I had a rich and engaging time at the Swindon Festival of Poetry this weekend. At the heart of it all is Hilda Sheehan, with her stated goal to make it “the quirkiest poetry festival in the world.” Set mainly on the delightfully rustic and decidedly bohemian Lower Shaw Farm, it achieves not only this but other goals — being among the friendliest and least pretentious; rich, diverse, and encompassing; pushing past conventional views of poetry in the twenty-first century; intimately global; startlingly fresh.
I had the pleasure of kicking off Friday’s afternoon of readings with poems from The Silence Teacher and my forthcoming book The Knowledge. The full-house audience in a converted calfing barn was among the most attentive I have known, and the conversations afterward rich, honest, and meaningful. Louisa Davison shares her own experience of my reading at the Festival Chronicle website. It was a pleasure to hear Jacquelyn Pope‘s strong, spare work and then dynamic fellow expat Carrie Etter, bringing themes of parenthood and loss to the fore between us, which Louisa again picked up on in her musings. Maurice Riordan and Kathryn Maris then rounded out the afternoon, lending their unique and decidedly expert voices to the day. It was truly an honour to be in the company of these four.
The evening rolled on with a highly experimental fusion of film and poetry as part of Malgorzata Kitowski’s PoetryFilm event. She screened our film-poem collaboration “The Shell of the World”, and I was delighted to overhear many poetry lovers coming up to my wife Valerie afterward to compliment her on the soundtrack (which she wrote and performed for this film). Sometimes pure sound can be sidelined in a word-focused gathering, but not this one.
As if to prove the point, festival-goers and Swindonians thronged to Don Share‘s live poetry-and-music collaborative show “Squandermania” that night. Val and I were riveted — the whole thing having come together with top-notch musicians from the local area all meeting one another, and Don, for the first time earlier that day. You would never know. As much as the show drew us to the edge of our seats like a high-wire act without a net, each performer also seemed at once highly confident and passionately collaborative. Here were five artists really listening to one another in service to the sum of their contributions achieving so much more than the parts. It was a tight and electrifying improvisation, and gave me a new reference point for what poetry-cum-music collaboration can be.
I sold books, met new friends, put real-life faces to long-virtual names, and came away with a copy of Domestic Cherry 4, in which I have two poems. The journal is an excellent and deliberately eclectic mix of poems from many well-known names and others I am keen to watch.
Sometimes, the real magic happens, not in the places you’d first expect, but in fertile cracks and crevices, tucked away, where conditions come together perfectly to give rise to new art forms, and poetry gatherings the way you always wish they would be — inviting, encompassing, dedicated to art as a real and necessary force in each participant’s life. That was Swindon for me. It was unforgettable.
Now I am whisking off to The Troubadour for one of their always-exceptional evenings of poetry. Once again, I will be reading alongside fellow Americans. I suppose that’s one way to keep remembering what your accent is supposed to sound like.