AD – press ticket provided in exchange for a review
Whether they’re focused on music, theatre, film, food or words, festivals are such joyful platforms for celebrating creativity, culture and community.
While I’m not into the idea of joining thousands of people swimming across mud-bath fields on very little sleep, I am into the idea of coming together with lovers of words and literature in one of the UK’s prettiest little cities for a showcase of spectacular talent and ideas.
I was delighted to hear that the renowned Winchester Poetry Festival was returning for 2021, after a now-standard, pandemic-induced hiatus.
This year, the Festival team decided to offer their biggest event yet by running small sessions throughout the year, hybrid style, with opportunities to attend workshops, discussions, readings and more online and in person over the summer and into the autumn. The programme reached its crescendo from 8-10 October, with a weekend rammed full of poetic treats.
I was thrilled to attend one of the three Festival weekend days, making my way into Winchester on Saturday 9 October for around seven hours of stanzas, syllables and sonnets.
After making the most of being in beautiful Winchester (what a location for an event like this!) by enjoying a solo brunch wandering through the cathedral grounds, I headed to my first event, Things Being Various: Paul Muldoon with Jon Sayers. Irish-born Muldoon, fresh off the plane from New York, shared a number of items (mostly through photos thanks to luggage restrictions) that told stories about his life’s experiences and inspirations, while reciting a number of his pieces.
It was a brilliantly lighthearted and entertaining session that delved into the person behind the poetry and felt more like a fireside chat than a ticketed event. I could have listened to Muldoon and Sayers chat for hours – not least because their voices were ultra soothing.
Next, onto the Winchester Poetry Prize readings and results; a jewel in the crown of the Festival and definitely a highlight for me. We were lucky enough to have each longlisted poet introduced by this year’s judge, the wonderful Jaqueline Saphra, whose admiration for each writer was far from subtle and not at all restrained.
The calibre of this year’s squad of poets was incredible, each one capturing the audience’s attention and thoroughly deserving of their place in the 2021 Prize Anthology. This was a hybrid event, with poets performing live, via Zoom and on pre-recorded video, making this Prize truly international and inclusive, which I loved.
Congratulations go to Lesley Saunders for winning first prize with the incredible Starlings – and also Laurie Bolger, whose second prize-winning poem Gem was one of my favourites. I also loved Helen Bowell’s Monsieur Le Barman, Imogen Cook’s Hampshire Prize winning Frankenstein, and Instructions for Modern Family by Trelawney.
Following the prize-giving, we enjoyed readings by local wordsmiths from Winchester Muse – a local collective of poets who focus primarily on women’s writing. It was lovely to hear moving and entertaining pieces from the group, as well as a touching tribute to their late founder and much-loved local writer, Sue Wrinch.
The day was rounded off with what was dubbed the ‘headliner’ of the day. This unofficial pyramid stage of sorts hosted Patience Agbabi and Hampshire Poet Kathryn Bevis, who captivated us with their readings. Both women were wonderful creators and performers offering two different, yet equally beautiful, styles of poetry. I was particularly taken by Kathryn’s poem Matryoshka, and I loved Patience’s reimagining of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from her book Telling Tales, especially her own, modern-day, moving contribution in the form of The Refugee’s Tale.
There was more in store the next day, with the Ambassador Showcase, further workshops, performances and close readings. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend, but Twitter tells me it was equally as special. I also hear that the Friday night performances from local Ghost River Collective, Paul Muldoon and Clare Pollard were also impressive, and a fittingly fantastic start to the weekend.
In between sessions, there was still plenty to do. A Poetry Marketplace could be found by the entrance, with a stall hosting local independent book shop P&G Wells, and a second-hand poetry book stall offering absolute bargains (£1 per book!). Possibly predictably, I returned home with five new poetry books, including the Festival’s 2021 anthology, to add to my collection (all paid for by myself, by the way, for clarity; these weren’t included in the press opportunity!)
There was also time to explore the Discovery Centre (where the event was held), grab a coffee, and generally network and chat with other poetry lovers and writers – I enjoyed meeting a couple of longlisted poets in the post prize-giving reception. The city’s fantastic Poet on the High Street, Jonny Fluffypunk, also engaged visitors with his work, which has been wowing Winchester locals and visitors over the months.
I will also add that I was pleased to see the Festival taking Covid guidelines on board. Masks, while not compulsory, were actively encouraged, and for the first time in a while I was not in the minority in wearing one.
I left the day feeling simultaneously inspired and intimidated, determined to continue to develop my own skills and discover new brilliant writers. It was thrilling to be back within such an exciting community after so long, and I felt more like myself than ever.
Long-time readers and long-suffering friends will know how passionate I am about how poetry can, and should, be for everyone. I think accessible events like this, hosted within city centres with flexible, drop-in sessions, are key in getting people involved, bringing writers together, and encouraging others to be curious and try something new!
While travelling back from the day, I asked myself what I would change about the Festival, if I had to suggest something. In the future, I might like to see more entry-level/informal poetry workshops to encourage new or amateur writers to ‘give it a go’ with no expectations or need for experience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could entice even more people to join us?
It goes without saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my day. It was a joy to be able to put my phone away and really focus on the words and creative people around me; I listened, I learned, I found new favourites and felt compelled to keep writing.
In my review of 2019’s Festival, I commented “who needs to live in London?!” and I stand by that statement once more. Regional events like this not only draw performers and audiences from across the UK, but they equalise us, evening out the platforms we have, proving that you don’t have to live in a big city to be at the heart of a community that creates, educates and inspires.
Thank you Winchester Poetry Festival for another fantastic event. I hope we never have to go a year without you again! Roll on 2022.