Poetry Powerhouse  

Allie Esiri has been described as a “poetry powerhouse”. Susan Elkin met her to talk about her work.

“People like poetry” says Allie Esiri whose anthologies have cornered 20% of the entire UK poetry market. “They hear a poem, say, at a wedding or funeral, and are moved so they want more. And I think the one-a-day format works very well for some people because it isn’t a huge commitment.”

Allie, 55, and I are chatting over coffee in a congenial club in Notting Hill, not far from her home. The catalyst is the publication of her 2019 book Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year in paperback last month.

So how to you get into anthologising? “I loved Shakespeare at school and did a lot at uni” she says, adding that she read French and Spanish at Cambridge. Always drawn by acting, she then went to Drama School London to do an intensive one year post-graduate course. “It was unusual then although most drama schools offer something similar these days,” says Allie, who was a contemporary of Sam Mendes at DSL. “It was a great opportunity to practise, make mistakes and learn.”

Allie worked for about ten years as an actress doing, for example Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Dr Faustus with the English Shakespeare Company.

The mother of three children who are now 28, 18 and 13, Allie gradually moved into anthologising – along with stage shows, audio books and digital projects. “We do a live show at National Theatre every year for example” says Allie, whose acting background seems to have furnished her with a dream contacts book. 

Helen McCrory’s name comes up a lot. “An extraordinary actor and she recorded a lot of my work” (McCrory died last year) says Allie, who still works with McCrory’s husband, Damian Lewis, as well as Helena Bonham Carter, Paapa Essiedu, Simon Russell-Beale, Dominic West, Hattie Morahan, Sam West and many more.

Following other books, Allie’s A Poem for Every Day (2017) ranges from Housman, Kipling and Hardy to less obvious choices such as Geoffrey Hill’s “Ode on the Loss of the Titanic” and Imtiaz Dharker’s “Crab-Apples”. It must take a huge amount of research?

“Yes” she beams. “In the Shakespeare book I was determined to range right across the canon and include some unfamiliar choices along with the old favourites. The poem Venus and Adonis, for example, is not well known now but was a big best seller in Shakespeare’s lifetime with lots of reprints. It’s a strong sexy narrative and it’s clever.” 

Each piece gets an entertaining introduction and the extracts are date-related where it works without being too contrived. Thus there’s an extract from The Rape of Lucrece for May 09, the date the work was registered in 1594. Macbeth was “reviewed” by diarist Simon Foreman on April 20, 1610 so that’s a good date to read Lady Macbeth’s very familiar but still chilling “The raven himself is hoarse …”. And, obviously, we get Henry V’s rousing St Crispin’s Day speech before Agincourt on 25 October.

I also admire the plot summaries at the back of the book. “Yes, I was pleased with those too” says Allie. “But I was determined to get the whole book checked really carefully by someone who really knows. Simon Russell-Beale introduced me to Michael Dobson [Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute]. Of course, he said at first he was too busy but we had lunch and eventually he caved in! He’s been really terrific – funny, generous and, obviously, perfect for the job. I persuaded Macmillan to hire one of Michael’s PhD students as a specialist copy editor too.”

I tell Allie that I read Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year in 2020 by doing exactly that and making it last for 365 days. I even photocopied some pages to take with me on holiday to Texas in February before Lockdown. She seems pleased but says “Yes, some people do that. Or they share it and read it to each other or they simply dip in and out as with any other anthology. I don’t mind – obviously. But I care passionately about all this and I just want people to find their way in however it works for them. That’s why I fought for this paperback edition which I hope will find its way into classrooms so that teachers can share some of this with students.”

So what is Allie working on now? “A Nursery Rhyme for Every Night of the Year” she announces joyfully. “It’s coming out in March 2023 so the work is nearly done. Nursery rhymes are traditionally the first poetry most people hear and yet they’re in danger of disappearing. I’ve included lots of traditional ones, along with riddles and skipping rhymes quietly dropping any which are overtly sexist or racist – why should I promote those? – and I’ve got some lovely modern ones coming in from people like Brian Bilston and, I hope Michael Rosen and John Agard so it’s a lovely mix. There will be an audio book too.” 

Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year
Edited by Allie Esiri, Macmillan Children’s Books, Paperback £14.99, Audio book £19.99