Reader, we won! (ALDEBURGH POETRY FESTIVAL)

Aldeburgh is the first whole weekend poetry festival I’ve been to. It was also my fourth festival of the year – readers may get the impression I’m addicted to the things, but it’s happenstance.

General reader, hold on. Yes, I know, it’s poetry – I can hear the yawns, but stick around for a while… Aldeburgh is the biggest poetry festival in the UK. Most of the events take place in the Jubilee Hall, which seats 250. Every event is sold out. The only time I’ve been part of such a huge, enthusiastic poetry crowd was when I saw Ginsberg read in Cambridge, back in ’78.

What took us there this year? I live with a poet, and, for the first time, her work pattern meant that we could make the four hour drive to Suffolk on a Friday. Also, our friend Martin was reading and there were several other poets who we wanted to see (being a tactful sort of fellow, I’ll only write about the ones we enjoyed).

We arrived just in time to say hi to old mate Ian McMillan, one of the funniest blokes I know and one of my favourite poets, too. He’s also the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s The Verb (Saturday night, times vary, depending on how long the opera is) which was doing a ‘live’ edition to start the festival. It was a good show, but it was on last night, so there’s no point in my plugging it now.

Next, the redoubtable Michael Laskey talked thoughtfully about the winning poems from Suffolk schoolchildren, all of whom read their work well. Allan Ahlberg read a few poems. Ahlberg is a small, dapper ex-schoolteacher. This confused me, as I’d assumed he was the tall, beaming figure in black who was being treated as a guest of honour (this turned out to be Palestinian poet, Mourid Barghouti).

The first reading proper was headlined by Gael Turnbull, a seventyish experimental poet whose work I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy, but his reading was full of wit, variety and elan that few younger poets can emulate. He sold loads of books, always a sign that you’ve gone down well. Sue bought several.

Sue then insisted that we do the Poetry Quiz. Now I’ve only ever done two pub quizzes in my life and, at the last one, I attributed a Keats quote to Wordsworth, so I didn’t relish the public humiliation of showing myself up in front of loads of people whose work I admire. Martin and Ohio poet Mark Halliday refused to form a team with us. They tried to drag us to the pub instead, but 10.15 found us at the bar of the White Lion where a very fine poet loudly assured me of his team’s intention to cheat, big time. I’d have joined their team, but it was full.

Instead, we teamed up with a teacher called Elaine and an American academic called Ivy, who turned out to be a poet (OK, this isn’t much of a coincidence at Aldeburgh). The quiz was short, clever and full of really tricky questions – lots of fun. I got some of the obvious answers and had a 50% strike rate at the sillier ones, like working out which poets were older/younger than others and identifying trick photos. But Sue and Ivy, in particular, turned out to be killers. Reader, we won, narrowly defeating the team from The Poetry Business. I may have a reputation as a poetry fan, largely because I hang around so many poets, but, after this quiz, I’m in danger of people assuming I’m a poetry expert. Let me publicly state that this isn’t true. I’m just very lucky when it comes to picking my team.

Afterwards, we shot to the one pub with a bar extension but Martin and Mark had gone to bed. Fair enough, as Martin was reading first thing (OK, not first thing, but we didn’t finish breakfast in time to make either of the 9AM events). Next morning, I hooked up with Nigel and Jo from Lowdham to watch Martin’s reading. It was the biggest reading he’d ever given and probably the best of the several I’d seen him do, warm, funny,self-deprecating and uncompromising. Despite the unearthly hour, he went down a storm and stayed for ages signing books, so must have found loads of new readers. It was a wonderful start to the day.

Later Sue and I went to a pamphlet reading, where we found that Ivy was one of the readers. She did a really strong set and I bought her pamphlet (reading it, I discovered that we had a shared passion for American comic books, which we discussed today). Sue and I were also impressed by Daljit Nagra: one to watch. Nice guy, too.

I’d not seen Ann Sansom read before, and liked her reading, wry poems with even wryer introductions, a lot. But the highlight of the festival so far was the final reading of the evening three hander, by Mark Halliday. Strange coincidence: sitting in front of us was my first boss and his wife. Turns out their daughter is a new editor at the excellent Smith’s Knoll magazine (I’d put in a link but it doesn’t seem to have a web-site). Her parents were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Mark dedicated his first poem of the evening to Martin and picked up on something Martin had said earlier (about how most poems were anecdotal, with a little twist or moral at the end which made it easy to introduce them, but his weren’t, which made introductions difficult) and ran with it (later, Ian Mc did the same thing to even more comic effect). It was an imaginative, entertaining, thought provoking and very funny reading that the audience loved. Afterwards I spent my prize book token on a copy of Mark’s latest collection, Jab.

The wine bar was full and both fish and chip shops were closed (at 9pm! – British seaside towns, eh?), so Sue, Nigel, Jo and I ended up eating takeaway chow mein on the chilly, shingled sea front (I’ve never eaten quicker) before heading back for Ian’s solo reading. Ian’s so popular these days, and so funny, that the last few times I’ve seen him he’s hardly read any poems, sticking mostly to anecdotes and gags. Tonight, he read loads, including new ones and some of my favourites (Ted Hughes Is Elvis Presley for instance (‘I thought I could get away with it here because people actually like poetry’ he told me outside the pub later). A great end to the evening. Well, not quite the end, but the pub was so crowded for the open mike event that we only stayed for a quick one.

Today was good too, though we had to leave a little early in order to drive back in daylight. Stannard slept most of the way, waking just in time for Liverpool’s last minute winner on the radio. I reflected that, after twenty-five years of poetry readings it was time to stop pretending – if my mind drifted, concentration failed or I dozed off, it was because I was bored and the poet didn’t do it for me, not because I was tired or I didn’t get it. I said something like this to Mark the night before, when discussing how much I enjoyed his reading. ‘You shouldn’t have to concentrate on good poetry’ he said. ‘You just have to listen and it works for you’. Exactly. This was a terrific festival. Naomi, you did a great job. We’ll be back.

Waiting for me at home, despite the post strike, were three Elliott Smith bootlegs from Paul Roukat in Dudley, MA, who read the entry below. Thanks, Paul. I’m off to play them while making dinner.

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