Read Regional Poets is an event that surely every book festival needs. It is about more than just inviting big names and drawing in the crowds. It offers a celebration of works by local poets for local readers, about local culture. In fact for these poets this event is just, in sporting terms, “a pre-season.” They will be touring libraries in the North East in Spring next year and giving further readings. However, today we were to be given only a snippet of these later readings, and it was for this reason I had my reservations about packing the readings of three poets into a thirty minute time slot in Durham Clayport Library. In such a short space of time it is difficult to get a feel for a poet’s individual style without feeling you are being bombarded with imagery you don’t have time to digest.
Tara Bergin read first from her collection This is Jarrow. She moved from the surreal eponymous love poem into a poem entitled Stag Boy. I wouldn’t venture that this poem’s depiction of the pre-marital Stag as one “banging his hooves in industrial air” made for comfortable listening, but then it wasn’t supposed to. The situations that Bergin draws upon for such surreal poetry are remarkably real. Whether it is the nervous titter that travels through a train carriage when a “Stag” party gets on or the scientific descriptions in the wildflower dictionary Bergin uses for other inspiration, all succeed in making the real seem mythical.
We are then introduced to Cara Brennan who, as well as publishing her pamphlet Destroyed Dresses, works in Newcastle’s Lit and Phil library. Brennan recreated a childhood and adolescence for attendees, full of the texture and fabric her title suggests. In Quilt, Brennan is unafraid to pursue the juxtaposition of the organic and vintage patchwork blanket, made from bird-emblazoned “destroyed dresses”, with the mechanised notion of viewing their calls as “hurried applause.” Her poems are based on a lived nostalgia for a history of not only fashion and literature, perhaps gained in the eerily presented “reference room”, but of a poetic voice emerging from modern education and university life.
The final poet of the afternoon, Mark Robinson, read from his collection How I Learned to Sing. It is a collection about the “cultural and industrial transformation of the North of England” and this therefore makes Robinson the most obviously “regional” of all three poets. Never one to avoid a good pun, Robinson created his own version of the Bohemian Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but instead colloquially entitled them The Dunno Elegies. The poem that would naturally lend itself best to a Durham Book Festival reading is a musing on the historic city itself, and Robinson successfully fused Durham’s rich history with his own poetic style. He presented a vivid picture of the “earth-bound angels” that “throng the bridges” and the all-too-familiar notion of being given “a lecture in rhetoric.”
As well as these topographical works, what makes Robinson’s writing so unexpectedly brilliant is his ability to turn from what one would consider conventional aestheticism but to still create something ultimately beautiful. In How I Learned to Sing, the audience are presented with the striking image of “the snag of mishaps” that has “shaped mum’s face into a taut parody of itself.” Yet, as Robinson read aloud, you could understand how his writing is not intended for the academics; instead he is writing for, not, as his poem exclaims, the “real birds” with “real blood”, but the “real people” with “real heritage.”
The event as a whole was an eclectic and vibrant mix of what it means to read regional works: to grow up, to study and to live in the North East of England. As a free event it was definitely one in which you were provided valuable insight into poetry that was both interesting and innovative, yet in the short time frame left you wanting more. In normal circumstances it would seem rather distracting to have children giggling in the background choosing books, and to see the thoroughfare of Durham passing through the square outside the window, but in light of the purpose of the event it was all strangely befitting.