Thursday, 12 November 2015

Aldeburgh: birds, poetry, swimming

Things to take to Aldeburgh:
Binoculars for watching birds on the Alde marshes; bird book
Shoes that will cope with mud and salt water
Hat, gloves, scarf (too warm for the gloves this year)
Book bag
Nytol to improve the chances of sleeping at all when there is so little time to do it
Elastic bands to put round porridge bags etc in containerless cottages
One poetry book to be read and thought over (Peter Riley’s Due North)
Swimming things
Fleece long enough to go over swimsuit to be halfway warm and decent on the way to/from the beach; mac long enough for same (and to wrap the towel) in rain. 

There’s not time during the festival to do much of these things except book buying and early morning swims, so I’ve stayed on with Jeri Onitskansky to write, walk etc for a whole week.

Aldeburgh mystery: when you’re out walking along the shore in the dark, what is the will-o’-the-wisp that sometimes appears out to sea?  Unlike fishing-boat lights, which move slowly in relation to where you are, it whizzes by in the opposite direction like a silent speedboat.

This afternoon I walked out towards the Martello tower and then along the dyke round the first wide loop of the river Alde.   I met Anna Selby, Richard Scott and Richard’s partner Dan on the way, heading for Orford Ness.  They’ve stayed on too, with Ed and RenĂ©e Doegar and Chrissy Williams; various combinations of the six appear around town, in the pub or on the sea wall.  They have a tough jigsaw puzzle going and a crazily unliterary poetry-book card game involving vital statistics such as Amazon ratings and Google hits.  Only to be played when drunk… but still just sober enough to wonder why my card for Shakespeare’s Sonnets said number of poems: 174.  

Birds!  Several small flocks of Brent geese today (I had to look them up) cropping marsh-grass as if there were no tomorrow.  Little egrets, one close enough for me watch how it lifted each marsh-green foot high and splayed it down in what to human eyes is exaggerated care: half-delight, half-disgust.  Curlews carrying out precision surgery on the mud with their bills and one on the bank close by, surveying the river so that I could admire its chocolate brown back patterned with beige sand-ripples.  Their bubbling cry went up and down the river.  Oyster-catchers and a couple of redshank(s)**; more haunting cries.  A couple of herons stalking the mudflats.  Small pale-patterned waders scuttling around in a flock, too far off to see: turnstone?  A serious birder would know at once from the choreography.  Shelducks.  Some ducks too far away to identify and it was getting dark by then; teal?  Once a squeezy lapwing sound came from the flooded fields on my right.  Suddenlyzoom!highintheskyoverheadthirtyfortysmallbirdszoomingupriver.  Then sameagainmorezoom!!lowskimmingriverfollowingitscourse.  Zigzag mix of dark and light: dunlin? 

Two hours passed in no time.  The tide was coming in: less mud for the birds, now mere shapes whose dark or light was hard to see.  The trees towards Iken on the other side of the Alde glowed as the day darkened, their yellow leaves thinned to gold coins.  A marsh harrier was gliding and tumbling over the marsh in front.  Iken’s church and the big tower stood out romantically against dappled cloud behind which was one of those late skies you expect to turn red but glows neon white.  Later there was a small red glow where the Alde was headed.  I stumbled back inland by reeds along a stream, avoiding the wettest mud by its glimmer of the sky, finding my way by the pale feathery reed-heads and the rustling of their dry horizontal leaves. 

I was benighted and said so to (American) Jeri when I got back; had to explain it and Ah, knighted by the night!  she said. 

Walking along the Alde it occurred to me that the birdscape/riverland/birdsoundtrack was reeling out against the festival background: human voices in the head. 

There were birds in some festival voices too.  John Burnside started his talk on birds in poetry by saying one of the best things of the festival.  When you go alone into the natural world, something happens to you; each time, each experience is different.  (Yes – the Alde walk!)  Then he read us Edward Thomas’ ‘The Unknown Bird’.   He talked about how birds can change in the imagination, and stand for something.  There was a blackbird night-singing in Berlin’s Tiergarten, and local English residents were going there to hear the ‘nightingale’.   That happened in the present day; John Clare had a similar anecdote from London’s outskirts. 

It is always good to hear about people’s favourite poets.  Burnside’s is, after Chaucer, Marianne Moore and he read ‘The Frigate Pelican’:

                                 He glides
  a hundred feet or quivers about
    as charred paper behaves——full
    of feints;

It’s also good to hear about their new discoveries but I didn’t catch the name of Burnside’s.  Youngish, American; Nick Lance or Rance?   Your search - "of the parrot and other birds that can speak" - did not match any documents.  It could be Nick Lantz, see here: worth following up.

Birds, he said, can help us express otherwise inexpressible aspects of personality or explore thoughts about the world.  He read ‘Evening Hawk’ by Robert Penn Warren. 

                                      His wing
Scythes down another day, his motion
Is that of the honed steel-edge, we hear
The crashless fall of stalks of Time.

The head of each stalk is heavy with the gold of our error.

Look!   Look!   he is climbing the last light
Who knows neither Time nor error , and under
Whose eye, unforgiving, the world, unforgiven, swings
Into shadow.

That’s an extract from the middle.  I avoided choosing the end because the last line-and-a-bit is even more extraordinary, not to be quoted out of context. 

Burnside’s talk was at the Baptist Chapel in Aldeburgh – packed.  I loved the fact that there was a run of events there all afternoon but had to get back to Snape for Christine Webb and the buses didn’t work.  So I stood at the chapel gates and asked for a lift.  Some kind people got me there in time to hear Christine’s excellent short reading.  She chose a varied set of stand-out poems and threaded them all together perfectly.

More birds: Helen Macdonald was at the festival, standing in for Richard Mabey who was under doctor’s orders to stay away.  She and John Burnside held a Rialto-sponsored conversation about language and nature.  It was lovely to hear her read a passage from H is for Hawk, though I was sorry that she was presented solely as author of that book and not also for her first, little-known and so far only collection of poems, Shaler’s Fish, which I wrote about here a while ago.   Maybe that was her choice.  Anyway she told me afterwards that an American publisher is going to republish the poems.  They are difficult, dense and strikingly original.  They involve birds a lot (I wonder if John Burnside has read them?)  I hope she writes more one day. 

Macdonald told a story she’d read in Walter Benjamin: after the Fall, Adam forgot all the names of the animals and renamed them all a little wrong.  She and Burnside talked about taxonomy, the fungal life-networks under the forest floor, appropriating nature… and the literary selfie, ‘here I am in the natural world’.  Burnside’s recollection that the Sami have names for birds they eat; other birds are Bird.  Macdonald’s imagining of the hawk perspective – everything nameless, exquisitely detailed, in the eternal present.  She made a plea for difference: we tend, she said, to use nature as a mirror for our own concerns, reflecting back what we want it to.  But the non-human is different and it’s important for nature writing to address that. 

They asked themselves how to communicate looming disaster, from the absence of large lapwing flocks to the deadness of our romantic/pastoral landscapes to the science of global warming.  They didn’t have an answer, but in a way their conversation and Burnside’s bird talk were the answer: go on writing and communicating in whatever way you can, make whatever connections you have to make. 

Other Aldeburgh highlights.  Impassioned conversations about the poetry of Tony Hoagland (questions of attitude to race and women) and Choman Hardi (how can/should one present utterly horrifying material, what makes it work/not work as poetry).  Kim Addonizio: smart, sassy, and other such American words.  Her craft talk on turns in poems was smart too.  “No turn, no poem.”   Turns that engineer surprise and/or reflect the writer discovering something unexpected to say; turns that enact the poem’s meaning; epiphanic turns; rhetorical structures such as past/present or present/past or a 3-way switch.  She recommended a book, Engaging Poetic Turns by Michael Theune. 

Zaffar Kunial’s reading as part of New Voices – passionately low-key, down-to-earth and soaring; time and origins, love and loss – I think that will have been among many people’s highlights.  I bought his pamphlet after his Friday evening craft talk but unwisely left it on the dining-room table and have been looking for its forceful mid-green ever since.  It seems to have been taken hostage in an early-morning rushed departure in semi-darkness, and will be posted back by a very apologetic house-mate.  You can hear ‘Poppy’, one of the poems he read, here on Soundcloud.  He also gave a craft talk on line endings with examples from Seamus Heaney and ‘Q’, one of his own poems whose line lengths he changed.  Other people’s redrafting processes are fascinating.  The two beginnings are:

[early draft]

Somewhere (thank you, father)
over the hills,
through some trap door in my mind,
despite having no calling
to speak it, and hearing of it so long ago,
I know the Urdu ishq
is love…


Somewhere (thank you, father) over the hills,
through some trap-door in my mind, despite my having
no call to speak it, and hearing of it so long ago,
I know the Urdu ishq is love.

The first version feels dreamier, more detached; the second more intense, closer. 

More things: the other three New Voices.  Kei Miller’s craft talk on the image that doesn’t quite close (thus leaving a door open for the reader).  Helen Mort’s short take on Norman MacCaig (“the long haul to lucidity”, he called his poetic progress).  Both their readings.  Mexican poet Pedro Serrano’s reading voice.  All the close readings I went to – they are free, and always so interesting.  Festival founder Michael Laskey’s return, in the otherwise sad absence for urgent family reasons of new Festival Director Ellen McAteer.  Michael introduced some events just like in old times and when I told him how lovely that was he gave me a hug.  

The Rialto had a stall!  Strategically placed between the cafe entrance and the Recital Room.  Michael Mackmin heroically manned it for two days, with occasional help from Matt Howard and me.  (Michael and Matt are both serious birders so I'm hoping they will read this blog and answer some of my bird questions.)  We sold poetry!  Lots of Dean Parkin's festival-launched first collection The Swan Machine, and magazines and pamphlets too.  We made money!  And Michael was touched by how many people passed by and said good things about the magazine, or reminded him that he'd published their first ever published poem. (He published my first ever too, so I know how they feel.) 

More things: the stars, so clear, was it Saturday night?  Orion’s belt and sworded hip swinging out over the sea.  Staying up late round our table to talk.  Pub sessions in the Cross Keys.  Sitting in a bay window overlooking the sea listening to someone playing Bach on the piano.  Not sleeping.  And swimming: every day so far.  The first swim was a record with four of us – Joanna Clark, Hannah Lowe, Jeri Onitskansky and me.  One of us was in her underwear.   The sea was rough that day (yesterday too) but has mostly been beautiful, less cold than usual in this weirdly warm November but still cold enough to shock and then cradle and then numb…  That shock is the best cure I know for sleeplessness and hangover.  Panoramas of sky and sea, shingle and coastline.  Their detail: breaking-wave- and cloud-scapes. 

The Aldeburgh will-o-the wisp – I noticed one of them last night, and then… there was a dark triangle on the shingle, denoting a fisherman.  The light was at the far end of his long fishing-rod: not far out to sea at all, but tethered. 

Just as I was finishing this there was a knock on the door and there were Anna, Chrissy, Dan and Richard looking windblown and happy/sad, come to say goodbye.  (Chrissy's blog about the festival is here.)  Jeri and I have four more days that they don’t, stretching out...

Off for a swim now. Blue sky. 

**When are multiple waders singular, and when plural?


  1. Beautiful. Thank you, Fiona. It's good to hear about events I didn't attend, and your take on those I did. And I renewed my sub to The Rialto (host of my first published poem, too).

    1. Thank you Anne, and for renewing the sub. Also for introducing me to your friend Jeremy, fellow winter swimmer, who got us to Snape in time for Zaffar Kunial's craft talk.

  2. Thank you, Fiona - I have never been to Aldeburgh, as the dates tend to clash with book fairs. It's a big regret, and I hope one year I will be able to make it. But meanwhile it is wonderful to be able to experience its landscape and poetry vicariously through your blog! (I'm especially glad to learn about Adam mis-naming all the animals.)

    1. Thank you Nancy. I have heard a rumour that the small press fair might not clash with Aldeburgh next year, let's hope so because I'd like to go to that too.

  3. Fiona, you're right, Nick Lantz, "We Don't Know We Don't Know". I had to ask John for a number of clarifications after his talk. I was at the back, didn't pack my hearing aids and am unaccustomed to his accent (I'm Canadian). My notes also say Robinson Jeffers "Hurt Hawks", the arrogance of the hawk becomes a virtue. You can trust the author and poem title, the rest was what I think I heard.

    1. Ah thanks, Carol! Good to have that confirmation.