Winchester Poetry Festival

After such an amazing weekend in Winchester, waking up this morning without a schedule of poetry to look forward to feels like such a disappointment. I’m sitting in the kitchen with my coffee as I try to acclimatise back to the real world and I really don’t want to.

Last Friday was the Chalk Poets event; the fear of reading my work to an audience was tempered first by seeing the beautiful Chalk Poets anthology and then by seeing family and friends in the audience. It was still utterly terrifying – I am told I appeared confident and that I read well, but my brain seems to have wiped the whole experience. I remember the wonderful work of my fellow contributors, walking up to the lectern and the relief of sitting down again. I have at least learned that public readings are nothing to fear, and I hope I can do it again. I am so very grateful to Stephanie Norgate for providing me with such a wonderful opportunity.

My Saturday began with a talk by Simon Armitage and Pip Hall on the Stanza Stones project; it was fascinating to hear about the process and heart-warming to know how valued the stones are in the local communities. Next on my schedule was a reading by Frances Leviston, Shazea Qurashi and Deryn Rees-Jones. What struck me in these readings was the incredible clarity and conviction with which each writer presented their work; there was a lot to admire and aspire to in this session. This was also true of the following session from Dr Choman Hardi, Sinead Morrisey and Bernard O'Donoghue. In both this and the previous session, the personal and the political, or public, spheres collided in new and inventive ways. In the evening, the Watcher of the Skies event with Simon Armitage, Mimi Khalvati and Helen Mort was sublime; three perfectly pitched readings which sent me back to my hotel in a reverie of words. I couldn’t sleep for quite a while after that, I think I was afraid to close my eyes and end the magic spell that had been cast.

On Sunday, I watched the results announced for the Winchester Poetry Prize in awe of the huge talent and variety displayed in the short-listed and prize-winning poems; judge Mimi Khalvati also threw in an invaluable lesson or two on the composition of poetry for everyone in the audience. Magma Editor Jon Sayers’ interview with Jo Shapcott offered a fascinating insight into her writing and was so well pitched, revealing without being invasive and clearly presenting the idea that inspiration is everywhere if we know how to recognise it. (It also totally legitimises my habit of poking around second hand bookshops for new gems… I do need all those books, like I’ve always said. Thanks for that, Jo.) Nicolas Roe’s lecture on Keats in Winchester provided a vivid and fresh perspective on one of Keats’ best-loved poems and provided an insight into the life and work of an exceptional writer. I was also rather thrilled to learn he stayed in the building that is now the hotel I was staying in for the weekend; I can only hope some Keats magic seeped into the walls and wafted over me while I slept. The Complete Works session had readings from Inua Ellams (displaying poise I can only dream of as he took requests from audience members on what topics to address in his reading), Sarah Howe, whose reading demonstrated all the qualities that made Loop of Jade so deserving of the TS Eliot Prize and Kei Miller, who had the audience rapt; I’m sure I’m not the only person who shed a tear when he read a quiet poem about his father. The whole session underscored something that I really loved about the festival; there was a huge amount of diversity in the poets attending the event. The performance theatre was packed out regardless of the gender, age, class or race of the readers. I hope the Winchester Poetry Festival shares the pictures of those attentive audiences far and wide, reminding the literary establishment that the only thing that matters in poetry is the beauty of the words and more must be done, as in Winchester, to remove barriers to writers from minorities because our language and culture are richer for their contribution.

The festival was closed by Tim Dee and Roger McGough, talking about the beloved Radio 4 programme Poetry Please and with McGough reading some of his work. This was an emotional one for me because as I’ve said before on this blog, Roger McGough is the reason I first fell in love with poetry. For me, he’s inextricably linked to my Dad, who used to read his poems to me and we’d laugh together and share a real love of the magic of words. My Dad died two years ago and although McGough was warm and witty on stage, I had tears in my eyes a few times during that session because I couldn’t stop thinking how much Dad would have loved to have been there, how we would have stared at each other in amazement that there he was, the man who had brought us both so much joy. I did get the chance to thank Roger for that, and he signed my most beloved McGough story, a strange picture book called Mr Noselighter that my Dad could recite from memory right up until the day he died because it was so often requested. I cried all the way home; since my Dad died I don’t think he’s felt closer than he did in that theatre, or so very far away.

My Dad filled my head with words and nonsense and he helped to make me the poet I am today; Winchester Poetry Festival demonstrated that he was right to do so. Poetry matters, and matters an awful lot, to a lot of people. I’m sorry that my Dad missed that last session, he would have loved it so much. I reconcile his loss much the same way that I will acclimatise back to the real world after such a wonderful weekend in Winchester. The scope and scale of the reconciliation is vastly different of course, but in both cases I’m left with all those beautiful words, words, words and the magic spell they will continue to weave over my life.