A Day at the Ledbury Poetry Festival

amali rodrigo

Amali Rodrigo

I couldn’t have picked a better day for attending this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival – the sun was shining, the roads were quiet and the poetry was exceptional. I only wish I could have stayed for longer. My first event was an opportunity to ‘Meet the Poetry Editors’, followed by poetry readings from Suzannah Evans, Tom Sastry, Jacqueline Saphra, Katherine Towers and Amali Rodrigo, as well as a personal serenade from a blackbird in Ledbury’s old walled garden.   

‘Meet the Poetry Editors’ was a chance to hear from Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, Luke Allen of Carcanet and PN Review, and Amy Wack of Seren Press. A small part of me was hoping to hear them reveal the magic formula for writing mind-blowing poems – the ones that will be accepted in all the best literary magazines and eventually come together in the form of a prize-winning collection. Of course, there is no such thing, but we did get some interesting insights into the world of poetry publishing, and some good old-fashioned encouragement.

meet the poetry editors

The Poetry Editors looking thoughtful, as Mslexia’s Debbie Taylor introduces the event

It was encouraging to hear that acclaimed poet Deryn Rees-Jones actually sent her work to Seren Press three times in her twenties, before she was eventually accepted for publication in her thirties. Amy Wack described writing poetry as “like learning to play an instrument”, adding that “it takes about ten years to develop your voice and begin to write with authority”.

All three editors emphasised the importance of submitting to magazines, building up a track record and providing opportunities to get your work seen by editors. Neil Astley discovered a poet from a competition he was judging, and Amy Wack tracked someone down to offer them the chance of publication, after reading their work in literary magazines.

Church Lane

Church Lane which leads to the beautiful walled garden

There were a couple of free readings in a beautiful panelled room in The Masters House, including Suzannah Evans, whose pamphlet ‘Confusion Species’ was published by The Poetry Business. Her poems are full of humour – portraying apocalyptic and dystopian visions, including one about robot bees, whose honey would have “the aftertaste of axel grease”.

Tom Sastry’s performance was fantastic – he simply stood and began with the intriguing line “No-one knows where the clowns went.” Another poem included a description of himself as “a fourteen-stone word association machine”. I loved his work – hilarious and intense, detailed and thought-provoking.

jacqueline saphra

Jacqueline Saphra

Jacqueline Saphra performed work from her latest collection All My Mad Mothers alongside composer Benjamin Tassie. The music created a reflective, immersive atmosphere, with the clashing chords of synthesised cello and live piano music, accentuating poems peopled with family members, full of irony and humour, and a sense of sadness too.

Katherine Towers’ poetry is intriguing in a different way. Quieter and more subdued but no less powerful, her work draws on the complexities of nature. She read from her new collection The Remedies, and I particularly enjoyed hearing her prose poem, ‘rain’ which describes trees as “iron and purple like wine”, evoking a kind of natural transcendence into nature, where “we enter at last that place in the heart… where there’s nothing, not even weather”.

katherine towers

Katherine Towers

Amali Rodrigo’s work was entirely different again, but I was particularly fascinated to hear her read translations of the graffiti poems written in response to ancient frescos of beautiful women, part of the palace of King Kashyapa, in Sri Lanka, from the 5th century BC. The poems are the oldest known examples of ekphrasis, and include some quite incredible and humorous verses written by monks, by husbands and their wives, and tourists who stumbled upon the frescos by accident.

I reluctantly set off home with a mind full of words, two new books and the beautifully presented Versopolis pamphlets. Work and other commitments prevent me from returning this year, but the festival continues over the next few days, with poetry headliners John Hegley and Simon Armitage, and a wide variety of workshops and free events, culminating in the festival finale next Sunday afternoon. Visit the festival website for more details.

Musicians busking under the old Market House

Musicians busking under the old Market House

Poetry Quotes Artwork

The town is decorated with poetry quotes turned into artwork

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