History of Coffee–House Poetry and The Troubadour

The Troubadour: a writers’ cafe

Founded in 1954 as a writers’ & artists’ cafe, as well as being the place to eat, play backgammon, write poems, edit scripts (Stanley Kubrick had his favourite table in the early ’60s) & generally set the world to rights, Earls Court’s Troubadour Coffee-House (predating the shortlived ’50s Soho coffee-bar craze) soon became the hub of a folk-poetry-jazz-&-r’n‘b revolution. And while acts as varied as Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, Martin Carthy, the Stones, the Dubliners & Bob Dylan flourished in the cellar-club’s inimitable Bohemian setting, it was poetry that made the cluttered, eccentric & always-lively coffee-house a magnet for London’s writers over the past 58 years.

Revitalised some years ago by new owners, Simon & Susie Thornhill, to include expanded restaurant space, double seating capacity & a stylish bar in the famous “cellar-club”, the Troubadour continues to feature blues, folk, comedy etc throughout the week, with Monday-night poetry sessions as crowded & stimulating as they were in the venue’s ‘sixties heyday, attracting average audiences of 90+ with up to 120 on special nights. Not bad for Monday nights!

Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour

Coffee-House Poetry was created in 1997 by Anne-Marie Fyfe to build on the long-standing tradition of Troubadour poetry readings and remains unique in London, not just for its long-standing popularity, but for the unique “cellar-club” ambience:- cabaret stage (with sound & lights), seating arranged around cafe tables, interval ambience provided by musician (& broadcaster & poet & critic) C.L. Dallat on accordion, mandolin, bandoneon, jazz-piano, sax, latest news & views on poetry happenings, information on courses, magazines & competitions, debates, party events, launches, poetry books & magazines on sale and a general sense of being at the hub of the capital’s literary life.

London’s poetry enthusiasts frequently meet to eat before the readings or stay late afterwards to dissect the latest literary reputations and debate the meaning of life over wild mushroom lasagne and an invigorating house-red. A regular port-of-call for international visitors, recent Coffee-House Poetry sessions have featured in a British Airways video guide to London’s cultural life, in CNN’s arts-in-Europe coverage, on Radio 3’s Nightwaves, on BBC World Service and on Channel 4.

What we do at Coffee-House Poetry

Coffee-House Poetry provides three seasonal programmes (Autumn, Spring and Summer) of six to eight events each of fortnightly Monday-evening poetry readings (plus workshops, classes etc) including typically:

  • published poets such as Mark Doty, Tom Paulin, U.A. Fanthorpe, Billy Collins, Andrew Motion, Roger McGough, Jorie Graham, Michael Rosen, Jon Silkin, Helen Dunmore, Goran Simic, Lavinia Greenlaw, John Hegley, Blake Morrison, Tom Sleigh, Robin Robertson, Carole Satyamurti, Alfred Corn, Michael Donaghy, Carl Dennis, Maurice Riordan, Hugo Williams, Stephen Dobyns, Nick Laird, David Harsent, Grace Nichols, C.K. Williams, Jane Hirshfield, C.D. Wright, Al Alvarez, Sharon Olds, Kit Wright, Daljit Nagra, Tomas Salamun, Jo Shapcott, Sean O’Brien, Mourid Barghouti, Ruth Padel, Thomas Lynch, Moniza Alvi, Alan Jenkins, Mimi Khalvati, Matthew Sweeney, Dannie Abse, Mark Halliday, Joyce Sutphen, Fleur Adcock, David Constantine, Bernard O’Donoghue, and many, many more;
  • lots of lesser-known, but equally engaging and distinctive voices, with a strong emphasis on regional & cultural diversity (writers from Scotland, US, Czech Republic, Canada, Australia, the West Country, Wales, Grenada, Italy, the North-East, Slovenia, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Germany, Guyana, Hungary, Jamaica, Greece, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh… as well as London & the South-East);
  • feature events (Irish poetry, Asian writers, poetry in translation, French, Central European, Greek, Russian &c, and recently a major American series);
  • Coffee-House Colloquies, reviving the London “coffee-house” tradition of literary disputation and disquisition with a series of high-profile debates on the state of poetry with leading poets and poetry-people;
  • events showcasing/launching/celebrating most of the better-known small presses and poetry magazines vital to the poetry world, including Poetry London, Peterloo, Salt, Smiths Knoll, The Rialto, London Magazine, Frogmore Papers, Oversteps Books, Summer Palace, Dedalus, Hearing Eye, Acumen, Smith/Doorstop, Seam, Tall Lighthouse, Onlywomen Press, Salmon, Arc, Redbeck, Seren, Lagan, Rockingham, Flambard, Happenstance, to name a few;
  • new voices events (“Epiphanies” in January, naturally, “Dawn Chorus” in May, & “Pick of the Crop” in September), spotlighting writers just beginning to build a poetry reputation through pamphlets, prizes and first publications;
  • celebrations of famous poets including John Keats, Theodore Roethke, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Clare, W.B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Jacques Prevert, Rabindranath Tagore, Francis Ponge, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Eugenio Montale, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Louis MacNeice;
  • themed end-of-season gatherings where guest poets read favourite poems,listen to suitably themed music, pit their poetic wits against the famous & certainly-not-to-be-taken-too-seriously Coffee-House prize poetry-quizzes and enjoy an all-round good vibe;
  • poetry classes on poets and their lives, including Emily Dickinson, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Lowell, Cesar Vallejo, George Seferis, Michael Donaghy, Thom Gunn, Pablo Neruda, Denise Levertov, Paul Muldoon, Sylvia Plath, Octavio Paz, Michael Longley, Louis MacNeice, Marina Tsvetaeva, C. Day-Lewis, Ted Hughes, W.B. Yeats, John Ashbery, Anna Akhmatova, Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, Ciaran Carson, Mary Oliver, Odysseus Elytis, John Montague, Anne Sexton, Medbh McGuckian, Phillip Levine;
  • creative-writing workshops including themed poetry workshops by Coffee-House Poetry organiser Anne-Marie Fyfe and a range of stimulating and productive workshops from Jackie Wills, Tom Sleigh, Mimi Khalvati, Jo Shapcott, Pascale Petit, Martina Evans, Tamar Yoseloff, Stephen Knight, C.L. Dallat, Philip Gross, Matthew Sweeney, Alfred Corn and Sharon Olds;

and —

  • a prizegiving celebration in December each year for the prestigious, annual Troubadour International Poetry Prize where prizewinners are asked to read their winning poems alongside distinguished judges from the poetry world.

Poems: copyright © various named authors. All rights reserved.

Other content: copyright © Coffee–House Poetry 2008–2014. All rights reserved.

The Troubadour is at 263–267 Old Brompton Road, London SW5.

See www.troubadour.co.uk for details, and our contact page for directions and a map.

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