A happy new year to all - and here's a look back at the poetry of 2014
To all our friends helping keep poetry alive and kicking, we wish you all a peaceful Christmas, and a creative and lively new year. It’s that time of year when we look back as well as look forward, as Write Out Loud’s news editor Greg Freeman recalls his UK poetry highlights of 2014. It was a poetry year that focused on two centenaries – the outbreak of the first world war, and the birth of Dylan Thomas – with both events celebrated and remembered at poetry festivals and one-off events throughout the year. First world war commemorations included The Hundred Years’ War, a new Bloodaxe anthology and a show based on poems from it, that will be also be touring in 2015; a number of themed events at the inaugural Winchester poetry festival; a deprived estate in Middleton, Greater Manchester producing its own ballad to mark the war, aided by Tony Walsh; Ian McMillan’s poem about the 1914 Christmas truce football games, inspired by the work of today’s young footballers; and Little Machine’s sequence of first world war poems set to music, including a moving version of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (see picture). It was also the centenary of the eve-of-war poem by Edward Thomas, ‘Adlestrop’.
The Dylan Thomas celebrations included 36 hours of readings by celebrities in Swansea; a special Royal Mail stamp; and even a tour of his haunts in Swansea when he was, briefly, a young local newspaper reporter. From 2015, an annual Dylan Day will be held on 14 May, the date Under Milk Wood was first read on stage at the Poetry Centre in New York in 1953.
Jeremy Paxman, previously not regarded as a poetry pundit, made his mark in 2014, too - as this year’s chair of the Forward prize judges, he challenged poets to engage more with the general public. Did he have a point?
The eve of the Forward prizegiving was overshadowed by the death of Forward judge and much-loved poet Dannie Abse at the age of 91; in January 2014 he had captivated the audience at the TS Eliot prize readings. Another big loss was the renowned American poet and writer Maya Angelou. Also featuring among the obituaries was the less renowned but still admired 1960s poet Rosemary Tonks, who had disappeared beneath the radar and turned her back on the poetry world for many years.
Jamaican poet Kei Miller won the main Forward prize, and talked afterwards of his mixed emotions.
Last year’s Aldeburgh first collection winner, Dan O’Brien, returned to Suffolk and this year’s festival to read and talk about his remarkable collection War Reporter, and his equally remarkable connection with the Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson, whose war zone experiences are behind the poems. Three weeks later O’Brien was back in England, on the shortlist for a drama award for his play on the same subject, as well as winning the Troubadour international poetry competition.
After winning the Ted Hughes award for innovation last year, Kate Tempest continued to sweep all before her this year as she defied genre boundaries. Write Out Loud’s Manchester reviewer, Judy Gordon, saw her perform at the Contact theatre in October.
This year’s Ted Hughes award winner, Maggie Sawkins, gave an interview to Write Out Loud in which she spoke frankly about the “terrible beauty” of the story of her daughter’s addiction, and the difficulty she has had in persuading some theatres and festivals to include Zones of Avoidance in their programmes.
Festival highlights included Sharon Olds at Ledbury; Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted and Sylvia, talking at Wenlock about trying to write poetry under the constant shadow of her parents; and Hollie McNish, Rob Auton, and Elvis McGonagall at Latitude.
Coffee-House Poetry at the Troubadour in London provided talking-point nights all year, beginning with three leading poetry editors – Maurice Riordan, Ahren Warner, and Michael Mackmin – discussing how they sift and select what goes in their magazines, Poetry Review, Poetry London, and The Rialto. There were also readings and Q&As with Paul Muldoon and Roger McGough, as well as a night of US poetry from eight Stateside poets.
No one was more surprised than modest, engaging York poet Steve Nash himself when he beat Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish to win the most votes for the Saboteur best spoken word performer award. Another popular poetry winner was Louise Fazackerley, whose “Wigan voice” was praised by The Verb presenter Ian McMillan, after she was one of three winners of the Radio 3 programme’s New Voices awards.
Louise started out on the poetry circuit at Write Out Loud Wigan – and she was back there earlier this month for the open mic night’s Christmas party, held at its new location after its beloved former home at the Tudor House hotel suddenly closed down in November.
The annual Write Out Loud poetry jam at Marsden jazz festival, masterminded and compered by Write Out Loud’s founder Julian Jordon, hit the spot once again, with an enthusiastic testimonial from open mic newcomer Dorinda MacDowell from Write Out Loud Stockport. Another reader was Shaun Bartlett, who got on his bike afterwards to cycle back to Scotland.
Personal highlights of 2014 included reading poetry about trains on Kidderminster station with the Steam Poets, and finding myself listening in at the Aldeburgh poetry festival while Brian Patten and Tom Pickard reminisced about the old days, including a famous poetry gig in the 1960s at the Albert Hall. “We’ll have to wait until a lot more people have died before we can write our memoirs,” Patten concluded.
Write Out Loud’s reviews editor, Frances Spurrier, launched her debut collection, The Pilgrim’s Trail, in 2014. As always, it was a year of mixed fortunes for poetry publishers. On the one hand, Penned in the Margins won a three-year grant from the Arts Council that recognised its innovative work. On the other, Eyewear had to appeal for cash to secure its long-term future after losing the support of a private backer.
There were many inspiring poetry stories. Canal laureate Jo Bell’s 52 project was a runaway success, prompting and firing imaginations throughout the year. There have been the ministrations of Emergency Poet Deborah Alma in bringing poetry medicine to the masses from the back of her converted ambulance. From Oxford, we heard of Davy Mac, who after a colourful life had found a new groove as a slam poet. He died of prostate cancer without any assets to pay for a decent funeral – so his poetry friends have been raising cash to give him a proper send-off. And then there was footslogging Leeds poet Joe Nodus, who prefers to walk to poetry events, sometimes across the Pennines. In the summer he legged it to London and back, selling his poetry pamphlets along the way. Later in the year Joe reported that daily sales of his pamphlets on the streets were providing him with a living of sorts. Poetry pays! Now who would have thought that?
All the best from the Write Out Loud team: Graham Sherwood, Isobel Malinowski, David Andrew, Frances Spurrier, Greg Freeman, Paul Emberson, Laura Taylor and Julian Jordon.