Aldeburgh Poetry Festival comes of age

Time to hang out the bunting: The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is getting the key of the door, with the 21st annual shin-dig on the horizon.

Steven Russell

Time to hang out the bunting: The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival is getting the key of the door, with the 21st annual shin-dig on the horizon. Steven Russell discovers how it's celebrating

RUNNING an international jamboree demands planning of military precision - which is why the folk who run The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival have almost doubled the number of pay-as-you-go mobile phones in their armoury. Coverage isn't great on the rim of eastern England, where the land falls away into the sea. Orange appears to offer the most reliable signal, so more handsets have been secured to help organisers stay in touch. “Somebody's going to spend a happy half-day putting in automated numbers for all the different venues,” chuckles Naomi Jaffa ahead of a big staff meeting to make sure everyone's aware of their roles and responsibilities. “You can't have walkie-talkies at a poetry festival, with all that crackle, crackle, crackle!” adds the director of The Poetry Trust, which runs the event.

For the past two decades, lovers of poetry have been inscribing “Aldeburgh” on the November page of their calendars and ringing it heavily in red. The town has become synonymous with verse, thanks to the weekend festival that's brought writers like Clive James and Margaret Atwood to the seaside, along with dozens and dozens of other potent wordsmiths who sometimes aren't household names but - in the eyes of their champions - ought to be.


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With about 10 days to go, ticket sales for the 21st festival, running from November 6-8, were up 35% on this time last year. That's an extra 667 tickets sold, with the total at about 2,700. “Actually, last year's was itself a very healthy festival - very well attended, considering Lehman Brothers (the New York-based global financial services firm) had tumbled and recession suddenly loomed very large, and people were very scared of spending any unnecessary money,” says Naomi.

One of the cornerstones of Aldeburgh's success has been its independent spirit when programming its line-up. Organisers aren't buffeted by the tide - who's touring, who has a new book out, which publishers are doing the hard sell - but seek instead to piece together a jigsaw they think will delight audiences.

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There's also been a policy to strive for a 100%-fresh line-up each November. A couple of decades on, that's bent a bit around the edges. But not much. One poet making a return visit this year is Comedy Store graduate John Hegley, who will appear at the Friday evening family reading that traditionally kicks off the festival, as well as presenting a late-night Saturday slot. “Hegley is spectacularly funny. I hurt when I'm in the audience, because I can't control my laughter,” admits the festival director.

The heart of the weekend has always been the three-poets-reading events - “the mix of international poets: poets in translation; fabulous Americans that no-one ever gets the chance to hear in this country” - such as Philip Levine and Albert Goldbarth, this year - “and lesser-known names.” Then there's Geoffrey Hill: “a towering, serious poet who many say is the finest English poet writing today. He gives very, very few live readings, so it's a real honour that he's said yes to Aldeburgh”.

There's something for everyone. Kate Fox, for instance, is a sharp stand-up poet regularly heard on Radio 4's Saturday Live. Born in Pakistan and raised in Glasgow, Imtiaz Dharker is a poet, visual artist and documentary film maker.

The icing on the cake is the handful of events that brings a change of rhythm - things like the Saturday's acoustic session by Peter Blegvad. Best known for his newspaper comic strip Leviathan, he's also a singer-songwriter.

Naomi Jaffa says that Poetry Trust colleague Dean Parkin, “who knows popular music far better than me, says Peter is a kind of a mix of Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Loudon Wainwright III and Tom Waits - all in one body. He's fantastically surreal, witty, with sharp lyrics”.

(The festival is offering a �6 two-for-the-price-of-one ticket offer for the show at Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall from 5.45pm-6.30pm on Saturday, November 7 - subject to availability. Ring the box office on 01728 687110 and quote “East Anglian Daily Times offer”.)

There are some special events, too, to mark the festival's coming of age - starting with a birthday party at the Cinema Gallery in Aldeburgh. There will be tea, and cupcakes with pink or yellow icing, or silver decoration, to reflect this year's festival colour scheme. The event also launches an exhibition by photographer Peter Everard Smith, who since 2003 has captured through his lens the poets who have come to the seaside.

The festival has commissioned locally-based Wonderful Beast Theatre Company to create a new Saturday night cabaret celebrating the life of political poet Adrian Mitchell, who died earlier this year and was one of the trust's favourite wordsmiths. It's an all-singing, all-dancing show featuring actors Roger Lloyd Pack and Diana Quick, and Adrian's wife and daughter. About 200 tickets have already been sold.

Speaking of accommodation, she admits a bigger venue would be handy for some events. The much-loved Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, able to seat about 235, “is not a Tardis”. Perhaps next year there's a chance of one or two major readings happening up the road in one of the new buildings at Snape Maltings. Maybe. Possibly.

At the moment the festival is spread around four main venues. Sometimes it's a squeeze, though she's not complaining about the problems success can bring. “It is the quality of attention, of appreciation, that the Aldeburgh audience bring that the poets really love.”

On the Sunday afternoon, the birthday will be marked by an intriguing Fantasy Festival. Naomi, Michael Laskey (a poet who founded the festival in 1989 and directed it through its first decade) and Dean Parkin (a poet who's an integral part of the trust team) are dreaming up the programme they'd have if anything were possible.

It will honour the work of about a dozen poets who for one reason or another - old age, geography, death, say - have never made it to Aldeburgh. The audience will be able to see and/or hear them perform on audio and video recordings. “At least they will have been heard in the Jubilee Hall - even if it's virtual!” says Naomi.

“Ted Hughes is one example. We'd been inviting him, but he was very busy as Poet Laureate. We were confident he'd come at some time, but sadly he died in 1998.”

The use of technology shows how things have moved with the times, without damaging the essence of the festival.

Last year the trust dipped a toe in the podcast water and plans more on the digital front. Recordings will be made at the festival and then released during the year on the trust's free-to-download Poetry Channel.

It's all about spreading the word - something the festival seems to be achieving all round, if ticket sales are a reliable guide. A quarter of those who have booked for this year are people who haven't before featured on the Poetry Trust database.

“It isn't some kind of cliquey club that closes its doors to anyone who's not a signed-up member for the last two decades. Every year there's a big proportion of people coming for the very first time.”

If truth be told, Naomi herself took some convincing about the concept of a festival, even as someone on the inside!

“When I came to my very first festival, when I started working for the trust in 1993, I was very suspicious of the point of poets standing up there and reading poems, never mind two and a half days of it,” she admits, candidly. “I didn't really realise about how poets now, writing about life now, could be of any significant seriousness or relevance.”

But she listened to a Welsh poet called Sheenagh Pugh. “I remember her reading a poem about climbing Muckle Flugga, a rocky island off Shetland. I don't know what it was, but it made me cry.

“I was bowled over by the journey this poem took me on. It was like being at a wonderful concert or in front of an amazing painting; or a moment in the theatre when someone looks at somebody in a certain way and your heart just goes 'wallop'.

“I thought 'OK, if poetry can do this to me . . .' I didn't expect this; in fact, I was sat there beforehand, thinking 'Am I going to have to work very hard to feign enthusiasm?' But I was reaching for a hanky. I was really, really moved.”

Full festival programme: www.poetrytrust.org

Box office: 01728 687110 and www.aldeburgh.co.uk

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