Festival in a Book



FESTIVAL IN A BOOK: Louise Warren reviews a compilation of writing in celebration of the Wenlock Poetry Festival


Festival in a Book
Edited by Liz Lefroy
904 Press
ISNB 978-173937870-7

As though gravity had suddenly come horizontal
patrons run from the town square,
drawn by the magnet of poetry.
Arms point, faces gawk, legs buck
As they try to run in different directions.

So begins Ross Donlon’s poem, “At the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival, Shropshire”. It is just one of many poems in this fascinating and informative collection. Beautifully curated, the book invites the reader on a tour of the festival itself. As well as poems, we also have workshops, a taste of Young Wenlock, and glimpses behind the scenes. All this is interspersed with black and white photographs and other souvenirs. There’s even a ticket ‘admit one’ pasted onto page five, and then in we go. The images help to break up what could have been an informative but possibly dull book, but this is fun. A clever device to arrange the book like the festival itself.

First, we are given the programme to look through. Such a wealth of events, from the Festival Poetry Breakfast, readings, to a piece by Nine Arches Press, the Publisher in Residence. Then we are invited into the festival itself…

… and here is Carol Ann Duffy with a toast, ‘What Anna Dreda achieved in creating and continuing the Wenlock Poetry Festival was a remarkable and inspirational act of love.’ Hear, hear!

This is followed by an introduction by the founder of the festival, Anna Dreda herself, in which she shares how the festival first came to be in 2010, through ‘a conversation among friends round a kitchen table.’ These friends included the National Poet of Wales, Gillian Clarke, who promised that her friend Carol Ann Duffy would love to visit Anna’s bookshop and do a poetry event. ‘Our little town is pretty, and traditional, and tiny,’ Anna goes on. ‘Full of coffee shops and independent bookshops of all kinds. It’s fair to say that the town opened its arms very widely. And the sun always shone at Festival time, honestly!’

A section Opening Night at the Edge includes poems by Liz Berry, Daljit Nagra and Andrew Motion. It is inspiring to see how many started out here. Lisa Blower reflects, ‘I almost didn’t hear the poetry. The venue was packed. I was checking the lighting and the sound; could those at the back hear? Then my phone buzzed. A fellow poet had arrived early, and they’d come to hear Hannah Lowe, followed by Luke Kennard, and then Kei Miller who’d won the Forward prize that year. I went to meet them and ushered them in as Hannah read her poets from Chick. I remember thinking, “It’s all happening.” The planning. The preparation. The promotion. It was all about the poetry now.’

You can almost feel the excitement, the energy, the relief. It was happening! Here is Philip Goss reading from his poem, “A Modest Proposal”.

...and we’ll build a house on the wind
where almost weightless membranes flex
and ripple around us, like the flux
of light on water- a house of the mind

shared, minds together.

That could be an image of the festival itself: ‘a house of the mind, shared, minds together.’ Many houses, tents, bookshops and gatherings. Here is a piece by Katherine, a Year 6 poet.

In its hard shell, a book
old tales with many secrets.
I turned over a new leaf.

How many young minds were inspired during the years of this wonderful festival? How many poets were born?

Here is Lucy Ingrams describing the moment she arrived, taken from her poem, “Blaze of trails”.

I rubbed my eyes heard (not yet having heard of keratoconus- a rubbed-eye blindness,)
seeing stars. A foreshadowing…
Before we plunged 400 feet to merge- and found the richest kind of party. Like comets,
the poems I heard next trailed dust I’ve tangled in for years.

As I wandered through the Festival Poetry Breakfast section, it was delicious to sample poems from poets I was less familiar with. I particularly enjoyed “Washing my mother’s hair” by Char March. Such delicacy of language, laced with humour, describing so tender an action.

Only last summer she broke the World Record
In Running For The Bus, carrier bags thumping
At her varicose legs, then fanned herself
with the Radio Times all the fifteen stops home.

Now her spine is hooked into a question mark
from which her head tries to look up.

From there I enjoyed the section on workshops. Here are practical tips and ways to elicit writing from yourself or another. Emma Purshouse introduces us to the idea of ‘juxtaposition’ – putting two things together that really shouldn’t go, but they do. She follows this up with some practical activities (which I personally found useful).

I also liked Jean Atkin’s workshop on Making poems out of dialect. She drew on the 1879 Shropshire Word-Book, giving us examples such as: Bed-Hillin – A ‘home made-quilt’ covering for a bed and Huddimukery – Close: sly, as in hiding away money or valuables of any kind. ‘You can use that word/phrase as the title for your poem,’ she suggests. I would love to have been in that workshop!

Some of the poems are thematically arranged to fit with the chapter they appear in. So, Behind the scenes features poems that illustrate the ‘variety of cogs and wheels’ which contribute to the smooth running of the festival.

In her poem “On the Edge”, Pat Edwards reminds us that

Sometimes, even when the poets are reading,
I am removed for a moment, lifted out of myself.
Looking on, I see the audience listening hard,
Hear them breathe in the messages, like water
running under ice, or light filtered through trees.

She continues later with these words: ‘Sometimes, even as the lights go out, doors close’. For we are coming up to Closing Night.

Jackie Kay gives us Bandstand:
Imagine then on this old bandstand,
in this great park, where the trees
have congregated for years,
all the artists have gathered
firmly here, on the wooden floor,
passionate as peace protesters

Sadly, Wenlock Festival closed for good in 2022 and the book ends with memories and thanks. What a wonderful and fitting memorial to this fantastic gathering of poetic talent.( I have my own personal connection, as two of my poems were shortlisted and highly commended in the Wenlock Poetry Competition.) The love and passion shine through this book. Bravo!