Frieda Hughes, Much Wenlock, 2014
Frieda Hughes gave up writing poetry in her 20s because she could not bear to be constantly compared with her parents, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, she told a Wenlock poetry festival audience on Saturday. The artist and writer began composing poetry again at the age of 34 only after suffering a debilitating attack of ME. As she tried to recover, writing small snatches of poetry was one of the few things she found herself able to do: “It seemed to get me out of the place I was in.”
At a 20-minute session called My Desert Island Poems, with Fiona Talkington, Hughes read her own poem, ‘How It Began’, which relates the onset of her condition in Australia. After many tests, “they found me sane as anyone could be, afflicted by ME”. She goes on in the poem to say that “it would be almost four years before I read a book again”. But during her recovery period, when she was only awake about four hours a day, with no concentration, and life was reduced “to a very small passageway”, poetry came to her rescue, she said at Wenlock, and she realised she had stopped writing it for “a silly reason”, being “frightened of having my head kicked in”. She realised then she would have to conquer the burden of being the child of famous parents, and emerge from their shadow. People must realise “I’m not going to go away; in the end I’ll be part of the furniture”. She concluded the session by reading the title poem from her most recent Bloodaxe collection, The Book of Mirrors.
A SPOKEN WORD performer who is taking her show to the Edinburgh fringe this summer for the second year running won the Wenlock poetry festival slam on Saturday night. Tina Sederholm from Oxford triumphed in the final with an account of her husband’s frankly disgusting domestic detritus, beating runner-up Lorna Meehan, and David Boyles. Tina is the 2010 Hammer and Tongue Oxford slam champion, and her Edinburgh show, ‘Evie and the Perfect Cupcake’, was runner-up as best spoken word show on the Edinburgh fringe last year. The show she is taking to Edinburgh this year is called ‘The Good Delusion’. A top-quality line-up of nine contenders, four women and five men, was reduced to six, and then three by judges Jacob Sam-La Rose, Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press, and last year’s Wenlock slam winner, Trev Meaney. The slam was masterfully compered by Spoz, aka Giovanni Esposito, with cheerful good humour, even though there hadn’t been a rush to buy his books, and who delivered a powerful, moving poem about his own immigrant parents while we were waiting for the final verdict.
ZAFFAR KUNIAL is the current poet in residence at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. Helen Mort, whose first collection, Division Street, was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize, was a recent predecessor in the job. Both were at The Edge arts centre at Much Wenlock on Saturday to talk about what the role meant for them. Mort accepted that the job “that changed my life, when I gave up the day job and committed my life to writing” might seem intimidating, but decided her way into it was not to try and read reams of Wordsworth, but instead to go out and explore the Lakes landscape “as he would have done”, to get her own perspective. “Going up a mountain helps you to see everything much more clearly.” She is now Derbyshire’s poet laureate, and continuing to write about landscape. She is also a keen rock climber, and said her next collection would be about mountains, particularly looking at the role of women climbers. She read part of a long, work in progress about Everest, which includes the viewpoints of Malory and Hillary. She also revealed the grim fact that Everest climbers have taken to navigating by body markers in some places, where the dead have been left because there are too many to bring down from the mountain.
Birmingham-born Zaffar Kunial used to work for the greetings cards firm Hallmark, and sometimes got into trouble for writing his own poetry at work. He read a poem about cricket, “beyond the boundary, in that edgeland of central England”. In other poems he undertook an almost forensic examination of the exact meaning of words such as “us” and “the”, with lines like “Oi, you, tell us where you’re from.” He agreed that taking on the Wordsworth Trust job was intimidating, thinking of previous poets that had occupied the same post “going back 20 years, never mind 200 … intimidating, but in a good way”.
ARGUABLY, THE HEART and soul of the Wenlock poetry festival can be found in the George and Dragon pub in the centre of town, where the poet laureate of Milton Keynes, Mark Niel, has been MCing regular open mic sessions of Poems and Pints. On Saturday lunchtime the place was heaving and I could barely get in the door. Another matter to mention is the excellent anthology available this weekend, containing poems from a number of poets appearing at this year’s festival, including Simon Armitage, Elaine Feinstein, Rebecca Goss, Glyn Maxwell, David Morley, Daljit Nagra, Mario Petrucci, and Helen Tookey. It has been edited by Nadia Kingsley, who appeared at the festival on Saturday afternoon with fellow up and coming poets Kareem Parkins-Brown and Emily Harrison at The Edge studio, introduced by Jacob Sam-La Rose.
PHOTOGRAPH: GREG FREEMAN / WRITE OUT LOUD