I absolutely loved my day at Winchester Poetry Festival on Saturday, 13th September. I snapped photos and tweeted, encouraged by the organisers’ requests to audiences to help spread the word about this inaugural festival. But, as Michael Longley said before his stunning reading to a packed auditorium on Saturday evening, “I knew this was going to be a good festival but, in fact, it is a great festival,” and I’m already looking forward to a return visit next year, and definitely for more than one day. Winchester Poetry Festival has spread its words, with jam on.
While there, I was lucky enough to meet up with writer Isabel Rogers, who has become a friend through social media, and she has written an entertaining and entirely accurate blogpost about Michael Longley’s brilliant reading which I urge you to read here. Isabel’s article captures the seemingly effortless way that Michael Longley caught the collective breath of the appreciative audience, and I know what Isabel means when she says she’s fallen in love. The readings by David Constantine and Julia Copus were also superb; I was especially captivated by Constantine’s sequence ‘In Memoriam 8571 Private J.W. Gleave’, an account of his grandmother’s lifelong incomprehension of her husband’s death in the trenches.
This event was hosted by poet and MPT editor, Sasha Dugdale (second from the left in the above photo), launching the Autumn issue of the magazine which is partly dedicated to the poetry and song of WWI. French poet, novelist, and critic, Jacques Réda, read from his work, and was in conversation with his translator, poet and human rights campaigner, Jennie Feldman. Postcards featuring one of his poems in translation, ‘The Fête’, were distributed at the reading:
This was followed by poet, essayist, and translator, Amarjit Chandan, reading and discussing wartime Punjabi folksongs, telling of women’s love for their husbands, lovers, sons, and brothers. The songs, Chandan explained, were not jingoistic at all but pleaded with the menfolk not to leave to go to war. In translating, reading, and publishing these verses (they will be included in the forthcoming issue of MPT), Chandan is lending ears to voices which would otherwise be silent. He commented that in India and Pakistan there is almost no mention of WWI and no commemoration ceremonies in spite of the huge numbers of Punjabi men who died in the conflict. These folksongs, and their revival by Amarjit Chandan, acknowledge, at least in part, the human loss endured.
The next event, after a cappuccino pit-stop in the Festival café, was a chance to watch Patience Agbabi read, recite and perform from Telling Tales, her retelling of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. As Patience herself said, this is poetry with a different vibe, a different energy; call it rap, spoken word, performance poetry or, don’t obsess with labels and enjoy immersing yourself in the words. Here is a link to Patience performing her version of The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
Next up, at Winchester, were readings by three poets, Jacqueline Saphra, Olivia McCannon and Liz Berry. This was genius programming, the three writers providing the audience with contrasting styles, delivery, and subject matter. I was in awe of the strong, confident, captivating performances of all three women. I’m already familiar with, and a fan of, Jacqueline’s and Liz’s work, but Olivia was new to me and she is definitely a poet I will be seeking out. Having only just finished reading Black Country, Liz Berry’s debut full collection, I really loved hearing her read from her book in her unmistakable Black Country accent.
What Winchester Poetry Festival brought home to me, more than anything, was how much I gained from hearing poets read their own work. Introductions and anecdotes all added so much to my appreciation of the poetry. It was just wonderful to hear poems read aloud in the poets’ own voices, especially poems I was only familiar with from the flat page, as beautiful as that page is. Equally, re-reading poems on the page that I’ve now heard read aloud has added rich music to those poems, music I can still hear playing 24 hours later. I hope it never stops!