Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival 2015: a review by Damian Furniss
Furrows Fill with May: Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival 2015
Comes a time a festival comes of age, find its form and performers to fill it, an audience to listen and give of themselves in return. So it was for Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival in 2015, held in late May just as Cornwall is flush with greens, and a day’s weather has its four seasons, sunshine as sudden as the rain.
Sterts Theatre at Upton Cross is not a venue you come by casually – a covered amphitheatre just below Wheal Tor, function rooms and a communal dining room, with a kitchen serving home-cooked food through the day, and a bar beer and wine long into the evening – but once there, there is no need to go far. Staged from Friday to Sunday evening, the full programme and discounted day and full festival tickets now attract many who want to stay the distance, find accommodation locally and immerse themselves in poetry, be in the company of poets the whole weekend. Already known for the friendliness of its audience and their hosts, poets Ann Gray and David Woolley, several of the readers stay on too, supporting old friends or making new ones.
This year began with a welcome of canapés and prosecco, a chance to unwind after far journeys, enjoy some music from Anne Batson and be introduced to the words and images of J.K.Lawson, returning to the West Country after 25 years resident in America. House and work in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he set to recreating from the detritus of the disaster: pictures collaged from the mulch left behind, a novel (‘Hurricane Hotel’, Trafford, 2007) here adapted for the stage by Aimee K. Michel, and a book of poems (‘Now’, Westwords, 2014) themselves cut-up from found speech and thought and centred on the page like totems.
The festival’s inaugural reading was by two winners of the T.S.Eliot Prize, with Sinead Morrissey immediately establishing her presence behind the lectern, rocking on Victorian ankle boots as she delivered poems from ‘Parallax’ (Carcanet, 2013) in a voice both small and insistent, shifting perspectives on the ordinary and extraordinary, drawing cubist portraits with her breath. Raised by Trotskyist parents in a Northern Ireland where revolutionary politics were more commonly rooted in religious nationalisms, “The Party Bazaar” brought the house down with its portrait of a childhood less ordinary. David Harsent, in contrast, was dry as tinder, sparking up his ‘Fire Songs’ (Faber, 2014), poems so finely crafted they could have been scorched straight onto timber.
Sinead Morrissey began the Saturday with a workshop laying out the pronouncements of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams against abstraction before showing how abstraction is a necessary balance to concrete imagery even in their own work. A lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, she managed to be rigorous in her analysis while laying out exercises that provoked poems from all participants. Sunday’s workshop was a more hungover affair, with Matthew Sweeney using animal poems to get to the animal in each of us, prodding images out of the pre-conscious mind, using freewheeling commentary and unexpected asides to unsettle us out of complacent language. For those whose minds need waking up in the morning by more physical activity, a three mile guided walk was on offer, interspersed with poems chosen to complement the landscape with its narrow valleys and mine shafts, its big skies and open vistas.
Sweeney also provided the closing reading on the Sunday: newly shaved and shorn like some spring ram, he performed with bar room bravura, anecdotes and poems running into one another until they became all of a piece, his words red in the face and red in the bottle and all the better for it. Also resident in Cork, Mary Noonan is a quieter presence, with a gently musical voice that manages to be at once celebratory and mournful, marking the passage of time and its inevitable consequence with the moments of joy to be had along the way. They were preceded by a celebration of Basil Bunting 30 years after his death with a showing of the 1982 Channel 4 documentary on the great Northumbrian and a broadcast of a 1967 reading of ‘Briggflats’ recently republished by Bloodaxe in a volume also containing both film and recording. And followed by music, as only music could follow them – the word driven stomp and strum of Little Machine.
Outside in the sunshine, Phil Bowen remixed language live and made it live, reading first from his own book of poems for children, ‘Cuckoo Rock’ (Salt, 2010), performed two years previously as a musical at Stert’s, and then weaving in the poems of contemporaries, returning to the verses and choruses that connected best, dancing on the soles of his shoes. Nearby, the Bowhne Yard Caravan sold quirky ceramics and reclaimed furniture, and the Suffolk Carpet Bag I bought there was soon full of books from the stall operated by the Book Shop Liskeard who had sourced volumes even some of their authors had forgotten and would rediscover over the weekend.
Anthony Wilson has been blogging the poems that matter most to him for several years now, accompanying each with a short essay that sets them in the context of his life, and then works outward, articulating why they should also matter to you. Now published in a first volume by Bloodaxe, the curation has all the qualities of Neil Astley’s own ‘Staying Alive’ series, with the addition of a very human guide, practised in bringing poetry to life in the classroom, to show you the way back home. Anthony also read from his prose memoir of cancer, ‘Love for Now’ (Impress Books, 2012) and the book of poems he wrote to celebrate recovery, ‘Riddance’ (Worple Press, 2012), unassuming pieces that sneak up on you like a child in a playground, at once charming and mischievous. He promises to return in his van next year and live-blog the whole weekend.
Reading alongside him, Matthew Francis has a close relationship with Cornwall, having edited W.S.Graham’s ‘New Collected Poems’ (Faber, 2005) and written ‘Where the People Are’ (Salt, 200) to remind us why he was one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets. Here reading from is own volumes published by Faber – ‘Muscovy’, ‘Mandeville’ and ‘Dragons’ – he invited us into his marvellous world, wild imaginings so accurately described they stake a claim on reality. Over lunch, Mark Totterdell was the pick of a reading by Oversteps poets introduced by the writer-publisher Allwyn Marriage, his nature poems rare and delicate as choughs’ eggs.
A literature festival should speak of its place and to its people and give opportunities to those writers and would-be writers who call its locale home. Each academic year, the organisers run a Young Poets Mentoring Scheme, providing tuition and support culminating in internships at the event. For the second year, Rachael Allen from nearby Dobwalls and now published as the ninth in Faber’s New Poets series of pamphlets hosted a late night poetry cabaret in the company of the quietly demanding presence of Sophie Collins and Kit Buchan who is the best trumpeting poet since Ted Joans and a film critic in the line of Pauline Kael as adept at making movies of words as he is taking words to the movies. Meanwhile, former Liskeard resident and now Forward-shortlisted Karen McCarthy Woolf read her poems of child loss from ‘An Aviary of Small Birds’ (Carcanet, 2014) with the American poet Carrie Etter, who when a teenager in Normal, Illinois gave up her son to adoption and has since written him birthday poems collected in ‘Imagined Sons’ (Seren, 2014) in a devastating pairing.
Bodmin Moor Poetry Festival plans to return in 2016, having found its right form, and will stay rooted in its place and in verse above all. If you want to be part of it, you are advised to book early – weekend tickets sold out this year gone and with word of mouth doing its good work, they are likely to sell quicker still in this year coming, for if you love poetry there is no better place to be that weekend in late May when Cornwall is flush with greens and there are four seasons in one day, sunshine as sudden as the rain.