2019 - Sarah Doyle gives her account of her first Poetry in Aldeburgh
I’ve long wanted to attend the poetry festival that takes place in Aldeburgh each year, but anxiety has always prevented me from doing so – until 2019, my designated year of ‘feel the fear but do it anyway’. Actually, it was the prompting of a friend, Jane McCarthy Wilkinson, who was also attending for the first time and suggested we share a little cottage for the weekend, that led me finally to take the plunge. To say I’m glad that I did is an understatement. I started the weekend feeling apprehensive, worried about being either isolated or overwhelmed; and finished it marvelling at the breadth and power of poetry, and its ability to bring people together.
I arrived in Aldeburgh on Thursday during the gathering late-afternoon darkness, when there was little for me to see, so it was with real delight on Friday morning that I took in the sight of a surprisingly calm North Sea, along with an assortment of little boats dotting the pebble beach. Ah, sea air; you cannot beat it! Suitably initiated, I made a point of strolling around Aldeburgh on the Friday morning in order to make sense of the maps I’d drawn for myself. For anyone who hasn’t visited before, I can assure them that Aldeburgh town centre is a small and navigable place, with the two main roads (Crabbe Street and the High Street) running parallel to each other until they meet at a point, with Crag Path running parallel to both, closest to the beach and the sea.
My first festival experience took place on the beach itself, at South Beach Lookout, that afternoon: an ecopoetry workshop called The Unseen Sea, facilitated by Kay Syrad and Clare Whistler. The Lookout is a small, stove-warmed building (a former boatshed, I imagine) with an amazing, quite magical-looking, tower attached. I enjoyed this workshop, and found Kay and Clare unusually theatrical in their presentation of example texts and in the additional flourishes throughout, such as sprinkling printed phrases over the table at a key point, and the gift to each of us of a tied gauze mask as we went ‘deeper under the sea’. We made a convivial and supportive group, and I was delighted to be partnered with Caleb Parkin – a poet whose work I’ve read and admired, but who I had yet to meet – for the writing of a vertical Threnody. This, we discovered, is a mourning song for the dead, comprised of specific syllable and stress counts; ours was to be written in response to ‘marine snow’, miniscule plankton drifting to the seafloor after death, eventually becoming oil or gas. Once we’d all written up our work, Kay and Clare attached the group’s assorted stanzas to an old wooden ladder, giving the effect of the ‘song’ either being lowered (into the sea itself?) or raised skywards – depending, I suppose, on your point of view!
Sea air and writing poetry makes for a hungry combination, so I was glad of fortification in the Cragg Sisters Tearoom (real tea in china cups), once again in Caleb’s company, which was lovely. My day of inspiration was only half complete, though, because I attended a second workshop later that afternoon, this time in the upstairs studio at Aldeburgh Cinema. Seán Hewitt’s Nature and Elegy was another engaging and beneficial session. This workshop considered notions of loss from a largely ecological perspective – loss of species, of habitat, etc. – and I thought the example texts were sensitively chosen to amply demonstrate the breadth of this genre. For me, the session resonated usefully with the earlier workshop’s themes of loss, lament, and longing; but also illuminated the potential for writing about personal loss as well, raising the possibilities of fusing ecopoetry with more personal poetics.
I rounded off my Friday at the Jubilee Hall, with a performance by storyteller, Martin Shaw (not the actor!), called Into the Marvellous. After a day of creativity and social interaction, I was happy to sit back and let these tales of the fantastic wash over me, before heading home to my little cottage and a much-needed rest.
I started my Saturday deliberately late because I knew it was going to be a long and full day. The first reading I attended was Celebrating Salt Publishing at 20 – Four Poets, consisting of Kaddy Benyon, David Briggs, Peter Daniels and Andrew McDonnell. The Jubilee Hall is a tiered theatre, and is the largest of the festival’s performance venues; but the healthy audience numbers (for this and other readings I attended there) and the resultantly buzzy atmosphere created an intimate ambiance wholly appropriate for poetry. Exploring “the territories and drama of contemporary Britain”, these four richly contrasting and enjoyable readings visited environments ranging from cities to coastlines, and viewed through a variety of lenses – with trains emerging as a surprising connective thread running through some of the poems!
A short stroll took me to my second Saturday reading, High Wire Act – Lolita Paints Her Toenails, in which Claire Dyer, Leslie Saunders, and Susan Utting examined “gender, its complexity, its poetry”, this time in the bright (and painting-adorned) setting of the Peters Pears Gallery. These poems encompassed different aspects of the ways in which women are presented and perceived, by both selves and others. Each of the three poets had her own distinctive approach, style, and voice; but the poems were woven together skilfully to form a unified and rewarding narrative, in a polished and well-rehearsed performance. This was, at times, an emotionally-charged reading, but was all the more powerful for it. I was left feeling uplifted and heartened.
A quick about-face took me back to the Jubilee Hall, this time to hear Matthew Caley, Carrie Etter, Kate Noakes and Tamar Yoseloff reading in Books For Disquieting Times – Four Poets. This reading felt not only relevant but entirely necessary, including themes such as illness and wellness, self-identity, mortality, climate emergency, and the relationship between shared, public trauma and private griefs. The content was, at times, urgent, but the readings were measured and thoughtful, and I found myself genuinely moved by poetry that was both courageous and compassionate. I’ve admired Carrie Etter’s poetry for quite some time, and am especially interested in her latest collection, The Weather in Normal, because it forms one of the core poetry texts of my PhD, researching the poetics of meteorology. As I was remaining at the Jubilee Hall to hear the reading after this one, I decided to introduce myself, and to tell Carrie about her role in my research. She could not have been kinder, expressing enthusiasm for my PhD, and even telling me that she’d be happy to hear from me if I wanted to ask her anything about her poetry. Whoever said not to meet your heroes obviously hadn’t met Carrie Etter!
Feeling very poetry-happy, I returned to my seat to take in my fourth reading of the day, Three American Star Poets. These readings, given by Carmen Bugan, Gregory Pardlo and Josh Weiner, included themes as such as culture, family, identity, place and politics, and it was a privilege to hear these international poets share such vital and valuable poetry. It was during this reading that the deftness of the festival’s curation really struck me; how these poets in particular, and those from the previous reading, had been brought together with such care, to provide readings that were thematically cohesive without being repetitive, and this was a thought that I returned to throughout the weekend.
Of course, poetry can provide only so much nourishment, and I was grateful to meet up with Jane for a quick dinner in the White Lion (where they serve superb chips!) before heading to the Cross Keys pub for my poetry finale of the day: launch readings for the latest issues of harana poetry and Finished Creatures. This event was hosted with great congeniality by Kostya Tsolákis and Jan Heritage, each representing their respective publications. I was touched by how each of them spoke of discussing ideas for starting their journals in that very pub during last year’s festival. How far both have come since then! Both journals have had a really positive impact on the contemporary poetry landscape, with harana poetry creating “a platform for poets who write in English as a second language, or use additional languages and dialects, including Sign, in combination with English in their work”, and Finished Creatures sharing its call to (poetry) arms in a world where “Precarious times call for more poetry: more ecopoetry, more political poetry, more poems of beauty and daring” (both quotes taken from their websites).
The Cross Keys is a cosy, low-ceilinged pub, and it was standing room only by the time the readings began. I was among fifteen or so poets reading from the second issue of Finished Creatures, and these poems were all well-received by an appreciative (and, frankly, captive – there was no room to move!) audience. This was followed by longer readings for Harana from L Kiew, Danne Jobin, Leo Boix, and Lisa Kelly – all of whom were compelling. In fact, I thought the humanity and immediacy of these readings was enhanced by the pub’s informality and the proximity of readers to listeners; there was a real sense of camaraderie and a spirit of kinship. The Harana readings prompted me to think deeply about language – its limitations and its possibilities, the ways in which we communicate with one another – and this event felt very special to me. It had got pretty late by the time the readings were over, so after a few quick chats and hugs with various folks, I left with Jane for the comforts of our cottage, in order to be properly rested for another day of poetry on the Sunday.
My first Sunday event was All the Rooms of the House – Four Poets, with readings from Gale Burns, Kathryn Maris, Tom Sastry and Laura Scott at the Peters Pears Gallery. Here was another deftly-curated presentation, in which all of the poets were concerned, in their various ways, with themes of home, houses, anxieties within both the real and imagined domestic space, and so on. This was a pleasingly intense and occasionally unsettling reading, again from fine poets, with Tom Sastry’s dry humour providing a welcome undercutting of tension.
What was to be my final event of the festival saw me returning to the Jubilee Hall for Carcanet at 50 – Poets Through the Generations. The half-hour break between the ending of events and the beginning of those that followed was ample time to move between venues, because the festival’s sites really were as close as everyone had promised – although over the weekend I found these changeovers taking longer and longer as I crossed paths with people I either knew already or, increasingly, had met at earlier events over the course of the weekend! However, I made it in time to see Michael Schmidt introduce Peter Sansom, Alison Brackenbury, Julia Blackburn, Mina Gorji, Lisa Kelly, John Greening and Jamie Osborn. These readings represented a fascinating progression through Carcanet’s publishing history, featuring poets whose work has been produced by the press over many years – even decades – through to its newest poets. All the poets gave excellent readings, but the standout performances for me were those from Alison Brackenbury and Lisa Kelly. Alison has a quiet charisma that is perfectly suited to her sensory and imagistic natural-world poetry, and her frequent eye contact with the audience really drew me in. Lisa read some highly evocative poetry from her collection, A Map Towards Fluency, charting, among other concerns, her experiences of learning British Sign Language. In what was, for me, one of the weekend’s most powerfully meaningful moments, Lisa accompanied her reading with BSL, demonstrating that expression and eloquence are not the sole domain of the spoken or written word. I was captivated.
After such incredible poetry, and with so much to think about, I went for a walk to clear my head. Aldeburgh beach, with its bracing breeze and crunching pebbles, offered a perfect environment to decompress. Maths is not my strong point, but as I walked I tried to tot up the number of poets I’d heard. Including the readings in the Cross Keys (but not counting myself) I made it forty-three readers! In just over 24 hours! That’s heady stuff. There was yet more poetry that afternoon, but I’d booked my train home quite some time previously, so I had to take my last lungful of salt air before heading off in my taxi for Saxmundham railway station. I’d heard thousands upon thousands of words spoken, had conversations with new poetry acquaintances, and shared laughs with old poetry friends. I’d thought I’d feel lonely and friendless but, even though I didn’t plan any of it, I was joined by other people (some of whom I barely knew, but all willing to befriend me) at every event I attended.
In a reflection of its organisers – Paul Stephenson, Clare Best, and their team – I found Poetry in Aldeburgh to have a genuinely inclusive atmosphere, offering safe spaces populated by friendly people. I had found myself feeling welcomed and fostered, and even now I continue to treasure these feelings, along with the phenomenal poetry that gave me such joy over the weekend.