It's On The List

I haven't kept a blog, or a diary, for ages. Having had a full few days at this year's Aldeburgh Poetry Festival though, I felt like I wanted to start one. There are things I want to write down to look back on and remind myself of. Let's see how it goes.

I'm sharing a house with poets Richard Scott (& partner), Anna Selby and Ed Doegar (& partner), all of whom are lovely, lovely people. Richard and I were in this house last year too. The view from the sash window feels like an old friend. We've rented it house from Thursday to Thursday, wanting time to decompress after the festival and have a little poetry holiday. I hope to read and write lots in the remaining time (though we leave tomorrow). I also hope to eat a battered sausage on the beach in my pyjamas.

Anna and I arrived on Thursday and bought some essential supplies. Cheese, wine, toothpaste, that sort of thing. We had a very leisurely evening inside, ignoring the rain. I love spending time with Anna - she's such a generous gentle person who does a mean sideline in mischievous glints in the eye. We got takeaway pizzas and talked till two in the morning on the warm sofas. Friday morning was, subsequently, very lazy, both of us having tedious bits of work to try and get out of the way.

The first event was Dean Parkin's book launch. He's been with the Aldeburgh festival for something like 16 years now, and this will be his final year, coinciding with the launch of his first collection (yay!), published by The Rialto, in the Peter Pears Gallery. I got in just before it was going to start, managing to get one of the last chairs in the crowded hall. He gave a charismatic and congenial reading, and you could feel the audience beaming back at him. I left fairly soon afterwards and doubled back to the house, slightly overwhelmed by the number of familiar faces in one room. It was lovely to sneak a seat next to Fiona Moore (whose HappenStance pamphlet launched at the same time as mine in 2013), and I could hear her determined shout of "Is anyone driving to Snape now?" as the event finished, as she was keen to get over there for the next event. (Aldeburgh is split across two sets of venues - the first in the town of Aldeburgh, where the entire festival used to be based, and the second at Snape Maltings, in the large concert venue though, along with other recital rooms and gallery spaces. There is a bus, but sometimes events clash.) Anyway it worked, and she got there.

Anna and I followed her over later. We went to a discussion on language and nature between John Burnside and Helen MacDonald, which made me immediately want to read H is for Hawk. The main thing that jumped out of the general conversation for me was the observation that it's not the planet that is being destroyed by humans ("it's been a ball of ice, it's been a ball of fire, the planet will be fine" said John) but rather ourselves. 

Afterwards we went to the first main reading of the weekend. Robert Seatter (another lovely human, on the board of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and chairs the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize) introduced the reading, mentioning that new Director Ellen McAteer was unable to attend the festival. Unfortunately we were just slipping in as the announcement was made, so I'm not sure of the reason, but hope all is well. It must be heartbreaking to work so hard on something and not be around to see it happen.

Robert also announced that the winner of this year's First Collection Prize was Andrew McMillan (whilst adding that any one of the books could have won, all being such interesting books by Rebecca Perry, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Liz Berry and Jim Carruth). I have to confess that I haven't read Andrew's book in full yet, though I've heard glowing reports from those who have. It's on the list! I'm hoping perhaps keeping a blog again will help me to stay on top of my reading better.

After that, it was Helen Mort's reading (she won the prize last year), which was charming, earnest and very endearing. Kei Miller read next. I should perhaps add a disclaimer here to say that I love Kei Miller's work intensely and so am already predisposed to enjoy his readings, but still I have to say he was on fire. As usual. There was something very quiet about his reading that night. He smiled a lot. He's someone you feel really enjoys reading, which isn't always the case when watching poets.

Then came an interval and some of us took the opportunity to sneak away to the Plough and Sail pub. We missed Jeremy Reed's reading, which I understand involved a beret and glitter and 1960s bohemia. The pub was just fine though. Followed by another pub - a visit to the Cross Keys back in Aldeburgh.

More poets! Much merriment, much drinking, much conversation. Then a walk home via a lie down on the pebble beach and a good hard stare at the stars. We may have carried on talking nonsense at the house about poetry and perfection. We may have only got to bed around 4am. We may have seen the moon come up, with Mars and Jupiter around it, and smiled in delight at being out of London and by the sea, listening to the waves. Before bed I took this photo from an upstairs window, using my shadow to try and block out the light of the room while I took it. It only occurred to me the next day that it's like a live-action version of my Flying into the Bear pamphlet cover, with its constellations swimming inside the bear's outline.

I had a long bath on Saturday morning and read in bed. The first event for me was John Burnside's talk about birds in poetry. As often happens with these talks, it was as interesting for the peripheral references and context-giving information as it was for the formal content. He read Richard Mabey's sound poem in Brick magazine which attempts to transpose the sound of a nightingale singing into words, which looked amazing on the page. I'd like to go to the Poetry Library and fish it out. I think it must be in this issue.

Also in this talk, I enjoyed what he was saying about a Robert Penn Warren poem using the bird not as a crude symbol or mere extended metaphor, but as a vehicle for exploration. This chimed a lot with the way I use animals, so I scribbled it down in my notebook. Yes, must confess I went to the talk with an interest in "using the bird as… XYZ" rather than just with interest in poetic birds themselves ("poetic birds" sounds like something rather different, doesn't it?). Anyway, there was a sense of trying to capture and communicate complexity with nature writing, rather than over-simplifying things with, say, a nice polite inoffensive, purely descriptive, bird poem.

After that I went for a cup of tea and a sausage roll in a friend's house which bore the following sign above the staircase: YESTERDAY RETURNETH NOT / PERCHANCE TOMORROW COMETH NOT / THIS IS TODAY / ABUSE IT NOT.

Then what? Oh yes, Jeremy Noel-Tod's talk on RF Langley. I hadn't really registered Langley before, and now feel this is rather terrible. Loosely in that Cambridge gang, and writing a lot about East Anglia, and was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Prize (you can listen to some poems on the Poetry Archive site). He died in 2011 and was awarded the Forward Prize posthumously for Best Single Poem that year. Clearly I have not been paying enough attention. I went to the talk primarily because I think Jeremy is an interesting character (whose humour I enjoy enormously on Twitter) and wanted to hear him talk about a poet in detail. I wasn't disappointed on either count. Given that he only had 45 minutes, Jeremy did such a good job of showing us poems, weaving in context about Langley's life and writing habits (I loved hearing him talk about "zigzag rhymes" when looking at the internal rhyme in one of the pieces), and showing us extracts from his journals which seem very interesting in their own right, even before you get to the poems. They've been published by Shearsman. Another book for the list. (Maybe that's what I should call this blog? "It's on the list!") I went straight to the back and bought his Complete Poems once the talk was over.  

Both of these events, incidentally, were in the Baptist chapel in Aldeburgh. There were A4 coloured sheets tacked up around the hall walls showing the ten commandments, with additional imperatives underneath each one, rather an unusual context for secular poetic discussions. Underneath the third one (You shall not misuse the name of the Lord) was the line "Take God seriously". In Comic Sans.

I caught the bus in to Snape with both Anna and Richard (Richard had arrived with his partner that Saturday morning) and we headed straight for dinner at the Plough and Sail. In America I believe the term for carrying two drinks at once, once in each hand, is double-fisting? I double-fisted my dinner, ordering two starters instead of a main and eating from both plates side by side together. Yum. Important to keep up energy during a poetry festival (even though I still felt too tired throughout, and still went to far fewer events than I'd planned to. I've felt very busy overall, but remain disappointed in my own stamina and attention.)

Then we went to the main reading - Valérie Rouzeau, Kim Addonizio and John Burnside. Valérie read in French, with her translator Susan Wicks reading the english translations. I heard Susan talking about Valérie's work and reading some translations earlier this year in Newcastle and was glad to hear Valérie read in person. The poems are very musical and the reading was a delight. My French is so rusty, I could only pick up the odd words here and there. But there was one piece in which she referred to a letter ("Letter to / from Jacques" I think was the name of the poem, or something like it) and said in French something like "Il a commencé par coeur, et terminé parce que" - literally "it started by heart and ended because", and the "because" is just left there hanging. (Why? Just because. That sort of thing.) Anyway the music of it in the French is so wonderful: "par coeur / parce que", the heart so closely linked by rhyme to the absentee explanatory "because". There was no way to render this into English while capturing both rhyme and meaning though. It should feel disappointing, but instead it was glorious. I love translations when I can't speak the original (what I don't know about the original doesn't bother me) and I also love translations when I can. Even funnier are these half and half situations, where I might catch some words but not others, different connections and misunderstandings forming in my head, making me all the more excited to see what happens in the translation happening in front of me.

American poet Kim Addonizio was next. She brought the house down (That phrase is theatrical in origin, not literal, right? Right.). I think perhaps she should have closed the festival. She had the demeanour of a closer. I only know individual poems of hers. She seems to have been frequently anthologised over here by Bloodaxe (and the New and Selected Poems collection which has just come out is from Bloodaxe), or maybe it's just that the poems of hers I've read have jumped out at me. I'm certain I've read her poem "You Don't Know What Love Is" (which continues "but you know how to raise it in me / like a dead girl winched up from a river" in an anthology of poems to be read at weddings. Anyway, she was great: deliberate and forceful and funny and gave a memorable performance of "Penis Blues" which was written, she said, in the midst of a "penis drought", and during which she invited three brave gentlemen from the audience to perform blues-like song and dance behind her while she read. Lots of wonderful images in that poem, as in the others. I particularly enjoyed the visuals on "There's a flock of penises headed south". She finished with a harmonica solo.  

Then an interval. Then John Burnside reading (mostly) new poems from his forthcoming book. The title was, I think, Still Life with Feeding Snake. Many of them were long poems, drawing multiple threads out of a single winding narrative. There were lots of striking images, but I think I'll have to wait for them on the page. He was a warm and gentle reader, and I found the other events he did very interesting. However by this point I suspect I had too many penises swimming around my head from Kim's reading to be able to change gear properly.

Then came the poetry scrum. We got a lift back to the Cross Keys with friends and what started as a fairly relaxed drink quickly turned into a sweaty heaving throng of poetry musical chairs. Poets of all shapes and sizes, tables, benches, pub dogs, all vying for space. I love festivals for exactly this sort of environment. You don't get a chance to talk to the people you'd planned to spend time with, but instead have all manner of interesting conversations with other people you hadn't met before (or just hadn't spent any time with before). We were wondering in the pub on Sunday what the collective noun for poets should be. Someone dourly suggested a "gripe" or a "virus". That night to me felt more like a lively "gaggle", lots of excitable honking before going home to sleep with our heads under our wings. Though for general use I think a generous word would be needed. A sea of poets. A galaxy. A blanket.      

On Sunday I went in for the New Voices reading at noon. I'm envious of people who have done lovely things like swim in the sea and walk along the marsh into Snape (Anna's done both, after eating her breakfast up the coast in a bird hyde, the beautiful minx), but I settled for the shuttle bus. New Voices. Who read? It was Christie Williamson, Rebecca Watts, Zaffar Kunial and Miriam Nash.

Christie was great, reading poems in Shetlandic and English. It ended very emotionally and there was such a kindliness to his delivery. (Also I really wanted to take a photo of us together as if to say: "Look! We're in the same room at the same time!" sort of way because of the similarity of our names. He suggested we do a reading together. I think we should make this happen.) Rebecca dramatised the everyday to epic proportions in a very controlled, dextrous way. Zaffar I thought was amazing - I hadn't known his work at all beforehand (he's one of Faber's last round of pamphlet poets). He started with a poem about chasing a cricket ball into a bush, and turned it into a glorious piece about losing time, and finding it again, a sense not quite of "otherness", but of "away-ness". Having read his pamphlet too now, there's a lot in it about dual-parentage and complicated family backgrounds. It's in no way the same, but being half-Italian on my mum's side, with a tangle of English, Welsh and Scottish family on my dad's side, feels messy in a vaguely similar way, at least in terms of the linguistic interactions and confusions, the absence of a singular identity. His poems seem so good at being able to articulate these sorts of messiness. I collared him after the reading to tell him how much I liked it and have already begun stalking him on social media. If I'd been in Miriam's place I would have been terrified to follow him (a few people even gave him a standing ovation) but she marched straight to the podium and gave a determined and very confident, assured reading.

All four read very well. All four were very different. I love the format of this "New Voices" reading - four poets with 15 minutes each, no breaks, bam, straight through! I think it's my favourite at the festival, especially when compared with the 25-minute long readings x 3 of the main events. (I am biased though, having read at the New Voices event last year.)  

Then, a lasagne for lunch and more chatter with lovely people in the cafeteria. It was fun to catch up with Andrea Porter and to compare and contrast comic-cons with poetry festivals. Then came Valérie Rouzeau's close reading. She brought in a poem by Christian Bachelin which was very interesting in its use of allusion and connection. I'd like to go and explore his poetry. I'm hopelessly illiterate about French poetry. It's an area I need to improve on.

A lot of this post has been about what I've not read, hasn't it? I feel bad about that, like I should try and fudge over it, sweep it under the carpet and make myself look cleverer, but then I suppose that's what festivals like this are for. Exposure to new poets you've either been too busy (or too lazy) to look up. I hope I can be honest about those things on this blog too, without coming across like a complete idiot.  

God what else. Can there still be more? Oh yes, of course, the final reading, preceded by a farewell to the Delightful Dean. All change at the festival, it seems. Well, not all, of course. But some, after Naomi Jaffa stepped down (am so glad to have had a chance to hug her, Dean and Michael Laskey this year on the fly - they are such kind generous people). It does feel like a sea change, even if it's only my third year of going to the festival. An Aldeburgh North Sea change. But I'm excited to see how the festival develops in the future.

The final reading was opened by Choman Hardi, reading from her new book Considering the Women, which revolves around her interviews with female survivors of genocide in Kurdistan. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the context, she referred to herself initially as a self-effacing "party-pooper poet" (a moniker given by Dean Parkin). She has inspired the most discussion of any of the poets I'd seen at the festival, and her reading was quite divisive. Some people had a very emotionally charged response, others saying they thought the poems felt less like poetry and more like reportage. As for me? Hmm. The first few poems knocked me out, and I remember thinking immediately that I must go and buy the book once it was over. They were so powerful. But something happened halfway through. I was so glad to be hearing the poems ("glad" is the wrong word), though it was emotionally very tough, and glad (again, wrong) to be hearing these women's voices, but I realised it might not be a book I wanted to go back and spend time in, or to really live in. I don't know what this says about me as a reader. I would recommend the reading itself though, and the work. I felt very present and engaged throughout. The poems were clear and direct.   

Mexican poet Pedro Serrano followed her, and he has one of the nicest smiles I've seen on any man. He stood back grinning at the audience while his translator Anna Crowe read the English versions. I felt like his smile was saying, "Isn't this funny? Look! She's reading my poems! And you are listening!" They were very mellifluous, full of bright imagery. My half-Italian-ness only kicked in properly at the end when the final poem involved the Spanish word "cagar", the same as the Italian "cagare" ("to shit"). What on earth is this poem? I thought, picking up more and more as it went through, and was very keen to hear the translation. It was a poem which uses taking a shit as an extended metaphor for writing. Very funny. There were some lovely images in his other poems too, but the gentle roll of it all meant I was swept along in fits and starts, picking up individual pieces rather than grasping complete poems. This, I'm certain, is due to my own fatigue kicking in rather than anything to do with his reading though. Again, I'm disappointed in myself for not having enough stamina. Also for confessing it here. It's something to work on. (The stamina, and behaving more respectfully, not hiding my confessions.)

Then a break, then the final reading of the festival by Tony Hoagland, who also divided the group I was sitting in. Some people felt his male gaze all too keenly - as did I. (I feel that certain men of a certain age writing about younger women has become something of a cliche at this point, no? Though #notallmen of course.) Others responded warmly to the humour in his poems. As, also, did I. The poems were lively, funny and smart, and I really felt I liked him by the end. I've bought a book of his essays that looks amazing. But I don't know what to do with these conflicting feelings other than carry on and read the work. I also hadn't known about the dialogue several years ago between him and Claudia Rankine, in regard to his treatment of race in one of his poems. It's a very interesting dialogue. (You can listen to an event recording with the whole thing on It seems, in the end, that he stood by his right to have written the poem as it was, and she stood by her right to be offended by that poem as he had written it, but that no real agreement was reached. After a lengthy discussion, I'm not sure we got much further than that ourselves.  

So then we came home and got a takeaway. We ate it. We cleaned plates. We wiped the table. We went to the Cross Keys for a final pint and had a conversation about musical theatre. We came back and lay on the beach. We learnt (thanks to a Night Sky app) about the stars that sit between the Bear and Orion: Castor and Pollux in Gemini, the little dog, then Sirius in the big dog that was coming up over the horizon. Or, more accurately, our horizon was moving down, turning down to reveal it, Canis Major running after Orion and nipping at his heels.

Now I've finished typing this up, and I've just had a conversation with Ed about how the pub is often where we figure out what we think, by having shared conversations there. Anna at dinner was talking about a film called Into the Wild, which asks whether happiness is a solitary or a shared pursuit, concluding that it is only in the sharing of happiness that we truly experience it. Writing is a solitary activity. As is reading. They go together nicely that way. So it's wonderful to go to festivals like this and be able to meet up with friends, make new ones, form new thoughts, listen to other people's, gossip, giggle and all look at the sky together.

I hope I'm going to make good use of this blog too. Of course, this is the first post, and it's bumper-sized. A fiver says the next one will be less than a hundred words.


  1. Amazing. I think I am now filled with what the Germans call Poesiefestnostalgie. I wish I could have been there.

  2. Oh - I wish you could have been there too!

  3. Dear Chrissy

    A collective noun for poets. How about a clique, cabal or conspiracy of poets?

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish