Monday, September 17, 2018

Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival 2018

I spent most of last weekend at the Tears in the Fence Poetry Festival, mainly in the Stourpaine (Dorset) Village Hall, with occasional sojourns to the nearby White Horse pub.  For anyone who enjoys hearing high-quality poetry read live, this really is an annual event worth investigating.  You need quite a lot of mental stamina for it, mind.  Someone was counting and by the time it wrapped up it was reckoned that 389 poems had been read out in performance – the work of nearly 40 writers by my count.  You also need a pocket full of cash, as nearly everyone who’s got books of their work to sell brings them along – which amounted to two trestle tables laden with tempting (and often beautifully designed) literary morsels. 

For those who don’t know it, Tears in the Fence is a literary magazine.  It appears two or three times a year and it’s now on its 68th issue – which places it amongst the more long-lived of such publications.  If, as I was for some time, you are baffled by the name, bear in mind that the magazine has quite a strong political agenda and in its early days supported the ‘Right to Roam’ movement.  So it refers to ‘tears’ in both senses of the word.  It features a variety of poetry, some accessible and some that requires work on the part of the reader to get to grips with.  It also runs a number of short stories each issue and has a lengthy review section covering mainly poetry publications, though I’ve contributed some fiction reviews in the past two or three issues myself.  If you’re interested, more info can be found at:

The Festival, from what I’ve gathered of its history, was a large and thriving concern some years back, and then slipped into hiatus for a while.  It was revived in 2014.  I sauntered along as a punter to this one, having been living locally for a year or so.  I ended up getting involved in workshops that are given by the magazine’s editor, poet David Caddy, and from there my interest and sense of connection grew.

As mentioned, contributions to the festival are of a high standard, and to be honest some of the poetry – at least on a single listen – went way beyond my ability to get to grips with whatever the writer might have been trying to say.  Sometimes that doesn’t entirely matter – it’s possible to appreciate the flow of words crafted in sequences as you might enjoy a piece of music for its sound qualities and its rhythms.  But for me that part of it works even better when I can make at least some sort of connection, so here are some (not all) of my personal highlights from the festival.  On the Friday night I found this with the ecologically themed (but multi-layered) work of Jeremy Hilton and the meditations of Paul Matthews.  One of the latter’s poems, ‘The Light That I Know’ considers a picture of the oldest light in the universe, as seen on the glossy pages of a Sunday colour supplement and speculates as to whether the vastness of the universe cancels out the significance of small things.  Or that’s what I thought, listening to it.  I’ve bought his book, ‘This Native Light’, so if I figure out that my little summary is inaccurate, I’ll post an update on that.  Also that night, I was taken very much by the writing of Welsh Asian poet Jessica Mukherjee.  She covered a wide range of topics in her reading, from Magdalen laundries to floreography to the ramifications of Brexit, and her work was clear, powerful and (importantly for me) accessible.  Having lived in South Wales for many years I particularly enjoyed a poem in which she spoke of her efforts to get to grips with the concept of Dewi Sant (St. David) until she ‘heard him in the waters off the Mumbles’.

Concerning the three long sessions on the Saturday my memories are already blurring but mention should I make of the following.  First off, South African poet Louise Buchler’s impassioned reading of her long and powerful prose poem: ‘Your Woman is in Pieces’.  And then – in a performance that astounded the entire audience, I reckon – Amy McCauley reading (sometimes reciting) with pointed intensity from her book ‘Oedipa’, whilst stalking around and through the audience, and at intervals beating out rhythms on the floor as she read.  I’ll need to read her work before I can figure out what it’s actually communicating, but the memory of that performance will, I suspect, add a layer of significance to it.  The afternoon was graced by 1.62 of the stories of Seattle based author Lou Rowan, whose first tale of a food slopping slob took time to build to a humorously strange climax.  Also the work of Romanian born Maria Stadnicka, who was one of the ‘hits’ for me of last year’s festival and who took on chairing some interesting discussion sessions as well this time.  Her poems, dry, sparse and surreal, have a knack for disrupting the mindset of reader or listener, jarring and sometimes very funny.  I was also drawn to the poems of Peter King, particularly his s.f. poems describing imaginary planetary landscapes – with something of the quality of Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’.  Marvellous stuff.  That hardly does justice to the day, but is all I’ve time to mention.

Joanna Nissel’s precise and well-crafted but moving work caught my attention on Sunday, along with Linda Black’s word cascades, but on all three days I could have written of strong qualities in the work of everyone who read.  The other thing that’s worth mentioning about the festival is its friendly, supportive atmosphere.  There was little if any sense of overbearing egos that can be a drag at arts events. 

So there you go.  If you fancy participating in this celebration of words next year, the dates are 13th-15th September and details will appear in due course on the TitF website.  Modesty forbids me to speak of my own contribution, but festival stalwart Andrew Henon has kindly posted a video of my reading at the 2017 festival and perhaps in time will do likewise for 2018.  Here’s the link: