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The refusenik poets of Buckingham Palace

The Queen recently invited hundreds of British poets to a shindig at her house – but not all were keen to attend. JODY PORTER finds out why

WHEN envelopes postmarked Buckingham Palace started arriving on poets’ doorsteps it wasn’t long before blogs, forums and Facebook threads were abuzz with chatter.

Gradually it became apparent that the Queen and Prince Philip were hosting a reception to celebrate contemporary British poetry on the eve of their 66th wedding anniversary and that around 300 poets, editors and others were asked to attend.

Who was invited? Who wasn’t invited? Who compiled the invite list? What were the criteria? How did they get my address? These were the questions being asked.

In the days leading up to the bash there was much public soul-searching and a number of poets — citing political and moral objections — declined Her Majesty’s request.

I spoke to some of the refuseniks and one attendee, although the list is incomplete — some poets preferred to keep their feelings off the record.

Mista Gee is a regular on BBC Radio and founder of south London poetry night Chill Pill.

“I’ve been a part of the poetry scene since 2001 and my main interest has been that it allows for the voice of counter-culture and celebrates a healthy critique of society.

“This gives it a permanent underground status and hence the fame and fortune bestowed upon comedians and musicians is rarely afforded to performance poets.

“So we may be broke, but we have an artistic freedom that allows us to do what we want any old time — yes, I’m fully aware that’s an old Rolling Stones lyric.

“My poems usually have some political commentary running through them. Recession, street crime, social injustice.

“I’ve been lucky enough to keep going for over a decade just writing what I want and getting a little applause in the process. That’s all the validation that I need. So the idea that I’d somehow be vindicated as a poet by being invited into Buckingham Palace never crossed my mind.

“It was only when I saw other poets rushing around, dressing up, getting all giddy and excited that I realised what a momentous occasion it was for them. Some did it to please their families. Others saw it as an official sanction of their work.

“Some claimed some pseudo-Guy Fawkes act of rebellion by not bowing or curtseying. Some just went along for the experience.

“I didn’t go because I simply didn’t feel like it. The invite ended up amongst a pile of flyers for other poetry nights I’d been invited to and I honestly didn’t think anything more of it.”

James Byrne is the editor of The Wolf magazine and was co-editor of the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poetry available in the west.

“I feel the monarchy should be abolished and their wealth redistributed. I am also anti-nationalist, believing that all forms of nationalism are, at root, extremist — the idea being that the belief in one’s own nationality surpasses all others.

“How could I bow to the head of our military forces, as a pacifist who often writes against war, oppression and the horrors of empire?”

Nia Davies’s first pamphlet, Then Spree, is published by Salt, and among other things she is co-editor of Solidarity Park: Poems for the Turkish Resistance.

“I didn’t attend as I didn’t want to feel like I was legitimising an institution I feel is a huge obstacle to achieving real democracy and equality in Britain and around the world.

“That’s not to say I didn’t feel a strong curiosity and desire to take part in the fun.”

Luke Wright is a poet and broadcaster and describes himself as a “sweary socialist.”

“I have always passionately believed we should not have a monarchy. I find the idea of people born into status and power to be repugnant, the antithesis of equality.

“Feeling as I do I felt it would be inappropriate to visit the palace. I don’t begrudge anyone else their decision to go, but I feel it is important to match your actions to your words.”

Niall O'Sullivan hosts London's longest running poetry open mic, Poetry Unplugged, at Covent Garden's Poetry Cafe and teaches at London Metropolitan University.

“I'd say that a large section of the poets that turned up at the Palace were Republicans. Most were probably indifferent to the institution of monarchy. It was only an awkward, slight contingent that could be called dyed in the wool monarchists.

"My main reasons for turning up revolved around keeping the in laws happy. I think curiosity got the better of most of us. We wanted to have a story to tell.

"The only awkward moment for me was the moment when I shook the Queen's hand and didn't bow. There was a slight panic in her gaze but her smile didn't waver. While I like to think that she recognised me as a Republican, she could also have been thinking, as Luke Wright pointed out to me, "This oik doesn't know protocol."

"But in hindsight, more awkward than that was the moment when, while chatting to one of the country's biggest performance poets, one of the country's biggest literary poets intervened and steered them toward a more erudite group without even acknowledging the rest of us.

"This happens to me all the time at poetry receptions. I usually turn up in order to remind myself of what a old boys (and girls) club the scene really is.

"I massively respect those that refused to go but, at same time, didn't see such a snub as on a par with Benjamin Zephaniah's MBE refusal. I don't think that my refusal to go would have sent tremors through the edifice of monarchy.

"As we were quite literally kettled out of the room by otherwise friendly staff, I don't think there were any sudden Damascene conversions to monarchism because of it. For the majority it was a posh night out, a chance to brush down a suit, a jaunt and (dare I say) a poncy piss up.”

The palace controversy has plenty of life left in it yet, but Mista Gee offered these unlikely words to help establish a middle ground: “I don’t want those who attended to think that I’m in some way judging them.

“I respect most of them as artists who may be more talented and dedicated to their craft than me. I don’t have strong pro- or anti-monarchy opinions, which is maybe why I didn’t see the invite as being a big deal.

“But we’re all free to do what we want to do, we’ve got to live our lives. Yes, I know — Ultra Naté, 1997.”

Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter.
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