Making themselves heard: festival puts Suffolk poetry groups on map

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From the drowned churches of Dunwich, to the rivers Deben and Orwell, to nightingales at the RSPB haven at Minsmere, Suffolk is a place that produces an impressive amount of inpirational poetry locations. There is also the famous Aldeburgh poetry festival, of course. And now you can add Suffolk Poetry Society’s festival of Suffolk poetry, which had at its heart, during a packed programme on Saturday, readings from six grassroots poetry groups or cafes: Sudbury, Lowestoft, Ipswich, Halesworth, Woodbridge and Bury St Edmunds. Poetry is not just readings at the Royal Festival Hall, or fiery, streetwise nights in Shoreditch or Salford; it’s also quite large groups of people meeting together in communities far-flung from big cities, all for the love of it. At least one group emphasised that they had no need for guest poets - in their words, “no star turns”. But then, with the calibre of poetry read at the John Peel Centre at Stowmarket on Saturday, why would they? Sudbury Café Poets boasted Carcanet poet Rodney Pybus, for example, who delivered a brief talk on free verse; Arlington’s in Ipswich has Joan Sheridan Smith, whose Singing The Blues is published in Indigo Dreams;  and Woodbridge’s readers included Frank Wood, who has published a pamphlet with Happenstance.

Suffolk Poetry Society’s chair, Swansea-born Ian Griffiths, pictured, is a keen ornithologist, and the title poem of his collection, Conversations with Birds, had more than a touch of Dylan Thomas about it. Woodbridge’s Marguerite Wood, who has written a sequence of poems about the Brontes,  told of a composer who came upon a volume of her poems in a secondhand bookshop and insisted on setting some of them to music. She read a poem about painting the river Deben:  “The river slips round the bend … absorb the peace, put that on white paper.” Mike Bannister, of Café Poets at Pinky’s in Halesworth, read a poem about two hoards of Bronze Age axe heads in remarkable condition that were discovered nearby. And Caroline Way rounded off the afternoon in epic style with her long poem about the once-thriving, doomed Dunwich, now almost entirely under the sea: “A child that wakes screaming fear …  as the wind picks up … rats begin to leave harbour … the chained prisoner calls in vain … the nun cannot leave her cloistered tower.”

The first, day-long festival run by the society - which has been going for a remarkable 62 years in one form or another - had begun in the morning with three workshops, and continued in the evening with readings from Judith Wolton, Florence Cox, Caroline Gilfallan, SPS president James Knox Whittet, and Kate Foley. Local lad Luke Wright from Bungay – oh, and from the BBC’s Saturday Live and the Edinburgh fringe as well, it has to be said – is understood to have rounded off proceedings in some style. Festival director Colin Whyles, who is also a member of both Sudbury and Poetry Aloud at Bury St Edmunds  (the latter’s initials demonstrated to graphic effect during the afternoon), can reflect on a day that emphasised the number of vibrant communities on Suffolk’s poetry map - and gave them a wonderful opportunity to make their voices heard.  

Greg Freeman  


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