Ken Smith was one of the first poets I ever heard read. When I was an undergraduate in 1976 he was Yorkshire Arts Association Creative Writing Fellow in the School of English at the University of Leeds and I vividly remember hearing that distinctive voice amongst the cigarette smoke of the School’s Workshop Theatre. Deep, gravelly, by turns raspingly metallic or whispery, it served the poems wonderfully well. It was also hard to identify or locate. Some of the vowels sounded West Country, some of the intonation and elisions North American. And when he spoke about his poetry it was to suggest that he’d learned how to become a poet by moving to the United States and, in particular, by being exposed to native American culture. Looking back, I realize that he must have read from The stone poems and from Death Songs / Death Dances. As I listened to the sequences and the variety of voices, I soon understood that this was my first lesson in disorientation, my first sense that becoming a poet was a serious challenge which might necessitate looking on Englishness from the outside. The life of this poetry was to be always on the move – between stanzas, between the different voices, histories, and geographies.
The lesson derived from this first meeting with Ken was reinforced around eighteen months later when he organized a mini poetry festival on the University campus in what was the original ‘Leeds Playhouse’. It was an impressive line-up, including Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Eric Mottram, Robert Garioch, and Jeff Nuttall, ...
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