The Festival Blog

2015 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Sunday 8 November

Written by Jennifer Williams on 10 November 2015

I could hardly believe it was already the last day! So much much had happened in such a short time… my mind was reverberating with poetry. 

It started with Dorothea Smartt’s talk on the work of the photographer Maud Sulter. Maud was an incredible artist and, by the sound of it, mentor and instigator, inspiration and leader. She lived in Glasgow and wrote poetry, took photographs, started her own publishing company and constantly celebrated and encouraged the women in her life to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams. Dorothea knew Maud and was one of the models for her 9 Muses series, an extraordinary cycle of 9 portraits featuring creative black women.  

Dorothea shared some of Maud’s texts (she always wrote texts to accompany her artwork) and her personal reflections on Maud’s influence - Maud had seen Dorothea’s talent and recognised aspects of her personality which would develop over time, and was able to shine a light on Dorothea that helped her recognise these strengths within herself. Dorothea spoke of how Maud was difficult to fit into the notion of the black woman she had at that time; she was empowered and active in ways which seemed unusual, yet because of this she opened many doors.  Maud was awe-inspiring and beautiful, but could also seem a little closed or arrogant… but ultimately her creative generosity was of huge importance.  Sadly Maud died too soon at the age of 48 and her work was scattered in galleries around the world, her career in danger of being overlooked, however a group of people who knew her are coalescing her legacy and fighting to ensure that her influence is recognised and her reputation is recorded in the history books.  

Next I attended the New Voices reading featuring Christie Williamson, Rebecca Watts, Zaffar Kunial and Miriam Nash.  A dazzling quartet of performances ensued, with Christie reading in a mix of English and his native Shetlandic, and bringing me to tears with his own emotion-filled final poem celebrating his mum and dad’s Golden Anniversary.  Rebecca’s reading was poised and elegant, with an original and exacting view of the world, including intriguing poems about bats and moles and a burial at sea.  Zaffar gave a blazing reading, his body a portal through which energy was pouring along with his well-crafted poems whose formal acuity was matched by the deep thinking and careful word choices in each of the poems. I have been working toward a kind of poetry in which each word feels absolutely necessary to the poem and it is a joy to hear work like Zaffar’s which reflects this level of craft. Finally Miriam’s strong voice rang through the theatre, conjuring lighthouses and lice with confidence and a joyful, acrobatic exploration of language. It was heartening to hear these remarkable voices of the younger generation of poets, and to talk with them later about their developing manuscripts and delight in being part of a poetic community that supports and encourages them. I must add that it was notable how well each of these poets read their work, many of each of their poems performed from memory rather than being read from the page and each of them filling the enormous Britten Studio with a strength of voice not always heard from poets with many more readings under their belts.  

After that I popped into the other half of the Glas exhibition by Gerry Loose and Morven Gregor in the Dovecot at Snape.  I was met with a gorgeous smell of sailcloth, tar and wood - and before me stood a full-size, dark red sailboat sail, with Morven’s photos of what seemed to be fields of crops being watered or sprayed lining the wall behind the sail. It was quite breathtaking to encounter the big sail in the tiny room, and to think of the relationship between land and sea, especially with the acres of reeds in the distance and the old sailboat moored just around the corner. 

My last event at this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival was the closing Main Reading featuring Choman Hardi, Pedro Serrano and his translator Anna Crowe, and Tony Hoagland. Choman’s poems reflecting her experience of interviewing hundreds of survivors of extreme conflict situations were heartbreaking and yet so brave in their unflinching attempt to represent victims not as incomprehensible statistics but as individual mothers, sons, sisters and fathers.  I was especially moved by her generous introductions and poems that explored how conducting this research devastated her own life, and how she found her own path to recovery through writing and love.  

Pedro Serrano followed with cinematically-detailed poems about the natural world - snails sliding up blades of grass, snakes poised mid-strike and a fabulous poem about one’s body becoming small in time, part of deep time like stone, like a pebble on a beach.  He finished with a poem about… wait for it… shitting!  And it was a wonderful way to change the mood in the hall, especially when sweet Anna read out lines like ‘writing is like shitting, it takes thought and the right amount of time for it to come out good and strong.’

The reading and the festival finished with Tony Hoagland, who began by saying that he had enjoyed how the weekend had shown us all the things poetry can be - from acts of remembering and responsibility to celebrations of our ability to observe and experience.  He said, ‘We write the poems that are given to us to write,’ and read poem after poem that made us glad for the poems Tony had been given; critical of America and western commercialism, funny and bittersweet, vulnerable and strong, able to make you feel and think.  

One of the main themes of this year’s festival was ‘Poetry and Freedom’, and I thought about the idea of freedom in many different ways over the course of the weekend. Freedom in the context of how we choose to live and make and be or not be - in our homes and on this earth, freedom to fight for what we believe in, freedom to criticise regimes we don’t agree with, freedom to write about sex and emotion, freedom to write about shitting and lice, freedom to be one thing and then change our mind, freedom to feel terrible and powerless and angry and sad and joyful and peaceful and silly and beautiful, freedom to seek, even in the midst of catastrophe and impending doom, solace in the act of reading and writing, in the creative energy of poetry and the communication and connection between minds and hearts which is its ion engine to quote Edwin Morgan.  

Tony said, ‘We go on and we say, I want to be more alive, I want to be more alive. That’s what poetry is about.’

And flying in a train with a bag filled with new words and a heart filled with renewed hope, I couldn’t agree more.  




JL Williams


Programme Manager, Scottish Poetry Library

Festival Blogger, 2015 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival