Christian Wethered for Poetry in Aldeburgh 2020
This was my first Poetry in Aldeburgh, and though most of us weren’t actually there, it never seemed to matter, the festival being conveyed seamlessly on Zoom by committed, poetry-loving and talented volunteers. Zoom actually made me listen more than I would have otherwise done, and with fewer distractions. I mean, I’m not saying we should never meet up again, but it’s something to have in the bag. One thing for sure, however, is that we do need poetry more than ever. Even Joe Biden says so.
Thursday: Martha Sprackland on ‘Perception’
enough to knock the earth from its orbit –
O I was cracked open
(from A Blow to the Head, Martha Sprackland)
Martha Sprackland, editor and author of Citadel, was representing the theme of ‘perception’. Sprackland’s visceral poetry comprised, both directly and indirectly, questions of perception: what we know, what we may never know. Is there some beautiful but annihilative force keeping us in the dark? ‘A Blow to the Head’, for example, toyed between alternate states of hope and dismay, constantly morphing into something new. Her poems are like boisterous citadels braving the world. She also read brilliantly for someone feeling under the weather – we wish her well!
Friday: ‘On Vision and Seeing’, followed by ‘Ultra-Sound’ by All Saints Sessions
On Friday at 3pm we had ‘On Vision and Seeing’; Carole Bromley kicked off the proceedings, reading from The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster. Having once nearly lost her own sight, she focused on the question of vision, flitting between poems and biography with apposite elegance and sensitivity. Charlotte Eichler’s poems were up next, concerning, amongst other things, the history of her squint. Having missed most of her reading I went online and found a trove of succinct and measured poems (‘I held the birds of myself together’ from ‘Hevör and Völund’ has to be one of the best ever lines). Lydia Kennaway was next: a commanding, oratorial performer. ‘Walking for Water’ enacted a bird’s ascent and cool perception that transcended all other things. There’s something blissful in defining a thing in terms of what it is not (which also reminds me of Liz Lefroy’s ‘This is not to Exaggerate’). Finally, Emma Storr read from her illuminating Heart Murmur, a 2019 pamphlet that charts life as doctor, patient and general human being, all delivered with a dissecting eye. She observes: ‘Midnight slipped between their births, / the witching hour split in two.’
At 9pm we had All Saints Sessions performing ‘Ultra-Sound’. This was a fusion of poetry and sound by Cheryl Moskowitz and Alastair Gavin, assisted by Isabelle Baafi and musicians Malcom Ball and Ian Burdge. ‘This and the Light’ by Alastair Gavin (piano, electronics), Malcolm Ball, (Ondes Martenot), and Ian Burdge (cello), was a hypnotic fusion of electronic and acoustic. ‘Sui Generis’, ‘Sister Wives’ and the hilariously titled ‘Finding my dad in a can of baked beans’, were poems by Isabelle Baafi (from her pamphlet Ripe, published by ignitionpress, Nov 2020), accompanied by music. Then the electronic ‘Finding my Dad…’ stretched the tone dramatically, turning seamlessly from classical to jazz, where each performer appeared to blend impressively and the words and music reached new dimensions. We then had ‘Di Molte Voce’ by Cheryl Moskowitz, with music, and ‘Vocalise – Étude’ by Olivier Messiaen (1935), was in the same vein, though darker: Moskowitz’s wordless sounds mapped by a gorgeous cello descent, all sounding quite John Cage.
We then watched a short film: ‘Fixed in Place (8 min)’ by Alastair, Cheryl, and George Gavin, which had been made in a ‘virtual residency’ at Bethany Arts Community, Ossining, New York, October 2020. Sound, Image and poem worked to a playful, surreal fusion, supported by a Richter-esque soundscape. Finally, the poem ‘Gravida’ by Isabelle Baaft, was accompanied by careful, ambient electronics, and ‘Oh my darling, Already, Impossible Beauty’ by Cheryl Moskowitz was matched with music by Alastair, Ian & Malcolm, also including ‘Parolibre’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto (1986).
By the end I was completely dumbstruck. I recently learned that Ian Burdge has recorded with Radiohead, which makes perfect sense. In this recording I was almost expecting Paul Thomas Anderson to show up with a tambourine reading some sonnets. This was undoubtedly my favourite performance of the year. I was reminded of all the great collaborations between poetry and music: from John Cage to Laurie Anderson / Lou Reed, Kate Tempest, even Billie Eilish. This was easily as good because (as is perhaps lacking in most cases) the production matched the poems for merit, with each performer on top of his or her game.
Saturday: ‘The World Around Us’
Our next event on ‘Perception’ was The World Around Us’. Rebecca Watts opened with a sonorous sea-poem ‘Aldeburgh Beach’, in the voice of Aldeburgh’s seafront itself (now I really wish I were there); while her wild animal poems such as the ‘The Hare’, were deliciously raw, harking back to Hughes or Heaney. Andre Mangeot’s poem ‘Oxbow’ was a cautionary poem about human fallibility, and extremely apt for today’s world; while ‘Euston Road’ went in a completely different, deeply personal direction, as he movingly addressed his father’s death. Mina Gorji focused on the animals themselves, drawing playfully on wasp, fruit fly, or snail, while teasing between perception and knowledge. Claire Crowther’s poetry, a bit like Emma Storr the day before, was imbued with an enviable knowledge of her subject matter, which made her live reading so engaging. She spoke about her partner’s work at CERN, the activity of particles, and her husband’s later interest in solar physics.
Sunday: ‘Objects and Enquiry’ and ‘Nature and Nurture’
Today was about ‘Objects and Enquiry’, with Richard Skinner first up. His poems addressed ecology and natural forces; and, perhaps like Andre Mangeot the day before, his words were indeed timely, not to say eschatological. His poem ‘Candling’, a meditation on a woman, was also drawn beautifully by artist in residence Henny Beaumont, who was sketching all poems today in playful, synaesthetic collaboration (Cf. Aldeburgh website for examples). Olivia Dawson read from Unfolded, the title coming from her object: a box of her father’s hand-fans. She then responded beautifully to Larkin’s great but also depressing-as-hell ‘Home is so Sad’ with a brighter version. Julia Bird and Mike Sims finished the event, reading as a brilliant double-act from their living room. Mike Sim’s poem about rain was the perfect accompaniment to my dreary window in Dublin. The pair then played a hilarious game where they answered questions about each other’s writing-prompts. Finally, they read some of their favourite ‘inspirational poems’. The bonhomie was another triumph for Zoom, and for the festival.
An hour later we had ‘Nature and Nurture’ with Elaine Beckett, Jo Dunthorne, Ian Humphreys and Charlotte Knight. Elain Beckett, who Sean O’Brien defines as ‘laconic, undeceived, brilliantly evoked’ read about the resilience of nature, while ‘Lemons’ was a warm, homely kind of poem. Ian Humphreys drew on nursery-rhymes, while ‘Treading Water’ was a tender film-poem about a Rochdale canal. Charlotte Knight read about, amongst other things, maternity and relationships. The deeply intimate ‘Moondaddy’ contemplates an unborn child: ‘this malformed pearl […] ready to be crushed’. Finally, Joe Dunthorne read about his relationship with the moon ‘We should all be allowed one moon poem,’ he joked. He also noted that nature poems can be hard to write because of the intimidating range already at play; but that perhaps in lockdown we’re also rediscovering parts of our world we’d once forgotten.
The Aldeburgh festival lit up my weekend; I can’t wait to ‘go’ next year. Though Zoom sometimes gets a bad press in terms of production, it worked really well and the online experience was far simpler and cheaper and less labour-intensive as a result. It also meant you focused on the poems themselves, which is no bad thing! Thanks to all the volunteers, and Anna Ilsley for her support. Many congrats to the performers, and the wealth of talent out there. Let’s donate and support!