This shiny new festival was a joy from start to finish. I wasn’t able to attend any of the Thursday events as I was in Oxford doing two readings with the wonderful John Foster, but we arrived in good time for Philip Gross’ reading. He was, as ever, wonderful, and was joined by accordion player Mike Adcok, whose own compositions resonated hauntingly with Philip’s words. Philip and I were booked to read together at the LRB bookshop in November 2010, which was unfortunately postponed. We are still seeking opportunities to read together. We both write for both children and adults – and make little distinction between them, as both deserve well crafted and intelligent verse.
The next event we attended was with George Szirtes, Nigel McLoughlin and Kviria, the Georgian harmony singers. The venue at Francis Close Chapel, was perfect for the meditative poetry of Szirtes, who, as I am sure people know, is an excellent reader, always leading his audience on a journey of discovery. I hadn’t realised before this event what Nigel’s Ulster accent would add to his poems. The music of them was enhanced for me. Nigel and I were both published by bluechrome, so we shared some commiserations over their mysterious disappearance.The singers were enchanting. We were sorry we had to miss the last five minutes to get to John Cooper Clarke’s performance whish turned out to be not to our taste. However, there was a huge audience of people who were loving it, so we slipped out unnoticed after a while.
The next day I had to concentrate on my own two events. The reading at Waterstones was fun, although it can be somewhat challenging at times to make oneself heard on the ground floor of a busy shop. It’s very good to see my books in a prominent position on the shelves! On the plinth in the poetry section my book is cheek by jowl with one of Owen Sheers, festival patron, ace poet and thorougly lovely person.
In the afternoon I was giving a multi-media talk on John Clare. I chose to structure the talk around arguably his most famous poem, ‘I Am’. This allowed me to concentrate on the positivity of his life rather than the asylum years. The representative of the sponsors, This England magazine, commended my approach. I do not see Clare’s life as tragic despite his mental illness. He lived it intensely and had great joy in his love of nature.
Shortly after I had finished handling questions and packing up, we dashed over to Francis Close Chapel to hear Gordon Tyrrall singing his settings of Clare songs, accompanied by his friend Caroline on the flute. I know these songs well, as I play the CD (A Distance from the Town) , but I had heard them all live before. Gordon has a gift for composing tunes which bring out the words and meanings of the poems with great sensitivity. His performances are enhanced by his obvious enjoyment in sharing his talents.
John Hegley, unlike the other John mentioned above, did not disappoint us. This was an extraordinary evening of fun, poetry and music. Hegley is an engaging performer, and I have seen him before, but I had never seen him play his mandolin accompanied by a fantastic jazzy double bassist. See, Hegley is a stunning wordsmith but he can also amuse, impress, involve and entertain. Hats off to him, I did not want this concert to end.
Next day was a little quieter in the events I sought out. We went to hear Cliff Yates, fellow Salt poet, give a quirky reading to a good crowd. He was joined by singer/songwriter Men Diamler, who provided a good contrast: his angry young man style set up some lively tensions with Yates’ gentle and laid back delivery. Later at the same venue, Angela France gave a strong reading. She was joined by Jennie Farley, whose narrative poems I had not heard before. This was a lovely reading. I knew Angela’s work already and enjoyed her readings on other occasions.
The last event I went to was Buzzwords. I will be leading this in September so I wanted to get a flavour while I was already in beautiful Cheltenham. Pat Borthwick was the guest. I have been familiar with her work for a long time and like it very much. The workshop gave me three quick drafts which I intend to work on when I have some time, and the standard of the open mic before Pat’s reading was truly impressive. Angela is an excellent event manager and host as well! Pat’s own reading was both powerful and entertaining by turns. Cheltenham is very lucky to have such a great event happening every month. Buzzwords is running its first national competition, so do get some entries together to support this smashing event.
Anna Saunders and her team deserve hearty congratulations for the success of the first Poetry Festival. Let’s watch it grow.