Back from Newcastle Poetry Festival

My first time in Newcastle. Stepping off the train I was struck but how beautiful and clean the station with its high, curved Victorian canopy. And then the metro – yes, Newcastle has an underground – was really modern, well-lit and with modern infrastructure. The cars feel like being on London’s District Line. Alas, I didn’t get to see much of the city such as the Quayside or the Sage in Gateshead but had quick walk around the city centre, which has a definite grandeur and reminded me of Edinburgh. I stayed in a hotel at the north end of Osborne Road in the attractive and lively residential/student area north of the university, just three stops from Haymarket (for the university) to West Jesmond.

The Newcastle Poetry Festival (9-13 May) took place on the Newastle University campus, organised by the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts (NCLA). I attended three days of the festival though it ran all week, which meant I missed Tuesday’s all-day poetry symposium and Wednesday’s music and poetry event when Jacob Polley gave a musical performance of Jackself – here’s hoping it is staged again!

It’s a beautiful campus with historic red brick buildings and well-tended gardens. One of the highlights was the presence of the American trio of poets – all poets of witness and resistance in their own way – Carolyn Forché, Jericho Brown and Patricia Smith, who closed the festival (more later).

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Thursday

On the Thursday and Friday morning I took part in five really good workshops: on poetry of witness and documentary with Carolyn Forché; on making poem films with Kate Sweeney; on using source materials and poetic ‘decreation’ with Ahren Warner; on ekphrastic poetry with Sinéad Morrissey; and on ‘wonkiness’ with Wayne Holloway-Smith. Lots of stimulation, new ideas and innovative forms. My thanks to John Challis and Melanie Birch for helping me out with tickets.

Friday and Saturday was a packed programme at the Northern Stage with just 15 minute intervals between readings but all in the same venue: Stage 2. Northern Stage has a bar that does food and boasts three stages, so it served as the hub. So there was time enough to grab a coffee or glass of wine between readings – which I often did in the fine company of Robert Harper of Bare Fiction magazine and Maria Isakova Bennett – but the downside was that the bar stopped serving food at 8pm so when the last evening reading finished at 8.15pm or 8.30pm you couldn’t hang around to eat. But back to the readings I most enjoyed:

Friday

Cold Boat’ hosts, Joanne Clement and Tracy Gillman ran a ‘poetry of witness’ reading, inviting poets to share poems in response to current affairs. They showed an extract of a new documentary film with Carolyn Forché and then read their own poems with Tracy a brilliant performer of her dramatic monologues in a Geordie accent.

Edward Doegar read calmly, relishing sound, to launch his new pamphlet ‘For Now’ published with Clinic. Andrew Sclater, who I’d met at StAnza gave a moving reading of his HappenStance pamphlet ‘Dinner at the Blaws-Baxters’. Wayne Holloway-Smith launched his debut Bloodaxe collection ‘Alarum’ with a very entertaining reading’. I was touched by Pippa Little’s reading from her new collection ‘Twist’ (Arc). Talking of which, it was lovely to chat with Angela and Tony from Arc and hear of their latest poets in translation.

The Poetry Book Society presented the final evening reading: Penelope Shuttle and Alice Oswald. It was Penny’s 70th birthday though she kept that quiet. I had the good fortune to sit by her earlier that day in one of the readings and have a chat. She is always so open and friendly. Her reading to launch her new Bloodaxe collection ‘Will You Walk A Little Faster?’ was full of curiosity, appetite or life and exploration with poems exploring London and Bristol and with poems celebrating London’s lost rivers and The Shard.

The second half of the reading was Alice Oswald reading from new new book Falling Awake. Such good fortune to get to hear her again after StAnza. The final two poems – new to me – were simply brilliant: the poem ‘Village’ a dark, claustrophobic, voyeuristic poem about the locals that lurk in the night (it’s in the book apparently); and then a poem that didn’t make it in but and is yet unpublished about a conversation about the digestive system! A darkly funny social commentary and quite different in subjective matter to her other poems but delivered – that is, recited – in her unique, mesmerising, silence-demanding style. You have to hear both those poems!

Saturday

The day began with the prize announcement and reading for the Basil Bunting Award, judged this year by Ahren Warner. I had a poem in the shortlist of seven poems, which was great considering the 600 poems entered. An excellent three prize poems.

The three US poets – Carolyn, Jericho and Patricia – took part in a panel discussion on the role of poetry in the current political landscape. All three, despairing of the state of America, urged greater engagement by poets, and to use poetry to challenge the status quo and resist ‘normalization’. Carolyn talked of language being in crisis, being defiled. Jericho had lots to say: that poets are workers in the sub-conscious, turning up the gravel of what’s underneath; that what is political is actually just the living of our daily lives i.e. everything is!; that poetry is what dredges up when we ‘try at things’ – he refuted the idea that you can start a poem with intention (which I took to mean because a poem discovers itself along the way, through the very act of being written). He also advocated that we allow beauty to be its own meaning, claiming, that we all have our own tree, but we don’t need an explanation of every limb, don’t need to understand every branch, but can appreciate it for what we see.

In the evening Ahren Warner read poems from his new Bloodaxe collection ‘Hello, your promise has been extracted’, followed by Sinéad Morrissey’s beautiful-nervous delivery of heartfelt poems from her new Carcanet collection ‘On Balance’.

The final stand-out reading was from the three American poets who closed the festival. Each was introduced and their work contextualised by Neil Astley of Bloodaxe. Carolyn is the editor of the ground-breaking anthology ‘Against Forgetting: Twentieth Poetry of Witness’ (Norton 1993) and she read with beauty and aplomb. Jericho Brown read from his two books ‘Please’ (2008) and ‘The New Testament’ (Copper Canyon, 2014). He has a sweet, round, choirful voice that almost sang his laments of a black childhood in the Southern States, and of love and separation in adulthood. At times he even seemed on the edge of tears. His poems exposed his vulnerability as boy, son, lover. He moved the audience by admitting that the one thing he liked more than poems was cuddling!

Patricia’s poems tackle ‘difficult’ subject matter straight on. In her first book she wrote about the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, which devastated the people and city of New Orleans. Her later work uses poetry as protest and act of defiance to remember the young black men who supposedly commit suicide in police custody, the small children drowned in domestic bust-ups. But she brought laughter too, with an endearing portrait of herself aged thirteen, but always in the background addressing blackness and the acute problems of engrained racism and marginalisation in today’s America. In her last poem, she played with the instructions on the back of domestic cleaning products to deliver a hard-hitting poem that approximated blackness with dirtiness and illustrated the pressure, even within the home, to clean, scrub, lighten, whiten the skin – starting at the back of the neck – in order to be lighter, germ-free, decontaminated, blend in.

What struck me was the courage of subject matter and the playfulness with form, the fact that these poets were daring to challenge the injustice, were urgently documenting the horrors and incidental victims, and through poetry, giving them permanence. One could not but notice the contrast with the safer and genteel subject matter of much of the British poetry.

 

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