Monday 28 September 2009

King's Lynn Poetry Festival

I arrived lunchtime at King's Lynn rail station after a lightning journey catching up with Moniza Alvi and Susan Wicks, to the traditional champagne reception on the platform. After I made a dash to the station loo (no working loos on the train) we refreshed ourselves courtesy of the always-welcoming-and-smiling festival director Tony Ellis. This was my second time at King's Lynn. Last time, I have a faint recollection there was also a bagpipe player. In the photo, from left to right: Richard McKane, Susan Wicks, John Hartley Williams, Annie Freud, Kit Wright, Moniza Alvi, PP, and Larissa Miller from Moscow. Also on the platform to meet us were our assorted hosts who would offer up their houses for lodging and ferry us about, and a group of volunteers who help Tony run the festival. I met my hosts, Maryanna and Roger, and later their dog Samba (a cross between a border collie and black Alsation) and their two hens Lupin and Clover. They warned me as I'd answered positive to "dog tolerant" that I'd drawn the short straw, but the moment I entered their home I felt thoroughly at ease and long-strawed. Roger would later show me his unique cabinet of antique bird eggs. But first, lunch at the director's house.

More champagne, which I declined, as my school visit loomed. Rob Elwes, who I'd already met on Twitter, attempted to whisk me away as I fumbled for the note where important info was jotted, such as name of school and teacher contact. By now Tony's house was heaving so we battled through the kitchen and made our escape, since my school was a fair distance, the exact whereabouts neither of us were entirely sure of, nor the age group, which turned out to be 13-year-olds. Quick flick through books for okay-poems-for-any-age en route. But I was prepared for all eventualities and had xeroxed pics to circulate with poems. The class's burning question was "Miss, are you famous?" And their answer to my question: "How many modern poets have you heard of?" was "Only you miss" – a sobering thought. One boy though has ambitions to become a poet and most had written some poems in class.

I kicked off with 'The Strait-Jackets', showed them the photo that sparked it (40 hummingbirds in a suitcase) and we discussed how I made the poem, what a metaphor was (silence), simile (they knew), and so on. Where were my rhymes, they wondered. The story of Ruschi transporting the birds by suitcase for air travel had them hooked. Further chat about travels,
China, the Great Wall (ooh!), and did they know what "primeval" meant? "Of course! We've seen it on telly!" One mile high waterfalls, 2,000 feet high trees (how high is that Miss? Umm...) and out came my pics of atlas moths, in real-time eye-popping size so we knew what we were talking. Magical silence.

I settled into my lodgings, and dashed to the evening reading – Susan Wicks, who was here as stunningly original French poet Valérie Rouzeau's translator (but Valerie had gastric flu so didn't make it) read her translations and her own exquisite poems, Moniza (still recovering from gastric flu but luminous – 'Mermaid', 'Europa' and 'How the World Split in Two' never fail to thrill anew), and Michael Hulse who read the best poem about the grinding and creation of pigments I've ever heard.

It's one of those festivals where all the poets attend all each others' readings, so I had the pleasure of a first acquaintance with a number of new-to-me voices – Annie Freud (wow), Basque poet Eli Tolaretxipi, and one of my co-readers on Saturday afternoon, Lachlan Mackinnon. Must get that poem by Kit Wright about Roy Orbinson's 'Only the Lonely', just thinking of it has me giggling "not only the lonely, Roy, but simply the pimply, nearly the bleary and lastly the ghastly." I've also come away with an image which won't dislodge of a polar bear in John Hartley Williams' living-room during his Dove Cottage residency, and a very absurd dialogue with said bear a là Ionesco theatre. Two morning panel discussions (one of which was hijacked for a celebration as this is the 25th year of this splendid festival and Michael Hulse had secretly published an anthology for Tony with contributions from us all), and
after-reading parties, have mingled in the imagination. I do remember a serious discussion with Michael about God, atheism and aliens in the early hours of Saturday morning and vivid recollections of his nine-week-old daughter Agnes.

My next festival is Warwick Words, where I'll be reading in the Kozi Bar at 11am on Sunday 4 October. After that I go to Israel's Sha'ar International Poetry Festival, and then Aldeburgh, and in between there's classes in Tate Modern with 26 writers, bang in the middle of the Pop Life and John Baldessari new shows.