To Newcastle, where the city’s third annual poetry festival stretched its way from Tuesday to Saturday last week. Despite an especially unpleasant cold’s best efforts to deprive me off the pleasure of attending the festival, the week was memorable and rich with suggestions for further reading – which as I work in a poetry library I’ve already been able to work on.
The theme for the festival was ‘In Time’, a somewhat gauzy label which, it was explained, had a political relevance: the poets taking part were chosen because their work was inspired by and spoke to the troubled times we’re living through. The presence of American poet Carolyn Forché was talismanic; Forché is the editor of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, as well as the author of a number of poems inspired by her experiences during the Salvadorian Civil War. And although she chaired a panel discussion on poetry and politics that grew somewhat silly towards its conclusion – one of the American participants spoke about preparing oneself for the opening of concentration camps in the US – her poetry had the unfakeable quality that arises when a writer of talent doesn’t flinch from reporting the horrors she’s witnessed.
On the Saturday night, Forché read alongside another American poet whose work I was unfamiliar with, but who I’m curious now to know more about. Sometime you read or hear someone and it becomes obvious within moments that the writer is the real thing. Jericho Brown is African-American and gay in a country where being black and a gay man can still get you killed. His performance was memorable to say the least, his poetry powered by his identity but not limited by it.
Both Forché and Brown, as well as Patricia Smith, were introduced by Neil Astley, who proved enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their work. Astley is best known as the man behind Bloodaxe Books, whose archive was on display at the University of Newcastle. His contribution to British poetry is incalculable, as a brief scan of Bloodaxe’s back catalogue will affirm.
The SPL is delighted, then, that Astley will be attending the Library on June 10 to once again introduce a reading, in this instance, a showcase of five poets, all woman, all Scottish, all prize-winners or nominated, all justly celebrated and deserving of your attention. The poets are: Tracey Herd, Cheryl Follon, MacGillivray, Miriam Nash and Claire Askew. You could think of the event as a mini-festival. If you weren’t able to make it to the Newcastle Poetry Festival, our Bloodaxe Showcase will prove sustaining until August when Edinburgh’s larger festivals come along to drown us in poetry.
Tickets are still available for the Bloodaxe Showcase, Saturday 10 June, 7pm (£7 / £6), and can be ordered online at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/bloodaxe-poets-showcase-tickets-32584181163.