Festivals: The Mild Irritation Behind the Joy
As readers of these pages may have observed, this summer I have kept myself very busy visiting, and writing about, quite a few poetry and literature festivals all over the UK. From the humble StoneFest in Atherstone to the mighty Edinburgh Fringe, Festivals of all genres continue to develop as a popular, convenient form of entertainment, and the world of poetry has not been slow to feast on the fun.
It has been an absolute delight to have attended so many events up and down the country, and to hear, see and learn about such diverse poets, stories and towns and to enjoy some truly breath-taking poetry. Poetry does not need to prove itself as an enduring and formidable art-form, but if anyone ever did have any doubts they need only take a peek at the numbers; the number of poetry and spoken-word events being held nationally, the number of eager people attending, the number of venues newly availing themselves to poetry events and spoken word open mic nights and of course, the number of poetry festivals available to the discerning poetry public.
But what makes a festival? Is it just a collection of similarly-themed events held in relatively close chronological and geographical proximity to each other? When attending a festival as a reviewer one is aware that it is not merely the artists and events that are to be scrutinised but the festival itself, to include the organisation, planning, marketing and so forth, as well as what could best be described, and I say this (hopefully) unpretentiously, as the vibe.
The vibe is the thing that matters the most, as the best poetry in the world delivered by the most musical and electrifying of artist can easily be an experience tarnished by the knowledge that the beer awaiting us post-event is warm and massively overpriced and the food queues enormous. A unique and exhilarating journey of live poetic discovery can always be derailed slightly by a long walk to a filthy toilet or by one’s car being blocked in in a field of badly-stewarded parking. My point is that outside of festivals more often than not audiences attend performances: poetry, music, theatre or anything else, at venues that they know or at least feel a familiarity with. In this case, they are not really judging the venue but are simply there to see, hear and hopefully enjoy whatever artistic offering they have chosen. Festivals are different, they attract new audiences from afar, they are often in temporary settings and have to find pop-up resources to cater for the sudden influx of people, perhaps they are in a field, a bunker, or a converted night-club. In these cases, the visiting punters will inevitably judge a lot more than the artistic talent on offer, they will form very strong opinions on the venues and general organisation behind their individual festival experience and it is this background support that can add or take away so much.
Hats off to those Festivals who get it right, and there are many. Sadly though, this year I have found too many organisers to be left wanting in one or sometimes several areas of their festival provision. To arrive at a large city-centre festival to find that every single car-park is full and there is simply no additional provision made is just not good enough. To hear continuous crackling interference on a radio mic during a brilliant poet’s performance is a huge and utterly avoidable distraction. And to buy your lunch and have literally nowhere to sit to eat it, not even a bit of available floor-space, is deeply unsatisfying. I have encountered all of these at different festivals this year, and while each instance was accompanied by some of the most wonderfully uplifting poetry and superb artistic performances, this mild irritation behind the joy has served to take the shine off the experience …just a little bit.
So come on festival organisers, up your game! We love you and we want to support you, you provide superb and diverse opportunities for us all to try new things, immerse ourselves in that which we love and to broaden our artistic portfolio of appreciation. And while it is really all about the talent and the art on offer, and yes this is very often superb, please don’t let up on that attention to detail that can detract from the overall quality and force a reviewer to follow-up their rave review of a performance with a “but” or “however” that points out the trivial, the tired or the totally unacceptable. Festivals are brilliant, I love them, but let's all work together to get them right.