Tuesday 8 November 2011

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival I: the 21st century and other things

One advantage of shorter days: you can see the moon better.  Late on Friday afternoon it was nearly full and hanging over the sea, making a wide patch of light on the water.  Perhaps George Orwell, who lived up the coast in Southwold for a while, found the name of his perfect pub while looking at the North Sea.  The Moon under Water. 

What will I remember about this festival?  That moon.  The Americans: Aldeburgh always chooses them brilliantly.  Robert Hass, a poetry giant in his range and erudition, and the astonishing and witty Kay Ryan whose book Odd Blocks has just come out here.  They were both - in totally different ways - wonderful readers and illuminating, funny, shrewd commentators.  The Aldeburgh Moments, several of which had to do with on-stage tears, but tears in a good way.  The brown, strangely warm sea.  The lost dog.  The damp land.  A long walk northwards with friends in Monday’s howling gale.  The encounters: people I hadn’t seen for a while, people I’d never met, people I’d met but not enough.  At least one new friend, I hope.  

Secret of Festival poster revealed
The Masterclass because I was in it, on stage in the Jubilee Hall!  The strong poetry-in-translation dimension: Jordanian, Albanian, middle English, haiku, Miłosz.  The stand-out readings: Jane Draycott, Fleur Adcock, the Americans (see above), the Young Poets.  (Things you think I shouldn’t have missed out, I may not have gone to: one can’t do everything.  Biggest regret on that front: missing the Scottish Islands reading, and Albanian Luljeta Lleshanaku’s interview.)  The indeterminate, faint roar of the sea at night, when I couldn’t sleep because I was over-excited. 

There should be a photo of that moon, but I forgot my camera until Monday morning.  My mobile phone is old and doesn’t do photos.  That, and the snail-like speed/agility of this blog (every other Aldeburgh blogger has already posted, according to the Poetry Trust on Facebook) probably means I am not a fully 21st century person. 

I do google stuff for poems - does anyone not do that?  Knowledge at the tip of your fingers, as Christian Campbell said in Saturday’s discussion on the 21st century poem.  He wondered if Fleur Adcock had googled to support her interest in arthropods, which she’d shared with us in an absolutely lovely Friday evening reading.  (Are some poets more like their poems than others?  Fleur Adcock is like her poems.)  He introduced the concept of the mutant cyborg poem - cyborg = the internet; mutant = seeing the world differently after 9/11, Obama, Arab Spring etc.  I think this is a good concept. Many poems by younger writers, at least Brits and Americans, have an eclectic quality, throwing in lots of stuff from everywhere, and giving out disorientation.  When they work, maybe this is one way of avoiding the risk raised by a man in a Close Reading audience, that the speed of 21st century images and communication could kill the imagination; he cited the old joke about someone saying wireless (yes, wireless) was preferable to TV because the pictures were better.  

Campbell’s Friday evening reading was lovely too, especially ‘Dover to Accra’ with a Dover Beach that isn’t that at all...  It became an Aldeburgh talked-about poem.  Back to the 21st C discussion in which Campbell, who’s from the Bahamas, said he doesn’t feel inhibited about drawing from any tradition for his work.  Luljeta Lleshanaku had been to a conference in Dubai, of all places, where she’d heard lots of good poems but one could have read them anywhere.  (This does not apply to Haywire, her book, which I’m looking forward to partly as it is not like anything else I’ve ever read.)  She wondered if there would still be national literatures in 50 years’ time.  Robert Hass said yes, because language is irreducible and a poem will always be local because of how it says things; and poetry has always been international, even if slower when under sail.  I’m with Campbell and Hass on this.  Where you come from and what language you speak is always going to matter.    

Hass came up with some wonderful stuff in that discussion (and all weekend: Aldeburgh works its top guests hard).  He said Tomas Tranströmer once described poems as notes that kids pass each other in class, while the history teacher is boring on from the podium.  He said in the early 20th century, the Russian Revolution seemed like world change but poets like Hardy could still write about nature as a constant, beyond all politics: how does ‘nature being over’ affect how we write?  He said poetry had to escape its century.  Given the corporate grip on media etc, poetry needs to conform to Gary Snyder’s definition of it as “very high quality information”.  It needs to resist the grain of things, and find out what’s true in everyday life. 

My paraphrasing of Hass may sound flat.  I found him inspiring, in the old sense of the word (ie nothing to do with corporate motivation-speak - what irony that would be!) and others did too.  His mind moves without effort like Yeats’ long-legged fly, linking ideas together.  He’s also got a store of anecdotes and he made us all laugh.  This one’s about the Chinese poet and the American poet.  They exchange poems using translation software, which translates a Chinese line as “the afternoon was the colour of a shoe factory”.  Actually the afternoon was the colour of worked leather, but it takes the two of them time to work this out across half the world. 

I’m still wondering how a worked-leather sky would look.  Brownish-pink?  Not like the sky in Aldeburgh, which apart from Friday was a misty, indeterminate pale grey, full of damp.  And the sea was its usual Suffolk brown with undertones of grey.  I love that: bright brown shingle, dull brown sea (but at the same time not dull, because the light’s on it, however dim), grey sky.  The sea was, astonishingly, warmish to the touch still.  Festival founding father Michael Laskey stopped swimming two weeks ago, but said the Swiss festival regulars had swum.  Swiss regulars, if you’re out there, I’d love to hear what it was like!  Some of us took our bathing things but there was no time, and then on Monday morning when there was time the waves were far too rough. 

The weekend threw up sound bites, prose and poetry.  Amjad Nasser’s prose poem ‘The Phases of the Moon in London’, which he read in Arabic, became a talked-about poem.  It starts:

She and I were talking about the weather, the rusty key that opens conversations here in London.

Jane Draycott had this for us on what a translator does, from Macedonian poet Zoran Anchevski’s ‘Translation’, translated by Sudeep Sen:

I sleep on a pillow
of someone else’s dreams.

A translator should love what he or she is translating, she said.  Her love for Pearl shines through her translation of it, and she gave one of the most beautiful readings at the festival.  At one point (not during Pearl) I realised I was taking in the words just as sounds.  Later I compared notes with Michael Laskey (in his natural environment, helping with the washing up in the Poets’ House) and he said the same thing had happened to him.  By the way, Pearl always sells out at readings, so if you go to one, learn from my mistake and get in quick!

Hass described his experience of visiting Czesław Miłosz every Monday to translate his poems as “like being alive twice”.  They’d try to discover the colour of the banks on the Lithuanian river where his grandparents lived, or the name of the amusement park ride from which people in Warsaw could see, in 1943, over the walls of the ghetto as the Jews were being rounded up for deportation.  It was chairs on chains, and someone in the audience had a name for it.  Flying chairs I think.  Did this chill everyone’s blood?  There was, fittingly, a lot of 20th century in this 21st century weekend. 

At the end of that 21st century discussion, Fleur Adcock delivered an Aldeburgh Moment.  As she quoted James Elroy Flecker’s ‘To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence’, she was in tears… and at the same time laughing at herself in tears... so we all did too, possibly both.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

Now I’m going to read everyone else who’s written about Aldeburgh - Baroque in Hackney and Sonofabook (see links on right), Charles Christian, Olivia Fairweather, Kate Noakes.  The Poetry Trust’s put lots of blog links and photos on Facebook.

Another time I’m going to write about Kay Ryan, Robert Hass again and the amazing Masterclass experience.  And other things. 

Everything as always was perfectly organised by a nano-team, who stayed unflappable and friendly all through.  Maggie Menzies, Katie Burroughs, Dean Parkin, Mary Smyth, Naomi Jaffa, plus volunteers.  Thank you, all of you.  How do you do it? 

One more quote, last of the Festival, from Poetry Trust director Naomi:


You can be sure there was wild applause for that.  I expect the Arts Council could hear it in London.  


  1. Well, maybe my photos (responding to your comment on my post on this circular blogathon), but those are quik-cliks and your text is better. What is less bloggable than Aldeburgh itself is the aftermath: from this sudden concentration of words and poets, what people take forward: what they pick up to read, who they look to, how they write. Over weeks, months, longer. Effects which cannot be measured by any Arts Council tick-boxes. Enabling - I have a thing about this - is the only decent purpose for any arts organisation, publisher or festival or whatever - and Aldeburgh, despite or because of its being a pretty inaccessible place in the middle of nowhere, does this.

  2. Fiona - what a lovely post, finishing with Naomi's uplifting comments about next year's festival. I'm already looking forward to it.

  3. Hi Fiona , thanks so much for this, I feel like I was there. Wonderful tips for new reading. All best as ever, Anthony

  4. Thank you both. Charles, I'm sure you are right about enabling. You should take over the Arts Council. Jocelyn, me too, though it's a long wait...

  5. ... and thank you Anthony! You'd better go next year...

  6. Although I feel like I'm adding to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival 'love-fest' by commenting - I just have to thank you, Fiona, so much, for your acuity and attentiveness which shines through in this wonderfully full-yet-condensed account of your 2011 Festival weekend. I think blogging is clearly an emerging artform - one that perhaps ACE's literature department ought to invest in, starting with Displacement and Sonofabook! We do have exciting - and pretty radical - plans for 2012, but they will/can only happen with proper, public funding. We've a GftA application to submit by January and ACE are making encouraging noises. The trouble is that GftA funds 'projects' and not core costs. And we can't do the Festival without the stability of a small but professional team/office/overheads etc. By not being regularly funded, this is what we have lost. And unsurprisingly it's the area least-favoured by charitable trusts and foundations. But the signs are still good, our ambition and passion if anything stronger, and so we'll forge ahead with every intention of deliving the UK's (Europe's?) finest international poetry gathering! Hope that doesn't prove to be easier said than done...

  7. Thank you Naomi for that characteristically generous comment. I'm all too familiar with the projects-v-running costs problem. How does one get funders to understand that projects can't be delivered without a core of stability? You must let all of us Aldeburgh enthusiasts know if we can help you demonstrate how valuable the festival is.
    Hope you're having this whole weekend off!

  8. Great blog, Fiona. Back to work straight after Aldeburgh, I'd not had time to think about the festival; your piece gives me a way back in again. And talking about the wonderful Aldeburghians, a postcard of a very sunny Thorpeness arrived here in Ealing on Tuesday from the bookshop to tell me I'd left my debit card in the Jubilee Hall . . .

  9. Thank you Ali. And yes, if one has to lose a debit card there could hardly be a better place, or a nicer way to find it...

  10. Hi Fiona I've just discovered your blog which makes wonderful reading. Do please keep going, something to look forward to as winter steps in.