Pedalling Poetry III – Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 2015

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Photographs by Peter Everard Smith

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Pedalling Poetry II

My next mission on bike and train for #APF 2015 was Bury St Edmunds, in particular a writer’s group set up in St Nicholas Hospice there. At 42 miles (three and a half hours) it’s a bit far to bike, so I took the train, changing at Ipswich, then cycled the remaining two and a half miles. I nearly got lost, till I hit upon the rather grim trick of following ambulances. I made it in time for lunch, and met the group there.

It was a wonderful session – and a rather wonderful place. They have a garden there with a small wood, lawns and scented flowers, and a memorial tree set up by the widow of a patient, a beautiful metal sculpture on which silver or copper leaves commemorating loved ones can be hung. Many of the group are bereaved, and some are patients. Having been through family deaths myself, either at home or in hospital, I was very impressed with the atmosphere of the hospice, which was calm, pretty, respectful and welcoming. Very necessary to patients and their families at such a time. Also nice for visitors – I was reminded of my summers in Donegal as various grandmotherly ladies fed me cake!

The group was very advanced – one lady, who has a brain tumour, was incredible sharp about poetic forms, and has written some fantastic haiku for their anthology. We did an exercise on the five senses, using the garden, as well as Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Being Gorgeous’ exercise and a session inspired by Valérie Rouzeau‘s ‘Thirty-Two Teeth‘ poem. I even managed to get a poem out of it myself, just in time for my own writer’s group.

Best of all, they all want to come to the Festival! We are laying on a special bus thanks to Suffolk Coastal District Council and Suffolk Artlink, and the wheelchair-accessible venues at Aldeburgh Music‘s Snape Maltings will mean that the group can take part in many events. Their vote? Jack Rooke’s ‘Good Grief’, the main daytime reading on the Saturday, with Jane Duran, Peter Sirr and Dorothea Smartt, and the Open Workshop, which is free and open to all. We’d be very pleased to welcome more groups to our gorgeous poetry retreat – get in touch with me at the Poetry Trust or go straight to the box office at Aldeburgh Music:

On the way back I was very proud to be on the cycle commuter special – 7 bikes on one carriage – two of them schoolkids! We organised ourselves politely in order of stop.

Now for the next challenge – how to get 40 road signs out onto verges the length of Suffolk on a bike? I may have to beg a lift for this one – and some strong arms! Any volunteers?

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Pedalling poetry

Well, it looks like I won’t be driving in time for my first Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and I’ve decided to embrace this and see how much of my work in Suffolk can be done via train and bike! It’s been great fun so far – last week I went to see Maggi Hambling at her studio, then cycled out to Snape Maltings, one of the sites of the Festival, for a meeting with Aldeburgh Music, our partners, who own the site and run the Box Office for us.

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It was a big cycle, but very beautiful, especially up on the ridges with not another person in sight, and wheeling my way past churches and pubs and fields. Suffolk is a very beautiful county. You often get a nice rare treat on the road, when someone has left their windfall Bramleys outside their door for free, or farms are selling eggs and fresh local vegetables on the honesty system. For those interested, the cycle from Saxmundham Station to Snape Maltings is 30 minutes – and I am NOT very fit!

I was lucky to be wearing my full weatherproof gear though, as mud was splashed over me top to bottom in the current weather. Of course a visit to the ladies to freshen up is essential before a big corporate meeting. I turned up looking reasonable smart but the mud-flecked satchel somewhat gave it away!

My visit to Maggi Hambling‘s studio was mindblowing – to see some of her sea pictures life-size is almost as terrifying as facing off the real thing at Dunwich on a stormy day. Big, child-eating waves and miles of ocean that seem to be crying for the melting icecaps. She was cheering me up and helping out with advice on fundraising – money for the Festival is so tight this year it leaves a mark – telling wonderful stories about getting funding for ‘Scollop’ as she calls it – her controversial sculpture on Aldeburgh beach (the boys and I are fans). I got a beautiful illustrated poem full of waves as a good luck present. This new life in Suffolk is never boring…

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Later that same week I did it all again to catch an afternoon of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme showcase with #APF blogger and poet JL Williams as well as an Aldeburgh Eight graduate, Richard Scott. That was an ear-opener – poets often make the best librettists, and Jennifer and Richard did not disappoint, with three striking pieces: JLW on the awful world of battery chickens (which reportedly put the audience off its lunch!) and Richard with the story of a boy who traps beetles to play with them having the tables turned on him – a fascinating piece of music by Shiori Usui that imitated the bugs’ chittering vividly – and another opera about a rehearsal of the rape of Leda by Zeus as a swan. Other pieces that drew my attention were the heart-clutching music of Naomi Pinnock with Nic Green‘s story of grief and trauma in Susan Are You Ready? and Andrew Thomas and Daniel Solon’s Charlie Grimes,  which had me in tears, about the true story of the shooting of an eight-year-old boy. As Roger Wright, Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music, remarked, “You poets rarely write happy songs do you?” JLW has declared her intention to write a comic opera forthwith!

A full and rich cultural experience in Suffolk – all done by bike and train, getting back in time to pick up the twins. Non-driving poetry Mum tries to do it all! Let’s see if I can keep it up…

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Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Progamme Launched

BIG NEWS! My first Aldeburgh Poetry Festival as Director will be 6-8 November 2015, and The Poetry Trust have just launched the programme. We’re very excited! American poet Tony Hoagland is launching his new collection and delivering the Festival lecture on the iconic Sharon Olds. There are conversions between John Burnside and Richard Mabey, and Cuban Jane Duran and Mexican Pedro Serrano to choose from, as well as a discussion on Poetry & Freedom, featuring Kurdish poet Choman Hardi, Q&As with Kei Miller, Valérie Rouzeau from France or record -breaking youtube sensation Hollie McNish. Craft Talks by Kim Addonizio and Helen Mort plus seven completely free Close Readings and three exhibitions, including a cross-art collaboration between Gerry Loose and Morven Gregor, round out the programme. We will also be featuring new and undiscovered voices and welcoming everyone at our annual open mic. Just some of the 60+ events and 30 poets in Suffok this autumn! Come and join us for a refreshing poetry retreat on the beautiful Suffolk Coast.

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Joanna Monks – Tell It Slant’s spring poet in residence

Tell It Slant’s second poet in residence has an exhibition in the shop just now! Come see.

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Below is a Guest blog by Joanna Monks, our Spring poet in residence at Tell It Slant, Come and see her exhibition, on now!

“I immediately loved the idea of a residency in Tell It Slant. The surroundings of The Project Café provides the warm bustle of a café sought by many as a workspace (don’t you always see someone at a coffee shop hunched over a laptop, or surrounded by books). Amidst the warmth, music and smell of food there is also an atmosphere of creativity, experimentation and activity, a multifunctional space for a broad community. Tucked in the corner, in the bright window, Tell It Slant has bookshelves filled with poetry, worlds and images, laments and accounts, a hubbub of voices. I have been fortunate to spend three months of dedicated writing within this space.

“Until the end of June, you can find segments of the work…

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Jim’s Guitar Fund


We did it!!!! Thanks to all who gave a gift, my lovely brother Jim is so lucky in his friends and family. He is going out to buy his guitar and has promised to post a photo of it on facebook. Happy Birthday Jim! xxx

If you didn’t get a chance to donate, you still can:

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In Jim’s own words:

Jim's missing guitar

“My guitar, it has gone far!
Maybe it’s gone to Zanzibar?
It didn’t even say “Ta-ta”,
Or, in Norwegian – “Ha det bra”

“In Norway, was this photo shot
The last known image that I’ve got
Of this thing, which I forgot
Where last I put it…dot, dot, dot!

“Even though it has my name,
Taped upon its wooden frame,
It wanders wild. It is not tame,
Some day soon, I’ll do the same!

“Farewell to you, dear wood and glue,
With strings and things for tuning too,

Maybe one day we will renew,
Our music partnership so true!

“Meanwhile, I’ll buy a guitar NEW!

“If I could find some money too!”

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5 Hour Fundraiser

Excellent cause, fantastic event. Sign up and donate to join the Mirrorball open mic at Tell It Slant in aid of the Scottish Poetry Library!

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Sunday 22nd February, 12 noon- 5pm

An open-mic afternoon hosted by St Mungo’s Mirrorball and Tell It Slant in aid of the refurbishment of The Scottish Poetry Library. Come and read your favourite poem or perform one of your own or just be part of the audience of a wonderful one-off event at Tell It Slant/The Project Café, 134 Renfrew Street, Glasgow. All welcome!

To guarantee your chance to read a poem – email Jim Carruth with your preferred reading hour.

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Wool, words, feathers, fathers.

christiewilliamsonphotoA lovely last night at tell it slant, our old poetry bookshop in The Project Cafe, now admirably run by Kathrine Sowerby, launching another Clydebuilt poet on his way with a first collection before I launch myself South and East across this island to work for The Poetry Trust.

Christie Williamson‘s Oo an Feddirs, published by Luath Press, is a book I have been waiting for since I first heard Christie read at St Mungo’s Mirrorball five years ago. Christie with his long fair hair and strong Shetlandic voice seemed to come from another age, and his poems tangle Shetlandic Scots and English together in a weave so subtle as to be both intriguing and accessible – a rare pattern. “Oo” is Shetlandic for wool, while Feddirs can mean feathers or fathers.  He speaks of the ambivalent  nature of fatherhood, juggling boats for his son, and remembering “when someone else/was the clown/wishing he/was the child again.” He writes of his daughter’s first Carnival, music and dreams mingling “under her tuft of hair.” He speaks vividly of his passion for his partner Hazel Frew, herself an excellent poet, and literally writes her body as it writes on his.

But it is the Shetlandic poems which grip me most – an ancient voice is speaking of the things of everyday and making them seem eternal, as in his poem, Truth, where “da answer phone’s caald/unblinkin licht” says “‘Look at de…./fir aa dy runnin aboot an rantin/an tinkin an bellin desel at life/an gallavantin, du’s come hem/ower laet, an dis truth/can nivvir be erased./Du haes nae new messages.'” That poem certainly rang true with me, as did another, in which he bewailed every liberal parent’s realisation that “raisin’ the bairn wi his ane ideen” is “aa very well, till he starts spikkin back”.*

Being a weaver of voices by nature, Christie chose to interlace readings from the book with “a poyim or twa” from other poets who had helped him on his journey to this point, including myself, Kathrine, Jim Carruth, Cheryl Follon (whose new poems about Russia and love were an eye-opener!) and “da man who give me the best rejection letter of my life”,  Gerry Cambridge, editor of Dark Horse magazine, who finished the night with a bit of music with a young singer songwriter he knew and some harmonica of course. Alexander Hutchison sadly arrived too late from another event to give us his traditional song at the end. But all in all, a lovely way to say farewell to the Glasgow “poyits” for now, though many of them will hopefully join me at future Aldeburgh Poetry Festivals once I get settled in… in the meantime, you can of course buy Christie’s book from tell it slant.

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* There is a very helpful glossary provided at the back of the book by Luath, from which these translations come: du/de– you; aa – all; hem – home; laet – late; bairn – child; oo – wool; feddirs – feathers (or fathers).

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Off the Beaten Track

Nice review of the Female Beat Poets night Maggie Graham and I did by Douglas Thompson from the Scottish Writers’ Centre in Off the Beaten Track.

DCART-20141114104-55-EditPhotography by Dominique Carton:


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“I hear those voices that will not be drowned” – Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Oh the dread and joy of getting what you wish for! When I saw through StAnza‘s blog that the Poetry Trust, which runs the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, was looking for a new Director, my whole self rushed towards it like a sea. But of course, I also found myself looking back – to the very precious land I would have to leave, full of friends and love and music, wildness and mountains, islands and lochs. As the child of an English mother and Scottish father, born in London but brought up in Scotland with an English accent from the age of 7, I have always felt conflicted as to where I belonged. Now I am clear – I belong everywhere there is poetry.

Being at the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was like a homecoming, and also like the greatest adventure away from home. Hearing poetry from Zimbabwe, Brazil, Germany, South Africa, America, Zambia, Australia, England, Scotland, and Wales in the same programme was wonderful. Highlights for me included Kathleen Jamie reading, unusually for her, from unpublished works which brought to life the incredible journey of revolution that has been lived by everyone in Scotland over the past year. They included the beautiful words of Zambian-born, Zimbabwe-raised poet Togara Muzanenhamo, who writes in English. They included the warm music and sisterly dance between Brazilian poet Adelia Prado reading in Portuguese and her translator, the American poet Ellen Doré Watson. They included the bravery and power of Hannah Silva‘s cross-disciplinary feminist performance, Schlock!, the sharpness and rightness of young Kayo Chingonyi‘s poetry and social criticism, the brilliant Tom Pickard with his songs and poems coming from the “tradition of disobedience” in Newcastle, and Karen McCarthy Woolf‘s heart-achingly good performance. Finally, meeting the new poets chosen for the Aldeburgh 8, and a crazy and lovely coincidence involving Helen Mort, took me from 7th heaven to an 8th and 9th I hadn’t even heard of.

As many will have seen, Helen Mort deservedly won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize this year for ‘Division Street‘, published by Chatto and Windus. This was a particularly happy coincidence for me, as last year I won a pamphlet competition judged by Helen Mort with a ten-poem proposal. Poetic justice in the fullest sense of the word, you might say – especially as I can assure everyone I had nothing to do with the judging or selection of the Fenton-Aldeburgh prize! Strange circles of completion.

A major highlight was the breakfast discussion on poetry and disobedience, with Finuala Dowling, Thomas Lux, Robert Seatter, Tom Pickard and Hannah Silva (Tom Pickard did not make good on his threat to demonstrate the principle by staying in bed). It tuned out that disobedience is innate in most poets, and comes out at an early age – a fair percentage of the panel admitted to childhood pyromania. I knew I wasn’t the only firestarter to turn to words when they took away the matches.

The beauty of the festival lies in the fact that it is a continuous conversation between poets and audience (also full of poets, editors, publishers, poetry lovers) over the weekend that we are all together, made up of readings, craft talks, masterclasses, discussions and in process interviews. Poets attended each others readings and talks, and by the time I reached the beautiful retreat where we tuck away the Aldeburgh 8 group to reflect on all this input, and use it to inform their own work under the mentorship of founder Michael Laskey and Peter Sansom, everyone was speaking to the experience like old friends.

The beauty of Suffolk has been a wonderful surprise of these past few visits – the wildness and power of its seascapes, its huge, changing skies, and the fact that a very flat county can actually be full of mystery, with roads weaving woods and rivers and, yes, even hills, together in a magical tapestry, as my kind hostess, Tamsyn Imison, pointed out. The reedbeds round Snape Maltings seem to whisper with the voices of the past, which made them a suitable place for the Unforgettable Voices exhibition at the Dovecote Studio – so moving, like a memorial ought to be, voices of poets who had read at Aldeburgh, now deceased, echoing in a beautiful room smelling of wood.

There was also of course much carousing and celebration, lead by the brilliant Creative Director Dean Parkin and magician/Festival Manager Jo Leverett, who thank the stars are staying on to help me in this transition, and have made me feel incredibly welcome. I will have many enduring memories of the festival: one will be ourselves, with the hardworking Mary Smyth and the enthusiastic Amy Wragg, and miscellaneous poets, slapping the table and singing “is everybody ‘appy? You bet your life we are!” – lead by Dean.

Pulled between the sun rising over the sea and the setting moon as I walked on the stony shore of Aldeburgh that last morning, I felt as if the current Director Naomi Jaffa has given me a rare and precious thing, crafted lovingly by herself and others for decades; unique and beautiful as the sea-gifts I held in my hand. A delicate responsibility, and an incredible blessing.

A sadness was missing the voice of Jen Hadfield, who was stranded on Shetland by bad weather, though this took a strange turn when I was asked to read one of her poems in her place, and the Poetry Trust took the opportunity to announce me as the new Director. Apparently the Poetry Society were impressed by the fact that I came onstage in a leather jacket and almost the first word out of my mouth was fuck. (It was Jen Hadfield’s word not mine, from the poem “Saturday Morning” in her new book, ‘Byssus‘.) We then had the wonderful Helena Nelson up to fill the rest of the slot, to the delight of my seven-year-old twins, who loved her work, and asked for more. I also took the opportunity to lead a cheer for Naomi Jaffa, who has led the Poetry Trust for more than twenty years, built the Aldeburgh Poetry festival into the incredible thing it is today, and taken it to its new home in Snape Maltings, in partnership with the wonderful Aldeburgh Music, founded by Benjamin Britten. (Words from his opera ‘Peter Grimes‘, its libretto adapted by Montagu Slater from the narrative poem by George Crabbe, form the first part of this article’s title, and are inscribed on a shell sculpture on wonderful Aldeburgh Beach, by local artist Maggi Hambling).  Naomi also swore onstage at a later attempt to acknowledge her leadership and achievements, asking that we all “shut the fuck up and listen to some poetry” – fitting words to end on, I think!

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Michael and Naomi

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