Ripping up Fifty Shades of Grey... ‘Literary terrorism’ and more at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival
Naomi Jaffa could, you sense, sell blue and white scarves to Norwich City fans. As her final Aldeburgh Poetry Festival hoves into view, she shares her passion for the line-up and tells STEVEN RUSSELL how, this year, it is just a little bit personal
Poetry... Boring. Impenetrable. Obscure. Isn’t it?
It can be. But usually isn’t. Try this.
At a time when many folk might be thinking about afternoon tea, Suffolk-raised poet and performer Hannah Silva premieres her one-woman show Schlock! at Snape Maltings.
Commissioned by Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, it’s billed as “a powerful feminist satire for the cut-and-paste generation”, and the blurb runs on: “In the grand tradition of literary terrorism, Hannah Silva has ripped up her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and now, surrounded by the crumpled pages and with the help of [the late] radical punk-pirate Kathy Acker, she attempts to put the female body back together.”
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“I saw some of her work and thought ‘Goodness. This is very “out there”; very on the edge of what I could probably cope with in terms of its experimentalness’,” says festival director Naomi Jaffa.
“That’s going to make it sound really frightening, but actually it’s not, because she has humour and she has stagecraft, and she’s saying important things about gender politics.
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“She starts the show ripping up Fifty Shades of Grey, but what she’s doing is mixing sections of the text in a really unsettling way with [the work of] Kathy Acker.”
If that’s not your bag, there will likely be something to take your fancy among the 30 poets from 12 countries who descend on Suffolk for the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – well-known names complemented by lesser-known voices and newcomers who have earned their spurs.
It’s Naomi’s last festival as director of Halesworth-based The Poetry Trust, which runs the UK’s leading annual celebration of contemporary poetry.
So, after 22 years with the trust, was there the temptation to give herself a farewell treat when scheduling the 2014 line-up?
Well, there was “a little bit” of that – inviting some poets she particularly wanted to hear.
“It’s insidious to say ‘favourite’, but one of my all-time-favourite American poets is Thomas Lux. He read in 2000. He was phenomenal. Nobody has ever forgotten the reading he gave.
“I love the man. He’s a prince. He’s a giver. He’s rigorous about poetry, in the best way. He brings phenomenal energy. So I wanted Lux at my last poetry festival. But so did everybody else. I wasn’t trying to swim against the tide!”
His first proper UK collection – Selected Poems, published by Bloodaxe Books – is being launched at the festival. The trust and Bloodaxe have also organised a post-festival mini-tour for the poet raised on a dairy farm; it will take him to London, Hull, Newcastle and Edinburgh.
Lux will close the Aldeburgh festival, too. “And, yes, I wanted that.
“My other close-to-my-heart writer, poet, friend, is the South African Finuala Dowling, who again came about 10 years ago to the festival and wowed the audience. I’ve been following her and become a friend, really. That’s quite unusual for me. I like a lot of the poets, but I don’t hang out with them.
“She does that thing of writing about incredibly difficult, serious, ghastly subjects – like dementia and death and anorexic daughters and apartheid and racism – with humour, without it being naff or embarrassing, or in any way belittling the seriousness of the subject.
“She allows people to contemplate the subject with their hearts because she’s funny about it. Her latest book was Notes from the Dementia Ward and it’s about her mother dying with Alzheimer’s.
“The other person I’m super-excited about is Adélia Prado, probably Brazil’s leading living poet.” Apparently, her writing has the power to have whole stadiums of people in tears.
“I’d never heard of her but was tipped off about her. I went to an American poetry festival in about 2007 – maybe slightly earlier than that – and I’ve been trying every year since to get her over with her translator, who’s in North America. Adélia lives in Sao Paolo and doesn’t really speak English, but I think she’s a force of nature.
“She writes about spirituality and God, but writes about it through the settings of everyday physical reality: her kitchen, her food, the people on the streets. She’s doing that thing that poets do – being in touch with the biggest picture there is: why we’re here. She does it in straightforward language and it’s like a conjuring trick. You’ve gone from a bowl of tomatoes to the ineffable.
“She said ‘no’ every year because she won’t fly. She’s been phobic about flying. But then she was awarded almost the biggest international prize in poetry other than the Nobel – The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry’s Lifetime Recognition Award – which I think is about 60,000 dollars. It’s a big deal.
“In order to get it she has to go to Toronto, where the Griffin Trust is based, and New York, where they have a reading, and this summer she decided she would do it.
“With the aid of a prescribed pharmaceutical product, I’m informed, she flew, accompanied by her daughter. She flew, and made it, and it was OK. So she said ‘Yes, OK, I’ll come to England.’ She’s never read in the UK. She’s a phenomenon.”
The 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival runs from November 7 to 9
Most events are now held at Snape Maltings
Ten venues are used, in Aldeburgh and at Snape
There are more than 60 events – 22 of them free
The format includes readings, workshops, discussions, craft-talks, close-readings, performances and exhibitions
Tickets range from £2.50 to £20
Box office 01728 687110 or www.aldeburgh.co.uk
More on the festival programme and to read poems by this year’s poets: www.thepoetrytrust.org
This year’s line-up includes America’s Dan O’Brien, winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2013; Selima Hill; Tom Pickard; Scotland’s Jen Hadfield; Julian Stannard; Ellen Doré Watson; Volker Braun; Kathleen Jamie; Bronwyn Lea; Togaro Muzanenhamo from Zimbabwe; Beverly Rycroft; Paula Bohince; Ron Egatz; Jen Benka; Karen McCarthy Woolf; Kayo Chingonyi; Jonathan Edwards and Suzannah Evans.