Call of the wild at Cheltenham poetry festival
A smallish room with bare walls up a steep flight of stairs, with only a single potted plant provided by the poet might be considered an inauspicious setting for a session on nature poetry. But Matthew Barton, a former BBC Wildlife Poet of the Year, who spoke of our humanity being “enlarged by connection with the natural world”, took us with him in giant strides beyond the four bare walls, stepping through sunflowers and nettles, an observation of magpies and buzzards, carefully restoring a stranded octopus to its element, and among frogs and snow, indigenous people and bindweed. His poems were characterised by a keen vigilance and satisfying attention to detail. Earlier Robin Gilbert had read a selection of famous nature poems by the likes of Keats, Clare, Hardy, Edward Thomas, as well as Gloucestershire poets such as Laurie Lee and Alison Brackenbury.
This spartan venue that took some finding but nevertheless provided welcome tea and biscuits was the first port of call for Write Out Loud’s gig guide administrator David Andrew and myself, on a Saturday awayday at the Cheltenham poetry festival. After rain stopped play and the Perfectly Performed open-air performance poetry planned for the Brewery centre was called off, David and I went on to the packed Muffin Man venue to hear Bobby Parker – “this is the first time I’ve done this kind of thing sober” – and Helen Ivory. Parker’s poems of gambling, drugs, his baby daughter and his wedding eve nerves elicited sympathy and interest from a younger audience, while Ivory’s often mysterious, abrupt endings often took one by surprise. She included work from a new collection coming out next year, about childhood, and family, and Bluebeard.
Our final Saturday stop was at the Exmouth Arms for Nine Arches Press’s Poetry Jukebox, featuring Luke Kennard, pictured, Daniel Sluman and Phil Brown, all three admirably meeting the challenge of providing entertaining, thoughtful and unexpected poems in response to such jukebox themes as Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, Town Called Malice, and Mr Blue Sky - a neat idea dreamed up by Nine Arches Press as a way of showcasing some of their brightest writers. This is obviously a very incomplete snapshot of the rich variety of poetry, as well as music, comedy and theatre, that was taking place over five days and nights at Cheltenham, a young festival stepping out from under the skirts of the town’s more famous literature extravaganza, and in only its second year. Word was spread to us of the treats we had missed, such as Martin Figura’s stage show Whistle on Friday night, amid a wealth of slam, music, stand-up, theatre, hip hop and rap. But the poetry that David and I heard gave us a big buzz – and was well worth the drive of a mere two hours down the M4 from west London.