Back from the poetry: Aldeburgh 2014

aldeburgh houses

Well that previous post about changing my inactive ways  didn’t exactly come to pass! It’s now been a good few weeks since the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and the same few half-written posts have been sitting here ever since. I tried to write a post while I was there; I even tried to write just a Facebook update; but there was just too much going on – one day I got into the network but then couldn’t load a page, and after that I just carried my laptop around as if I thought it might write the post for me by osmosis. On the day when I thought I was going to have a nice little block of time, I opened the laptop once, only to discover that a) it hadn’t done the osmosis thing at all, and b)  I had five minutes till the next event.

I thought I might write on the train home, but then it turned out a couple of friends were on the same train… Jolly times! By the time we pulled in to Liverpool Street station we’d done all the poetry and were talking about guinea pigs. I then got home and had a relapse of that virus. Wrote a post, write another one, wrote the earlier version of this one, but brain, mush… well, I’m sure you get it.

The festival, though, the festival! It was glorious. Poetry and discussions and friends, and rain, and andhow lovely it was to just breathe in some sea air and be that amazing thing: Out Of London. As always with these things, it went rushing past. You grab each detail as it flies, but afterward it’s all a blur. Even f you take notes.

The main thing I went there to see was Hannah Silva’s new show, Schlock! It was a commission by the Poetry Trust, a brilliant move in light of Hannah’s first book having come out last year, and seems to me to mark a new watershed in her work. As Naomi Jaffa said the next morning, it loks likely to become ‘an important work’. Roughly, it ‘tears up fifty Shades of Gray’ (as the promo says) and then mashes it up with Kathy Acker. Specifically, with Acker’s cancer memoir. (And re the tearing, literally, as the audience filed in to take their seats, Hannah was sitting there on the stage – which is the floor in front of the seats – with a rather demented look on her face, literally ripping pages out with her teeth, and blowing them in the direction of audience members walking past her. This went on for about ten minutes, with a quote from Acker projected on the giant wall at the back of the stage. It was both riveting and sublime.)

It becomes, the show, an hour-long meditation on pain and its infliction, the experience of pain, the impossibility of communication, the body and the self, consent and complicity and ownership. I’m going to be writing something on it for the Poetry Wales website, and will link up to that when its done and published. Suffice to say in the meantime that if you get a chance, you should go to this show – it’ll be touring in the spring. Several people told me it was he highlight of their festival. There was a formal discussion afterwards which was really interesting and surprising on its own terms, and showed how even with its overt experimentalism, the show really had reached the audience in a genuine and emotional way.

Aside from that, there were the poetry readings and the craft talks and the close readings, and the serendipitous meetings with friends, and the Suffolk coast in several different moods. My own festival had – I realised afterward – a few fewer surprises in the form of foreign poets than previously, because I was there on this Penned in the Margins mission and so went to the Penned in the Margins events instead of some others. This was fantastically useful and interesting, but I’ll just nod in the direction of one I missed – a session on ‘poets in old age’, a lecture by translator and poet Karen Leeder on a group of German poems from diverse German poets. I saw the handout afterwards and knew I’d missed a wonderful thing. I did go to Ian Galbraith’s close reading of ‘Tears of the Fatherland’, a famous poem by the 17th-century poet and playwright Andreas Gryphius, a lament about the atrocities of the Thirty Years’ War. I loved hearing it in German and would have loved to go to the other one as well. But by then my head was so full and brimming, and the two minute silence for Remembrance Sunday – with which that session ended – seemed just perfect and complete.

One of my Penned in the Margins sessions was Tom Chivers’ half-hour talk on PITM’s first ten years, what it’s about, what it’s for, why. I’ve known Tom for ten years and have followed Penned in the Margins all that time, and this was a brilliant opportunity to think it out, and take a real look at the project of PITM – and by extension poetry and small-press publishing today – and where it might be going. Really interesting questions from the audience, which being Aldeburgh included the likes of Jackie Wills, Fiona Moore, Alison Brackenbury – but not enough time. Never actually enough time, all these great discussions.

There were things I’d have loved Tom to say about his press, which he didn’t, because he won’t blow his own horn. For example, that his books are increasingly being shortlisted and otherwise taken notice of; that his cross-genre approach has seriously helped to break down old Poetry War barriers; that he has created a platform from which an artist like Hannah Silva can be commissioned to do new work in a place like this festival (because of course people loved it once given a chance to see it). His anthologies slice across what anthologies used to be like. And in publishing new prose work like Chris McCabe’s In the Catacombs, he is literally making a space for exactly the kind of critical writing everyone is always complaining that we don’t have, and simply doing it.

Anyway so much more, so much more. I loved Julian Stannard’s Saturday morning reading, it was a real top moment – he is bracingly un-PC, and his work does a very subtle thing: it uses humour to great effect, about things that aren’t necessarily funny. His poem ‘Stations of the Cross’, for example,  describes an epic journey to go get a Christmas tree – ‘an  albero di Natale’, as the refrain went  – during the breakdown of his marriage in Italy, when ‘the house was like an outpost of Hell’ (this may be a paraphrase), and naming the churches he trudges past with the tree over his shoulder he builds up the utter image of despair, and also of Christ with the cross. It is very funny. It’s perhaps on the verge of being a little blasphemous. But it’s completely starkly brilliant about the sadness and bitterness of a dying marriage.

Helena Nelson (who also runs Happenstance press) filled in for Jen Hadfield, who was stuck on Shetland in windy weather that prevented her plane taking off. Almost everyone I spoke to said they were disappointed not to see Jen; Paula Bohince, over from America to read, had been particularly looking forward to hearing her. And of course one heard on the grapevine that she too was gutted. Very sad to miss that opportunity. But instead we had this fantastic substitute reading. Nell was a treat and a delight, with (among other things) a fiendishly clever poem written in spoonerisms, which skated on the edge of some sort of cusp (yes I said it) between mere humour and a Hannah-Silva-style interrogation of language itself. I also loved her introduction to one poem: ‘I write both light and heavy – some of my poems are serious, and some are light verse, and I’m not going to tell you which this is.’ There was a poem about a couple on a walking trip, where the wife wants to go to the top of the mountain and the husband doesn’t, and is being a bit of an arse, written in couplets where the whole end word is repeated. The repeats were daring, the poem is both mimetic and funny, and is ultimately moving and somehow very deep about relationships.

The young voices reading featured two people I know well – Chrissy Williams and Kayo Chingonyi – plus one, Jonathan Edwards, whose debut collection I’ve just reviewed in Poetry Wales (I loved it) – and Suzanne Evans, of whom I’d never heard before. It was a great reading. Chrissy read incredibly directly and simply with a real presence at the podium, which I hadn’t anticipated even though she was in my advanced workshop for a year. Jonathan read some of my favourite poems out of his book, and Suzanne was a treat. Quirky and serious at the same time, with a great presentation. Kayo read from his sequence on race (or more precisely, racism) that appears in the new ‘Ten’ anthology, and he was just a bit mindblowing. A really strong reading of really strong material.

Paula B’s close reading of ‘The Sandpiper’, by Elizabeth Bishop, was one of my favourite things in the festival. It was utterly packed out. And Paula was meticulously prepared, presented a variety of angles from which to look at the poem, spoke slowly and clearly, and contextualised to the exact perfect extent. E.g., the sandpiper is a migratory bird that flies from North America to South America and back again. She cited, and discussed, Bishop’s ‘three values’: accuracy, mystery, and spontaneity. (She also adhered to them.) Her reading, along with another US poet called Ron Egatz, was also brilliant. And talking to Ron afterwards I discovered that he lives in Peekskill, NY, which is where my sister was born and where my dad taught English at the high school until I was five, and we moved to Connecticut. Peekskill! It’s only a little place and was a fantastic coincidence.

Julian Stannard’s close reading of a poem by Frederick Seidel, ‘Il Duce’, continued the anti-PC motion, and was in fact more like a fascinating essay delivered from a lectern, rather than a close reading.  Brilliant, and it was five minutes after that that I made my dash for the shuttle bus to get me back to Aldeburgh in time to pack and get my train home.

And that, in only the size of three normal blog posts, is about HALF of my experience at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

I was thinking a  lot about physicality, the physicality of the poem and the way we engage it, make it, express it, experience it. There is more to come on that I think – I hope – and certainly there will be in relation to Schlock!,  which relied on several different methods of communication to fracture and prismatify its messages. But for now, another thought about the readings. There was a high incidence of humour in them, both in the poems read and in the introductions to the poems. While some of the humour was complicated and very welcome – as in Julian’s reading with its cold lashings of icy despair or even apathy, and a long over-the-top poem about a Hawthornden residency, in which the poets are abandoned to their fates – to their work – some of the intros seemed to let down poems that could otherwise maybe have come across differently. I think it’s worth raising the idea that poets might dare to stand back and have enough faith in the work to be interesting, challenging, moving, heartwarming, or even challenging or just different... You need to engage the audience, or engage WITH them, certainly – but you don’t need to charm them. The charm creates a cosy bubble, and I’m a bit suspicious of a cosy bubble.  All you need to do is really occupy your space.

I know. I realise this is like the editor’s injunction, told me recently by a friend, to ‘just take out all the bad writing and replace it with good writing’.

Anyway, there’s another Aldeburgh done and dusted, the last with Naomi Jaffa at the helm. I missed the final reading, where Dean Parkin and Michael Laskey presented her with two gigantic bouquets of lilies, but I did take part in a round of applause earlier in the festival, led by the incoming Director, Ellen McAteer. I always get emotional when that stuff starts happening…

So here’s a big thank you to everyone at the Poetry Trust for another wonderful festival, which once again sparked off thought in so many different directions it’s still fizzing and popping weeks later.  It’s a great event for that, and I am sure that will continue with Ellen at the helm.

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