Where else to begin the ongoing adventure of ‘A Leisure Centre is Also a Temple of Learning’ except by grateful acknowledgment of all the wonderful people who have supported this little poem as it made its unexpected way into the world.
The attractive young woman in the women’s changing room in the Bath Leisure Centre will probably never know that her post-pool ritual is now on the Edexcel A level syllabus. She certainly won’t know that she owes this to Michael Mackmin, editor of the brilliant poetry magazine The Rialto, and to fellow-poet Dean Parkin who also had a voice at the editorial table the month I sent in the poem, very timidly, for consideration. Michael and Dean gave the poem its first break, by publishing it in their magazine, and then its even more surprising second break when they decided to submit it to the Forward Competition’s Best Single Poem category. ‘Leisure Centre’ didn’t win its category – predictably, when among its rivals for the prize were Seamus Heaney, who was shortlisted, and Don Paterson, who won. But it did wriggle its way into the Forward Book of Poetry for 2009, and then ( by this stage, it was going stratospheric) into the Forward Poems of the Decade, selected by William Sieghart, the inspirational Founder of the Forward Prizes.
My poem’s next appearance was truly breathtaking. Welsh singer-songwriter Cerys Matthews chose it, from the Forward Poems of the Decade, for her electrifying ‘With Great Pleasure’ selection on BBC 4 in July 2012 and read it sumptuously against a musical background towards the end of her programme: the 600 strong audience in St George’s Brandon Hill. Her Bristol audience went wild. Cerys Matthews could of course have driven them just as wild if she had chosen to read party political manifestos instead of my poem. But to be in the auditorium while she worked this magic with a little assistance from my lines….I have my waterborn friend poet/performer/creative educator Caleb Parkin (no relation as far as I know of the equally remarkable Dean) who was at that time working at the BBC to thank for the invitation to share that astonishing afternoon.
We might by now have been at the end of the ‘Leisure Centre’ story. But the poem had one more dazzling moment up its sleeve. The examination board Edexcel have recently decided to put the Forward Poems of the Decade on to the A level syllabus and the anthology has been reprinted by Faber & Faber with a characteristically offbeat and inventive cover by (who else, given this extraordinary saga? ) the star potter and performer Grayson Perry. And, as a postscript, just before I let my poem go on its by now confident way into 400 schools, a friend tells me that I can attach to it the blessing of The Guardian. This is an extract from the edition of Monday 16th March this year in which Alison Flood quotes the executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation, Susannah Herbert:
“We hope it will broaden the range of poets kids will read – for pleasure, not just for homework. There are poems here their teachers won’t be at all familiar with, on subjects that aren’t particularly correct, by writers like Tim Turnbull or Sue Boyle or Leontia Flynn and others, who cheerfully use language to challenge easy assumptions about what is and is not ‘literary’ “.
Postscript 18 August 2015
I should have known that the honey-coloured girl would not go quietly. East Anglian singer-songwriter MIRANDA PENDER has just created a new version for the singing voice which will be premiered in Royston on 9th October this year. More details on Miranda’s website very soon.