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Aldeburgh at Snape

From the view of a volunteer
Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, 2012

It is a remarkable feat, that with such thorough preparation (folders with instructions, boxes of bits including pins, spare paper, pencils, handouts), us volunteers turn up on the Friday, pick up and become the scaffold for this well honed festival. Aldeburgh or Snape, the change of geography proved immaterial. The ground work is impeccable.

Naturally we are bound by a love of words, but otherwise we are a disparate group, young to middle aged, no previous form or 20 years of it. It’s the 24th year of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and its first year at the larger audience capacity of Snape. It is my second year, and I’m feeling like an old hand, but I am with a genuine pro, the lovely Joanna (on 20 years?). If asked in a Survey Monkey, she’s one of the main reasons I’ve volunteered to volunteer again. She is a pleasure.

After witnessing first hand the Olympics and Para Olympics, and the dynamic strength of working with volunteers, I see the vital component: clearly not money, but pleasure. It has to be pleasurable. There is also exchange – they got to see some of the Para and Olympic events, just as we see some poetry. And then a uniform – we had our badges, and this year a revolutionary sash. The sash was quirky. There was an odd reluctance amongst some of the old school to wear the new sash, perhaps because like Snape, it was just new. Perhaps because it didn’t sit well on the diagonal without a pin (unusually not provided). It did look good on sleek young black, (mini skirt, long tighted legs), and Miles did look fetching with it round his waist come the last evening – the loop over the shoulder did tend to fall, and the tie was an imaginative fix.

Single Bed

It feels like a dry run. One step closer
to that time which was a lifetime away.
When silver haired woman were once all the same,
Martians to my arrogant youth.
I can just about see round the corner, now,
to that place I thought I’d never come
of compromise: it will do, that single bed.

Elizabeth Court, where we volunteers sleep, is a silent 60s box oddity on Aldeburgh’s genteel high street. Bought up by Aldeburgh Music for residential musicians, there are music stands in the hall, propping notes saying things like: Welcome,
Its former incarnation prevails: an old age home.
The song of Marley does not resonate.
In my single bed. That last corporal resting place
before the singular chest. I am here.
A bed side light, useful.

The poets, mostly the other side of 55,
Taking obliquely of googling, or
Predictive text as if scythes,
Or yellow pages
We’re more comfortable.
In my workshop fellow scribblers
put dictionaries on the table.
Our homework:
A love song to a dictionary.
It’s been a long time, since I turned a page
to dally on a random etymology.

There was a hiccup with food that first night when everything closed. When the poetry blogger suffers, time to take note. I am reminded of Major Tony Hibbert MC’s three musts advice to Tim Smit on setting up Heligan gardens: ‘one the car park must have shade for dogs, because the British are dog lovers; two good loos are vital as visitors will judge you on your loos; and three, the tea rooms must be first class… The gardens themselves don’t feature at all’ [Tim Smit, The Lost Gardens of Heligan] in our memories, if the others are not in place. For they will obfuscate.

Jackie Kay
Mixed she may be, (a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father, adopted by a white Scottish couple and grew up in Glasgow) but mixed up she is not. In her easy mirth, she describes how once she found him, her Nigerian father danced around her, declaring her to be the sin, and how no one must know of her existence, for should they know, it would shatter their faith in God.
‘I never knew I had such power’, she chuckles.
She found her father easily – through google. He was a famous tree man, a nice twist for a family tree, she plays the word. And it was her comfortable ease, and likeability which gave us her penultimate and hilarious poem on Ma Broon’s Vagina Monologue. (Here you get the full rich flavour of her voice, and easy laughter.)
She read a poem in which she described going to that African village, a journey forbidden by her father, arriving there and looking through the windows. So, she said, ‘I said good by to my father, years before you are you are actually dead’.

Anthony Thwaite
Comes from the comfortable old school (born 1930) ‘Most people think I’m dead’, he opens. He begins with the Cockroach, read very well. The end turns it into something existential:
‘A cockroach in a kitchen is the truth.
A cockroach in a story may be lies.
The insect was both noble and uncouth.
The writer makes a life from mysteries.’

He has the fascination with other languages, of one who speaks but one. I can associate. His background is vast, a fundament in literature publishing (The Listener and New Statesman) and another Hull connection (Christopher Reid was at Hull for a couple of years). He is an executor of the estate of Philip Larkin.

The Palestinian poet, Ghassan Zaqtan, and his translator Fady Joudah took the stage. Naomi introduced them.
‘Thank you ma’am’ the Palestinian addressed Naomi, unusually.
I watch the space between them. Zaqtan with strikingly rich, deep etched voice, (tobacco or smoky Ramallah fires?) sun worn skin. Fady Joudah, also Palestinian but American, shapely dressed, smooth skin. I am reminded (yet again) of the summer games, the T11 race, blind runners run with their sited co-runners, their wrists bound together, arms and legs in unison. Twinning with a blind runner. And what do you do for a living? I enable a blind man to run. (For the first year, both were given a medal). Such symbiotic relationship between one who creates, and one who enables the creation to be heard.
‘The endings are not ours’
‘Wherever I fall, a stray horse comes to graze beside my sleep.’
‘The silence of survival.’
I liked the last poem, but could not find it quickly in the book ‘Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me’ for sale, and now forget the name and sense.

Sam Willetts
Was late. It’s what we volunteers dread, a late poet. He arrives with 5 minutes to spare, unaware of the commotion caused, the four people sent to find him.
‘Metaphor can be treacherous’, he begins well. ‘I speak as one who is always late, as a habitual procrastinator. That’s what addiction is all about. Procrastinating. I’ll clean up tomorrow.’ I associate. His was heroin, mine is more mundane, cigarettes. He gives us his John Humphries story, that he’s evangelical to spread. Sam got up in time to hear his poem read out on the Today programme – they were reading one a day from each of the poets in the running for T. S. Eliot prize.
‘And that was Sam cheerful Willetts’, Brian Humphries said at the end, deadpan.
The good beginning crashed with two confessions (when is an honest confession, no longer charming?): the first was he had not prepared what he was going to say, until he was having lunch an hour ago. (Punters had paid £5 for this declaration). Speaking of his love of the blues, he explained ‘not middle aged men in pubs strumming 9 bar blues’ – probably a few of them in the audience here in Suffolk.

Discussion of poetry as a lifeline, is the theme of this years festival. Imagination a lifeline. I am thinking of the interview with a hostage I once heard, who described the moment, amid such darkness of uncertainty and brutality, he realised no one could hear or take away his thinking mind, as his moment of freedom.

In a tiger luring voice of thousands of rough hewn cigarettes or covert evenings beside a Ramalla smoky fire (keep your mind open), the Palestinian Ghassan Zaqtan spoke of sieges. Words and metaphor, a refuge code for survival.

Jackie Kay, again on Saturday evening, spoke of her recent experience of reciting a poem in front of thousands of Sheffield Wednesday fans, a game of two halves, to help kick racism out of football. Written as a sonnet, (although doubtful if anyone there knew it was).

Let Arthur Wharton come back from the dead
To see the man in black blow the final whistle.
Let the game of two halves be beautiful,
Not years ahead.

Ingrid de Kok
We had to find out how to pronounce her name for Joanna to introduce her. We asked her directly:
‘Kok, cockerel, mans penis, Kok, that’s how it’s said’.
We loved her. Born in Western Transvaal, she lives in South Africa. Great energy, quick mind. Naomi introduced her as writing ‘national poems that feel personal and personal poems that feel universal’.
She read us ‘My Muse is a Man’
‘While most are remote, my muse has views,
Is scornful of lower case, the elongated line,
The sentimental rhyme, harsh images of fathers…
Believes the best poems speak of death,
Also love, but mostly death.’

Philip Schultz
Arrived from New York, bringing Sandy close us. Closer to him, as he left his wife with no electricity, petrol, and loads of uncertainty. Suffolk wireless connection was not robust for his needs. He talked on personage and John Berryman, who was at first jealous of Bishop and another who had found their matter, however, with 77 Dream Songs, he found his story, ‘becoming comfortable in his dishevelled place’. He speaks through his alter ego, Berryman said: Henry is accused of being me and I am accused of being Henry and I deny it and nobody believes me.’
Zbigniew Herbert – Mr Cognito, who was above the fray. Herbert is the poets’ poet.

Lunch with Joanna and Michael Laskey (who founded the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival back in 1989 and directed it through its first decade – although you would never know unless told – he sits with us volunteers with his trade mark beret on). Together Joanna and Michael have just edited the last Smiths Knoll. Copies, with its curious name and Admiralty chart front cover, are free to take, reflecting the generous and expansive spirit of Michael. We discuss how to say poets’ names. Joanna has unexpected turns of thought, and frequent questions: ‘Can I ask you two questions?’ I wonder if the second was known at that stage but just reserved. I forgot to bat the ball back, and leave without asking my questions.

Ku Un
Korean poet, Ku Un and his translator Brother Anthony of Taizé take the stage
Ku Un is animated. Amazingly animated for a man of 80 as he informs me later. His voice performs a full yoga work out, from whisper to demonstrative declaration, reminding us in a 300 packed audience in the Britten Studio of how sometimes we do not need to know what the symbols of words stand for, to get their drift. Although Brother Anthony provides, in a surprisingly high voice, a translation. Born in Truro, now based in South Korea, he has also taken Korean nationality. They are an intriguing double act. It is the space between yet again and it’s different from the Palestinians. Brother Anthony stepped back and to the side to listen. There is that Eastern respect (the way Brother A holds his hands together?)
‘First Person Sorrowful’, the first British collection of Ku Un’s poetry
Poem about the we, the I, the him the they,
‘I am more than myself.
‘Today’s dog is yesterday’s wolf.’

Brother Anthony writes of Ko Un: ‘Ko Un’s life has been acclaimed as “a prime example of ten-thousand-foot high waves,” an ancient Korean expression indicating the link between suffering and strength. Allen Ginsberg probably summed it up as well as anyone ever could when he wrote: “Ko Un is a magnificent poet, combination of Buddhist cognoscenti, passionate political libertarian, and naturalist historian.”

A Few Words
They don’t disappear after weeping.
Damn it.
Damn it.
They’re not foregone
with my body throbbing, aching,
after being beaten.
Even after a meagre soup of radish tops
at the end of three days’ hunger,
they’re not forgotten
as I gaze out at the hill before me.
Looking back, they’ve not been buried even by a century of oppression.
A few words!
Sunset at sea,
I just can’t help it before I die,
this accursed gift, stupid fluff, a few words.

At the Sunday evening post poetry party, I meet Ku Un, his wife and Brother Anthony. At 80 now, Ku Un married at 50, and through his wife he tells me he was a monk for some time, and a prisoner for some time. (I am reminded that I nothing of the politics of Korea). Falling into their respectful way, I make sure they are the first to eat the delicious food the wonderful Maggie has provided.

We workers sit together on the floor. As I left, I dallied, and had my cigarette given by Naomi, (just as she gave me one last year) outside the house.
‘Is that the ash tray? I ask looking for a place to extinguish. Someone indicted the floor.
‘We are in the ashtray’, said Ghassan Zaqtan. So it was the cigarettes, and not the Ramallah hearth fire, that bequeathed that tiger voice.

– Rachel Kellett

Posted 9 years ago

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