Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2014: My First Time

 The Aldeburgh Scallop

It feels like a while ago now, but I had a great time at the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, (or APF26 for short). It may have been the 26th year of the festival, but for me it was my very first visit. It was a big deal planning 3 days away from home as I’d never been away from my children for that long, but it also felt like a very important thing to do in terms the experience. For years I’d heard other poets talking about Aldeburgh with a glint in their eyes. I was curious to know why.

Nearly 4 hours on the road and I arrived. There were seagull squawks echoing through the air. Couldn't resist, the first thing I did was run down to the beach and take in the sea. I stayed in a lovely house with 4 other poets: Holly Hopkins, Emily Blewitt, David Borrott and the generous Kim Moore who arranged everything and booked the place. That night we dined at home (thank you Aldeburgh Co-op), drank wine and chatted.

The next day I had more beach time, toy shopping for the twins (kaleidoscope, it went down very well) and a swish lunch by the sea and then it was festival time. The first thing I’ll say, and I said so at the time, is that the festival feels like a gigantic all-you-can-eat poetry buffet. There are so many events you can attend: there are readings, craft talks, Q and A sessions and a variety of other things, such as poets talking about their favourite works. There are also some of the largest poetry audiences I’ve ever seen.  My first event was a fabulously attended launch of Michael Laskey’s latest book Weighing the Present at the Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh itself. Most of the events are held at Snape Maltings, a huge arts complex with a gigantic auditorium. 

The venue is popular with music lovers. Benjamin Britten’s home, ‘The Red House’, is just down the road and the whole area has a genuine musical legacy. The auditorium is perfect for the Main Readings and they are massive in every sense. You’d think that an hour and half for a reading would be too much…they never were. The first main reading on the Friday featured Dan O’Brien, Selima Hill and Tom Pickard. Hill was magnificent: sinister, comic, wise and unique. Earlier on Thomas Lux’s craft talk was superb, full of enthusiasm and verve. Antony Wilson’s Poets Preview was a joy to attend. I am an avid reader of Antony’s poetry blog and his preview event was full of love and enthusiasm for his chosen poems. One of my personal highlights was the Poetry pub Quiz held at the Plough and Sail - and guess what - our team of housemates won!!!

The next day was the full-on poetry day. Events from 10am right up to 11pm. Jumped on the bus from Aldeburgh in the morning and attended close readings of favourite poems by Jonathan Edwards, Paula Bohince and Suzannah Evans. Paula had chosen ‘The Sandpiper’ by Elizabeth Bishop as a favourite choice, and delivered a warm and deeply informed reading of the poem. Here are the final two verses from the poem:

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst. 

I’m very grateful to Paula for discussing the poem that morning.  I think it was one of my personal highlights, as was being called ‘our kid’ by Brian Patten, who I kept bumping into throughout the festival. Saturday was jam-packed. I did have a breather though, but missed Hannah Silva’s Schlock, which was a controversial performance that clearly had an impact. Another highlight was Kathleen Jamie’s wonderful reading in the evening and Brian Patten finished off the day’s events with warmth and humour. Another treat was Helena Nelson’s energetic reading. She’d covered for Jen Hadfield who was sadly unable to make it from the Shetlands. Throughout the day I chatted with lots of people, but the weird thing was spotting so many poets I recognised from photos and social media. 

The whole festival has a buoyant, friendly atmosphere and it was a pleasure to share a coffee and a chat with new friends and older ones.  There were quite a few Midlands folk about, so at times it felt like home.

I didn’t stay for the Sunday and therefore missed lots of equally exciting events. I might have popped if I’d stayed another day though. Off I went, down the A14, full of poetry and inspiration. That giddy feeling probably accounted for the fact that I took a few wrong turnings and ended up in Cambridge. I made it home in the end and couldn't stop talking about the festival for roughly a week.

Shortlisted Books for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize
Helen Mort's Division Street won.

So two weeks later…what did I gain? Firstly a very long reading list. I didn’t buy much at the time preferring to let the readings settle and then decide. My first purchase was Jonathan Edwards’ acclaimed Seren debut My Family and Other Superheroes and it’s wonderful. It’s been shortlisted left, right and centre for all sorts of awards. Selima Hill’s The Sparkling Jewel of Naturism felt like a very necessary purchase. It’s full of short, diamond hard, witty poems that delight and disturb in equal measure. Other books on the reading list include Thomas Lux’s Selected and I recently brought Antony Wilson’s Riddance.  I have already enjoyed a few poems from Anthony’s book. Karen McCarthy Woolf’s work is on my radar as well now. Waiting for pay day then more book shopping. I was sorry to miss the New Voices reading on the Sunday. I really rate Suzannah Evans’ brilliant Confusion Species pamphlet, as well as Chrissy Williams’ work. Do read my review of Chrissy’s Happenstance pamphlet here if you’re interested. I also spent my quiz prize (a book token of course) on Bedouin on the London Evening, the collected poems of Rosemary Tonks, published by Bloodaxe. This book was my companion on a very delayed train journey home last week. 

I’m also more switched on to discovering new poetry from other countries now. There was a range of international poets and the festival itself features a great many American poets.  It was also festival organiser’s Naomi Jaffa’s last year at the helm and I was struck by her commitment. Ellen McAteer is now taking over and no doubt she'll be equally passionate.

Perhaps the best thing I brought home with me was a renewed enthusiasm for poetry. It was a special experience. My students probably benefited from this the following week as I poured some of that enthusiasm into teaching poetry. Nearly three weeks later and there’s still a buzz. I could fill another blog post with all that went on.Would love to go back. Fingers crossed.

Final Note: I did take some pictures, but they weren't very good, so the photos here are lovingly borrowed! You can also see photos of the festival at the gallery here