/ 11 July 2019

Week of the Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival, Ledbury, UK

Community, Conflict and Compassion – with a few confessions!

This week’s Versopolis Guest Editor Sarah James considers community, conflict and compassion in poetry, celebrating regional culture as a UK strength.

I’ve been thinking a lot about community. Community has become a commonplace consideration on the contemporary poetry scene as well as the wider political and societal stage. (Yes, I confess it may be on my mind because of the chaos Brexit is causing!) At its best, community encourages closeness, caring and compassion. At its narrowest, it may become cliquey, closed or yet another marketing commodity in an increasingly commercialised society – may, but doesn’t have to.

I started writing this as speculation was rife about the likely new UK Poet Laureate, now announced as Simon Armitage. It’s an important role. On the one hand, it offers great possibilities for leading and shaping British poetry and the poetry scene, as well as the prestige and recognition of being invited to do this. On the other hand, there’s the responsibility and workload, the likelihood of non-stop scrutiny and potentially ending up in the firing line for criticism – pressures which don’t particularly foster creativity.

The role may be even more difficult at a time of Trump in power in the U.S. and Britain seemingly close to internal breaking point over Brexit. Yes, this is politics, but politics and society spill over into culture, and poetry. Perhaps unity is too much to hope for, but treading softly through discord, recognising the positive powers of poetry and supporting each other as artists regardless would be empowering.

Of course, outside of utopia, the needs of all and every individual can’t always match what’s good for the whole community. Both internal community conflict and communities or countries clashing against each other can lead to more than just concern or consternation. Thankfully, in Britain, full-scale conflict doesn’t really apply to poetry. PEN International’s work for those writers who are at risk, supporting writers in exile, and more, remains vitally important though. This year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival includes a collaboration with the charity Reprieve featuring commissioned poems inspired by Guantánamo Bay.

It’s with irony that I note how internal and external conflict lies at the heart of a lot of literature: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird…the list could continue. And not all such creativity is fictional. ‘Poetry of the Holocaust’ features in this year’s festival, as well as ‘Reading Ivor Gurney’. That the past becomes part of the present is also inherent in events like the ‘Immersion Day – The Life and Poetry of Bertolt Brecht’.

It’s painful to think of the art that might never have created were it not for conflict or suffering. But there are also positive contrasts – strength and survival, caring and compassion. 

Time, difficulty and physical space/place are recurring themes in this week’s Versopolis Review. To some extent, I knew they would be, but not quite how well they would dovetail together, alongside the underlying importance of valuing our communities and the environment.

Outside of Britain, London may be the city most people recognise. But not everyone can afford to live in the capital, even if they wanted to. Culture thrives as much in other towns and cities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And yes, this includes otherwise small and rural places like Ledbury hosting one of the UK’s largest national poetry festivals. 

One of many things that’s always impressed me about Ledbury Poetry Festival, and the many other festivals across Britain, is how well it covers both local, national and global communities. Also, the wide-ranging, diverse and inclusive nature of its collaborations. 

One of the first poetry workshops I attended was at Ledbury. I’ve had chances to read and perform my own work, with a collaboration leading to the launch of V. Press (2013), from my Nine Arches Press collection plenty-fish (2015), Malvern-based Reaction Theatre Makers’ 2016 production of my poetry-play The Magnetic Diariesand many other events. As importantly, I’ve got to hear and meet not just national poets whose work I admire but international idols like Billy Collins (2010), C.D. Wright (2013)and Mark Doty (2018)!

This year includes a local Herefordshire Stanza Poets’ ‘The Waters of Herefordshire’ reading (alongside a ‘Waters’ art and books exhibition) and a free ‘Community Showcase’ drawn from the festival’s community workshops programme. Regionally-based poetry presses V. PressNine Arches Pressand Verve Poetry Presshave poets giving free 20-minute readings. As a publisher, I’m delighted that the V. Press readings on Sunday, July 14, will feature emerging page poets Margaret AdkinsJohn Lawrence and Brenda Read-Brown

Outgoing UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and our new Poet Laureate Simon Armitagewill also be at the festival, along with Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate from 1999-2009.Meanwhile, the Versopolis scheme supports a Europe-wide poetry sharing of 219 poets, 2556 poems and 37 venues (and counting!) across 15 festivals, including Ledbury. The festival has been involved since Versopolis started in 2015 and this year’s line-up includes a ‘Versopolis Poetry’ event featuring poets from Ireland, Austria, Spain, Denmark and Lithuania. as well as a series of individual free readings. 

A festival crowdfunding campaign also brings even more international poets, for this year’s ‘World Poets Series: Laura Wittner, with Pedro Serrano’ and ‘World Poetry Series: Shivanee Ramlochan and Enrique Winter’ events. In the spirit of global collaboration, I asked if they’d share a few lines of love/compassion from poems they’re bringing to the festival.

“This isn’t how you reckon love comes.

A susurration from a mouth still tender with your kisses.”

From ‘What Fights, Still’ by Shivanee Ramlochan

“We are all

this hunger for life.”

From ‘Niño Bomba’ (‘Child Bomb’) by Pedro Serrano, English translation by Anna Crowe

“…something embracing

goodness and love, leading

directly to experience…"

From ‘A un dios desconocido’ (‘To A God Unknown’) by Laura Wittner, translated by Gregary Racz

Each generation faces its own difficult times. Monday’s Versopolis interview with Ledbury Poetry Festival Poet in Residence 2019 and poet, critic and professor Sandeep Parmar touched on some of poetry’s difficulties and the need for diversity and responsibility in reading, writing and reviewing. 

As the past shapes the present, the present shapes the future. Amid great ecological concern, Ledbury Poetry Festival Troubadour of the Hills Jean Atkin writes about walking, poetry and “trying to catch lightning in a bottle”. Her piece ‘The Hills Are Alive’ on Tuesday is a moving and beautiful “witness to change and chance, and much loss”.

Yesterday was Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic Jade Cuttle’s review of titles by three emerging page poets reading at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival: Margaret Adkins, John Lawrence and Brenda Read-Brown. Tomorrow, Margaret Adkins shares how French philosopher Gaston Bachelard influenced her poetry pamphlet Mingled Space, and considers the mingled spaces of Ledbury Poetry Festival.

I’ve total confidence in the chosen pieces, but will confess that I feel conflicted by what I couldn’t cover! I limited my choices to this year’s festival programme but, even with that focus, the scope of possibilities was incredible. I’ve even more respect now for the care and coordination that festival director Chloe Garner, her team and other festival organisers put into programming!

My final (half-)confession is that, unlike T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee have been involved in the composition of these pieces for Versopolis!