Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival 2014 – Review
There are two kinds of literary festival. One is run as a commercial enterprise, aims to attract those with the time and money to spend a week or a weekend in the country, and programmes the kind of writers they are attracted by. The other is borne out of the community it serves, and evolves with its audience, while taking them in new and unexpected directions.
Taking on the ethos of the unique community theatre where it is based, the Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival is of the second camp, giving opportunities for regional writers and readers of poetry to share their work and the work they love, while bringing to them practitioners of a national and international reputation, making connections between literature, theatre, film, academia and the visual arts.
Sterts Theatre is a 400-capacity auditorium with attendant studio spaces and bar/restaurant facilities located in the village of Upton Cross on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and renowned for involving local people in all aspects of its productions, while providing the facilities and audiences to attract professional touring companies. It has been starting its Summer Season in the last weekend in May with a poetry festival for three years now, organised by local poets Ann Gray and Dave Woolley, who previously curated the Dylan Thomas and Bridport Festivals.
The festival uses its unique location to its advantage. Weekend visitors have accommodation options ranging from local inns, guest houses, and boutique hotels, to woodland cabins and bell tents, all within a few minutes’ walk or drive. The onsite catering and nearby pub mean there are plenty of options for food and drink. But situated close to the highest point in Cornwall, you can see right across to England, over the Tamar and up to Dartmoor. With only the landscape as a distraction, writers and audience alike tend to spend the day together, attend every event on offer, make a weekend of it, sharing in good company and the festival’s varied programme.
For all its intimacy, there is no compromise on quality. In its first three years the festival has already attracted the poet laureates of England and Wales – Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke – and flown in Matthew Dickman from America and Rebecca O’Connor from Ireland.
This year, it brought Louis de Bernieres, author of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, to Bodmin as both poet and playwright, his play for voices ‘Sunday Morning at the Centre of the World’ being an homage to ‘Under Milk Wood’ and, in the spirit of the venue, involving a cast of local actors in its reading. Staying with the Dylan Thomas theme on the centenary of his birth, Sally George took a break from the West End to become his wife Caitlin in Phil Bowen’s ‘The Same Boat’, while Sir Peter Blake’s related pop art images ‘Llareggub’ were displayed in the foyer.
Importantly, the festival also gives exposure to local and up-and-coming writers. Reading from ‘The Holy Land’ and ‘The Water Stealer’ on the Sunday evening, but staying for the weekend, Maurice Riordan, editor of The Poetry Review, was able to take-in groups of poets from Liskeard and Indian Kings as well as a cabaret from young London based writers including ‘that Dobwalls Girl’ Rachael Allen. It also celebrated Cornwall’s own, with Jane Darke and Andrew Tebbs’ film ‘About the Land’ relating the story of nearby parish St Eval, and Jim Causley closing the event with his settings of Launceston’s own Charles Causley’s poems to music.
But for all its reaching out, at its heart was poetry of the highest quality. Menna Elfyn gave an intimate reading in Welsh and English following her performance in front of an audience of nearly two-thousand in Hay-on-Wye the previous evening. Philip Gross brought it all back home to Sterts where he first performed thirty years before, just over the ‘shoulder of the hill’ from his birthplace. Mimi Khalvati, founder of the Poetry School, spent three hours unveiling the mysteries of the ghazal form to a workshop in the conservatory, ‘a cage of form to escape from’. And Alasdair Paterson made up the kingdoms, ‘flushing heresy from a Michelin guide’ to Greece, Liverpool and Byzantium.
There are two kinds of literary festival. One that raises barriers, leaving you wishing you were elsewhere or thereabouts – in the Green Room with the literati, down the pub with your mates – the other breaking those barriers down, making each performer first among equals, there to participate in the spirit of the venue, a theatre for the people in a dip on the moor.