Poetry Reading: Arlo Parks at Rough Trade

Words: Maddie Dinnage
Friday 29 September 2023
reading time: min, words

Celebrating the release of her debut poetry collection The Magic Border, Grammy-nominee and Mercury-prize winner Arlo Parks visits Nottingham’s Rough Trade for an evening of intimate conversation, storytelling, and poetry-reading…

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Arlo Parks’ musical discography is a rich source of poetic lyricism, so it was no surprise that the artist has added “poet” to her repertoire of impressive titles, right alongside “singer”, “writer”, “artist”, and “photographer”. Following the major success of her debut album Collapsed In Sunbeams, and the more recent My Soft Machine, Arlo Parks has released The Magic Border, a collection of twenty original poems which grapple with notions of grief, trauma, blackness, queerness, and friendship. Through The Magic Border, Arlo Parks permits tender and unbridled insight into the barest bones of her identity, allowing readers to peek through the lens of her artistry, and to see the world from her perspective.

Fans of Parks’ music are clearly in keen support of her new artistic endeavour, as Rough Trade bustled with wall-to-wall anticipation for the Pegasus singer. Many were already perusing the pages of the collection, taking the time to read the evocative author’s statement in which Arlo described the intentions and inspirations behind her work. When cultural historian, writer, and host for the evening, Sofia Akel took the stage, the venue was fully occupied in honour of this special event. 

As an avid gig-goer, I often watch crowds descend into a frenzy during the moment that their idol walks onstage. What I am not so accustomed to is the gentle reception that Parks received from the crowd at Rough Trade, who were aware that they were in for something much more intimate than the usual performances at the very same venue. 

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The poet began with readings of For Daniyel, After Watching “The Watermelon Woman” In My Childhood Bedroom, and Lanterns (Outside Tabaré). The former was a piece written in honour of the poet’s friend, Daniyel Lowden, a photographer who contributed the photographs which can be found within the collection. Parks later went on to explain that the act of composing The Magic Border was one of collaboration. The poet felt inspired by the stories and emotions which Lowden’s images evoked, hence encouraging the two friends to search through the photographer’s archives. Parks would pair her poems with the images that she felt naturally co-existed in a similar realm of mood or feeling.

In her conversation with Sofia Akel, Parks explained that, through The Magic Border, she wanted to give people “a bit of a look behind the curtain, the clay behind what I make”. “It’s kind of a melting pot of everything I’ve been moved by in the past few months”. When asked what The Magic Border was a book of, Parks answered “It’s just me I guess”.

The collection itself contains fragments of the artist’s sophomore album My Soft Machine, juxtaposing her poetry with her widely acclaimed song lyrics. In doing so, Parks blurs the distinction between poetry and music, cementing the act of songwriting as a form of poetry in itself. Host Akel asked Parks about the distinctions that she found when writing in both song and print, “in songwriting, i’m more economical with language. When you have a feeling that feels so vast, you can only explore one facet of it in a song.”

“With poetry, it’s a lot more free and fluid. It’s kind of untouched. Especially because I became so interested in free verse”. The artist explained that she began writing poetry before entering the music industry, and that many of her tracks start off as poems.

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When discussing how the collection came to be, Parks admitted “it happened by accident. For me, writing is how I create a sense of home while abroad.” When writing My Soft Machine while on tour, Parks found herself with a wealth of artistic material, and nowhere to put it. Her debut collection became both an artistic outlet, and a means of fulfilling her childhood dreams: “This has been the real dream since I was a child. It feels special to be really holding it in my hands.”

Personally, the highlight of the reading was Parks’ reading of Happy Queer Film, a wholesome depiction of queer love, and a challenge to pop culture’s tendency to fetishise queer relationships, or to solely foreground the trauma of the LGBTQ+ community. When reading her own poems, Arlo Parks evokes an overwhelming feeling of calmness, a warmth which captivates her listeners. This, alongside the poem’s subject matter, made for an evocative portrayal of a beautifully mundane relationship.

Arlo Parks Performed at Rough Trade on 25 September 2023.

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