Much Ado in Much Wenlock

I’m back from two nights in Shropshire for the Much Wenlock poetry festival. An easy journey, at just two hours form London, with a change in Birmingham for Telford (direct coming back). Drizzle on Saturday, glorious sunshine on Sunday. Felt like I was in deepest, furthest, greenest England. Much Wenlock is such a pretty place – very Miss Marple – and with its stunning priory containing the remains of the largest Cluniac abbey built in Britain (this one is 11th century but there has been an abbey on the site since 680). There’s also church grounds, a garden nursery, and lots of timbered buildings housing book shops and antiques. It’s where the modern Olympics games originate, given the connection with William Penny Brookes, a 19th century doctor, and the first Wenlock Olympian games were held there in 1850. The Guardian calls Wenlock ‘a teensy town that punches well above it diminutive weight.’
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I stayed in a very oldy-worldy pub, The Gaskell Arms, all horse brasses, beams and carpet. The opening reading on the Friday night featured Kei Miller, Luke Kennard, Hannah Lowe and Mia Cunningham, whose tenure as young Wenlock poet was coming to an end. Luke read first with classics such as ‘My Friend’, which had the audience in hysterics, followed by a series of ingenious, funny anagrams reworking the old testament. Hannah read a few poems from ‘Chick’, followed by new poems she’s been writing on jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott. Kei then dazzled the audience with poems from ‘The Cartographer…’, as well his recent Poetry Society commissioned poem ‘Oracabessa‘, his beautiful poem that explores Jamaica and colonialism, which he recited by heart. The Edge Arts Centre was a very good venue and means the festival has access to several large capacity auditoria, as well as classrooms for workshops.
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Saturday was one of those full-on days with two poetry workshops and several readings, including Robert Peake and Jo Bell‘s much-awaited book launch for ‘The Knowledge’ and ‘Kith’, both published by Nine Arches Press. I first met Jo in Ledbury four years ago, and I’ve known Robert the same time through Highgate Poets. The poets were introduced by Jonathan Davidson (not one of Jo Bell’s Jonathan’s – see her poem ‘Your Helens and My Jonathans’). The room was packed with many ’52’ers (poets who’ve been taking part in the year-long series of prompts, and in the process founded a strong online community of writers). Robert showed two of his stunning film-poems that he has produced in collaboration with his wife, musician Val. On the Sunday, I got chatting to journalist Greg Freeman who writes for ‘Write Out Loud‘ and he has several write-ups of Much Wenlock, including of Robert and Jo’s launch hereIn the evening, and introduced by Luke Wright, whose own energy-packed political poems are amazing feats of memory, Michael Rosen, who I’d not heard before, even though I’m told he is often on the radio, entertained the audience with his hilarious dialogues about his Jewish Communist parents in the 1970s.
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The two workshops were really stimulating and took me out of my comfort zone. In the morning I was outdoors in the abbey grounds (in the intermittent rain) with poets David Morley and Gregory Leadbetter. We had to use old Anglo-Saxon spells as inspiration, while thinking of those objects we treasure, to write modern charms with magical powers. We also used rich Shropshire vocabulary – gwathel, kwank, larpin, mollock, pilk, quist, riggle – to create short cryptic but suggestive poems that harness the local dialect. Andrew McMillan‘s workshop – in the run up to the publication of his first collection ‘Physical’ (Cape) – was on the body. Liz Berry also took part. He encouraged us to get up close and personal, to approach the body, make contact with it and speak of it using the language of other objects. So I came away from both sessions with some new beginnings to go back to in the weeks that come and see ‘if there is anything there’.
What I liked about the festival was the informality and friendliness, the random chats with people I sat next to, the church hall poetry cafe with bunting and mural, the ploughman’s lunch and homemade cakes, the various art installations and the clear sense of community commitment. There were a series of ‘Desert Island Poems’ held in the Pottery cafe, with Kei Miller, Kathleen Jamie and Maurice Riordan, all revealing those poems that most inspired them. These sessions could have done with photocopies passed round so that you could read the poems along with the poets, and then re-read and enjoy them afterwards. Wish I could have stayed the Sunday evening for the closing reading but I had to head. Alas, I didn’t get to hear the festival’s resident poet Jean Atkin either, but did have a nice chat with Jackie Wills, and buy books from Staffordshire poet Bert Flitcroft. Some of the festival poets were going on to the Cheltenham poetry festival, and others have told me I really must make it to Swindon in October.
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