SPEAK: Salon, A New Space For Poetry In The North East

As an aspiring poet, I am always on the lookout for interesting open mic nights, especially those that make an effort to reach a wider audience. This is where SPEAK: Salon comes in. This new poetry salon, established by Suzannah V. Evans and based in the North East, focuses on producing a welcoming space for the innovation, performance and celebration of poetry, as well as exploring the creative process behind poetic works.

The first event took place in the evening on 11th June at Durham World Heritage Site Visitor Centre. Evans and Madeline Potter hosted the evening, kicking things off with a mini-performance that explained the manifesto. SPEAK: Salon is the ‘joy of reading aloud,’ and ‘the brightness of sudden expression’, as well as ‘collaboration, collaboration, collaboration’. They also introduced the two poets who would read their works: Karl O’Hanlon and Rebecca Tamás, respectively a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Leeds University and lecturer at York St John University, with two very different styles of writing.

Karl O’Hanlon
Karl O’Hanlon | Courtesy of Sarah Lohmann

O’Hanlon was first to read from a selection of published and unpublished poems that varied in theme and content. The first poem, ‘Scenes on a Sicilian Coin’, was inspired by his nephew’s birth and had rich imagery deeply rooted in nature, such as the subject of the poem being ‘unearthed from sheer volcanic soils’. There were also elegies dedicated to the poets Hart Crane and Geoffrey Hill, as well as an ekphrastic poem about Brexit, inspired by Pisanello’s classical painting, Saint George and the Princess. Tamás read from her most recent collection WITCH, which follows a supernatural female character as she ‘moves through time and interrogates lost female history and female silence’, and includes an assortment of spells and hexes. This included ‘\cunt hex\’, whose title demanded our attention immediately. Its powerful, harrowing lines ­– ‘the cunt eats ice cream from the clean bowl of your skull, laughing’ – contrasted with more sombre instances of the ‘cunt’ crying ‘in the shower’, ‘onto newspapers’, and ‘during sex’, revealing a more vulnerable side to the unnamed, derogatory character.

Rebecca Tamás, Karl O'Hanlon and Suzannah V. Evans
Rebecca Tamás, Karl O’Hanlon and Suzannah V. Evans | Courtesy of Sarah Lohmann

Towards the end, Evans held a quick interview with both poets, asking them about the relationship between their academic interests and their writing. Tamás and O’Hanlon agreed that their PhD research did have some effect on their work, but O’Hanlon expressed that it ‘would be nice to take the poems out of the library to some degree.’ They were also asked more abstract questions, such as which poem they would choreograph to an interpretive dance. Though O’Hanlon seemed quite confused by this, Tamás was quick to choose ‘/ penis hex/’, which would certainly make for quite the show!

Judging by the full house and the audience’s focus on the poets, as well as the enthusiasm of the hosts, the evening proved to be a welcoming environment for anyone interested in contemporary poetry and discovering a range of writing styles. With poetry readings being fairly rare events in Durham and its surrounding areas, SPEAK: Salon provides an excellent opportunity for both the academic and wider communities in the North East to come together and celebrate poetry.