Poetry at the Hay Festival – From Roger McGough to Sarah Howe

Roger McGough, poetry at Hay FestivalLast week I was stewarding in the Tata Tent, the largest of the Hay Festival venues, which meant that, whilst I got to see all the big names, I had to visit other venues for the poetry events, which unfortunately seem to attract a smaller audience.

One of these was Roger McGough, performing alongside the band LiTTLe MACHiNe. The event began with the band playing some classic poems to music including ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by Yeats and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. It felt surreal, especially as one of the songs involved a singing skull (which, of course, could only mime). The words of the poems were projected onto the screen behind them, which helped, but it did also feel a little naff, and at first I couldn’t decide whether I loved it or hated it…

Little Machine at Hay FestivalThere was one song which I really enjoyed – from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas, and when McGough arrived on stage to begin with a song poem entitled ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’, the event really got going. He read poems alternating from the hilarious to the downright tragic, mixing chip shops with suicide and natural disasters, and finally ending with the ‘Lily The Pink’ song, encouraging the audience to join in (and as I am a tad too young to know the words, I just listened).

In contrast, Sarah Howe (winner of the T.S.Eliot prize 2015 and a relatively new voice in the British poetry scene) read from her book Loop of Jade in a far more straightforward poetry event. It was interesting to hear her speak about the complexities of language, from the perspective of someone who moved to the UK aged seven, whose first language is English but whose mother is Chinese.

The title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ focuses on a piece of jewellery which was given to her as a baby by her Chinese grandmother (actually her mother’s adoptive mother). The loop of jade was blessed and acted as a kind of sacrifice or talisman, so that if the baby fell, whilst learning to walk, they would be protected from harm. Howe explained that the poem is written in fragments, telling the story of her mother’s childhood in “a piecemeal way”, the same way in which she learnt about it herself whilst growing up. Her mother was given up by her birth parents and ‘adopted’ by a woman who took her to Hong Kong, but wasn’t always able to look after her, so at times she was sent to a kind of school, which Howe described as “more like a poor house”.

Loop of Jade - BookHowe spoke about her strange sense of separation from language, the way in which she grew up not being able to understand Cantonese and yet hearing the language all around her, so she manages to somehow separate meaning from sound. She talked about how culture and race shape our existence but as a mixed race person she is able to steer her own path. The book, she explained, was a way of her asking the question “Who am I?” and, through writing the poems within it, the book has provided an answer.

She spoke about the writing process, explaining how she can often see the form of a poem unfolding after working out the first line. The form of the title poem, she explained, was actually planned in advance, based on the Japanese Haibun, which contains a page of prose before a short piece of poetry, often in the form of a Haiku: “There’s something about the transition between the workaday and the perfectly crafted.”

Both Sarah Howe and Roger McGough belong to a long line of literary greats, both use words to great effect, but McGough’s humour and visceral voice contrast strongly with Howe’s contemplative verse and outsider perspective.

Top two photos taken by Sam Hardwick, the other two by myself

Declaration: I received free entry to both of these events