I overcame my PoFestPhobia and travelled up to Ledbury on Saturday for a brief taste of the largest poetry festival in the UK in this, its 20th year. And I have to report, it was a rather joyful experience!
First stop after we arrived late morning: the Walled Garden, where we caught the tail end of the Poetica Botanica reading, with contributors to Adam Horovitz’s project reading their ‘healing herbs’ poems to an audience seated on a semicircle of straw bales. We hooked up with my friend Joolz Sparkes, who was on Day Nine of the festival, and seemed relaxed and not in the least crazed after all that time in a poetry bubble.
After a spot of lunch, it was on to the Panelled Room in The Master’s House for 20 minutes with Matt Kirkham. We arrived at the almost packed out room just in time, and Nick and I found ourselves sitting front row centre, less than a yard from the lectern. This was the closest I came to a poetry panic, but I soon calmed down and enjoyed Matt’s reading, which included poems from his forthcoming Templar collection The Dumbo Octopus. Two poems that struck me strongly were The Whip and The Driver’s Mother, saying so much through the telling detail of one moment or image. Matt shared a poem by Ashraf Fayadh, as part of a joint initiative by the Ledbury Poetry Festival and English PEN to highlight ‘poets at risk around the world’. And he finished with a short extract from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, written in 1938, but sounding chillingly contemporary.
Next up, a visit to the Emergency Poet and her ambulance parked on the High Street. While Joolz and someone-very-close-to-me went for a full consultation, I helped myself to a poetic pill to counter Existential Angst from the Cold Comfort Pharmacy, overseen by the charming and calming Nurse Verse.
We booked into our B&B in time to see Serena Williams win the Wimbledon Singles Final – a record equalling 22nd Grand Slam title. The BBC coverage included a sequence with Serena reciting the poem that has apparently inspired her magnificent achievements: Still I rise by Maya Angelou. A great testament to the power of poetry.
A walk up into Dog Hill Wood for a beautiful view beyond Ledbury of the Herefordshire countryside; a tipple or two in the poets’ hangout, the Prince of Wales, where a weathered local silenced the bar with his impromptu and moving rendition of a folk song based on the myth of Odysseus and Penelope; chips eaten sitting on a bench outside the Market House while the world slowed down; then time to head over to the Comunity Hall for a Gala Evening of poetry and music, with Carol Ann Duffy and Friends.
The Gala Evening was compered by the ubiquitous and inimitable Jill Abram, one of the many volunteers at the the festival who keep the whole show running. In the first half, Carol Ann Duffy read a selection of her poems interspersed with virtuoso horn and pipe playing by John Sampson and the occasional witty or acerbic aside from Carol Ann. After the interval LiTTLe MaCHiNe owned the stage, giving their all in a storming set that included versions of Byron’s We’ll go no more a roving and a progrocktastic take on Jabberwocky. They can mine a mournful vein too, as with Gillian Clark’s Overheard in County Sligo or Adlestrop by Edward Thomas. What better way, though, to end their encore than with the rousing rabble cry of John Rety’s A poet offers his wares?
The main event of the festival for me, though, was the following morning, back in the Panelled Room for 20 minutes with Joolz Sparkes: Me Old China. Joolz themed her set around celebrations and relationships, and had written some of her poems on china plates, cups and saucers as a nod towards the Festival’s 20th anniversary – china being the traditional gift for this occasion. There were cup and saucer haiku, and a poem by Mahvash Sabet, currently imprisoned in Iran, read from a plate. Joolz talked about the feeling of being part of a community that the Festival engenders, before performing her Girls’ Night Out poem, which celebrates close female friendships. Barnacle is a short tender meditation on sticking things out. And reminding us to notice and cherish those things we take for granted, Joolz read her ode to the humble plastic bag. It was an assured and heartwarming performance. Brava, me old China!