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Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Saturday

November 6th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Saturday 23.30   The evening closes in the way all Saturday evenings should close – with a drink and a stand-up comedian, in this case the brilliant Elvis McGonagall, whose tales of love, loss, and David Cameron are just the ticket. The man is a lyrical genius, managing to find not just one but two different rhymes for Oompa-Lumpa.

Outside they are still sending up fireworks for bonfire night.  It’s been a long but satisfying day.

Saturday 18.00    By now I’m beginning to feel a bit like I’m travelling at warp-speed myself, bundling from talk to talk, with some blogging in between (Stardate 2011, Captain’s Diary… A strange poet with staring eyes has parked himself in orbit around me and is refusing to move….)

On to hear Marie Howe talk about one of her teachers and mentors, the late Stanley Kunitz.  It’s a much warranted appreciation as he is less well-known in the UK than some of his American contemporaries such as Bishop,  Lowell and Berryman.  He died in 2006, age 101.  He said of his later poems, “what is left to confront are the deep simplicities,’ and according to Marie he was working towards “an art so transparent you could look through it and see the world.”

She reads The Portrait, an extraordinary poem and very central to his work, which tells of the death by suicide of his father when Kunitz was very young,  and quotes something that he told her when she was his student, that poetry should exploit “the lyric tension of the fact that we are both living and dying at the same time”.

It’s a good reminder of the Aldeburgh support for American poetry over the years, as Neil Ashley of Bloodaxe points out to me when I chat to him after one of the earlier readings.  It was Aldeburgh who hosted Tony Hoagland a few years ago, who’s been emerging as one of the strongest American voices of recent years – certainly a favourite of mine  – and whose most recent work, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Bloodaxe have just published.

This year as well as Marie, Dorianne Laux has come to Aldeburgh from the States and has not only given a much sought-after masterclass on ‘how to write an unforgettable poem’, but has read several of her own which are just that.  ‘Enough Music’, for instance, is a fabulous short poem.

Saturday 17.00  Some speed writing with Michael Laskey and Jeni Smith at the James Cable Room — the format feels a bit like bingo.  Everyone sits expectant at a table, eyes down to pen and paper.  Michael or Jeni reads a poem and sets a five-minute poetic task (like ‘Think of a sport.  Write out its keywords.  Make a poem’).

It’s fun and fast and goes down well with the participants.

Come back an hour or so later for a workshop that Don Paterson gives.  If the earlier class was like playing bingo, Don’s is more like playing Speed Go on the Internet:  extremely fast, extremely furious and demanding mental dexterity.  Don is packing the lecture he usually gives in two hours into a half-hour firework spectacular.

He boldly takes us into what he terms ‘deep trope’, at warp speed.  Some fascinating vistas flash by as we hang onto the spacecraft, metonyms and metaphors pinging off the side like meteorites.  The search is for autopoiesis, a sort of Gaia-style self –renewing poetical equilibrium where content and structure both balance and renew each other.

In Star Trek it would be found on those planets that have to teach Kirk and his men some simpler truths (and don’t you just know that Spock would be the one to have a problem with metaphor).

Don makes some good points about the process of composition being one in which you only find out what you think as you start to write, rather than simply printing a received opinion;  and that a poem has to intrigue enough on the first reading to bring you back for subsequent deeper ones.


Saturday 13.00

Some more fine readings this morning, this time from  Harry Clifton and Imtiaz Dharker.

Harry talks about the way that for his generation Ireland was almost ‘painted too green’ by nationalists, from its letterboxes to its literature,  in the decades after Independence and indeed for most of the 20th century.  He himself has always taken a more internationalist approach, with much time spent abroad in places like Paris or Italy, producing an impressive body of verse.  The Italian stay also gave rise to an excellent travel book, on the Abruzzi  Mountains.  We are giving a joint talk tomorrow morning on the connection between travel writing and poetry, but I’m not just being polite about his writing to ensure a smooth discourse:  the qualities of elegant concision that go into his poetry lend themselves well to travel writing, which can sometimes be prolix.

There is an emotional undercurrent to the following reading by Imtiaz Dharker, who is replacing Selima Hill at short notice after Selima was taken ill.  As the Festival announces,

We are hugely grateful to Imtiaz for stepping in at such short notice, and rather amazed at the extraordinary felicity of it all – given that Imtiaz herself had so sadly to withdraw from last year’s APF due to the untimely death of her husband Simon. We are all thrilled that she will, at last, get to enjoy the Aldeburgh experience.

Imtiaz gives a moving reading of “Honour Killing”, in which she takes off “the black coat of my country”, the veil, and the other garments that constrain the position of women in countries such as Pakistan.  It’s a fitting rebuke to those Western intellectuals who have recently flirted with the idea that somehow the burka and its variants are in any way empowering, and that we just fail to understand it because of cultural difference.  I made a film about the position of women in Afghanistan for Channel 4 a few years ago, so it’s a subject that I appreciate her strong feelings on.

And she makes the second good joke of the day: ‘ now that English is just one more Indian language….’


Saturday 10.30

from the programme:

Jubilee Hall 9.00 – 10.00am  :  DISCUSSION: THE POET’S TOOLKIT .

A meticulous eye for detail with an awareness of the bigger picture. Relevant experience. Excellent communication skills, verbal and written. Capacity to think outside the box. Passion, drive and ambition. Ability and willingness to work long and flexible hours unsupervised. Lars Gustafsson, Marie Howe, Bill Manhire and Don Paterson finesse the person specification.

9.00 in the morning?   what time is that to start a Poetry Festival.  One thing that rarely is part of a poet’s toolkit is the ability to get up early in the morning.  But Lars, Marie Howe, Bill and Don seem fresh as daisies.

Don kicks off by trailing the notion that poetry is a bit like dyslexia, a condition of the mind that favours certain abilities while hampering others: he points out that many of the male poets of his acquaintance can’t drive, swim or ride a bicycle safely, however impressive their scansion.  So “poetry is less of a calling and more like a diagnosis.”  As poets we have less dopamine receptors, so as more information is allowed to reach our cortex, we become over-wired (and, the hope is, inspired).

Bill reflects that poets should be obsessed with words themselves, building up what Maori poet Hone Tuwhare once described to him as a ‘word-store’;  Marie quotes Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘The Angel In The House’, and suggests that women poets need to lose the notion of themselves as the constant ‘giver’ in a household,  to become instead more feral:  “there are dogs out at the gate — throw them some meat.”  And as Lars astutely notes, ‘it’s all very well to think out of the box, but first you must make your box.’

Best joke of the morning comes from Marie Howe, who quotes what someone said about Rilke as he left a party:  “does he have to be a poet all the time?”


The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival blog is sponsored by Writers’ Centre Norwich,a literature development agency for the East of England running workshops, competitions, events and more. www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk

The Centre also runs the  Escalator Literature Writing Prize. Full details available at: http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/uniquewritingprizeautumn20101.aspx


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