Given that I’ve finally managed to immerse myself into writing my fourth novel, it could have been a strange time to experience my first ever Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. But so many people have raved about it over the years and as I value every minute I can spend with my host, Pamela Johnson and fellow guest, Mary Hamer, it seemed too good a chance to be missed.
The whole weekend went by in a blur so here are some impressions – as much for me to remember as to share with you!
* The first night’s candlelit supper held in Aldeburgh’s extraordinary arts centre right on the beach, The Lookout, with white tablecloths, soup and introductions to many of the poets who’d be reading over the festival, organised by Daphne Warburg Astor (and thanks to Caroline Wiseman.) As the wind howled around us, and you could hear the sea and birds outside, I finally got what Aldeburgh is all about, although I’m rather abashed to find I have a ‘listening to poetry’ face…
* ‘Everyone you meet is a poet at Aldeburgh’, I’d been told, and as well as the poets reading from the stage, there were extraordinary poets in the audience just there to listen and think. It seemed so generous in a way I can’t actually remember from other literary festivals where ‘stars’ are airlifted in and out just for their own performances. Interesting what a difference that made.
* Being lucky enough to find friend and Festival blogger, Anthony Wilson, standing by the bookstall one morning and following ALL his recommendations (and a few more). That joy in discovering new poets and poems I wouldn’t otherwise have found. And learning AGAIN to read everything Anthony suggests. He has excellent taste.
* Poetry crushes – of course! This time it was the South African poet and novelist, Finuala Dowling. I’d signed up to her workshop on the Friday telling myself I’d use the prompts to write prose, to uncover snippets I could add into the novel, and ended up in exactly the right place to write a poem about something that had only recently happened but which I hadn’t been able to let myself even think about before. Everywhere I went over the festival, I found people quoting things Finuala had said, so here’s a few from my own notebook – ‘Poets end their own lives, but politicians have to be shot’ (I’ve taken that out of context by the way, she wasn’t advocating that we all go out and shoot politicians!) – * on the importance of wit, ‘wit is always subversive’ – * to avoid ‘the mossy stone school of composition’ – * ‘by making yourself vulnerable, you become invulnerable’ – * ‘People judge us all the time, poetry can be a place to fight back.’ – *’self-pity can be an interesting place to go’ – and the all-important ‘What have we left unsaid?’
* Kathleen Jamie’s reading – ahhhhh, and also her comments during the Masterclass she ran. I’d never been to one of these before, it felt uncomfortably like a trial with the three poets whose work was being discussed sitting at a table facing the audience. But interesting. My scribbles include * ‘What am I being asked to see here?’ * If you get others to read your work out loud, you can’t gloss over what you don’t want to engage with. * Have you thought about the left hand margin of your poem? * Apply dowsing rods – where is the energy of the poem? * Is the poem at war with itself? *And lastly that beautiful phrase, the geography of space.
* Walking at Snape and at Aldeburgh. The skies, the skies.
* Stuttering into some kind of meaning for myself during Hannah Silva’s talk about how if the ‘voice’ is actually all about the body then how rarely we let that out during readings, and finding Amy Wragg and John Prebble on exactly the same wavelength – and at the same time! I love these strange moments of connection.
* Listening to poetry in German, not understanding an actual word of it but understanding everything.
* And then one night, after a day crammed with readings and short takes and workshops and discussions, going back to Pam’s house and over whisky and chocolate, taking it in turns to read out poems from our newly purchased books. Reading ‘just one more’ until too late, and then going to bed with so many voices in my dreams.
* Back to Finuala – ‘Write what you yourself were not expecting.’ I wrote FOUR poems over the weekend – how? – and reading them now, I am surprised. I may do nothing with them, but that surprise is worth everything.
* Snippets of conversations, from the sublime, ‘Let me tell you what really matters to me..’ to the ridiculous, ‘You’re writing a novel? Oh well, never mind.’
* A quiet considered intelligent 15-minute talk by Togara Muzanenhamo on Poetry and Disobedience, and his year spent in a derelict house in Manchester discussing line breaks. And sitting next to exactly the right person to share the beauty in this.
* And then hovering round the bookstore at the last minute – you don’t need any MORE books, but I do, I do – buying Rosemary Tonks’s collected poems, and not being able to stop reading it since. And now thinking again of the whole weekend through the prism of her words about what real poetry is:
Dealing with the things which really move people. People are born, they procreate, they suffer, they are nasty to one another, they are greedy, they are terribly happy, they have changes in their fortune, and they meet other people who have effects on them, and then they die; and these thousands of dramatic things happen to them, and they happen to everybody. Everybody has to make terrible decisions or pass examinations, or fall in love, or else avoid falling in love. All these things happen and contemporary poets don’t write about them. Why not?
Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.
Thank you especially to Naomi Jaffa and the Poetry Trust for putting this festival on. Join. Support. You can even find yourself a new best friend.
And I’m sure that my fledgeling novel will say THANK YOU too as it gets filled up with tastier verbs, dynamic nouns and all the things we’re not supposed to say.
Once I can tear myself away from reading my new books, of course.