Interview with Graham Henderson

Graham Henderson’s metamorphosis from lawyer into poetry impresario began ten years ago on a holiday in Andalusia. He had taken with him a biography of the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca – so it seemed serendipitous to say the least when, on his return, he was asked to take charge of a case in which Lorca’s book Poeta en New York was centre stage.

‘It was about the ownership of the manuscript,’ he explains. ‘There was a ten-day trial and we won all the arguments, so it was a great success.’ To celebrate, he organised a party in honour of Lorca’s memory at Christie’s, where the manuscript was to be auctioned – and to provide the literary element he called upon a charitable body called Poet in the City. The collaboration worked so well that Poet in the City’s founder, Rosamund McCarthy, asked him whether he would like to run the organisation in his spare moments. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘it takes up 150 per cent of my time.’

The ‘City’ in question was London’s Square Mile, where a group of lawyers had had the idea of raising money to promote poetry in schools. Today, says, Henderson, ‘Our work is much more about attracting new audiences to poetry; we’re a national organisation, and the name has become increasingly metaphorical – representing the individual voice in an anonymous environment.’

The key to their success, he says, is quality: ‘Twenty-five per cent of our audiences are attending their first poetry event, so it has to be short and of a very high standard. It doesn’t matter what kind of poetry it is – it could be a street rapper or something about the Brownings – but you have to leave the audience wanting more.’ Among the most memorable events of the past year have been an evening celebrating poetry and sport in the run-up to the Olympics, and one devoted to John Donne at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Another impressive statistic is that 30 per cent of Poet in the City’s events involve poetry in translation. ‘We’ve had some fantastic partnerships: for example, with the Instituto Cervantes, who helped us bring over six of Spain’s leading poets two years ago.’ 2011 saw a similar exercise with the Romanian Cultural Institute: ‘That was very interesting, not only because of the pleasure of discovering a country’s great poetry culture, but because of Romania’s accession to the EU. It was wonderful to be able to re-present Romania to people in a context they hadn’t been aware of before.’

Henderson’s own love of poetry was kindled when the late Ted Hughes paid a visit to his school: ‘I didn’t think I liked his work, but when he was there talking about himself I realised  that there was a whole extra layer of meaning underneath.’ As an adult, Henderson became enthralled by Seamus Heaney while making a 170-mile trek along the Offa’s Dyke Path. ‘I thought, “What can I take to read that will be rich enough fare to last over several evenings, but not weigh very much?” So I decided to take a few Heaney collections. I found them quite difficult at the time, but after reading them at length I really began to enjoy them.’ Among the highlights of his tenure he lists an evening in honour of Heaney co-hosted by Poet in the City and the Royal Society of Literature.

Given that words are intangible and buildings extremely solid, one might not expect poetry to have much effect on the city as a physical entity. But that may be about to change. Henderson proudly produces a brochure entitled Poetry in the Built Environment encapsulating a plan to transform a riverside site in Twickenham with the help of a long-dead local resident, Alexander Pope. ‘It’s a very controversial area which the council is trying to revitalise, and poetry is a brilliant way into something like that. It’s not just about putting a poem on a wall, but about artistic influence.’

Four architects were briefed on  Pope and the notion of this stretch of the Thames as England’s Arcadia – an eighteenth-century idea revived in the 1990s for a landscaping project. ‘They were then asked them to spend a day coming up with ideas in the context of the poetry and history. It was very, very effective and the council was delighted. We see it as a way of popularising poetry and humanising spaces that would otherwise be quite bleak.’

Another architectural project focuses on a house in Camden where Verlaine and Rimbaud lived for a year: ‘The owner has agreed to leave it to us, and we’ve been working very closely with the Fondation L-A Finances Pour La Poésie. The idea is to create an Anglo-French poetry house on the continental model, just 500 yards from the Eurostar terminal.’

Other plans for the future include a large-scale Bertolt Brecht event next year: ‘We’ve not done as much German poetry as I would have liked, and we’re now rectifying that. Over the next two or three years we hope to work much more with the German Embassy and establish a long-lasting relationship with the Goethe Institute.’

Henderson denies writing poetry himself – ‘But I have been in a poetry workshop, so I have a great appreciation of how difficult it is. Most of the poets I’ve met are really humble: both Seamus Heaney and Wendy Cope have told me how many they write and how few they publish. Wendy Cope writes a poem every day, but only publishes a collection every six to eight years.’

And who is his favourite poet? Heaney again. ‘It’s marvellous the way he distils language. I always say that a good poem is like a polished pebble in your hand, and his poems are like that for me.’

Hmm – not a bad simile. Could it be that Graham Henderson’s verse might yet adorn a wall in Twickenham?

© Anthony Gardner. All views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to the European Commission.

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