I wrote this poem inspired by conversations I had with members of the public passing by the Hippopothames sculpture that I was poet-in-residence for during September. To be clear, there were lots of people who had very positive responses to the giant floating hippo – from a quick glance and a grin as they cycled past, all the way up to parents and kids who stopped to write hippo haikus with us, and couples who had come from abroad to take photos of themselves down on the fore-shore with this barrel-backed behemoth proud in the background.
Probably my favourite was the Polish construction worker who told me he had first seen the hippo on the news on TV back in Poland, in his living room with his kids. He had arrived in the UK a week or so later to discover that he was working at the top of a huge new tower-block with a perfect birds-eye view of the sculpture, and had popped down on his lunch to take a photo to send back home!
I was though more interested in those people who for whatever reason struggled with the very fact the thing it existed. Out of a few initially difficult but ultimately very entertaining chats came this poem!
Thoroughly enjoying this hippo-po-thames Nine Elms residency. Thanks again to Spread the Word for giving me the chance to meet up with lots of lovely people from the area and write poems about hippos! After visiting the sculpture with the group from Griffin Primary, we all headed back to the school to do some writing. Here’s the poem we came up with:
Nine Elms Lane. Tuesday morning. We are in this busy place
Heavy traffic, engines roaring loudly, bursting our ear wax.
Clanking and drilling from the construction site.
Seagulls squawking, white and grey.
People, cars, rubbish. Under the tallest glass building,
big as the Empire State, we lean against the hard rock
of the wall between the path and the river, feel it crumbling.
We are in this busy place. This happy and excited place. To see a hippo.
A massive wooden hippo with pink nostrils shaped like strawberries.
The King Kong of the water. Heavier than a helicopter.
The Fat Farter from Jupiter with eyes like giant eggs.
We watch the dirty brown river Thames moving slowly. A white cruise boat
going under Vauxhall bridge as a red double decker bus drives by above it.
In the distance, London eye. Another bridge, another bridge, another bridge.
Rustling tree leaves. Birds speaking.
Sound of water crashing against the stones
as we listen closely, boats making ripples.
Fresh air brushing my face. We are in this place
by Battersea power station, with its 4 massive chimneys.
This place. With its bright green grass, still soggy. We see
water coming out a tiny pipe on the opposite bank.
Some people sit on benches, smoke cigarettes, eat snacks.
But we are in this relaxed, lazy place to see a hippo.
Some fat-bellied chubby-legged elephant size leader of the swamp.
The Queen Hippo rules the Thames with no care.
The hip hop huge loud King Botamus looking colourful.
In this cool place. With these enormous cartoon eyes. Teeth bigger
than bugs bunny. Super-size. In this place. With it’s mega-bum, short-tail
barrel shaped ogre face. We are in this place
to see a hippo.
PS the awesome photo at the top is by Steve Stills for Totally Thames Festival.
During a visit to the hippo-po-thames sculpture with a great group of local kids from Griffin Primary School, I recorded this audio of them speaking on behalf of everyone’s favourite giant wooden Nine Elms resident…
As part of the residency Spread the Word have set up for me at Nine Elms I went to visit ‘Hippo-po-thames’ with a great group from Randall Close Day Centre last week. There was 4 of them and they each penned a verse of this awesome poem:
If they can put a lonely yellow hippo
with the biggest ass you’ve ever seen
stood out on the river,
surely they can move Crytsal Palace
to the top of the Premier League!
Noisy but inspiring. A flippin’ miracle!
If they can put this big boat scarer
with ears like horns
on the Thames,
surely they can serve an all-day-breakfast
to me and my mate
Up in the director’s box at Selhurst Park
2 fried eggs, white and bright yellow
Bacon – not too hard
One soft sausage sizzling and spitting
Baked beans, chips AND bread.
A small glass of coke on the side.
If they can put this friendly floating swamp-swimmer
in the river, surely they can
bring Noah’s Ark to St. George’s Wharf
A pair of sheep baying on the pier
Patter of feet of all animals
Bold-striped zebra standing
Looking here, looking there
Parrots, flamingos, macaw
and birds from Guyana
If they can put a humungous big-eyes
honey mud-lover, red-nose beaver tail
from London Zoo hippo on the Thames,
surely they could bring people together in London.
the Asian couple pushing the buggy with a crying baby
Japanese tourists taking photos
The Polish workmen paving the path
And us two Irish/Caribbean observers
80 different languages all smiling
And listening in one place.
It’s not every day you get asked to write a poem about a 21 metre Hippo that will be built in secret and then float down the Thames. ‘Hippo-po-thames’ is the latest in a long line of awesome and absolutely massive sculptures by Dutch art don Florentijn Hofman and will be ‘living’ at Nine Elms on the Southbank until the end of September. I performed my piece at the launch – my first duty as official poet-in-residence for the sculpture and surrounding area…
I had a lot of fun writing the piece, and was really inspired by going to chat to Florentijn when ‘horatio’ was still under construction. To find the place I had to head way out east to a tucked away spot in the depths of the docks, between the river and the runway of City Airport. I had landed in a strange place where teams of highly skilled carpenters construct your most surreal dreams from tall piles of timber.
What inspired me most about chatting to Florentijn was the idea that the art is also the activity the object creates – it acts as a catalyst or spark for human engagement, for re-imagining the area. With this in mind, an important part of his final piece is the newly permitted access to the fore-shore where the hippo is moored. The playful almost cartoony appearance of the thing attracts people to engage with the area in a different way.
In my role as poet-in-residence over the next month I’ll be working with Spread the Word to run writing workshops for four different local community groups, using the hippo as a start point for expressing our ideas and opinions about the Nine Elms area.