Thursday, 8 November 2012

Guest Blog from Nikki DiGiovanni, Poet

It was autumn 2010 that I entered The Peterborough Poet Laureate Competition. As the theme that year was Chemistry and it was for the city of Peterborough; I did what I always do and checked the dictionary. It said that Chemistry means "the study of the relationship between elements", so I began by listing all the things that made up Peterborough to me. Then I hit the internet and researched the history of Peterborough and intermingled my elements poetically in chronological order to create a poem that reflected the elements and people that have made Peterborough what it is today. 
Not since school had I personally entered a competition or even read any of my own poetry to more than one person; so being shortlisted meant I was jangly bag of nervous excitement in the run up to the final.

We had a frantic and fraught journey to Peterborough Library on that Monday evening. Everything look different in the dark and trying to find parking with a car full of edgy people certainly helped to distract me. I dashed into the John Clare Theatre and took my place. Regrettably none of the speaker’s words really penetrated my stupor until the poetry began and then the room lit up.

There ensued a battle of words and rhyme, of metaphor and simile; each poem jousting for applause, for approval and most importantly to win. When we had each read our poems the judges convened in another room to debate and decide who the winner would be and in the meantime the former, ex and past Peterborough Poet Laureate’s ably diverted our minds from the impending doom or delight.

When the judges returned and began with the traditional summations of the difficulty of the task, the high standard of entries, all ten finalists were no doubt swinging the emotional pendulum of “it’s great to get this far; to be shortlisted is an honour in itself and swoosh to the other end to “I want to win; I really, really want it, nothing less will feel enough”.

As is traditional they read the top there in reverse order and by this time I had convinced myself that getting third place was more than I could hope for and in itself would have been tremendous. My name was not called, my heart sank and my shoulders slumped; it was not going to be me; it couldn’t be – the other poems and poets were so polished, professional and word perfect. I didn’t even hear them talking after that as I drifted off thinking that this poetry malarkey was obviously not for me. Then I noticed people were looking at me and smiling, their mouths were moving and sounds of congratulations reached my ears as a wave of sound washed over me.

It was my moment, all my fears, anxieties and doubts melted away and my head felt like a champagne cork on the point of release. The rest is a bit of a haze, I read my poem again and the words blurred before me as tears threatened and fell. It’s very rare in life that you have moments of conscious actualisation; where you realise that you where you wanted to be, that what you wished for is now reality.

Cliché though it might seem, it was really touching to see myself reflected in the faces of my two boys and my partner who were in the audience. Especially when my youngest son had a mock struggle with the Mixy the outgoing Poet Laureate and then he held aloft the winners' plaque, like a victor's shield after a battle and declared he was the son of Peterborough Poet Laureate.

Click here to read: Peterborough Chemistry

So many lovely people came and congratulated me, it was during this time that Vivien from Poets United invited me to their group which runs on the first Tuesday evening of every month at Peterborough Council for Voluntary Services. Joining the group was like a home coming, they were  so welcoming. A great group of people who are so appreciative of each other’s poetry and the themed nights are great at inspiring and creating impetus for new poems.

 In January 2011 I was asked to write and perform a poem for The Holocaust Memorial Service to be held in Cathedral Square on January 27th 2011. It was a very moving day, beginning with the ceremonial walk from Mayor’s Suite to the Cathedral Square outdoor ceremony. Every seat taken and many people standing and for all of us the biting cold transporting us to the places and people who suffered unimaginable horrors.

My poem Unbreakable was a humble tribute to all people who stand up against tyranny and violence whether that’s in the course of normal life or in times of war.

Click here to read: Unbreakable

For Comic Relief I was asked to compose and perform a poem for the children of Queens Drive Infant School. The poem was based on the person that might have wielded the famous Peterborough Museum Bronze Aged Sword found in the River Nene, which was subsequently stolen, recovered and returned to the museum. 

Click here to read: BAM - Bronze Aged Man


The British Red Cross asked me to write a poem for International Day of The Disappeared. After meeting so many of the volunteers at their Peterborough offices together and hearing some of the Tracing Service's stories the poem I ended up writing focused on two stories that haunted my dreams and continue to move me.

Adeela Bainbridge and I agreed that the reading of the poem should have some deeper symbolic meaning so we Terry and Sophie of "My Green Backyard" who agreed to our proposal to have a tree planting ceremony and poetry reading. We had an open invitation which resulted in a lovely group of people attended, many of whom had direct experience of having lost someone.

After reading the poem, a copy was planted beneath one of the two trees and all those attending the ceremony added the soil to complete the planting collectively before sharing cake and their own memories with each other. It was a really special day and I still have my ‘forget me not’ book mark to remind me lest I should forget. 

Click here to read:  Family Tree

My Greenbackyard has been under threat and had a petition this is my poem for it:

The Peterborough Library has been very supportive during my tenure as Poet Laureate and has encouraged my development as a performer, the highlight of which was the time I was able to perform with signers for an audience that included deaf and hearing impaired audience members.  It took a little preparation to ensure it went smoothly and it was a real privilege to once again present reading challenge awards some of which were to second language readers which in my book is even more impressive.

The signers were a little nervous when I was wielding my sword when performing my poem: ODE TO THE VANQUISHED.pdf . Lots of people who were quite interested in my sword, it is quite heavy and one of a pair (in case you were interested). Over my time as Peterborough Poet Laureate one of the greatest things has been the opportunity to encourage others to pick up a pen, for the first time or again. It’s been a real joy to meet so many other poets and to share mine and their poems with each other.

If you would like to commission Nikki to write or perform a poem for your event please email information including the date and location of the event to:

© Nikki DiGiovanni 2012

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