The 4th to the 10th of October saw the return of the Exeter Poetry Festival, a celebration of local poets which took place over the city. Last year I only attended one event, the poetry slam at the Phoenix. Distinct memories of that particular event are admittedly elusive, partly due to the passage of time, partly due to the couple of pints I had consumed. But from what I remember the poetry was good: a mix of sharp wit, clever rhymes and personal anecdotes made it an enjoyable evening. So when the festival came around again, I was eager to go to at least one reading, and this time pay closer attention to the words being spoken in the hopes of gaining a better understanding of local poetry.
The first event I went to was on campus, advertised as the ‘Andy Brown and Marc Woodward Poetry & Musical Duo’. The music played at the end was nice, but I was mostly interested in the poetry. Andy Brown’s poems had a low-key but consistently political tone, often utilising a historical or scientific perspective. His very first poem focused on the 1832 Cholera outbreak, which killed well over 50,000 people throughout the United Kingdom, and exposes the political impotence of the UK parliament that allowed it to spread. It contrasts well with the next poem, which similarly dealt with waste driven disease (he collectively referred to his first few works as “shit poems”), but this time centring on the poverty-stricken Kenya of the present day. In doing so he seems to be making a point about the significant discrepancy in change between rich and poor countries. Indeed, the disparity between rich and poor seemed to be a reoccurring theme: a later poem involving audience participation seemed to contrast the two, while a poem describing an autopsy – in precise and explicit detail – muses on the idea that this dichotomy is meaningless once we are dead.
Keeping with that happy theme was the first poem by Marc Woodward, which vividly describes a country farmhouse on a rainy day, complete with leaking roof, unloved dog, and the corpse of a dead man hanging, ‘quiet in the hay barn’. Woodward described the poems in his book A Flight of Jays as carrying themes of ‘agriculture and rural decay’ and this certainly seems to be the case. His depiction of the countryside and country life is resolutely unromanticised – not through any obvious intention to shock, but more to show the poignancy, absurdity and beauty of things that may ordinarily be considered mundane or even distasteful, be it smashing a phone, killing an eel or freeing a barking dog. In this sense he complimented Andy Brown well, as they both seemed interested in taking events that could be seen as brutal, tragic, or disgusting, and turning them into reflective, unsentimental and finely-crafted works of poetry.
The next event I attended was on the final day of the Festival, in Exeter Library, and simply entitled ‘Three Devon Poets’. These three were Frances Corkey Thompson, Jennie Osborne and Jane Spiro, all esteemed local poets. Thompson started the evening, bravely starting out by admitting she was ‘not a Devon maid’, although she had lived in the area for many years. Her poetry was openly autobiographical, describing one of several trips to China she had recently made via the Trans-Siberian railway, to find out more about her father’s pre-war missionary work there. But while this epic continental expedition acted as the narrative frame, the poems themselves were more introspective, with the experiences of the journey used as metaphors to convey the thoughts and feelings of the poet. Eastern philosophy and a desire for Enlightenment were running themes throughout, with a description of the self as ‘light, unbodied as a letter’, despite being ‘Stuck in the geography of your own body’. Despite the object of the mission being based around the past, the poems did not have the air of nostalgia, instead capturing quick thoughts and insights during the journey, very much reflecting the importance of the ‘now’.
Next up was Jennie Osborne. She presented her works as being linked by distortion and things that don’t belong, reflected in the title of her book Colouring Outside Lines. This was perhaps made most explicitly clear in her third poem, ‘Salmon’, which includes the wonderfully paradoxical line ‘I feel at place anywhere that isn’t home’. Many of her poems were playful, even rebellious – both in theme and in language. Her first poem explored and celebrated the gaining of an independent vocabulary, separate from that of her mother’s – as she put it, ‘stepping out from your dictionary’. But her poems didn’t always treat the new and unfamiliar in the positive sense of being free; others dealt with the sense of separation that unfamiliarity brings – including the hostility between one person and another with different views, and the emotional distancing between mankind and the environment caused by the former’s destruction of the latter.
Finally there was Jane Spiro, whose work, like Thompson’s, contained autobiographical themes, along with themes of music and change. In her case she was telling the story of her Polish father, a pianist forced out of Poland by the Nazis. Unlike Thompson, her poems were very much based in reminiscence, although often the focus was on the memories of her father and not herself. Indeed, she explored with great honesty how these events, these stories, these places, were so radically removed from her own experiences. In taking her father back to Poland many years later, she revealed her inability to relate this foreign land to her own life – to her, the idea of claiming to have roots in this land was as absurd as ‘a bird claiming a broken branch’. As the poems went along, the views shifted from the memories of her father to her own early memories, and finally to her own, present insights on the joys of music, as if on a sliding scale of familiarity.
Both events were truly enjoyable, and in hindsight I wish I had gone to a couple more. Poetry has become an increasingly niche form of entertainment, which is a real shame. A good poem – and these were good poems – is able to evoke experiences and invoke emotions, with a precision and efficiency unbeknownst to other mediums. In this week I heard dozens of stories – small, big, funny, tragic – all conveyed beautifully through a very select choice of words. The events were not only entertaining, but also got me back to thinking about the art of poetry – and that, I think, is truly a mark of success.
Photos used with permission from ExCite Poetry