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Seven Highlights from Poetry in Aldeburgh

 ‘Hinterlands’ – Blake Morrison, Anne-Marie Fyfe

Blake Morrison and Anne-Marie Fyfe opened the Poetry in Aldeburgh readings, both poets recalling a spectrum of desolate coastal locations, including in and around Aldeburgh. Morrison’s ‘Ballad of Shingle Street’ was a stirring example, offering an insistent rhythm (one line simply “again again again again”) that sounded like someone stomping across pebbly terrain. Another local poem was ‘On Sizewell Beach’, which swerved from a series of deadpan local observations (the “joker who bought the village pub and named it the Vulcan”) to the narrow avoidance of a fatal traffic accident. Moving momentarily from the coast, the ‘Sestina Lesson’ was a witty riff on the form many poets love to loathe. Meanwhile, Fyfe’s selection was a considered examination of the emotional, literary and psychological reverberations of ‘hinterland’, as she toured the audience via Antrim, Scotland, Galway, and several residencies in out-of-season coastal places, including Norfolk and Suffolk. Citing the influences of Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop and Louis MacNeice, poems such as ‘Tidal Rising’, ‘Rockport’ and ‘Ocean House’ captured the fear, thrill and isolation of the sea and shore while ‘Boundary Makers’ was an entertaining list of eclectic tidewrack, commenting on the sea’s disregard for the concept of borders,

‘The Poetry Society Reading: National Poetry Competition Winners’ – Geraldine Clarkson, Eric Berlin, Ian Duhig

About a month prior to the festival when Daphne Astor, curator of Poetry in Aldeburgh, was admiring the Aldeburgh Museum’s moth collection, she perhaps didn’t envisage a lepidopteran taking centre stage at a number of the showpiece readings in the Jubilee Hall.  As it was, a European Peacock butterfly, which first appeared at the Poetry Society reading, seemed at times a fitting accompanist. Geraldine Clarkson has said that many of her poems have “come from/ fed back into/ interacted with dreams”, and as the butterfly flapped around her, it accentuated the dream-like quality of poems such as ‘Love Cow’, ‘His Wife in the Corner’ and ‘Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament’. The acoustics of the large hall allowed the adroit and often playful musicality of her poems to ring out, culminating in the anarchic fantasia of ‘You taught me a new way of singing’. Eric Berlin, a poet from Upstate New York and the winner of the 2015 National Poetry Competition, followed with a series of searing narratives inspired by real events, including ‘The Binding’, relaying a harrowing incident where Berlin’s father saved him at the age of six from a breathing obstruction, and ‘Three Differences’, about the final prank email from a friend who later took his own life. Another poem, recounted through the persona of Berlin’s great-great-grandfather, spliced children trick-or-treating at Halloween with the murderous persecution of Jews in Russia in 1905. Berlin read the poems with emotional intensity, and when a poem included the words “fluttering like a moth”, which might otherwise have drawn a laugh, the butterfly was reverently inert in front of the lectern. When Ian Duhig took to the stage, the Peacock was back in full show-offy flutter, and Duhig admitted to feeling “photo-bombed”. Not to be outdone, he appropriated it into his patter for ‘Mother Shipton’, who had a moth named after her Punch-like face. Other lively connections were made in poems such as ‘The White Page’, inspired by Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy, which in a short space of time roped in Cocteau and Joyce’s Ulysses.  ‘Half the Story’ also captivated, a tale told of Franz Kafka helping a girl who has lost a doll in a park, only to be followed with another version of the story, then for this to be undercut by the revelation of an unreliable narrator, the poet trailing off with a shrug, the vague place name, “Graal-something”. Perhaps appropriately, the audience left hanging mid-introduction into a poem they would never hear, Duhig’s reading was cut short by the clock.

‘A Murmuration’: Sarah Wood and Lucy Harris

The travelling art installation ‘A Murmuration’ was originally sited at the ONCA Gallery in Brighton as part of the 2015 Brighton Festival. The Poetry in Aldeburgh incarnation had a more appropriately atmospheric location though, viewable daily in the top chamber of the eccentric South Lookout, accessible only via a vertiginous spiral staircase and with a bird’s eye view over many pebbles and North Sea waves. The small room was full of paraphernalia relating to birdwatching, including field notes, diagrams and slides. The centrepiece was a 20-minute video using archival footage and a deadpan narration somewhat reminiscent of a Patrick Keiller film. The narrative spine, a woman’s Kafka-esque journey to replace a lost passport, was punctuated with references to a gallery of intriguing characters connected to birds, migration and surveillance, including Peter Conder, an ornithologist who birdwatched from a POW camp when captured by Germans in World War II, and Alfred Hitchcock who famously adapted Daphne du Maurier’s novella of birds turning into foes, itself inspired by the aerial assault of wartime Britain.

‘Four Poets, Four Poems’: Chrissy Williams, Edward Doegar, Anna Selby, Richard Scott

Saturday evening in the Peter Pears gallery presented a quartet of poets (and close friends) who had spent the week leading up to the festival holed up in a seafront residence on Aldeburgh’s Crag Path. Every poet read four of their own poems but, to mix things up, three of these were selected and introduced by each of the other poets. Some intros took the form of affectionate mini-essays, and some poems had never been read aloud before.  There were also some interesting resonances across poems and poets. Edward Doegar selected Richard Scott to perform a tender reading of ‘Veil’ (“I put it on to vanish into silk thin air”), a poem charting brutal homophobic attacks in East London. When Scott later chose for Doegar to read the poem ‘Underground’, featuring a man entranced by another man’s tattooed arm, “the beautiful blue ink of Arabic”, it was as though the poets’ identities were blurring. Similarly, when Anna Selby described her Doegar pick ‘In the Walled Garden’ as being in the Rumi tradition of Japanese nature poets and as a “quiet poem full of noises” it chimed with her own sonnet ‘An Intimate Dinner with Raised Voices’, a domestic scene (apparently inspired by a writer’s retreat) that becomes overrun with strange and raucous sounds. A duo of nature poems were also vividly memorable – Selby’s ‘The Light in Winter Forest’, swimming with “the 3am feeling of a nightclub […] movements so slow it looks like ticking”, and Chrissy Williams’s ‘Green Lake’, chronicling the unexplained ecological occurrence of an Alpine park that floods once a year. The latter poem referenced the magic-logic of computer games: “I wish I could have a diamond that could stop time”, an appropriately sparkling image to crown a compelling set of readings.

‘The Poetry Review Editors Masterclass’ – Maurice Riordan, Emily Berry, Kayo Chingonyi

The butterfly was back for Sunday morning’s editorial masterclass, with outgoing Poetry Review editor Maurice Riordan musing that maybe it was “the soul of a dead, rejected poet”. He was joined by guest editors Emily Berry and Kayo Chingonyi for an entertaining if loose discussion that flitted around various editorial issues including the interaction between the poetries of the online and ‘real’ world, the excitement of finding new modes of poetic expression, and the anxiety/ risk of overlooking them. They also dissected the increased profile of the prose poem, following high profile poetry prize wins for Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo. Maurice Riordan admitted to being “a little bit alarmed to see so many” prose poems in his in-tray, though his guest editors seemed less fazed and more welcoming of the blurred borders with prose. Here and there, the audience were offered some insights into the peculiarities of individual editors, as Riordan revealed he generally hasn’t published poems written in a similar style to those he writes, Chingonyi confided his disinclination for “portentous or cataclysmic poems” and Berry said she was usually taken by poems with proper nouns, citing a poem set in a fish tank.  Offering the flip side of poets trying to get published in a magazine, Berry revealed the challenge of an editor in approaching poets for inclusion, and how sending a postcard featuring the kitsch image of a poodle helped to secure the attention of American poet Mary Ruefle for the Summer issue. Among other remarks, Riordan compared editing to driving on the motorway, “you always keep a presence of mind, a sense of discipline” and that, digital threat or not, he had always wanted to make Poetry Review an attractive object, even to the point of it having an appealing scent, which he joked possessed a “secret ingredient”.

‘Making Sense of the Past in the Present’ – Mona Arshi, Dan Burt, Paul Stephenson

Poetry’s cathartic function was explored in a hard-hitting and varied triptych of readings. First was Mona Arshi, who began by talking about the cognitive violence of hearing bad news, and stating that “all poems are a negotiation of loss”. Several of those in her reading involved searching or yearning, including ‘Phone call on a train journey’ (“Something’s lost, she craves it”) and a Lorca-inspired ghazal (“I want to commune with the rain and for the rain to be merciful”). Arshi also showed her skill in the mercurial image that can step out of the real into the fantastical, as in ‘The Bird’: “My mother is turning bird … hops to the gap in the window, leaving complex glitter in my palm.” Dan Burt, another lawyer-turned-poet, turned in an assertive, statesman-like performance. ‘Goldrush’ and ‘Leaving’ offered insights into the Middle East in the 1970s where the poet spent nine years. ‘Caballeta’ was a moving poem remembering lost love and ‘Traitor’ chronicled the poet’s renouncing of the US passport following the re-election of George ‘Dubya’ Bush, which had a bitter edge to it on the precipice of the US election. Paul Stephenson then read a set of poems from his pamphlet The Days that Followed Paris in response to last year’s Paris terrorist attacks. Simple concepts and spare language combined to create high impact; ‘Safety Feature’ ended with a list of those asked to check-in on Facebook (“Kate is safe. Emily is safe. Jason has yet to confirm”), while ‘Chairs on Pavements’ looked at the strangeness of inanimate objects in the face of extraordinary events (“They sit in wait. They can’t imagine this evening. […] They are only chairs”).

‘Passion and Precision’ – Rachel McCarthy, Ruth Padel

After the earlier meeting of lawyer-poets, the final readings of the festival brought together a pair of poet-scientists. Rachel McCarthy, a climate scientist, read a series of striking poems from her pamphlet Element, including several on a coastal/ water theme.  ‘Survey North of 60°’ referenced an area just south of the Arctic circle that has suffered from global warming since the mid-20th century, ‘Ghost Shark’ was a tribute to the long-extinct Megalodon (“Who’s to say she isn’t just beyond our reach, who’s to say she shouldn’t just stay that way”), while ‘Dogger Bank’ chronicled a sandbank in Essex that is the start of the notorious Broomway, a public path that fatally traps many people in the North Sea. Another poem ‘Pellestrina’, about a community of fishermen on a Venetian island, ended with “the moon-round of a jellyfish, its bell pulsating with light.” Ruth Padel, great-great-granddaughter of Darwin, who herself has written about migratory jellyfish, read two long poems. The first, ‘Facing East’, moved from the starting point of Maggi Hambling’s celebrated ‘Scallop’ sculpture on Aldeburgh beach to consider the conflict in Syria, ending with a potent affirmation for creativity: “Making is our defence against the dark”. Her second, ‘The Voice of Silence’, was a wide-ranging and reflective poem from her new Christmas-themed book Tidings, which highlighted the disturbing rise of homelessness in Camden and the life of St Pancras, immigrant and martyr, who was beheaded in Rome. She closed the festival readings by calling for prayer for travellers and all those who have lost their home.

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