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.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Brendan Cleary is leaving

So Brendan Cleary is leaving Brighton, and his occasional place at my kitchen table for mushrooms on toast and moans.

Brendan's been resident poet of the gyratory village for many years, hanging out and playing tunes at the Gladstone, organising secret readings in upstairs rooms of pubs - a famed tutor who's set many poets on their way and editor of the iconic Echo Room magazine, recently revived.

He's off to Ireland for the foreseeable future and many of us will miss him. Maybe he hasn't had his due here for his unique style of writing - short, intense, urban lyrics seasoned with a photographer's attention to detail.

Ask him anything you like about Ken Smith and he'll probably know it. Ask him about the Morden Tower in Newcastle in the 1980s. Ask him about stand-up, the blues, Motown or his stint on Radio One's Mark Radcliffe show which produced the Radioland poems in Sacriledge. Ask to see his burned and coffee stained notebook pages.

He's stayed outside academia and the poetry establishment but published consistently - two collections with Bloodaxe, Sacriledge (1998) and The Irish Card (1993), the many pamphlets that he's made an art form, and a long list of others from a variety of small presses cataloguing the experience of a single man in the city in our times.

Brendan Cleary. Photo: Pighog Press

He talks wryly about being a poet of the small press but they have insured his work's still available: Wrecking Ball Press, Tall Lighthouse and now Brighton-based Pighog.

It is possible to get a copy of The Irish Card on Amazon - a signed first edition, for next to nothing but watch out, other collections are creeping up in value: Tears in the Burger Store, published in 1985, is now selling for £28 and Weightless, published by Tall Lighthouse in 2006 is also demanding good sums.

Brendan's exit from Brighton coincides with the launch of his latest collection, Face, written in memory of his brother, Martin Cleary. So his launches, in Brighton, will be entrances and exits. He's reading at the Gladstone on Wednesday 25 September and the Red Roaster on Thursday 26 September. Catch him before he flies.


Going Down Slow - Tall Lighthouse 2010
Some Turbulent Weather - Tall Lighthouse 2008
Jackson 2004 - Pighog Press
Stranger in the House - Wrecking Ball Press in 2003
Crack -  Echo Room Press 1990


Trees on Bear Road 2008
London Hearts 1998
Sad Movies 1996
White Bread and ITV 1990
Transylvania 1992
Party's Upstairs, 1987
Late Night Bouts, 1987
Memos to Sensitive Eddie 1987
Expecting cameras, 1986

In Dark Times: An Anthology of Poetry from the Echo Room 1985-95