there was a hungry young poet ...

The Poetry Place's fancy food and celebrity patrons will ensure that today's budding bards won't starve, reports Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet
Saturday 14 September 1996 23:02

The chairs in the Poetry Place are more familiar with Emma Thompson's bottom than readers of the News of the World. Its lampshades have been handcrafted by Ralph Steadman and regular diners include Paul Muldoon and John Hegley. The Place hangs out beneath the offices of the Poetry Society, an organisation which, in the words of its director, Chris Meade, "exists to help poets and poetry thrive in Britain today".

But you don't have to be a famous writer or a film star to bib a bison grass vodka behind the discreetly frosted windows of 22 Betterton Street, WC2. Sipping their cranberry juice alongside the theatricals and the literati are blue-rinsed ladies, bright young things, and nondescript men who might be geography teachers (they're the poets). For a tenner-a-year, anyone who likes poetry can join, bringing entitlement to a quarterly newsletter, discounts on Society events, and a place on one of the cafe's squashy orange sofas. So what's on the menu? Hare jugged by Ted Hughes? Plums fresh from the Carlos Williams icebox? P B Shelley vegetarian specials? As Hegley's specially commissioned verse explains, poets "needing the assurance of the everyday" can seek refuge here and chill out over a croissant. In practice, the Poetry Place leaves such passe pastries to the stripy shirts of the Pret a Manger set: here you're more likely to be indulging in a (very generous) dishful of lavender ice-cream, served up by one of their (very pretty) waiters.

The concept was cooked up between Meade and the cafe's manager, Mark Mitchinson. Inspired by the fusion of literature and lunch achieved in New York's artsy Soho and TriBeCa quarters, Mitchinson perceives a natural link between poetic composition and the creation of good food. "Ask anyone who's ever worked in a kitchen: you use spices and herbs to give a meal structure, and out of that comes a unity built out of all those things".

However, the Poetry Place isn't just a trendy feeding trough; it's also a drop-in centre for the budding bard: a place to rest your iambic feet and have your metonyms massaged by an expert. As well as running a variety of educational programmes, the Society can arrange for unpublished wannabe Wordsworths to have their work examined by a published practitioner. There are Open Mike sessions every third Tuesday of the month, and if you pick up the poetry Batphone in the cosily furnished cellar, you can receive free advice on a good read, or get the lowdown on the National Poetry Competition. Here, nursing your cappuccino, you can graze through all the latest books, journals and magazines. There are Internet facilities for the cyberspatially inclined pentametrist, and coming events include a workshop for poets who compose in sign language. But is the Society's dedication to the muse of poesy being undermined by the cafe's glamorous goings-on? "The best way of making it accessible wasn't to make it cheap and cheerful," argues Chris Meade. "Who would use it but the people who lived round the corner? It's got to be worth travelling for. I hope that people who live all over the country will come for a treat." Mark Mitchinson also denies courting media darlings: "We didn't go for the glam factor - it came to us: people such as Emma Thompson and Ben Elton don't come here because they want to be seen, they come here to get away from all that. They're safe at a table here."

So will the success of the Poetry Place set a national trend? There are scores of Lakeland Wordsworth tearooms, but what about eateries constructed around more modern figures? There's clearly a taste-cordon around anything that connects Sylvia Plath with food-preparation, but might a Philip Larkin-themed branch open in Hull; pornography scattered on the tables, the air full of Sidney Bechet, the menu offering washing sherry and awful pies? This is just the sort of concept that gives Mitchinson the shivers: "We wanted to avoid becoming a theme restaurant. You won't get a T S Eliot burger or be forced to stir your coffee with a Prufrock spoon: it's not like Planet Hollywood. If you can serve something up as Arnold Schwarzenegger's mum's favourite apple pie, that can become an excuse for it being crap. The food here has to speak for itself."

The prices are also rather eloquent: main courses have a strict pounds 9 ceiling. The Poetry Place offers the sort of cafe society in which you don't necessarily have to know Petrarch from Petula Clark, but after a lazy evening breathing in its attractively laid-back atmosphere, you might well find yourself waxing lyrical.

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