This was my second visit to this festival, now in its fourth year. A product of the creative force of local bookshop owner, and poetry aficionado ,Anna Dreda, a strong and varied programme augured well, as did the crowds milling around as I arrived in the late morning, before formal proceedings had commenced.
There was plenty to do for the casual visitor. Kurly McGeachie was on hand in an impressive yurt to provide poetry workshops for children, and Deborah Alma , AKA “The Emergency Poet” ,provided emergency poetic treatment for those seeking it in her vintage ambulance. Both benefitted from the comparative warmth that their respective shelters offered as well as doing a grand job with passers-by.
Poems & Pints – George & Dragon PH
This was a free event, hosted by Mark Niel, at lunchtime as an open mic . It was packed. Mark’s genial bonhomie oiled the wheels of a succession of talented poets, several of whom have performed headline spots elsewhere. In many respects it captured the spirit of the festival; inclusive, warm, enjoyable and high quality. A significant proportion of those whom attend poetry festivals are themselves poets, so it is always wise to provide a creative outlet for those who want to perform to new audiences, and listen to unfamiliar voices.
Liz Lefroy and James Sheard – Priory Hall
Liz has been a student , and Jim is a senior lecturer at , Keele University. They made for a shrewd and inspired pairing at a performance that was pleasingly well attended. Wisely ,they read two sets each in rotation, a device which allows for contrasting material, as well as contrast between performer.
Previous appearances by Liz have been well covered in both Garyswordz and Behind the Arras. She specialises in memorable phrases as in the opening to Roadside Shrine; “I pass your death each morning”. Her award winning debut collection, Pretending the Weather, is already a year old, but she has a wealth of material in her notebook . A childhood shaped by her clergyman father inevitably looms large, but her poems draw upon the rich imagery of Faith, rather than overtly celebrating or rebelling against those traditions, offering a modern context, as a good preacher might from the pulpit. A Place Called Solomon does this particularly well. Night Coach, a journey ostensibly about a trip from Stoke to Vienna, with its “thick coffee and bad toilets” set against a backdrop of “streaks of neon” suggests more obliquely a journey that transcends the physical. Yet there is no doubting the fierce visceral emotion in The School Concert in which she declares that “I disgraced you by exploding” , a sentiment that all parents will recognise.
James Sheard also spoke of journeys and parental love. The latter most memorably in That Hour, dedicated to his son. On first hearing, it appeared to joyously romp between a formal metre and free verse underpinned by a repeat that worked well performed. His journeys were of geographical displacement, a characteristic of those born to military families, and displacement between languages.
As his reading unfolded he then introduced the concept of vertigo, in the sense of being suspended above, particularly as experienced by those involved in poem translation was introduced, but it also found form in the distance between father and son, and himself and his late mentor. I would have loved a question and answer session in which he could have developed the theme more fully. His writing is economic and unfussy, some of his compounds, “ goldmean and thumb rub”, intriguing. However what distinguishes his work for me is an ability to describe a familiar scene with a phrase that flares up and illuminates. “Landings” from a forthcoming publication, was the standout poem of his performance for me ,opening with:
“We wanted a land where we could watch the weather-
See how one hill drew down the drapes of rain, and how another
Would flash its skin in a fall of sunlight”
And I was there.”Sometimes a poem clicks like a well-made box.”
Owen Sheers and Menna Elfyn – The Edge
The golden boy and golden girl of Welsh poetry was quite a prospect, and much anticipated by a large and expectant audience. As a child of parents Swansea born and bred, both offer a sense of place and heritage close to my heart. The Borders crowd gave them a welcome as if for a homecoming.
Owen Sheers has an impressive cannon of work behind him. He draws upon his Welsh heritage freely whilst offering it a 21st century setting. He read extensively from his soon to be published Pink Mist a verse drama developed from a play written for radio . This was a brave move. His published poetry is widely known and admired, and he was available to sign books, sales of which would undoubtedly have been enhanced by a “greatest hits” set. Yet, any artist is keen to expose fresh work to performance and scrutiny, a process which invariably refines the end product. What was lost in familiarity was compensated for in freshness.
Pink Mist tells the story of three young soldiers from Bristol embarking on a tour of Afghanistan told in various first person voices including those of the women left behind- hence the pink mist. It draws upon many literary traditions not least that of The Odyssey, and the quest to return home. Its rhyming was light, bright, tight and unobtrusive with a strong, insistent metrical structure. Sheers is a consummate reader of poetry, assured, confident, and clear with a melodic lilt to compliment the material. A fine performance.
No modern Welsh language poet has been published more than Menna Elfyn who is a standard bearer for the Welsh language, culture, Welsh language poetry and poetry in her homeland. Menna performed in Welsh and English to a sympathetic Borders audience. As a translator of Welsh poetry, and someone whose work is translated into numerous foreign languages, she memorably described poetry in translation as like kissing through a handkerchief. Her Welsh language reading was certainly easy on the ear, but it is true that when you add up the number of Welsh speakers, take away those not interested in poetry, those able to appreciate her in her mother tongue is inevitably modest.
Menna’s work is not only meticulously crafted, it is also written with a smile, a facet most admirably apparent in “Babysitting at the Crematorium” when she babysat an infant before retiring to a cafe, informally called “The Creme de la crem”. Some poems came from her collection Murmur, yet her words resonated with a roar rather than a murmur, my favourite as the son of Swansea parents was “The Cockle Woman” a delightful vignette on those women who would roam the pubs and clubs with locally harvested cockles in a wicker basket, I loved the idea that someone would purchase simply to lighten her load.
And so a day of poetic delight drew to a close on a festival which drew together old friends of mine, and provided a forum to forge new ones, as well as to hear new poetry performed in a complimentary environment.