Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Three Helens

Up at the Ballroom Cafe - a place where people danced once upon a sprung floor - it is very hot, and crammed with poets and poetry supporters.  I arrive, and there are only two spare chairs and the poetry's begun. I sit at the back. Behind me, the rumble of pipes, the splosh of water - in front of me, the 'open mic' part of the event, except there is no mic (shame, the water is insistent - I am right at the back.)

It is a fun community entertaining thing - an open mic - but it is hard to thoroughly engage with a poem delivered this way, simply because it's hard to hear all the words. I've, thank goodness, already read Tim Jones' terrific earthquake poem published in the Dompost and on his blog - although his voice carries well so I don't miss much. Robyn Fry gives me a copy of her poem to read later.  I wish I'd asked Maria McMillan for a copy of hers too.

A quick break for a stretch and a refill, and it's time for the music. Blue Vein are a relaxed trio who do some gorgeous (their word is 'cheesy') covers by all sorts of artists e.g. one by Meatloaf and another by Doris Day (love that DD shake of the head Kate does - or is it Liz?)! I've (sneakily) moved my chair to the front for the second half of the show, and realise I'm sitting beside Hinemoana Baker. I can hear her in some of the songs - a sweet barely-there third part to the harmony.

Then it's the Three Helens, or 'Helen Cubed' as the publicity has it. These three women are Tuesday Poets - albeit that Helen L is on sabbatical (come back, Helen!) - so I know their work and admire all three for their poetry and the life they construct around it. Helen L is a tutor of creative writing, Helen H works for the publisher VUP, and Helen Rickerby is a publisher (and civil servant). All the Helens are up to their elbows in poetry and generous in their support of other writers.

They stand up in front of a bay window with the sun streaming in, dressed head-to-foot in Canterbury colours - no, Helen L is wearing bright blue tights.

They tell us they're going to weave their work in front of us. Helen H will lead with a long poem, stop after a bit, then Helen L will read, and Helen R, and then more of Helen H's long poem, and onwards ... Turns out the weaving idea works well because all three are are smart writers with strong personalities, and they clearly have a kind of cross-Helen-poet friendship going on. Helen R has published Helen H, Helen H and Helen L have blogged together... Although Helen R is quick to point out that she is not 'crafty' (in the weaving sense) like the other two.

Helen H's poem is about finding the Greek in herself and herself in Greece. At one point she describes lying with her ear to the earth of Ithaca and being ready to hear what it has to say - but it says nothing. Same thing happened to me in Rethymnon, Crete. I went there because my Yiayia (Grandmother)'s family came from there - like Helen H I didn't have much Greek in my upbringing. Ear to the ground: silence. When I saw Yiayia, I told her what happened, and she laughed, 'Well of course! we came from the village at the top of the hill.'

Helen's poem is an engaging narrative (wonderfully read) - full of a Greece that I recognise.  The style is conversational/epic, often funny, but the simplicity of the language belies the craft that's shapes this yarn. Sadly it's not yet published -I'll have to wait to read the rest.

Helen L's work is more domestic and 'lyrical', with the same humour and smartness of the Greek Helen. Helen L has a keen eye for what ticks in family life - what makes it and breaks it - and has the language to haul the reader in. One of my favourites is about moving house - writing of the anxieties involved and the hope that it will be a place of contentment - she nails it.

Helen R's poetry has found other lives to write about. Writers like the great Emily Dickinson are excellent fodder - and compellingly realised -- combining research/wit/imagination.  Interestingly Helen R brings together the outward looking 'epic' narrative feel of Helen H's long poem with the intimate/domestic stuff of Helen L's shorter works, which has hauled in readers since, well, that first Helen made an appearance in one particular long poem.

And so the weaving continues... next up is Helen H and so on. A lovely lovely evening.

The Poetry at the Ballroom Cafe event is on the third sunday of the month.

Postscript: A young Cantabrian Zeborah has written a simple guide on surviving a disaster which is well worth reading. She talks of the importance of a 'kit to go' in a backpack - my daughter's school is selling these fantastic backpack family kits for $189 each which would be just the trick. I'm getting one, we're right by the sea and need to run uphill as fast as possible after a big quake.


Penal-Colony said...


Thanks for taking us there, the next best thing, and for moving away from those water pipes ... I couldn't hear a thing.

Nice post.

Sarah said...

I wish I'd been there, it sounds great!

Helen Rickerby said...

Thanks for a lovely write-up Mary. I'm so glad you could make it, and I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a very crowded space - there were people standing and even sitting on the stairs. And when I was reading I heard someone come in the door, see the crowd, mumble with annoyance and then leave again.

Catherine said...

What is it with Helens and poetry? I can think of at least four Helens among Canterbury poets...

Glad you found the how to survive article useful, I think Zeborah (her blogging name) writes very well - of course I'm a bit biased!