Poetry News: Edinburgh Book Festival recap

Our poetry columnist looks back on her favourite events during Edinburgh's Festival month, being inspired particularly by the merging of forms, crossing cultural borders and breaking down barriers

Feature by Clare Mulley | 01 Sep 2016
  • Bard is a Four-Letter Word

This year at The Edinburgh International Book Festival and beyond, I was thrilled to see that the fields of music and poetry are drawing ever closer together, with many artists choosing to showcase their work alongside musical performance slots, or with an underbelly of instrumental accompaniment either during or between poems.

First on my menu was an Unbound night with Liz Lochhead and the Hazey Janes, whose album launch was every bit as well-received as I predicted. Steve Kettley rocked the sax to bursting point, and it was lovely to see the very physical connection Lochhead had with the music, swaying and head bobbing in between lines, and clearly anticipating every phrase with glee. For someone who jokes about being told not to sing at school, she is far from unmusical.

Next was the fantastic joint event shared by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (who also appeared on 17 Aug with our Makar, Jackie Kay) and Gillian Clarke, National Poets, Personal Poetry, which ranged in content from stories that stayed with them to poignant love and remembrance poems reflecting their own experiences. Musical accompaniment was provided on coronation trumpet and recorder (sometimes two recorders at once!) by John A. Sampson, who collaborates with Duffy on regular occasions.

The difference between their deliveries added extra interest; Duffy crackles with sharp, wry humour, using pauses like a raised eyebrow, which only serves to highlight the quieter, more poignant moments in her pieces. Clarke has a far smoother tone, reminiscent of the fireside storyteller, but still leaves a lovely, firm echo when it comes to ‘tying up’ the denouement of a poem.

Many firsts for me over the week also involved music and performance, starting with The Bookshop Band – another great Unbound event which I dropped into almost by accident, and which did exactly what it says on the tin. The band consists of only two musicians, Beth Porter and Ben Please, who write songs inspired by books and play them in bookshops. Over the course of the evening we were treated to a series of gorgeous numbers based on works like Alice in Wonderland and Life of Pi, including a few new numbers triggered by Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, which the author herself preluded with a live reading. Their music has an ethereal quality which perfectly suits the imaginary planes they work with, created by a variety of instruments and electronic effects – PJ Harvey and Fleet Foxes came to mind more than once.

Third on the Unbound cycle, an evening myself and many others were greatly touched by, was the multinational, multilingual Poetry as Refuge, responding to the current crisis in Europe and the subsequent panic. Organised by Bidisha, it showcased eight writers, many of whom were refugees and had experienced prejudice, or worse. Harrowing words of fear and frustration joined together with words of hope, and the readings were rounded off by a wonderful, uplifting performance from Scotland’s first African ensemble, the Ha Orchestra.

Ryan Van Winkle’s intimate, one-on-one performance – Red Like Our Room Used to Feel – was another first. Part installation, part audio trip, it was set in a tiny box of a room at Forest Fringe in Leith; you walk in, are greeted by a glass of port and snacks (or cup of tea if you prefer) and directed to make yourself comfortable in any way you fancy on the single bed. Once settled, you choose from three envelopes of Ryan’s poems, and he sits by the bed, puts on music and simply begins to read.

The show lasts 15 minutes, and, like any luxurious or therapeutic activity, you find yourself swimming in the pleasure of being focused on completely and cossetted just for that short space. Ryan has a beautiful voice as it is, and the poignant themes evoke your own memories, sadnesses and joys in one cathartic wave. Add music to that, and it’s no wonder the show has already received so many rave reviews.

One of the biggest highlights, however, involved no music other than the voice au naturel – Alice Oswald’s event, Pulse-Quickening Poetry. After a highly interesting conversation chaired by James Runcie, we were treated to readings from her latest collection, Falling Awake, all about the natural world and its connections to our own, fragile existence. I’d never heard Oswald read her work aloud before, and by God she‘s astounding. That deep, measured, ringing voice, with its mastery of short and long pauses, betrays the poet’s classical background and is reminiscent of the epic poems she has drawn on for so long as inspiration. Hearing the poems she’d discussed previously was a nice touch, as you were able to vaguely picture how she might have arrived at the final drafts. 

The above events were at Edinburgh International Book Festival and Unbound; Ryan Van Winkle's 1-2-1 personal poetry performance was at The Forest Fringe