This was my third visit to the Wenlock Poetry Festival, and for the first time I stayed overnight locally to maximise my time. As always, a diverse, eclectic programme had been laid down by organiser Antonia Beck such that many are starting to come now not for specific events, but for the festival itself, confident in the event, surely a very good sign, and with good reason. For it is the sort of festival where you can turn up on your own and bump into friends, or simply make them.
Sadly I could not come up for Friday, which ,meant that I missed Luke Wright, and a triple bill of John Hegley, Emma Purshouse and Mia Cunningham all of whom attracted glowing reports upon my arrival on Saturday. Apart from some seasonal April showers on Saturday, the weather was kind, with the Poetree making a welcome return along with a few craft stalls at the Priory Hall which acts as a focal point for proceedings; an information point, a meeting place and somewhere to grab a cup of tea and cake.
With many of the performers well known to me I made a point of exploring the “undercard” at the festival, with great rewards. The idea of Desert Island Poems is a good one. Take the “Discs” format, replace discs with poems, enlist a good interviewer and an interesting poet, and you should be on to a winner. And so we were, but by an obtuse route.
I had heard of Frieda Hughes, and was aware of some of her poetry, but was wholly unaware of her lineage. Wenlock Pottery was packed to overflowing for her “Desert island” experience. Compere was Fiona Talkington, urbane doyenne of the chattering classes, and a BBC stalwart. A literature graduate, and a veteran of interviewing the likes of Simon Rattle and Jon Anderson, securing her services was quite a coup.
The opening was conventional enough, but enlivened by Hughes’ witty reflections on the desert island as concept rather than actuality, in a flourish her Bedalian schooling would have been proud of. Immediately two things were apparent, her beauty ,and intelligence. She had a presence and authority which commanded by consent and compelled the audience to listen and draw closer.
Other castaways at the series had selected some eight poems by the great and the good, but Frieda chose to read the first one without introduction. It was a fraught, taut, exploration of someone incapacitated by illness, and was warmly received. The author? Frieda Hughes, revealed as the daughter of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to those of us who had not quite made the connection. And instead of reading other poems, either by herself or others, that was it, instead the discussion revolved around her, her poem “How it Began” and her debilitating ME, wholly eschewing the format. To close she read… another of her own poems, Book of Mirrors.
Lesser writers may rightly have been dismissed for self –promoting narcissism. But the intelligent questioning of Talkington brought out an engaging mix of the personal and poet in a riveting half an hour. Undoubtedly a major poetic force in her own right, I hope that next time she will be offered, and take, an hour long platform, and a much larger auditorium. Her performance was my poetry highlight of the year to date. Her books sold out for signing, some took to asking her to sign ticket stubs. I am the proud owner of a signed copy of “Waxworks”, I tried to impress her with my cool demeanour, but instead gave a good impression of a teenage girl meeting Harry Styles at a One Direction book signing.
The Pottery was also the venue for an intriguing double header between last year’s WPF Slam Winner Trevor Meaney from the North West and gymnast turned poet Sally Crabtree from the South West. I like performance. Too many poets spend too little time on presentation, convinced that their words will be enough, they rarely are.
Sally takes this principle and squeezes it some. In bright pink hair and wig she bounces around like an amphetamine crazed jack-in-the-box, offering sharp short poetry, sometimes accompanied by a music box, sometimes by a guitar, sometimes just spoken, interspersed with humour and warmth and enlivened by a poetry bingo session ( you will have to attend one of her shows to find out more). At the end of her set we were almost as exhausted as her, and she hadn’t had a chance to perform her cartwheels and splits because the audience was too large, a nice problem to have.
Trevor Meaney was the ideal foil to Sally. Taciturn, self effacing and wry, he performed in the tradition of regional compatriots John Cooper Clarke and Ben Mellor. His poem about a vacuum cleaner , complete with sound effects, did not suck, his piece on male hair colouring did not die. The slot was his prize for winning last year’s WPF Slam and represented a big step from the quick-fire slam to Festival circuit.
The evening offered two competing events at the Edge and Priory Hall, Utter Jazz setting Auden to music and the Slam. The Slam has, to me, been the beating heart of the festival, well attended and with strong performers, so the latter won out .
I love slams and I hate them ( to paraphrase Catullus). I like the format, discipline and edge which it forces the notoriously freeform laissez-faire poetry set into, but I hate the injustices it invariably metes out. Content is unpredictable at slams, not only do the organisers not know what is going to be read out, frequently the performers have not decided until the last minute either. Often humour dominates, but tonight the nine contenders were overwhelmingly serious. Young Shropshire poet Laureate Mia Farrington bravely mixed it with the adults, but her well-crafted teenage introspection did not travel to a broader constituency. Rob Stevens delivered what I thought was the performance of the night about the miners’ strike, but it failed to resonate with a young judging panel. Local “lad” Paul Francis made the second round with his satirical contemporary poems but fell just short of the final.
Oxfordian Tina Sederholm triumphed in the finals, although her opening, and best poem, about the traumas of a newborn child being pronounced “ a poet” probably won it for her from the first round. Her sparkling fresh verse and a striking red and white dress was a winning combination. First runner up was the veteran Lorna Meehan, separated from the winners’ rostrum by a Judgement of Solomon only. Third placed David Boyles failed only by performing his least strong poem when it mattered at the end.
The panel comprised last years’ winner Trevor Meaney, Jacob Sam le Rose, and influential poetry editor Jane Commane, master of ceremonies was the ubiquitous Spoz. Spoz rabble roused, comforted, entertained and kept things moving, proving once again, that he is one of the best around at the role, and his poem about the perils of failing to go to the toilet before embarking on a long journey n the M5 brought the house down. Once again the Slam represented a chance for those poets who would like to embark on the festival circuit to be heard, I do hope that the festival continues to buttress the prestige of the event.
Sunday lunchtime saw the last of the Poetry and Pint events at the George & Dragon PH. It was packed, as the previous sessions had been. Expertly curated by Mark Niel , they provide an opportunity for the poetry writing attendees of the festival to air their words to a knowledgeable and sympathetic audience. No-one outstayed their welcome, everyone was listened to and appreciated. The challenge for the organisers is how to meet demand, whilst retaining the intimacy of the occasion.
I would have liked to have seen the Nine Arches and Silhouette Press events later on together with Simon Armitage, but alas, time was against me. And that is the joy of Poetry Festivals, too much to do in too little time, but invariably it is the unexpected which is most to be savoured. It is a delight to see founder Ann Dreda’s work paying off and being continued by Antonia Beck, organiser,as the festival gains traction on the established circuit and it starts to evolve its own identity. Further acknowledgement should go to the army of volunteers who make the event possible. See you there in 2015.