There was a window of a few years where music festivals had a lot of poetry. Poetry thought it a space at the table but music festivals soon put them right.
This feature by Aoife Mannix is from The London Magazine, August/September 2008.
I read at the Hyde Park gig mentioned, and was delighted to see Eddy Grant’s set, and also at Latitude before being banned.
Mud, music and words
Poetry, it seems, is the new rock’n’roll. Or at least the latest trendy thing to have at your festival. From the O2 Wireless to Latitude, Glastonbury to the Big Chill and the Summer Sundae Weekender, they’ve all taken to pitching a poetry tent where revellers in wellies can soak up the spoken word. While some mainstream programme choices, like Jay-Z headlining at Glastonbury, have had a lukewarm reception this year, poets have been warmly embraced by the weird and wonderful world of sunshine and mud that is the traditional music festival.
It might be the element of surprise. As a ten year old boy in a primary school once said to me, ‘I thought all poets were dead.’ The education system has a lot to answer for in promoting us poets as men in wigs, waving quills around and writing verse as incomprehensible as it is irrelevant. Often I’ve dragged friends of mine along to their first poetry event, only to have them tell me, ‘You know I really enjoyed that and I didn’t think I was going to.’
Festivals may be about drink, drugs and getting sunburnt, but people are also genuinely hungry for a bit of spiritual nourishment. At the O2 Wireless festival, forty nine poets who had featured in The London Magazine and its sister publication Trespass, delivered their words of wisdom to an enormous beer garden. Generally considered to be one of the UK’s more commercial festivals, this was the first time poetry was let loose on the crowds in Hyde Park. There was a lovely moment when a group of young revellers surrounded the stage during 73 year old Scottish poet Eddie Linden’s slot. As he stood proclaiming his verse to the sky, they were snapping away at him with their mobile phones. Sascha Akhtar performed on the same day with her unique blend of electronic music and richly worded verse and said of the performance:
Eddie’s voice rose like fire, and the winds started up, trees rustling with recognition and Eddie’s red cap blazed like his words. I felt at that moment that this was what it was all about, why we were all there, to slice through the madness with nothing but the word.
During my own reading I had a rather over-enthusiastic heckler, who shouted ‘will you marry me?’ from the crowd. Afterwards he very politely bought a copy of my book.
Of course there are plenty of festival goers who are already fans of the spoken word and who would actively seek out the poetry arena. Latitude, in Suffolk, is living proof of this, as a music and cultural festival that is also one of the largest poetry events in Europe. The poetry arena was packed out this year, with sixty poets providing over fifty hours of performances. Even here, however, there are still new converts to be made. I remember the young man listening to Salena Godden at one in the morning, who said to his mate, ‘Is she a poet? She’s really good. And she’s well fit. I could get into this poetry stuff.’ The big plus for poets performing at festivals is the chance to reach new audiences that might otherwise never dream of listening to poetry. Perhaps wandering drunkenly past a poetry tent and being strangely moved by the wry observations of Roddy Lumsden or the political integrity of Adrian Mitchell could be the first step to buying that poet’s collection and carefully poring over every word.
There are definitely challenges to performing to a festival audience. Folk primarily go to festivals to have a good time so it’s not really the moment to premiere your twenty minute ode to suicide. Some might agree that this implies a general dumbing down of the arts, and that it encourages poets to pander to the masses, but in my experience festival goers are remarkably open minded and up for anything. There is something about being in a large field surrounded by people sporting everything from angel wings to cat suits, top hats to flamenco dresses that encourages a willingness to step out of your comfort zone. There’s a communal feeling of excitement, imaginative possibility and sheer joy in living. This is, after all, what poetry is about: providing a meaningful alternative to the crushing boredom of media clichés, brushing aside the superficial ad-speak, and reclaiming the freedom to form our own identities.
Phrased & Confused have taken the potential for fusion of the arts one step further at Leicester’s Summer Sundae Weekender by commissioning artists to experiment with combining music and spoken word. Of course, the line between poetry and lyrics has always been blurred. A good poem is as much about the sound and the rhythm as it is about meaning, and the same can be said of a good song. A long tradition of artists like Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen, Linton Kwesi Johnson and John Cooper Clarke have prepared the way for the likes of Sascha Akhtar and Scroobius Pip, who continue to draw poetry and music fans alike. It’s also a two way street; as music festivals open themselves to poetry, poetry festivals are embracing all kinds of poets and musicians. This year’s Ledbury festival, the largest poetry festival in the UK, featured Mark Gwynne Jones and Psychicbread – a collective describing themselves as ‘a conspiracy to fuse poetry, film and music’. The festival also played host to Luke Wright, Edinburgh Festival star and Latitude Programmer. The likes of Wright and his Aisle 16 cohorts exemplify a new breed of poets who are drawing a young, savvy audience to their poetry/comedy hybrid. In the capital, the South Bank’s Literature Festival closed with Polarbear’s If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me. An exhilarating show, blending poetry, hip hop and story-telling, If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me was produced by Sarah Ellis for Apples & Snakes and directed by Yael Shavit. The show also included live visuals by graffiti artist Goonism, as well as music from DJ Afrosaxon and singer-songwriter Jamie Woon.
Festivals can also be a source of inspiration for the writers themselves. For those poets who find the whole thing a little intimidating, here are some words of encouragement from this year’s Glastonbury poet in residence, A. F. Harold.
It was a lot more fun than I’d expected. I’d never doubted I’d be able to write something, after all that’s what I do, but I was quietly impressed with some of the things that I found to write about, and having the job coloured everything I saw. As a rule I can’t think of anything worse than spending a weekend with 150,000 people in a field with tents and chemical toilets and all the rest – with all those bands playing I’ve never heard of and late nights and expensive food. All of that is anathema to me (give me an early night and a long bath and a good book and a Buffy DVD and I’m a happy man) – but being there with a purpose… oh, that made it all alright…
As I see it, the purpose of poetry is to enrich, enlighten and entertain. Festivals offer a great opportunity to make connections with people, and attract a larger audience to the spoken word in a context far removed from the dusty poetry section in the library. The cross pollination of music, poetry, stand-up and visual art is becoming ever more common, events that embrace other art forms can only benefit from their increasing popularity. Some of these poets, like Eddie Linden, make unusual ‘groupie’ magnets, and can help inspire the next generation of poetry lovers with their passionate performances. Long may festival programmers have the imagination to embrace poets, and long may poets respond with verve, enthusiasm and pride in our aural tradition.