A Day At The Cheltenham Poetry Festival

Kevan Manwaring poet

Kevan Manwaring

My day at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival included everything from a thunderstorm to a talking parrot. The first event (which I enjoyed the most) featured Kevan Manwaring performing poetic pieces from his book Lost Borders, interspersed with a selection of traditional folk songs sung by Chantelle Smith. They began in Scotland, with poetry inspired by a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, and moved further afield to Ireland and then America, returning finally to the UK once again, exploring the borders between worlds.   

Chantelle Smith

Chantelle Smith

I love the imagery in Manwaring’s poems: “Words, vibrant as rowan berries” and “horses straight as rain”. He has a powerful storytelling voice. The combination of strong poetry and haunting folk ballads worked effectively to transport the small audience to another place and time. It was a shame that not many people attended the event. I would certainly enjoy seeing these two perform again.

A Play About A Poet

The next event was vastly different – a preview of David Elder’s new play Love Lost, about the life of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson wrote ‘In Memoriam A.H.H‘ whilst in Cheltenham (a memorial poem for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died at the age of 22).  The play explores Tennyson’s grief, his writing, his love affair with Emily (whom he eventually married), his continual fear of illness and his melancholia (depression), for which he underwent hydropathy (also known as the water cure).

A scene from 'Love Lost' featuring Tennyson's parrot

A scene from ‘Love Lost’ featuring Tennyson’s parrot

We watched six scenes from the play, which was both dramatic and humorous. Marianne Gaston played several parts including ‘twin demons’, representing Tennyson’s struggle with depression and hypochondria, as well as the voice of Albert, the parrot (who was very well-educated and could apparently quote Shakespeare). The whole play will eventually be performed at Cheltenham Playhouse, although they haven’t set a date yet.

A Surprise Stand In

My final event was supposed to feature Todd Swift and Rhys Milsom performing their poetry. Unfortunately Todd Swift was unable to attend, due to illness, so the current Cheltenham Poet in Residence, Angela France, stood in for him at the last moment. I sat next to her mother, who was very friendly, and gave me a little more information about the poems. I enjoyed hearing her read from her book Hide. She explained that “poets are a strange breed” because “we like to stand up and read our work but we’re also introverts, in need of hiding places”. Her work covers a wide variety of themes, from an ironic examination of Auden’s belief that “poetry makes nothing happen” to poems about her Grandparents, exploring how we remember things.

Angela France poet

Angela France

Having travelled to the festival from Cardiff, it felt a little strange to hear Rhys Milsom (a fellow Cardiffian) read his work. He read poems set in the Welsh valleys, and the most memorable of these was a moving depiction of loneliness.

My day at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival was full of variety. I managed to avoid being caught in the thunserstorm which hit mid-afternoon, and enjoyed the sunshine and the poetry in equal measure. There is still a whole week full of workshops and readings to come, including Carrie Etter, George Szirtes and David Clarke among others.

(Declaration: I received free entry to these events.)