The Big One That Got Away

Every now and again, I’ve thought of this project. The big, beautiful catch we couldn’t quite land. The idea was to get 100 poets to write 10 lines each and therefore have 1000 lines to mark the start of the new millennium, with each poet passing the task on to another of their choosing – a kind of chain poem.

Unfortunately, like most chain letters, as it went on the breaks seemed to get more and it was abandoned. Memory no longer serves quite when or how – I suspect it was to do with my leaving Cleveland Arts, but I’m not sure. Let’s pretend a man from Porlock called at the office and told us we had better things to do.

Reading the 28 sections surviving, I am reminded of how exciting it was for these sections to arrive in my in-box, and to see the links between the poets. We started with Simon Armitage, who was later the official poet for New Millennium Experience Company, the people behind ‘the dome’. Simon later wrote a 1000 line poem of his own to mark the millennium, Killing Time. But then the chain took on an energy of its own.

There are poets here from England, Ireland, Scotland, the US and Australia. You can join the dots and see connections between writers across continents, friendships, collaborations, joint endeavours. Some of the writers were not well known in the UK at the time. Claudia Rankine, who won last year’s Forward Prize for her remarkable book, Citizen: An American Lyric, for instance, was new to us at that point.

The poetry itself shows a mixture of cautious or ironic celebration (‘Ladies and gents, a toast. Now watch this space.’ says Sean O’Brien, for instance), a gladness to be leaving the 20th century (‘this scarred century’, as Brendan Kennelly calls it) and a good deal of anxiety.

Perhaps many of the poets here refuse, with Linda France, to believe ‘the lie that time is a line’. Maybe that’s why we ran out time and lines, so have only this fascinating fragment of the big one that got away.

Mark Robinson worked at Cleveland Arts between 1993 and 1999, first as Literature Development Worker and then as Director. He joined after a successful 6 years as a Head Chef, and left to run the Arts & Humanities Programme at University of Durham’s Centre for Lifelong Learning. After that, in 2000, he joined Northern Arts and worked there and for Arts Council England until 2010, eventually becoming Executive Director, North East. Since 2010 he has run Thinking Practice, an arts consultancy. He is still a poet. His New & Selected Poems, How I Learned to Sing was published in 2013.