Festival Readings: Summer 2018

24 07 2018

Remember the snows before Easter? The storms personified with cousins’ names? In a spring that seems an age ago now, I accepted a series of invitations to read at literary festivals.  They seemed so far into the future, that despite advising everyone on Twitter and Facebook to ‘tattoo the dates’ on their forearms, I didn’t plot the events on the kitchen calendar myself.  So it was that July became the month my wife now refers to as ‘three readings and a house move’ and that kitchen calendar is somewhere in a box-fort in the shed.

The RS Thomas festival in Aberdaron, I discovered too late, had clashed with the Terry Hetherington Awards Prize at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea and the launch of Cheval 11, which I had co-edited with Rose Widlake.  Fortunately, getting to Swansea on a Friday night from North Wales, is as notoriously difficult as getting a fixed moving-in date from a buyer’s solicitors, so I was excused the odyssey to South Wales by the founder Aida Birch, and encouraged to drive West Walesward to deliver a talk on the many guises of ‘Iago Prytherch’.  Or, more to the point, the many interpretations of Iago Prytherch according to the many guises of RS Thomas.

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Susan Forgerty had organised a weekend of activities celebrating the life and work of Thomas and his wife, the artist, Mildred Eldridge.  My own reading, for which the gallery space in the National Trust Centre at Porth-y-Swnt was uncomfortably warm and uncomfortably full, was a rewarding and fulfilling hour.  As well as sharing my own poems and revealing how they were inspired by the RS Thomas I’d been force-fed at school, spoon-fed at university and has been cluster-feeding on thereafter.  I was fortunate to hear work read by poets in the audience and, most special of all, had the opportunity to listen to Jack Rendell read his poems from Cheval 11.  Having had anecdotes about hedgehogs and moles exchanged on the night, it was a perplexing Saturday morning to encounter both animals on our journey home.  The hedgehog, curled in my son’s unbelieving hands like a dragon’s egg; the mole with his paddling paws and sleepshut eyes.

At Lit Caerleon, seven days later, our solicitor was on holiday and the house move was still to be finalised.  So, my wife and I travelled to Newport, abandoning the empty boxes in the hallway, where we were greeted into the event marquee by the most welcoming of hugs from Rajvi Glasbrook, who, along with her husband Jon and a committee of benevolent literature-aholics organise Wales’ most intimate of festivals.  After my own reading, I spent a few wonderful hours in the company of writers and poets and readers and met a cast of names that Twitter had made me feel were as friends: Tony Curtis, Mab Jones, Murray Lachlan Young, Natalie Holborrow, Joao Morais, Dan Tyte.  I met another talented poet from the Terry Hetherington Award, Niall Ivin, and revelled in the conversation between Gary Raymond, Craig Austin and Patrick Mcguinness.  Their pertinent debate about being unable to witness history as it happens about you, yet being compelled to reflect on in art reminded me of two A-Level years of dismayed notetaking about the Corn Laws, and to question whether Brexit will be more astonishing for students in two hundred years than it is presently.  Everybody was having too much fun to tell me that the roads would be closed until midday the next day for a cycle race I’d never heard of.

And then we moved house.

Subsequently, I travelled alone last weekend to Holyhead to read at the Gwyl Cybi Festival in the Ucheldre Centre while my wife waved a wallpaper steamer in goodbye at me as I challenged the summerholidaycaravantailbacks of the A55.  Having judged the poetry competition for the events, together with Manon Ros, I was eager to translate the anonymous entries into real faces and accents.  Vanessa Owen and Karen Ankers had assembled a line-up of local singers and poets and had encouraged applicants from across Wales and Northern England to attend to read their verse.   Martin Daws read an memorable, impassioned ode to Bethesda, James Lloyd read two poems from Cheval 11, and a breathless Matthew Smith arrived from his Swansea-origin in time to announce: his first time in North Wales; first time camping; first time entering a poetry a poetry competition, and, as I was about to discover, hearing the poem I’d selected as the winner being read aloud in a hopeful but unknowing voice; first time winning a competition.

When I got home, my wife had pulled the wallpaper from the living room and exposed the names of the former incumbents on the walls.  The following day, a tourist stopped outside and, brittle as old paper, wound his way up the short, steep drive.  He revealed how he’d lived here when the house was first built and how the signature on one of the walls was his.

Having enjoyed a month of hearing others’ poetry, I felt a new poem had just announced itself at my new front door.

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Review: ‘From the Fortunate Isles’ by Tony Curtis

28 03 2017

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This book gives accommodation to five decades of Curtis’ career in literature.  Selected poems from ten collections are housed adjacently, with forty new poems, building ‘From The Fortunate Isles’, Curtis’ latest project, abutted at the gable end.  Here is a terrace of verse, akin to a loop of sea-staring houses strung along a Pembrokeshire shore; multifarious in tone, diverse in size, unique in structure, this is a collection, ‘where the light and summer sings’.

Within clearer, more prevalent themes of Curtis’ verse – South West Wales, identity, war, his father – there are subtly similar features.  Two poems from the 1983 collection ‘Letting Go’, ‘The World’ and ‘Tortoise’, ponder the concept of legacy.  ‘Tortoise’, the sole narrative poem in the book, recounts the discovery of an errant hibernating pet in a neighbour’s loft:

Just that.  A shell, hard, perfect and whole.  Inside, a shrunk ball of jelly.

Curtis reflects on the grotesque image that begins to take residence, like the tortoise itself, ‘lodged in the back of the mind’ until he is prompted to question the bleakness of a predestination, where a body can be outlived and made redundant by its skeleton:

to travel and come to nothing

On the page parallel is ‘The World’, which announces its portentous subject in the opening line, ‘this is how it ends’ before almost listing the cataclysmic events that occur as humanity recedes: ‘Russian subs…acid air…fire…the Third World / eats itself and starves.’  The final stanza delivers mankind back to its origins and to a fearful inheritance:

And farther out floating

towards them on a floe

a man,  a woman and a child waving

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Half a lifetime ago, Tony Curtis was a lecturer of mine at university.  In one workshop, he spread images of John Digby over the wide table and encouraged his undergraduates to address the surreal collages.   ‘There are two ways of looking at a thing’, he implored.  Six of these artworks, ornately decorated Moorish doorways used as window frames looking out to terrain populated by Grecian figures, dinosaurs, lighthouses, Victorian bathers, are aligned with their respective poems from the 1998 collection ‘The Arches’.  ‘XXII’ concludes with a stanza on the duplicity of language:

            This was ever the way –

            from the high clarity    

            the waves of confusion

            turn into the words

            that lead us astray.   

A piece of advice I recall from Curtis’ teachings was the need ‘to always begin strongly and end strongly’; he prized the first and final lines of a poem more than any others.  Thumbing through the two hundred and fifty pages of this book, it is clear that Curtis’ adheres emphatically to his own precept.  The thirteen poems taken from ‘Preparations’ are particularly charmed with resolutions of momentous, pacing, funereal sadness.

We turn our backs on a sky that goes on forever.

(Return to the Headland)

…our dead friends and fathers,      

 on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.

(Poem for John Tripp)

 

Under the sun, the prodigal sky,

there are no healing waters.

(My Father in Pembrokeshire)

Of the forty poems from the eponymous collection, ‘From the Fortunate Isles’, many are observational, many are elegiac.  The title poem is languid and ambling and warmly reveals an encounter with street vendors and performers in the Canary Islands.  Against a theatrical drop of a menacing and rough Atlantic sea, Curtis experiences a hiatus and a temptation to ‘let loose of it all’.  The title of the poem, an allusion to a classical myth about idyllic islands reserved for favoured or blessed mortals, is slightly ambiguous: it is a simple reference to geography; it is hyperbolic in Curtis’ appreciation of holiday paradise; it is an acknowledgement to the artists and writers that both the poet and the collection mourns.

Elegies to the landscape painters Peter Prendergast and John Knapp-Fisher, to the poets Dannie Abse and Dylan Thomas, to the memory of his father, to personal friends, usher in the reflective mood and, once more, the theme of legacy:

if my ashes were emptied out here.

(Wanting Choughs)

Start strongly and finish strongly; the final poem of the book, ‘Seamus on the Tube’, does exactly that.  Reading Heaney’s poem ‘The Railway Children’ amongst a train filled with commuters ‘looking away, not looking away’, the narrator of the poem becomes mesmorised by their own escaped nostalgia.  Although it is written in second person narrative, it seems safe to assume the poem is autobiographical and consequently, safe to assume, from the final words of the final poem, that Curtis is content with all that he has built; serene in his legacy.

Reaching Warren Street, you’ve read it

Four or five times, absorbed the innocent wisdom

And sense of the thing.  Those people opposite

See a crazy old man mouthing words, appearing to sing.