If anything, the variety of events at this year’s Durham Book Festival has demonstrated that literature comes in all shapes and sizes. However, some of its forms shout a little louder for attention than others, and poetry – for all its energy and variety – might be seen as one of the quieter voices in the pack, getting a raw deal in terms of public awareness and engagement. But if poets and organisers of literary festivals want to encourage the discussion, reading and writing of poetry, they would do well to follow the example set by this engaging event.
Those attending were welcomed into Empty Shop by a friendly face and the offer of a cup of tea before being led through to a first floor room that was bright, spacious and quiet while overlooking a lively Durham street; the perfect spot for poet Anna Woodford to lead an “informal session discussing poetry of the North”. The festival organisers left plenty of room for interpretation with this description, but Woodford shaped what could have been an overlong two hours, under different guidance, into a lively space for discussion and writerly inspiration.
Equipped with snacks and a selection of poetry flexibly considered “northern” by their authors’ identification with Northern England, Scotland, or, in some cases, North America – including Simon Armitage, Edwin Morgan and Thomas Lux – we each introduced ourselves to the group, settling in, before collectively reading the poems aloud or listening to recordings by the poets themselves. Stopping after each reading for discussion of ideas of the North, or character, rhyme and imagery, and the ways in which each of these factors (and others) appealed to us as both individuals and as readers, the informality and intimacy of the session served as a reminder that there need not be such a rigid division between these two states. Indeed, poetry exists not only as a form to be studied or analysed, as may seem the case during schooling, but to be enjoyed like other art forms.
Just as with music or film, poetry can elicit laughter – as did Lux’s reading of his poem “Refrigerator, 1957”, in which the paltry contents of a fridge were evoked, by warm and nostalgic reading, as simultaneously humorous and with an affecting pathos – in addition to having the ability to place the reader in a more contemplative mood. An extract from Tony Harrison’s “Book Ends” invited us, to this end, into the home of a grieving father and son, brought together only by the shared eating of the “last apple pie” made by the departed wife and mother, and held impossibly apart by the son’s distancing education through “books, books, books”.
This event was not about books, however, at least not in the sense that one might imagine dusting off poetry anthologies from a shelf in an old library. We weren’t present only to read and discuss, but to write, with Woodford providing props and prompts to guide us. Presented with sweets and fortune cookies for inspiration as well as open-ended questions for which the answers formed the basis of descriptive or poetic writing, we each produced work that we felt able to share and discuss with the group. Our guide for the session commented thoughtfully upon all work shared and allowed time for us to reflect upon each thought in as much depth as we wished.
This is how poetry discussion groups and workshops should be run – accessibly and encouragingly, allowing both the literal and mental space in which to think and write creatively and openly on a subject that is rarely afforded the luxury of time in an assessment-focussed and pressured educational environment, or within the field of public arts engagement, where theatrical productions and art exhibitions often “take centre stage”. Of course, this common phrase is itself suggestive of the prominence of the theatre and other more demonstrative arts within popular arts consumption; poetry, perhaps, does not often position itself at the centre of attention.
So it seems vital that Durham Book Festival, and other arts festivals in general, allocate time for sessions such as these, providing the space for poetry to get a proper hearing in an often crowded cultural landscape, and to offer an easy way for people to actively engage with it despite their busy lifestyles (so often seemingly at odds with the quietude and thoughtfulness upon which much poetry depends). I left the venue with a selection of poetry to read over again, snippets of my own work for further revision, and a contemplative mindset ready to write more, or else to observe and appreciate the small things in my day that would often go overlooked. And, inspired by one poem (“Thirtieth” by Clare Pollard) in which “A mobile flashes MUM [and] No one picks up”, I even remembered to call my own mother for a chat. Proof, if you need it, of poetry in action.