Aldeburgh is a lovely seaside town lined with little shops, bakeries and cafés. As one of the poets, I was lucky enough to stay at Elizabeth Court, the artists’ accommodation, which was entirely booked for the festival. How often do you run into poets in the corridor or meet them while making breakfast in a shared kitchen? The town itself fills up with poetry afficionados for the whole weekend, and everyone is approachable.
The first event I attended was Jean Sprackland’s workshop Lighting the Lamps, where she invited us to think of poetry as a light we shine on something. We started with a discussion of ‘The House’ by Matthew Sweeney, before thinking of the houses of our past.
What matters, Jean said, is to focus not on an abstraction but an object. Working on the concrete allows us to make choices as to where we can step off into the abstract. Descriptions need to be interesting in and of themselves rather than acting as mere gateways. As we analysed Paul Farley’s ‘Newts’, Fiona Benson’s ‘Submerged Forest’ and Jane Hirshfield’s ‘To Gravel: An Assay’, she invited us to be “meticulously observant about stuff” and “furnish the poem with things”.
At the opening of the festival, I met some of the organisers I’d been in touch with — people I’d met online through the Poetry School, and poets I’d only encountered in print, supported by generous helpings of wine. To round up the evening, I headed to Inlands & Outlands, where Meryl Pugh, Clare Best, Kay Syrad and Kate Davis shared poems connected to urban nature, the hidden stories of waterways, close examinations of local phenomena, and the ecology of walking.
The day started early with a stroll down the pebble beach for sunrise: a chilly breeze, darkness turning to pink, then yellow, until the eastward-facing town glowed with sunlight. By the time I joined the Suffolk Poetry Society at Fort Green car park, however, the sky was overcast.
Undeterred by the cold wind, we strolled around Aldeburgh for two and a half hours, stopping at significant spots (the Lookout tower, Lifeboat Station, Museum…) to listen to sea-themed poems, classics as well as those written by participants. Guided by locals, we learned about the little town, its culture and life, the history of British sea writing, and each other’s work. To conclude the walk, we gathered at the Brudenell Hotel where Caroline Price read her winning poem for the Crabbe Poetry Prize.
In the afternoon, the National Poetry Competition at 40 staged high-quality readings by Dom Bury, Philip Gross, Liz Berry and Yvonne Reddick. Dom Bury’s tone was serious, stern and powerful, Philip Gross’s quiet and amiable. I found Liz Berry’s voice entrancing, while Yvonne Reddick read like an actor, drawing us in.
Queer Studio was a special event for me as I was one of its guest readers, alongside Alice Hiller, Caleb Parkin and Swithun Cooper, with Mary Jean Chan and Richard Scott as the main readers. We met online last Feburary for a course with the Poetry School before Paul Stephenson brought us together on stage, providing a protected space for us to share poems that relate to the experience of being queer. There was a strong sense of connection between the audience and the poets throughout this powerful and intimate event.
Mary Jean Chan read from her beautiful pamphlet A Hurry of English, as well as other anthologised poems, before Richard Scott read from Soho. Halfway through his performance, we heard fireworks behind the building, their hiss and bang punctuating Richard’s lines, which made for a dramatic ending.
I intended to attend another event that evening but, as it turns out, when Liz Berry asks you if you are going to the pub, you are most definitely going to the pub. Especially when the pub turns out to be another version of backstage, the place poets retreat to after performing – this included Pascale Petit, Zaffar Kunial, and many more – and where I made friends with some of my fellow readers. This name-dropping is just an attempt to convey how immediate Aldeburgh feels; the close proximity, accessibility and friendliness of more accomplished poets draws you into a sense of community.
The best way to approach the last day of the festival was to head out in time for Will Harris’s Breakfast Lecture with a cup of tea or coffee and what, to a vegan, were delicious-looking pastries. Will spoke about the idea of the line break replacing the line, paying particular attention to caesura and the placement of words at the end or beginning of each line, based on his readings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Digby Mackworth Dolben, Sharon Olds and others.
At the Jinx Assembly of First Collections, Jane Commane, Abigail Parry, Tim Richardson and Susannah Hart read from their recently published work. In turns political, intimate, painful, and funny, the event celebrated the vitality of British Poetry.
Thankfully, I ate something before attending the Lunch Poems, because it would otherwise have left me very hungry. We were greeted with glasses of red at the door as it turns out that in addition to writing poetry, Matthew Stewart also blends wine he imports from Spain. Sipping while listening to Stewart’s wine-themed poems, I wondered whether we might concoct such synaesthetic poetry experiences more often.
Rosie Shepperd’s food poems were no less delicious for being confined to the page, and Alison Brackenbury shared astonishing stories and delightful descriptions based on her aunt Margaret’s cookbook recipes. Like food, we were told, poetry uses raw ingredients that disappear as they are transformed by the process.
While I was there, my friend Katie Szyszko attended another event. She reports: “One of the greatest surprises of the festival was this year’s line-up for the Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry. Although the poets were undeniably concerned about the future of the planet, their readings focused more on the joy and beauty of what is not yet lost.
“Linda France’s ‘In the Physic Garden’ is the exploration of personal relationships in an intimate yet fantastic environment. Teresa Dzieglewicz, the youngest poet and second prize winner for ‘If you’re married, why do you call her Teresa?’, finds the divine in the small and often ignored spaces. Two runners-up, Julian Bishop (‘Lobster’) and Ella Duffy (Tuna) write in innovative, playful and humorous voices. Yet, their poems never hide from showing the damage done, the loss that can no longer be ignored.
“Jemma Borg’s ‘Unripe’ – the winner of the first prize – demonstrates an extraordinary discipline of language and style. She asks ‘How to be a tree without rain? / How to climb a mountain if a mountain isn’t there?‘, yet her questions, like the questions of all the other readers, lack nostalgia and sentimentality. Instead, there is urgency and hope. There is a future.”
Everyone regrouped at the Jubilee Hall for the final event, Celebrating 21 Years of the Poetry School, with three great readings by its founders Jane Duran, Pascale Petit and Mimi Khalvati. Jane Duran made me realise how much background work can go into a single poem as she recounted the process of researching the history of a ship remembered from childhood, at an American library.
We learned that Mimi Khalvati cannot even take a cigarette break from a poetry workshop without producing a poem about the snow fall that day. Finally, Pascale Petit shared a beautiful new piece with us to conclude a very moving reading. Wine and nibbles ensued, as well as the difficult process of attempting to thank everyone, exchanging last-minute contact information and taking leave. The difficulty with Aldeburgh is, what are you supposed to do when it’s all over?
Danne Jobin is a PhD candidate in literature at the University of Kent and read at Aldeburgh in the Queer Studio session. Earlier this year, they received an Arts Council bursary for a Free Read at the Literary Consultancy. Their poem ‘The Studio’ is forthcoming in Tenebrae: A Journal of Poetics.
The 2018 Poetry in Aldeburgh festival, co-curated by the Poetry School, took place on the 2nd – 4th November 2018.