Wow, where to start? What a fantastic festival! I felt I lived about a fortnight in that last weekend.
I woke on the Friday morning to the delights of West Dean College and the film crew again (I’m not sure I’m not an extra in that film, but never one to complain about horses and men on the front lawn!) Armed with a good breakfast and plenty of maps I found my way to Queen Elizabeth Country Park where Mel (for Hampshire Countryside Services) had established poetry camp by the pond and one family had already arrived.
Shortly we’d gathered a lovely group of seven children and their accompanying grown-ups and we began to think about where we go on our bikes, what’s special about those places and how being out on our bikes make us feel. As the person least familiar with the beautiful country park around us I encouraged the children to tell me more about what they do when they visit. I heard about the woods and the paths and the views; and read them Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘I started early – took my dog’ to get us thinking about the strange and wonderful things that we can encounter on the shortest journey.
Then the Poetry Bike Tour arrived! Six sweaty poets freewheeled into our midst and poems and landscape and countryside poured out of their saddlebags. We were treated to some wonderful recitations and readings and the children shared what they’d written about being out on their bikes. The poets encouraged them to write about what they see around them in their everyday lives: we make journeys all the time.
The children set the poets two questions: what did they pack in their saddlebags when they set out, and what were they taking home with them? The poets replied:
spare inner tube; waterproof maps; red lipstick; poetry book to read and a good repair kit [we thought these last two were pretty much the same]. What would they be taking home? Yhe spare inner tube, unused; improved calf muscles; insect bites; rhythms: the rhythms of the Downs, the cycling, the structures of the flowers.
Reluctantly, time was up and everyone was ready for lunch. I felt I’d really found my feet and was made to feel so welcome by the Poetry Bike Tour crew. The next phase of the Festival was well and truly underway.
[Curated poem from this event available in draft form so far!]
Friday evening in Steep; the highlights for me:
- the gentle male poets
- Maggie Sawkins’ ‘Stone Maquette’: ‘I cannot hear – I’ve been dead too long’
- how the evening light translated the symmetrically opened windows into a trellis
- Hugh Dunkerley’s ‘astonished field’
- Andrew McMillan reading Physical
- the poignancy of John Haynes’ house snake
- the wall lampshades in the village hall, like tiny wooden beehives
- the navy throw of the night and the clear stars as a party went in search of more wine.
Being Poet in Residence you gain and you lose by constantly dipping in and out. Talking to a woman in the Sustainability Centre on Saturday morning, I learnt that when I had been getting a taste of the South Downs Way the previous weekend and had stopped just there before going back to the car, if I had turned and walked a hundred yards in the other direction I wouldn’t have missed the most beautiful field of red poppies and blue thistles – her photo made it look like a Van Gogh, no, calmer, perhaps a Monet. Anyway, what you miss by having to flit.
Saturday in Petersfield:
I loved Penelope Shuttle saying she used to read American poets, to avoid the blight of the dreaded Englishness of English poetry: the genteel, the neat, the unadventurous; amen to that.
We chimed with Stella Bahin and admired her skill with the villanelle. Donna Jones read her poem ‘To Peter Coonan from Kathleen Frances Coonan’ and I wished I’d read my long poem ‘Mothering | James Bulger’. We swapped books and it would have been good to have had more time to talk. Kids were still splashing in the outdoor pool, making the air in the room feel even hotter, as Miriam, Poet Laureate for Bournemouth, was ‘Never Gentle’; only she obviously is.
Later that evening at the Sustainability Centre, Sophie Butler created her poem ‘I want to be like Paul Deaton’, which may or may not have been recorded for posterity, but flashed brilliantly amongst the nettles and comfrey outside the open window, and wove to and fro between the wine bottles on the table: a moment of inspiration; there were so many.
Thanks to all the people I met, talked to, read with, wrote with; thanks to all the poets, thanks to Jules – I still have seed heads in my shoes – and many thanks to Tim and Elaine.
Carol Rowntree Jones