Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Derwent Poetry Festival


I was down in Matlock Bath at the weekend for the Derwent Poetry Festival, run by Templar Poetry. I had come across their books before - beautifully produced jems - and since my friend Naomi Foyle had been invited to read as a contributor to their new anthology, Stripe, it seemed like a good opportunity to spend a weekend with her and discover some new poets.

It was held in Masson Mills, a water-powered cotton mill, which still produces some of it own electricity from the river. While we had nothing compared to the rainfall in Cumbria, the river was swollen and fast-flowing. An anology for the poetry on the top two floors.

Pat Winslow opened the festival on the Friday evening, with her blend of earthed and lyrical poetry. She's such a sparkly person that it felt impossible not to fall under her reading spell.

By contrast, Jane Weir introduced her book Walking the Block on the Saturday morning. An insightful and askance biography of textile designers Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher. I talk as if I'm hugely familiar with this women. I wasn't. I'd never heard of them. But after an hour of Jane reading and talking about them I was woven (excuse the pun) into their histories.

The book is illustrated with their textile designs, made, as theirs were, with organic dyes, and is a lush artifact of their lives. And Jane's knowledge of them and of the printing process (she is also a printer) was gripping. The hour was a great combination of passion, storytelling, transcendental language and poetry. The poetry echoed the process of block printing: rhymically especially, which illustrates for the benefit poetry has over prose for biographies: there is an opportunity to get inside the subject, to viscerally feel the themes, the emotions.

I love this form for biography (I loved Ruth Padel's reading of her Darwin sequence). The fragmented nature of time and action provides space for the reader to step into the life described, and can slice just one facet of the life. With Jane's book it was very much the work and its process, and yet each poem stood alone as a poem. There was a reverberation to it.

My top discovery was Dawn Wood who read from one of the winning pamphlets, Connoisseur. In it she introduced a new world of dead creatures that she'd sketched and become absorbed by in the Dundee museum. Her precision of phrase, slightly surreal imagery and sense of humour gave such new versions of these potentially familar creatures. I was hooked.

I was also blown away by David Morley, who read poems he'd adapted from Romany stories. But it was the language, like flint on flint, that got me so excited. And I clearly wasn't the only one. He read two long poems in his slot, which at 6.30pm after a long day (with no lunch break to speak of) could have fallen flat on deaf ears. But there was a tangible tremour once he'd finished. We'd all been channeling the energy of that story.

The Sunday morning schedule was cancelled - many people had
been unable to get there - and despite the near continual rainfall, we decided to wander the woods. After close to nine hours of poetry it was necessary to swab our brains with foliage.

I could sense that same charge in my body, both as a writer - ooh yes, I must consider that to write about, oh and that - and as reader - how I was seeing the shapes of leaves, the cut away of the cliffs and the force of the river Derwent in greater detail. There's such an invigorating force to poetry, a kind of born-again sensibility to hearing it, that despite the closing light, the damp air and bedding down of autumn I sat on my train home tingling and very very alive.

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