I’m just back from a long weekend at the Ledbury Poetry Festival where the sun blazed down on the righteous and the poets. I was invited to take part in the reading series called ’20 Minutes with….’, a rare opportunity to give a solo reading to an audience who are not predominantly fellow poets, friends and friends of friends. I was convinced that no-one would come to listen to an unknown poet on a busy Saturday morning in the charming but very hot Panelled Room. But they did. And, over the course of the next couple of days, came up in the streets to say how they’d enjoyed particular poems. It is better than prizes to have a stranger thank you and tell you that one of your poems has struck a chord in them.
It was a great treat to hear my fellow 20-minuters read, too, – Elisabeth Sennitt Clough; Shauna Robertson and Dawn Gorman (who read poems they had written in response to each other’s work), Maya Chowdry, and Ailbhe Darcy. I also took part in the Tribute to Helen Dunmore, reading her poem The Kingdom of the Dead. I was at school with Helen and I still have the school magazines which carry what may well be her earliest ’published’ poems.
Ledbury is about the size of my own patch, Covent Garden, but it was new to me and I was grateful to be shown around and introduced to many poets by Jill Abram, who knows everybody (and the best chip shop). I was put up by Ann – a hospitable host, one of the local people who open their homes to poets needing a bed. Over Sunday breakfast, we had a rigorous debate on the future of socialism, which runs through her family heritage like a golden seam, and also compared success with cucumbers and peas. There was no wi-fi though. As a former (early) computer programmer, she has no truck with standard software and platforms – though she can access to the dark web.
On Friday evening, I laughed and cried at Jackie Kay's masterly reading and got to ask her about the role of the Makar. Of course, her answer was as generous, self-deprecating and loving as you would expect from this force for good in our sorry world. Sunday morning saw a reading by Linda Gregerson. I did not know Linda’s work – though I had met her the previous evening, when she treated me to a G&T. Her poems carry an enormous emotional kick – whether about family, politics or ecological peril – but are also lyrical and beautifully sound patterned. I’d just about recovered from this when I went to hear Nia Davies and Caroline Bird give readings of great stylistic contrast. Nia’s poems are full of detailed and complicated images, fragments, sly humour, false-footing part narratives while Caroline’s style is forcefully direct, often wildly exhilarating and scary. Again, I came away like a limp rag. Enough crying for a Sunday – so in the afternoon I went to hear Wendy Cope read her witty, wise, formally immaculate poems to a very appreciative audience. Then back home on a busy train full of nearby music festival casualties, trying not to get too much glitter on my sweaty flesh.
Josephine Corcoran's What are you after? (Nine Arches); Emily Hasler's The Built Environment (Pavilion) and Deborah Alma's Dirty Laundry (Nine Arches).