A day by the reedbed

On Saturday I was at the Snape Poetry Festival, England’s number one festival. I live about an hour and twenty minutes’ drive away, so I could go up just for the day, the main day of the three. Last year I stayed bed and breakfast and sampled the whole experience from Friday to Sunday, but this time I thought one day was enough (and saved money).

 

It’s a pretty intensive experience. Why “a day by the reedbed”? Snape Maltings, the arts (mainly music) centre where it’s now held, is by an estuarine reedbed on the Suffolk coast. It’s a beautiful place. Last year but one, my first attendance, an aged Korean poet guesting there referred to the beauty of the reedbed and then said the Maltings was full of poetry – “maybe more poetry when it was industrial”. That wry comment hit a button for many people: there is no such thing as a cathedral of the arts.

 

There are many things I could write about, but I want to choose two. The main one is about comparisons and extended metaphors – whole poems that seem to be about one thing but are also (or instead) about something else. I think I’ll leave that till next time and do it properly, talking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper”, Paula Bohince’s talk about the poem, which left me with reservations, and by way of comparison, a couple of my poems that try something similar.

 

So I’m just going to say I was struck like lightning by the last event. Two young female poets read some of their work. One, an American, left me cold with a kind of word-association exercise that might have appealed to me if I’d been into crosswords. The other

karen mccarthy woolf

 

was Karen McCarthy Woolf. A poem about dead animals by the roadside on Dartmoor. A poem about a stillbirth. Immediate, vivid, precise, painful, exciting. Superb poetry: I’m not quite going to place it with the best of Keats or Hopkins or Yeats, but I’ve never heard anything read aloud with so much impact – which obviously implies that she reads well.

 

Tell me poetry is dead.

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One reason for going to a poetry open mic

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Now here’s untrodden ground. I’ve found Wonderful WordPress’s new way of allowing you to import images, but the only way you can do it is quoting the URL, assuming you have it. So this comes out here as gobbledegook and if it stays as gobbledegook, for which I do not apologise as it may inspire someone.

I went to a local open mic (why not open mike?) in Colchester. I read some of my stuff and listened to some superb poetry, much from people who were not regulars and had one short minute. There was a lead performer, a political poet with a rap style – very talented, but I prefer my politics delievered at a slower pace so I can think about it and even disagree.

At a late stage – or it may have been the interval – my attention wandered enough for me to jot down two very different short poems. Here they are.

I SHALL MEET HIM

This man I should meet, I don’t understand him well
He speaks a different language, almost, to my own
I cannot see his face. I do not know if he still has his hair
Or how he walks at all or if he sees. I do know his name
And (this is boring for a story) what happens to him next.
He dies. He was a human; he loved birds and rivers,
The sea, the stars, even the starless dark.
We are connected, somehow, by the years.

THE EXECUTORS

I was a voracious child for books
I read the preface, notes, index if any and the rest.
The editors thanked Mr J.B. Priestley for permission
And also the executors of Robert Louis Stevenson.
He died quite young. I knew the reason: they cut his head off
These executors. Not being a Catholic I hadn’t come across
People being canonised.

Snape Poetry Festival

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I’ve just come back from the annual Poetry Festival at Snape Maltings, Suffolk. This was the 25th such, but formerly they were held a few miles away in the small town of Aldeburgh by the sea, a fishing settlement turned to tourism and music. Snape Maltings is a site by a river and reedbeds, consisting of beautiful industrial buildings turned to use mainly for music events.

Last year I made my first visit, staying just for the one day. I don’t live so far away that a day trip is problematic. But it did mean I’d have been unwise to stay for the poetry open mic, which finishes just before midnight. This time I booked into events from Friday evening to Sunday morning and had a go at the open mic. I stayed in a very friendly and convenient bed and breakfast on the main road at Stratford St Andrew, about a twelve-minute drive away.

This could be a very long blog, but it won’t be. Here’s just a few impressions.

At the start, it can be a bit intimidating. It’s a big venue and a big event. I found myself thinking it was a bit like arriving at secondary school aged eleven and having to cope with an alien organisation, a confusing multiplicity of rooms and a tight timetable. It didn’t help that it was raining heavily and dark. Moving from place to place withing the site involves going outside and in places the lighting is minimal. That helps deliver marvellous starscapes when it isn’t raining or cloudy, but also helps deliver you into potholes and puddles.

People were all friendly. That wasn’t always so the previous year when the “ushers” at the doors for the events were some of them rather forbidding. I met a lot of people including some of the featured poets. I bought poetry books by two of those, Kim Moore and Robin Robertson. I’ll blog about them when I’ve finished reading their books. There was much thought-provoking discussion and lecturing: the only pity was that this never involved the audience. I suppose that becomes difficult when so many people are present and the timetable is packed – difficult, but not impossible.

It seems to me that much contemporary poetry is thoughtful, compassionate and rational. It’s also in its main thrust quite different from the main thrust of what I write. I use common words and images of common objects, but I’m rarely chatty in poems. I use mystery more and observation of characters less. No problem: I learnt long ago in poetry to do my thing, not someone else’s.

One thing that does bother me a bit, taking in both Snape and recent browsing through a lot of poetry magazines (what I could find on-line) is that some poets seem to think their main task is to think up unusual ways of describing things, and then if they string together a few such descriptions with some light twine such as “Mother used to” or “In Manchester”, there’s the poem. I can see the inspiration this comes from, to see mundane things anew as Craig Raine said, but it can become a sort of competition exercise: “Find a new way of describing an ATM/someone drinking coffee/a bus stop/a poodle”, or “cram as many unusual metaphors and similes into the poem as possible”. Such ingenuity is fine, but if it’s valued too much, it becomes confetti without a wedding or even a wind to make it swirl.

The open mic was fun. I read “Death and the Magician” and “Night Vision”. One young female poet read a piece about refusing intimate shaving and it was very, very funny.

More soon.

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It ought not to be aloud!

I posted some time ago about reading poetry aloud. I thought I’d return to that with many of the same points and a few new.

When I was a small kid, before we had a TV, there was a popular radio children’s series called “Larry the Lamb”, notable in a Britain that had not long stopped fighting the Germans for a sympathetic German character, Dennis the Dachshund, voiced with a strong German accent.

The third main character was an irritable old man called Mr Growser, whose regular plaint was “It ought not to be allowed!” Since his childish audience grew up to student protest, free love and flower power, maybe this biting satire had great effect.

Sorry, I had to explain that to explain the title. This is really about reading poetry aloud at Open Mics or other events. There was a long discussion about this on a LinkedIn group I belong to and here’s my tuppenyworth.

Think about the audience. Much of what you need to get right is the same as if you were giving a lesson in school or a talk to a group of inquisitive older people or a powerpoint presentation to work colleagues. What do you know about them? What might terminally turn them off? What might excite them? An audience of poets might enjoy some quite obscure poetry which would leave another audience puzzled. If you’re reading your poems in a place with strong historical connections, do you have a poem that fits that?

How many people are expected? If you imagine it’ll be a cosy group of ten or so in a small room, only to find a vast hall and a hundred people, you could be totally thrown. Ask the organisers! Get a feel for the venue – outdoors and noisy? Intimate? A big room that may be 90% empty? They’d all suggest a different approach.

Despite what I’ve said above, select a variety of poems. Audiences usually react well to variety. Besides, if something really doesn’t work for them, something different may work. Hesitate to risk something really long (after all, you’ve probably got only 15 minutes or so) and humour is really risky. Choose only your best poems, ideally ones you’re passionate about.

Express the passion! Share your fire and excitement, but don’t gabble. Don’t apologise. Most audiences will be very forgiving of people who are obviously nervous, but if you confide you aren’t at all sure you should be reading to them, they may agree with you.

Make sure you have their full attention before you start – or if you don’t, do something to get it. Try to remain aware of the audience as you speak: this again is a speaker’s trick, useful for politicians or lecturers, to pick up the little signs from body language and expressions of how people are reacting. If they look restive, something is wrong. Maybe you’re reading too fast? It’s a good idea to select more poems than you’ll have time for, so if you find poem A went down like a lead balloon and you’d selected also poem B which is similar, you have reserves. Believe me, if the audience becomes visibly enthralled or excited, that will fire you up so you read brilliantly. But if the response was disappointing, try to start the next poem with all the self-belief and passion you can muster.

Don’t speak to your toes, but to someone in the back row. But check out the front row from time to time: you can see them better.

Speak the poetry slowly and clearly but naturally. The lines of free verse are often how the poet indicates where the voice might pause – at the end of a line. But a long pause at the end of a rhymed line can overemphasise the rhyme, which can sound quite ridiculous especially if the end of the line is halfway through a sentence.

It’s a good idea to say a few words about poems before or after each poem, but keep it short.

Be yourself.

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

On Saturday I attended my first poetry festival – well, only one day out of three: Aldeburgh is near enough to home for me to drive up and back on the same day and far enough that I don’t fancy three such trips in succession. Many people, including some from quite near, stay in a hotel or B&B for two nights, but my policy this first time was suck it and see.

The website told me all sorts of things but not where the event was being held, except to give the vague impression it was in the small town of Aldeburgh. This was wrong, but it was there in previous years! There is a little bit of cosy insiderism about the event and I think the knowledge of the venue was intended to spread by osmosis.

The venue, Snape Maltings, is fantastic – converted old barns and industrial buildings at the upper end of a Suffolk estuary, with the river and reedbeds right by the buildings.It’s mostly used for music events and is a kind of memorial to the composer Benjamin Britten. Another, slighter, problem: I like classical music but am not a great fan of Britten, whose posthumous presence was a little overpowering. The conversion is imaginative, leaving interesting features like old wooden hatches as well as marvellous weathered brickwork.

Mixing with other poets and poetry-lovers is warming and reinforcing, though given the concentration there of serious poetry nuts, the programme might have included more discussion. Some excellent poets performed: I was impressed enough by Julie Copus’ vivid, caring language and David Wheatley’s anarchic humour to buy their books on display. Just from a few conversations with others attending, I found one person had come from Leeds and another from Manchester – a long way within England, especially for a location not easily reached by public transport.

The peculiarity of the incomplete information on the website was a warning that the organisation was rather patchy, especially in respect of the little things like doors you weren’t supposed to go through being so marked, but there were no major disasters. Most of the presumably volunteer helpers were very friendly and helpful but a couple of upper-middle-class older ladies were fussy and officious. Apparently the event’s funders have required it to reach out to a wider audience, and for this to succeed, such things matter.

The audience covered a wider range of ages and I think women slightly outnumbered men. I saw two Black faces and one Far Eastern, but two of those three were poets performing there.

While the poets performing were mostly exciting, I found people introducing them by reading rather pseud enthusiastic descriptions from a prepared text a bit of a turn-off. Some of these were reproduced in the programme. These were the descriptions of the featured “young poets”:

A: Intelligent and attractively idiosyncratic

B: Seriously playful and inventive

C: Appealingly intimate and assured

D: Eloquent and unflinchingly affirmative.

Now my first thought was that none of these descriptions would help me decide how much I wanted to hear this person’s work. The second one was that these could be four descriptions from wine bottles or wine writers’ reviews. I can quite easily imagine some wine writer for the “Telegraph” or “The Guardian” describing a wine as “eloquent and unflinchingly affirmative”. Maybe I’d be a bit worried to see my white wine was supposed to be “intelligent” (what would it be thinking as I drank it?) and just possibly the term “inventive” might worry me if it applied to the wine rather than the grower or bottler.

Nonetheless, a fun day.

Poetry Aloud

(So there’s no ban on it)

 

Having just taken part last night in an Open Mik event and read some of my poems quite recently in two other different settings, I’ve been thinking a bit about what works and why.

 

There are technical things – having a clear voice and one that carries well (these are points on which I score well without trying much); knowing when to ignore an interruption and when to stop until it’s finished; not reading too fast or too slowly, in too melodramatic or too mundane a fashion (but this varies a lot depending on the nature of the poem) and knowing where to pause. A lot of this is helped by the same thing that’s crucial with public speakers – understanding how your audience will experience what you’re doing and being alert to signs of how they’re reacting while you’re talking/performing. Do they look a bit puzzled? Perhaps you should slow down a bit. Do they look entranced? You’re getting it just right: just keep the spell going.

 

Make the most of the sounds in the words you’ve used. That’s an important part of my own poetry, which helps.

 

But I always find selecting poems for public reading difficult. Outdoor venues with more distractions may mean a rather deep and obscure poem will miss the mark whereas indoor with 10-30 people it might have great impact. Humour is always difficult especially if you’re mixing it with very serious stuff. I tend to mix the more complex and murky poems (but not the MOST complex and murky) with comparatively simple and forceful stuff that might go down well at that noise-invaded outdoor venue.

 

Knowing something about your audience is important (including likely numbers – the atmosphere in a room of eight people is profoundly different to one with eighty, and if you expected one but got the other, that may throw you). However, I wonder if it isn’t AS important with poetry readings as with, say, political speeches. I’ve made tentative assumptions about audiences and then found them to be wrong: that many people there are fond of rather simple, upbeat popular poetry does not mean they won’t be able to handle something rather darker and less obvious; people who like rap may also like something slower and more contemplative and an audience of old people may react enthusiastically to a poem about coming to terms with death.

 

Finally, if you were moved to the difficult and sometimes painful act of producing your poetry, if the poetry means a lot to you, you should be able to speak it with PASSION. So do.