Put 15 poets in a room and ask them to read for just three minutes each – every organiser’s nightmare. But that’s exactly what Michaela Ridgeway, putting on a Pighog night in honour of the late Lee Harwood, did yesterday at Brighton’s Redroaster coffee house, and, against all poetry reading odds, it worked. Starting promptly at 8.00pm (in itself some kind of first) the formal part of the evening wrapped up at 9.15, just five minutes behind schedule.
Readers had been asked for either a poem of their own, dedicated to Lee or associated with him in some way, a poem of Lee’s and, possibly, a brief anecdote. Ken Edwards, with a new piece of writing, managed, superbly and with great humour, all three in one. Some of those reading had been part of a monthly poetry group that Lee had guided for years; others – Richard Cupidi, Paul Matthews, Tom Raworth – were very much a part of Lee’s past, his poetry, and his Brighton life.
In the absence of Robert Sheppard, editor of the comprehensive Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, I had been asked to introduce the evening, which I did, harking back, in part, to the first occasions on which I would have hear Lee read – at the ICA or the Roundhouse in the mid-70s and likely in the company of Libby Houston, Carlyle Reedy and The Liverpool Scene.
In an interview I did with Lee for Slow Dancer magazine, he talked about one of Soho’s iconic early coffee bars, Sam Widges, where he used to hang out in the early 60s with the likes of Pete Brown, Libby Houston and Spike Hawkins, and where, for the first time, he came across the poetry of Tristan Tzara, a major influence on his writing. One of the few places that then stayed open through the night, I would sometimes fetch up there in the early hours after an all-nighter listening to Ken Colyer at Studio 51 – a style of music that, as Lee was quick to point out, he had long left behind.
I went to listen to Ken Colyer when I was fifteen or sixteen, but then I converted to Charlie Parker and after that it was all modern jazz – Monk, Parker, the Jazz Messengers, Gillespie and then British bands, especially Joe Harriott and Shake Keane, whose music really hit home. I can’t explain why. I just loved it. And I suppose for the same reason I loved the writing of Tzara and Pound and later on Borges, Patchen, Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on. It was all the same cloth really. It was the same with painting. I loved Kandinsky – a range of forms floating on the canvas and in some way bonding.
Slow Dancer 30, Summer 1993
Appropriate then, that the last time I heard Lee read was at Shoreham WordFest in the autumn of 2014, when we were both performing with John Lake’s fine little four piece jazz group. Lee hadn’t worked with them before, but a mutual understanding quickly grew between them at rehearsals and on the evening itself the blend of music and words was just about perfect. It was great to see Lee in such fine form and clearly enjoying the experience as much as he did. If there had to be a final memory of him, this, for me, was about the best it could be.