"
Filth, by general consensus, appears to be what the passengers on the
Oxford omnibus would like to hear this morning, and so we are treated
to an energetic rendition of his poem "Fat Sex" that transforms shy
smiles to grins of enjoyment as Steve skilfully cajoles and seduces his
audience into listening intently to the sarcastic commentary of the
This is "Poetry on the Bus", a peripatetic performance organised by
the Poetry Centre at Oxford Brookes in partnership with six local poets
and the Stagecoach bus company. It’s just one of a series of events
dreamt up this year to celebrate the power of poetry and popularise it
with a wider public.
Rachel Buxton, director of the Poetry Centre, explains the rationale.
"We want people who have never written poetry to write it, those who’ve
never read poetry or heard it performed to enjoy it, and those who’ve
never had their work published to see their poems in print. We want to
open up poetry to people in a fun and thought-provoking way."
To this end, students, schoolchildren, poets and Oxford residents
were asked to contribute their own verses exploring the theme of ‘Oxford
Journeys’ which were then printed up and displayed on the Stagecoach
bus network. After the day’s recitals on the buses, a Poetry Slam would
be held that evening (three-minute performances of spoken word poetry
with an Olympic-style scoring system). And finally a website forum was
launched enabling people to discuss and reflect on what they had seen
We whiz along the dual carriageway overtaking commuters in cars who
are oblivious to the literary opus being passionately expounded in the
bus driving just beside them. As the top deck fills up, Steve is clearly
enjoying his captive audience. And though there are bumpy bits of road
which throw the rhythm off-kilter, there’s no doubt that his searing
rendition of "I Now Support The War On Terror Because Of The Daily Mail"
has gone down a treat, and most of the passengers are laughing by the
time they step off at the end of their journey.
"That top deck is just like a very long theatre space; demanding,
because you really have to project" muses the poet A. F. Harrold,
munching on a handful of crisps. It’s hungry work, this performance
poetry business, and the poets are on a lunch break being fed and
watered in preparation for their afternoon session.
"On my bus, some people had their i-pods on, but they were still
watching us," Harrold continues says. "Performance poetry is physical
and exuberant, so it does reach out. I’ve been doing quite zany,
peculiar stuff. On a bus journey you have to time it carefully; it can’t
be too long because people are getting on and off so you have to aim
for something that is complete in the space of time it takes to go
The poets agree that you can’t always tell who will be open to listening to poetry, and you mustn’t stereotype.
"You can’t ever make assumptions about the ‘types’ of people who
appreciate poetry," notes Harrold. He explains that a woman had got onto
his bus that morning who clearly wasn’t well off and didn’t look like a
typical poetry reader, "whatever that is supposed to be. But you could
tell she was listening closely and was really engaged and this is what
today is all about."
Back on the bus, and as we head through town the poets are picking up
a head of steam. This time it’s Phil Whitehead who kicks off with a
haiku. It’s necessarily brief, and some passengers don’t seem to realise
that we’ve started. He leads on with a kenning - a form of riddle - and
then fellow poet Alan Buckley performs a caustic reflection on his
neighbour’s cat in "The Psychology of Shared Space".
There’s a bunch of teenage lads all wearing baseball caps who are
raising their eyebrows at each other in bewilderment. What do they
think? "It’s awright," says one, blushing furiously. Another films the
performance on his phone. Matthew Weston, 20, a business studies student
who says his favourite poet is John Agard, is listening intently with
"I like reading poetry," he says. "You don’t expect it on the bus but I think it’s a really good idea."
We head downstairs: there’s to be no escape for those on the lower
deck. Steve takes over again with "Live in Leeds", and then Alan
performs "Traffic" using the entire length of the gangway down the
middle of the bus. An elderly gentleman gets on and makes his way slowly
along to a seat, feeling his way with a cane. "Oh, dear me, am I in the
way?" he asks, before being personally ushered to his seat by the
triumvirate of poets still speaking verse.
As those of us who have accompanied Steve, Alan and Phil on three bus
journeys now beg and plead for "Fat Sex" once again. But it’s almost
the end: the poets take a bow while Steve intones dramatically, "Thank
you, thank you, ladies and gents, and I’d also like to thank Arts
Council England for funding the provision of such high quality poetry to
the Oxford bus-travelling population."
Poets certainly need patrons, but they also need audiences, and given
that one young man said he’d like to stay on past his stop to hear the
rest of the performance, "but I’ve lost my phone so I’d never catch up
again with my mates," it looks like they may just have extended their