Swindon Festival of Literature reached its climax at the Town Hall with the annual Poems and Pints event. Duo Glow Globes opened the evening with laid back tunes and were followed by the visual poetry and mime of Jason Maverick. Hilda Sheehan brought the poetry of the bath tub, A Streetcar Named Desire and some ice licking excitement from her new collection ‘The Night My Sister Went To Hollywood’ cementing her place as a new voice to be reckoned with. Brilliant young flautist Daniel Shao played a remarkable piece in tribute to Swindon’s railway heritage complete with whistles and musical steam. Jo Bell filled up like a fountain pen to deliver a beautiful and direct set. Detail is Bell’s home ground with poems about sex (including duck sex) and friendship all containing enough acute observation to draw gasps from the capacity crowd. Matt Harvey, star of Radio 4 and all round good guy returned to the festival his own unique brand of gentleness and humour. Office theft, potato based love poems and slugs were all covered with hilarious aplomb by a real audience pleaser. And to think it was Eurovision night too, what a cultural embarrassment of riches humanity has to cope with at times. Swindon Festival of Literature is 21 next year, no matter how tired we all are now, it can’t come soon enough, this one’s been brilliant.
Workshops, full of anvils, lathes and maybe a vice or two, unless it’s the last day of the twentieth Swindon Festival of Literature when it’s something else entirely. An afternoon in the company of Canal Laureate and all round poetic planet Jo Bell got rid of the heavy machinery and metalwork but kept just enough of the vice for a sparky afternoon of poetic graft. Preferring to reject long winded read arounds of work in progress in favour of lots of exercises, Bell made sure that everyone left with a new piece of work or two. Using sharply focused examples from Tony Hoagland, Paul Summers and Norman MacCaig discussion was relaxed but always poetic. Inspiration seemed to come easy, especially when complemented by the crow of a cockerel or intervention of a sheep – such are the glories of a workshop at Lower Shaw Farm. Poets wrote poems and friendships were forged as the festival drew to a close in a creative, word filled way.
Internationally acclaimed poet Fiona Sampson showcased her book. ‘Coleshill’ at the Arts Centre Studio. Editor of the magazine ‘Poem’ and author of over fifteen books, Sampson speaks of her love for space both physical and poetic. Sampson has lived in Coleshill (a mere 8 miles from Swindon) for fourteen years but her new book is her first foray into setting the village centre stage. Battling a chest infection the poet took paths through corn fields near Eastleach as the first part of her journey before moving on to dreams and bees in places she acknowledged were familiar to most of the audience. Sampson said that the book was very hard to write partly because she had already written extensively about Coleshill, but also because she believes that a poet needs a chip of ice in her heart and neighbourly bonhomie works against this. The event was yet more evidence, if needed, that poetry attracts people in Swindon, with extra seating needed to cope with the number of festival goers eager to hear a poet of Fiona Sampson’s reputation.
Domestic Cherry’s Swindon Festival Of Literature residency continued at Artsite Post Modern as Mabel Watson threw one of her infamous house party’s. Pineapple chunks were harpooned against cheese, the ubiquitous Twiglets cast their savoury spell in Pyrex and poets gathered from all over the country. Special guests Simon Williams and Susan Taylor brought sagas and clerihews from the edge of Dartmoor. Mabel Watson and Barry Dicks compered the event in their usual chaotic but skilfully highbrow way. Stuart Mckenzie read a poem about David Sylvian, Teresa Nestor read a story about an important wig and Pauline Sewards treated us to Jimi Hendrix at bring and buy sale. This was all interspersed with suspect vinyl records squeezed through a suspect sound system by the suspect Barry Dicks. The willfully shambolic event sold out again, the temptation of high quality poetry and cherryade being too much to resist. Martin Malone sliced ham in his poem while Mabel Watson was just ham and Simon Kirwin (HONK, HONK) brought the clowns and cuts to the Domestic Cherry stage before trains were nearly missed and taxis home hailed. Domestic Cherry proves (and I know this because I am Barry Dicks) that poetry is worth doing – for all sorts of reasons, some of them fun, some of them serious and some of them to do with cross eyed china dogs, Lambrusco from the Co-op and missing Leo Sayer LP’s.
‘Just in case there are any people down from London for the day I’ll translate the Latin because I know that the highly educated people of Swindon won’t need me to’ . Steve Jones certainly knows how to win over an audience and he continued to do so with a succession of one liners woven between some chilling anecdotes from the murky world of genetics. Jones discussed the currently trendy political idea that ‘troubled families’ have a genetic tendency to be ‘troubled’, his input into a death row case that hinged on whether the defendant had inherited his ‘badness’ from his father and how over muscled whippets are doomed by their DNA. Fundamentally Jones’ argument on the night could be summed up when he said that ‘every human attribute is a mixture of genes and human environments’. His book was barely mentioned, although as a confirmed atheist he did say that he didn’t mind it being burned …. provided people had bought it first. He suggested that the Bible was originally a handbook to understand the world around us which attempted to bridge poetry, science and morality but which has been proven to be not especially accurate in many ways. Jones is an explorer with a sparkle in his eye and a spring in his step, often moving out of earshot as he made an especially animated point away from the microphone but this was all part of his charm. Even Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah got a look in alongside his identical twin, car mechanic, brother. Same genes – different outcomes and a different perspective on the important things in life – ask yourself, will you ever be stuck on the hard shoulder waiting for an Olympic runner to emerge triumphant from the fog or would the same genes with an oily rag and a bag of spanners suit you better?
Writer Ben Okri talks in poetry,
especially when talking of poetry,
‘the very nature of it is wild,
all poetry is spiritual’.
But Okri also considers poetry so powerful
that we have to be careful with it.
Tyrants have been known to be poets
We are walking amongst monsters
are protection against evil.
Follow the song.
Poetry wants nothing from you but
cascades of sound.
Make our hearts a festival.