Five of the best readings
(in chronological order, introduced more or less in the style of Cluedo)
LUKE WRIGHT in the Edge Arts Centre with the lion
Described by The Skinny as ‘the future of popular poetry’ and by himself as ‘a swollen 12-year-old who’s put his fingers in the plug socket’, Luke Wright is one of the biggest names on the performance poetry circuit, and his set on the first evening of the Wenlock Festival certainly didn’t disappoint.
‘When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work,’ wrote Eliot, ‘it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience.’ In Luke Wright’s case, the disparate experiences being amalgamated included a first kiss and early 90s BBC series Lovejoy, refreshing contrasts to Eliot’s rather loftier examples (reading Spinoza, listening to the noise of a typewriter).
The ‘Essex Lion’ show moved fluently between comedy and tragedy, connected by an undercurrent of nostalgia — a yearning to return to those childhood days when everything seems possible (‘This show is all about those things that we wish to be true’). Talking to the audience between poems, Luke came up with most of the festival’s best one-liners, several of which have made their way on to the next page of this review…
GLYN MAXWELL in the Methodist Church with the creepy Disney film
In 1994, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage made a trip to Iceland, echoing the journey Auden and MacNeice had made six decades earlier. Maxwell and Armitage were key names in the ‘New Generation Poets’ promotion, but their careers have diverged: while Armitage was swapping poetry readings for accommodation along the Pennine Way, Maxwell was writing the libretto for an opera based on a book by Philip Pullman.
The two poets were reunited at the Wenlock Festival: Armitage closed the festival by reading to a packed crowd at the Edge, while Glyn Maxwell gave a more intimate performance to a relatively small crowd in the Methodist Church.
‘I only wrote two poems last year,’ he admitted, ‘and they were both commissions.’ But Maxwell’s work now seems to be all about quality over quantity: his yet-to-be-published ‘Disney’s Island’ poem, based on Pinocchio (‘My earliest memory of being freaked out by something in the movies’), recalled Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’ in several places, and ‘The Snow Village’ was equally good, lending weight to Maxwell’s statement that ‘My poetry’s more religious than I am, as if the poems somehow know something that I don’t.’
FRIEDA HUGHES in the Pottery with the possible cannibalism
Frieda Hughes’ ‘desert island poems’ reading in Wenlock Pottery was surely the only festival event in which the poet began by pondering whether or not she’d be able to eat her audience. Musing on the possibility of escape from her desert island, Frieda suggested that she’d have to either tie members of the audience together to form a raft or remain on the island and eat them one by one. More pressing than the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by cannibalism was the absence of room service (‘There certainly wouldn’t be room service, which is a shame’).
Having discussed survival strategies with BBC radio presenter Fiona Talkington, Frieda Hughes moved on to her desert island poems… or, more accurately, her desert island poem. While previous castaway John Hegley had managed to squeeze eight poems into the 20-minute time slot, Frieda read just one: her own poem, ‘How it Began’.
From the opening lines (‘There was first the small sound/ of a metal wire snapping’) onwards, Frieda kept the audience in rapt silence as she discussed her struggle with ME and the role poetry played in her eventual recovery. She also discussed the influence of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on her work: in her early twenties, the constant comparison to her parents caused her to stop writing; later, she came to realise that being ‘frightened of comparisons [was] a stupid reason to stop doing something.’
DAVID MORLEY AND GREGORY LEADBETTER in the Priory Ruins with the rainstorm
The Saturday evening event at Wenlock Priory, hosted by Gregory Leadbetter (director of Birmingham City University’s MA in writing) and David Morley (head of English and Comparative Literary Studies at Warwick) was the festival’s only outdoor reading. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it coincided with a torrential (but mercifully brief) downpour.
During a series of readings from participants in the outdoor writing workshop, sections of the audience were reclining on picnic blankets and at least one of the performers was wearing sunglasses, but the atmosphere changed dramatically as rainclouds began to roll in during Gregory Leadbetter’s performance. Off came the sunglasses, up went the umbrellas, and up stepped David Morley, throwing off his hood as he began his reading.
There was something almost Lear-like (the King raging against the elements, rather than the artist and illustrator popularising the limerick) about David Morley’s impassioned performances of his Wisdom Smith/John Clare poems against a backdrop of black clouds, the wind rattling the pages, the sudden hiss of a rainstorm…
FOYLE YOUNG POETS in the Methodist Church with the situational irony
The last morning of the festival looked ahead to the future with readings from three Young Poet Laureates (Birmingham’s Lauren Williams, Worcester’s Holly Perrett and Shropshire’s Mia Cunningham) and four winners of the Foyle Young Poets Award.
If those two events are anything to go by, the next generation of poets are —without exception— extraordinarily consummate performers of their own work, as well as being refreshingly unafraid of stirring up controversy. Flora de Falbe observed that the venue (Wenlock’s Methodist Church) was ‘probably the most ironic setting for every poem I’m about to read’, while Richard Osmond provoked a certain amount of awkward shuffling in the audience when he introduced his first poem by announcing ‘This one’s about fingering’. Jay Bernard, meanwhile, introduced poems about her mother with, ‘A lot of my poems are about my family. They never read poetry, which is why I can get away with this.’
The future of poetry seems reassuringly bright, although it depends heavily on schemes like Foyle Young Poets. All four winners testified to the award’s impact on their careers, with Richard Osmond offering perhaps the most succinct appraisal: ‘The Foyle Award gave me permission to call myself a poet.’
Ten of the best soundbites[quote]As an atheist, my wife is the closest thing in my life to a deity… an angry and vengeful god, but a god nonetheless. — Luke Wright [/quote] [quote]Shed Seven remind me I’m going to die. — Luke Wright [/quote] [quote]A vote for UKIP is a protest vote… A protest against common sense and equality. — Luke Wright[/quote] [quote][The Foyle Young Poets Award is] a form of great resistance… a shadow educational system, a shadow university. — David Morley[/quote] [quote]I think you can only really write poems about being happy in love if the other person’s asleep. — Glyn Maxwell[/quote] [quote]Poets… write secular hymns or prayers… My poetry’s more religious than I am, as if the poems somehow know something that I don’t — Glyn Maxwell[/quote] [quote]What other people think of me when I’m lying on my deathbed really won’t matter that much. — Frieda Hughes[/quote] [quote]To me, [the Ramayana] is becoming more and more of an English story. I wanted to reflect that sensibility. — Daljit Nagra[/quote] [quote]When I was growing up, cider was just a drink for tramps and shepherds. It seems to have been rebranded. — Simon Armitage[/quote] [quote]About once a month, I try to write about something that is absolutely insignificant. — Simon Armitage[/quote]
The festival in numbers
The number of Missing Slate editors at Rebecca Goss and Helen Tookey’s reading on Sunday morning. Having turned up five minutes late, we were informed that sneaking into the Edge Arts Centre was absolutely out of the question, and ended up shuffling off to the cinema to watch a film based on Alice Oswald’s ‘Dart’ instead.
The number of poetry-themed items on the Poetry Café’s festival menu: the Housman’s Ploughman’s. For next year’s festival, we’d like to suggest Petrucci bolognaise and Armitage shanks — combining delicious portions of lamb meat with the name of everyone’s favourite modern troubadour.
The number of young poets (Lauren Williams and Flora de Falbe) who read directly from their iPads. Is this the start of a shift away from readings accompanied by the anxious rustling of A4 sheets? Striking a defiant blow for the slightly (but only slightly) older generation, Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Zaffar Kunial brought a magnificently coffee-stained manuscript to his reading.
The number of Dutch poets at the festival, including current Poet Laureate Anne Vegter, who began her writing life with children’s books ‘written in a noticeably free and lively style’. Accompanying Anne Vegter at the Edge Arts Centre on Sunday afternoon were Arjen Duinker and Nachoem Wijnberg.
The number of poets badgered into taking selfies for The Missing Slate. One of those poets was Helen Mort, who analysed the selfie phenomenon in her Poetry on the Brain blog at the beginning of the month, writing that ‘We are reflections of our culture and vice versa, a strange and vicious circle. The ‘selfie’ holds a camera up to our society.’ Helen was adamant that her selfie should contain as much background as possible, and managed to work in a sizeable portion of the car park wall. ‘My favourite kind of author photo,’ she wrote in her blog, ‘would be… out climbing, the rocks and the route as much of a focus as the body of the person.’
The number of Wenlock Poetry Festivals so far. The support of Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who described Wenlock as ‘the perfect place for poetry’ was instrumental in founding the first festival. Since that inaugural event in April 2010, the Wenlock Festival has featured readings from a host of star names: Gillian Clarke, Roger McGough, Benjamin Zephaniah, Jo Shapcott, Andrew Motion…
The number of readers at Wenlock Priory on Saturday evening, including four guest performers from David Morley’s Outdoor Writing workshop. Sudden rain showers were a feature of the weekend (after all, this was England in April) and one of the most dramatic occurred towards the end of David Morley’s reading, which turned into something of a race against the elements.
The number of Simon Armitage poems engraved on ‘Stanza Stones’ along the South Pennine watershed (one of which was the last piece performed at the 2014 Wenlock Festival). Working poetry into the landscape has played a significant part in the Wenlock Festival ever since Carol Ann Duffy’s specially-commissioned poem for the inaugural event was carved in stone by John Neilson. Five years on, the ‘Poetree’ in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church was one of the festival’s most spectacular sights.
The number of desert island poems John Hegley managed to squeeze into a twenty-minute slot on Saturday morning. By way of contrast, Frieda Hughes read just one desert island poem (her own) on Saturday afternoon, although her performance still managed to be every bit as memorable.
For Nine Arches Press, who celebrated their fifth birthday and launched their ‘Maps and Legends: Poems to Find Your Way By’ anthology at the festival. Co-editor Jo Bell tweeted a picture of the Nine Arches team ‘debriefing’ at the Poetry Café: not a Housman’s Ploughman’s in sight, sadly.
The number of ‘Dada Poetry Orienteering spinners’(including two at top-secret mystery locations), which encouraged festival-goers to compose their own aleatory verse using ‘obscure phrases from everyday sources.’ The Dada spinners used a series of randomly-selected phrases — a sentence from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, half a line from Ryanair’s terms and conditions, a fragment found on a tea wrapper — and produced poems like this one:
we are not responsible…
if you wish to see
the right to rest and leisure
beaten to a hipster jam
What, we’re left to wonder, would Tristan Tzara have made of that?