Monday, September 30, 2013

All levelled out now

This is what too much drink can do 
There is a standing joke that when poets get together they swing between complaining and ranking themselves in league tables.

But put them at a festival with a brilliant host and pettiness falls away. There's nothing like warm autumn sunshine, the sight of the Ouse as it reaches the sea, good food and beer to banish bitterness and rivalries. And that's how it is at King's Lynn poetry festival.

There are poets with collections so hefty they'd keep the back door open, there are poets with a couple of books out, there are poets who are there because another new book has just been dispatched by the printer.

Poetry festivals don't bring in the millions that music does. Poetry festivals don't need a showground or a stately home, they don't attract hot dog sellers, chorizo and haloumi vans, doughnuts or mobile massages in a yurt. They're modest, well-kept secrets, where the craft of writing and writers are celebrated for their own sake.

Which is not to say poetry couldn't do with some cash. It certainly could. Kings Lynn Festival's essentially kept going by enthusiasts paying monthly subscriptions and a local firm of solicitors. As a participant, it feels like the works outing and that's a big draw because poets, frankly, can spend too much time alone.

And the other thing about poetry festivals - they're relatively rare. The big name novelists, the latest victim memoir or travel epic, the tell-all ghost-written biography have Hay, the big literary bonanza weekends, where even the most famous poets are in the shade. These weekends span the genres, ticket sales are determined by the literary supplements, TV fame, by celebrity.

Reputation matters at a poetry festival, not fame, because poets tend not to be famous. Louis de Bernieres was at Kings Lynn this year launching his first collection of poetry Imagining Alexandria and biographer Ann Thwaite whose work's been described as 'magnificent' was interviewing her husband, the poet Anthony Thwaite about a lifetime's work.

So poetry's a leveller and we rub along together because no-one knows if they'll ever write another line. And what's even better about a small festival is that if there are any self-important fools, they're so clearly out on a limb.

In a similar neck of the woods this year it's the 25th anniversary of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. It happens the weekend of 8-10 November, just after bonfire night, crisp and wintery. Among the big names are Grace Nichols and broadcaster-poet Ian McMillan. They are among 30 poets from the UK, US, Canada, Ireland, Macedonia, Poland and Russia.

Aldeburgh and Kings Lynn have their own personalities but they are important to poets. They are a platform for poetry and only poetry. That platform might not have the amplification of the main stage at WOMAD but the quality's indisputable. If some of these poets were in the music business they'd be filling Wembley.

And that's a good enough reason for me to pitch up to the next poetry festival as a punter before the secret gets out.