“To see what’s possible in poetry” – Frances Leviston in Berlin

Tuesday night saw our first public “Literary Field Kaleidoscope” reading at the Centre for British Studies in Berlin (link). We decided to invite the poet Frances Leviston for this special occasion, as we both fell in love with her poetry when we first met her at a British Council Literature Seminar in 2015. At our reading event, she did it again: she impressed us all with her carefully crafted poetry, her wonderful reading voice and her comments about her work and the literary scene in the UK.

Frances Leviston read from her two collections Disinformation and Public Dream, both published by Picador. She chose to alternate between the two to let us experience how the poems communicated with each other, even those that don’t have too much in common at first sight. I don’t think I would otherwise have grasped the connection between the title poem of Disinformation, at a first glance about jelly cooking for a child’s birthday, and “The Fortune Teller” from her first collection Public Dream. However, the author made it quite clear that she does not wish to provide a fully-fledged analysis of her poems as every reader might get something else out of it, discover his or her own associations and reactions to it.

Frances Leviston reading poetry

Frances Leviston in conversation with Gesa Stedman (Foto: Esme Ellis)

Putting Frances Leviston’s writing in a box is neither a good idea nor possible – something I admire immensely – even though there are some themes that surface once and again, such as time and timing, the discovery of a voice or a form of forced silence as well as manipulation (sometimes welcome, sometimes not). She plays with expectations and seems to enjoy exploring reactions to literature. In her poems you will find beautifully composed pictures, carefully crafted language and many references that encourage various associations (I bought the collection that was still missing on my shelf at the book table by Marga Schoeller Bücherstube (link) so I’d be able to go back and reread the poems. I don’t know why her works haven’t been translated to German yet, as they are really interesting and complex and rich. They were even shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Dylan Thomas Prize, to name just the most prominent ones. So hopefully her poems will be discovered by German publishers and readers in the future.

Frances Leviston is a poet, a teacher and a critic who enjoys “sitting around, messing with language”. When asked about her experiments with the form of her poems she said: “form is a generative thing. It helps me get the poem right.” She also shared with us which other authors she reads and admires, for example: Elizabeth Bishop, George Seferis, Ange Mlinko and Adrienne Rich. For her, reading what others have written helps her to get a feeling of „what’s possible in poetry“. And she is „not afraid of cross-pollination, but happy about it“. When asked about an indicator for quality, she came up with a wonderfully honest answer: “if I feel envy”.

During the Q&A time she also gave advice to aspiring writers. Among other things, she encouraged them to take their time lest they might regret a premature publication. She followed this advice herself and said: “I felt anxious sometimes, but I have never regretted publishing a poem.“ She also recommended review writing to all of us as this text form forces us to make up our mind about what we really think about a text – and transform it into concise words rather than being left with an undefined feeling about a text.

So I think it is fair to say, Frances Leviston appealed to us on many levels and everyone present at the reading enjoyed it very much. If you ever get a chance of attending a reading by her, make sure you’ll go. Watch this impressive, down-to-earth author – there is more to come.


P.S.: Here are some suggestions for further reading

  • If you’re interested in Frances Leviston’s take on labels and choice, you might want to read her essay “The Red Squirrels at Coole” (link)
  • Frances Leviston’s website with some of her texts and links to future readings: www.francesleviston.co.uk
  • This is a link to Adrienne Rich’s essay that Frances Leviston mentioned in her talk: “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” (link)