Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2014

Hard to believe that Cheltenham Poetry Festival has already been over for a week. What a great time we had! It has taken me this long to recover enough to be able to write a post reviewing the whole event (or those parts of it I was lucky enough to attend).

The preview weekend got off to a strong start on 22 March with local all-female troupe 'Picaresque', masterminded by Jennie Farley. A range of accomplished voices were showcased in a thoughtfully constructed and professionally delivered reading. Then Howard Timms left his audience deeply moved with a one-man play on his mother's dementia, that featured songs, some brilliant acting, and Howard's impersonation of his grandfather doing drag. This was an affecting and cathartic piece of work - never was the cliché 'not a dry eye in the house' more apt. Later that evening, the Stroud Pamphlet poets (led by Rick Vick) gave an eclectic and laid-back reading of their work.
The first weekend of the festival proper began on Friday 28 March with a reading by Don Paterson and David Briggs. It was a real coup for the festival to secure a reading from Paterson, one of the most essential voices in contemporary British poetry, and he was well-matched with David Briggs, whose two collections from Salt are among my favourite books. David's reading was beautifully presented and contained some excellent work - you could feel the audience's concentration in the room as he read. Paterson was relaxed and funny, sharing with us some work-in-progress as well as his feelings about poetry readings, especially those where the pre-ambles are more entertaining than the poems they preface.
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Sarah Dixon (photo: Write Out Loud)
Later that evening, I forsook the rowdiness of the slam for a parallel event organised by 'Quite Compere' Sarah Dixon. The theme was 'life, death and poetry' and several of the readers had had their own experiences with life-threatening illnesses, or were (in their day jobs) involved in the medical professions. This was a great combination of perspectives, and much of the work was first class. Sarah is currently organising a tour of readings across the north of the UK and has similar projects in line for the future. Do look out for her events, as she clearly has a good eye for putting together thought-provoking, high quality shows.
Sadly, I wasn't able to attend a full day of events on Saturday 29 March, but I did make it along to the launch of Mikki Byrne's Flying Through Houses, an autobiography of Mikki's early life and childhood illness in the medium of prose poetry. Mikki is able to write directly and unsentimentally about her difficult start in life, evoking the spaces of her childhood to great effect, and her work speaks of a resilience of spirit which is genuinely uplifting. Later that afternoon, I was able to make it along to a reading of Laurie Lee's work in the Chapel of Frances Close Hall at the University of Gloucestershire. Angela France had organised a well-balanced programme of Lee's prose and verse, and it was a great treat to relax and listen to such good work in such peaceful surroundings. This is Lee's centenary year, and there are plenty of other events going on, especially in and around Stroud, throughout 2014.
Me, Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway
The next event for me, on 30 March, was one of the three I was lucky enough to appear in, presenting a programme on 'Myth, Memory and Music' with Jennie Farley and Chris Hemingway. Here we are looking nervous before our performance, which I'm pleased to say drew a good audience (as many as our small venue could hold, which is always pleasing to see). After all of the hard work putting the the event together, it was heartening to hear from members of the audience that they had enjoyed themselves.
Although I had to slip away from the festival in the early afternoon, I was volunteering all evening at one of the venues, helping to make readings by Pat Borthwick, Maria Butonoi, Jean Riley, Sujata Bhatt and Gillian Barker run smoothly. It was a pleasure to meet the poets, and I came away with an armful of books, which is a good sign. It was a particular pleasure to hear Sujata Bhatt read again, and also good to see that the festival is in a position to attract really top-notch international names like her. Romanian-born Maria Butonoi is one to watch, I would say - her debut pamphlet from Yew Tree Press is original and surprising.
Anna Saunders, Struck (Image: Pindrop Press)
I mainly had to miss out on the events in the following week, due to work commitments. But did make it along to 'Women's Words', with Angela France and Dani Schlosser. Interspersed with tweets from #everydaysexism, these poems addressed women's experience. It was humorous, raw and direct - and still felt vital in today's climate of backlash against women's liberation.
On Thursday, I went to the launch of Anna Saunders' amazing collection Struck from Pindrop Press. Anna gave a brilliant reading to a packed room, which enjoyed free wine and chocolates, not to mention excellent support from fellow Pindrop poet Jeremy Page. My own small contribution was the brief appreciation of the book I had written a while ago at Anna's request, which is quoted on the back cover and reproduced in full in the endpages. Having read the book again now, my initial enthusiasm has only been confirmed. A quick mention, also for Helen Dewbery, who produced a fantastic film to accompany Anna's reading - you can see more of Helen's work here.
Little Machine (Image: Cheltenham Poetry Festival)

I had the pleasure of reading with Anna and fellow members of Poetry Factory the following evening for the launch of The Museum of Light, a limited edition anthology of photographs by Create Photographers in Cheltenham accompanied by our poems.
Saturday 5 April had further treats in store, kicking off with Ros Cogan's talk on talk on the sonnet form, of which he is himself a highly skilled and effective proponent, and readings by Peter Carpenter and Lesley Ingram. Then we changed venue to the newly developped Wilson gallery at the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, where we heard readings by Ruth Padel and Cristina Newton. Both readers prefer to recite their poetry by heart, and these were both beautifully judged performances that thrilled the large audience that had come along to see them. They were followed in uproarious fashion by poetry band Little Machine, who blew us away with settings of classic and contemporary poems.
Next morning I was reading (again!), this time as part of a Flarestack Poets showcase, with the excellent Michael Conley and Richard Moorhead. It was good to meet the two of them properly and hear them read from their work. Both pamphlets can be thoroughly recommended!
Then I was on duty again, volunteering at readings by Sophie Hannah and Nic Aubury and Peter Wyton and Robin Gilbert. Then, fittingly for a Gloucestershire event, the programme came to an end with a talk about and readings from the Dymock Poets. Having recently read Matthew Hollis' biography of Edward Thomas, I was familiar with the story, but it was great to have the atmosphere of that time and place evoked by the wonderful readers, and by Jeff Cooper, grandson of Lascelles Abercrombie, who was a key figure in the group.
There are so many things I've left out here, not least Buzzwords with Carrie Etter, which rounded off the final festival weekend. But hopefully this gives some sense of the variety and quality on offer. Reliving the whole thing as I write this, I think I need to have another rest!

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