"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 blaring.
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 verse.
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 and heard.
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 between stops."
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 his mates.
"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 reach.