In addition to which British poets to read, American friends who come to visit invariably ask which spots they should visit to get a feel for the London poetry scene. Here are five of my current favourites (plus a bonus)--selected for their friendly atmosphere, talented lineups, and longstanding commitment to stoking the fires of poetry in The Big Smoke.
The Camden/Lumen Poetry Series meets in Camden on the first Friday of each month at 7PM at 1 Buck Street, Camden, NW1. Expect no frills. Camden is the equivalent of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in London, once a nexus of counter-culture whose high street is now by turns both increasingly squalid and sold out to tourists. Situated in the heart of this paradox is a church that doubles as a cold-weather shelter for the homeless. Here you can warm your hands on an eclectic mix of featured readers and some surprisingly adept walk-ins as "poets from the floor". A £5 entry supports the work of the Shelter. More details here
The Poetry Cafe, situated near Soho and Covent Garden at 22 Betterton Street, WC2H provides a decidely more upscale experience. Serving tasty light fare, hot drinks, and wine, the cafe makes a popular meeting spot for workshop groups such as Stanza, and plays host to a wide range of readings and events in the evenings. Spanning two levels, with wall racks packed with the latest UK poetry journals, this place makes a perfect artist's date, provided you are lucky enough to grab a precious table for one. If so, I highly recommend the sweet potato soup. For a complete listing of events, visit their website
Poetry in the Crypt, hosted on the third or fourth Saturday of the month at 7PM at St Mary's Church, Upper Street, Islington N1 is surprisingly less Gothic than it sounds. The crypt, in fact, is painted white, and you hardly feel like you are walking on dead people at all. In fact, the group could not be friendlier or more lively. Your £4 entry goes to support Hospice Care Kenya, and poets from the floor are most welcome. The venue features an impressive range of well-known poets in an initmate setting, with a friendly tea-and-cake service at the interval. To find out who's haunting the crypt next, check out their website
Torriano Meeting House is a North London institution. It is synonymous with Hungarian Anarcho-Communist Poet John Rety, who founded and ran it as a centre of poetry and social change for many years before his death. But poetry pamphlets and independent small-press journals have replaced copies of The Daily Worker at the back table. On Sundays at 7:30PM at 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town, NW5, for just a £5 entry to support the venue keeping its heat on in Winter, you can hear an ecclectic mix of talented poets, and even sign up to contribute a "power to the people" poem of your own from the floor. Full details on the website
Finally, one of the more historic venues is The Troubadour cafe in Earls Court, the hip, happening district in London during the swinging 60s and 70s, whose basement stage played host to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin in their heyday. The glossy painted-black basement and stage now play host to fine poets and a rapt audience of their in-the-know admirers. The venue frequently plays host to the launch of new issues of the literary journal Magma Poetry, and on such nights the place is packed out and buzzing. If you're in London on a Monday night, be sure not to miss Coffeehouse Poetry at the Troubadour, 8PM at 263-267 Old Brompton Road, Earls Court, SW5. £7 at the door. More information here
Finally, the bonus: no survey of the poetic landscape in London would be complete without a mention of the illustrious Southbank Centre, whose regular, ongoing and high-profile poetry events take place at Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1. Host to the T.S. Eliot Prize, as well as many fine British and international poets in their fifth-floor function room, the space also boasts an impressive national poetry library and fabulous free hangout spaces tucked into every corner of this massive multi-story labyrinth. You'll find workshop groups and scribblers at every turn, lounging in comfortable corners or taking in stunning views of the Thames from one of several balconies. If you need a place to be a poet in London, be sure to check it out. And to sample some of the UK's finest word offerings, be sure to check out the Centre's website
These are a few of my favourite spots, ones I recommend to visiting friends. That said, there are myriad other cafes, bookshops, and dedicated poetry hotspots throughout London waiting to be discovered. If you have a favourite you'd like to mention, be sure to leave details--including the address and times--in the comments.
Meanwhile, to help you find your way to the five (plus one) mentioned above, here is a handy interactive map: