Portsmouth’s Tongues & Grooves Poetry Festival

Yesterday (10/11/2013) I had the pleasure of attending Portsmouth’s Tongues & Grooves Poetry Festival along with Sandra Gordon. Organised by local poet Maggie Sawkins it was a day full of poetry events.

The Square Tower, Portsmouth
The Square Tower, Portsmouth

It was held in the Square Tower in Portsmouth. Which didn’t look so bright as the picture due to endless heavy rain.

The day kicked off with an interesting talk by Neil Astley founder of Bloodaxe Press. Entitled Getting Published (Or Not), it covered the recent history of the book publishing trade and the reasons why Poetry Publishing went from a high in the 1980’s to the low of the present day. He explained how a change in the book trade regulations had lead to the demise of many of the independant book stores and the collapse book chains until we have reached to point today where Waterstones is the last major book chain left. He then covered why Waterstones are unlikely to stock large amounts of poetry other than the best sellers. He commented on the irony that at a time when poetry is gaining in terms of public recognition with better air play, far more festival and local events it is getting harder and harder to get shops to stock and sell it. He noted a mismatch between Waterstones stocking policy and a new books publicity. Waterstones will order a tiny number of books for all of its stores. Then when the publicity for the book hits the press and demand grows for the book Waterstones don’t have the stock to match it. The buying public therefore end up going to Amazon. By the time Waterstones restocks the publicity period is over.

Neil then went on to provide the steps a new writer needs to take to head towards publishing and the common mistakes that new writers make. He noted than many new writers send in manuscripts with letters telling him that they don’t read other poetry so as not to get influenced. Such manuscripts never get further than that stage, he likened it to a musician who never listened to music and urged everyone to read more poetry, not just the old classics but as wide a range of contemporary poets as possible. He stressed the importance of building up a track record of being published by magazines, followed by looking at a first phamphlet or chapbook, followed by a first collection. A process that takes years to acheive. He added the stark warning that a first collection rarely sells more than 500 copies so it is not a path to make money.

Due to the day being organised with events taking place upstairs and downstairs at the same time, it was necessary to make difficult choices. We next chose to attend a reading by two local poets Pauline Hawkesworth and Richard Williams of poems inspired by Portsmouth. The cost of this was I didn’t get to hear John Haynes downstairs who writes extremely skill formal poetry. Pauline read several poems, but two that lodged firmly in mind were a snapshot of a couple’s strange behaviour in Debenhams and an amazing scene by the sea where three people in office clothing walked into the water for a swim. One poem of Richard’s particularly caught my attention. It covered a shipwreck off the Portsmouth Coast, but kept using the refrain of ‘or not’ to under cut the preceeding phrase. For example (paraphrased for memory) ‘The lookout is on watch/or not’. The effect was both musical and unsettling.

Following this I started to listen to and watch a series of poems on the sinking of the Royal George by Denise Benett. As the room was packed I was standing at the back and soon realised I could hear as well next door in the cafe (even if I couldn’t see the projections). So while I enjoyed a cup of tea and a slice of ginger and lime cake Denise read a poem about the children onboard the ship as it sank. She used a refrain between sections drawn from children’s skipping games and told the tale of them playing onboard, the shipwreck, their death and resurrection in the hands of a local artist who had moulded clay heads to represent each child lost. During this time I was joined again by Sandra and soon after by Donall Dempsey and Janice Windle who I had previously met in Ireland. Janice kindly allowed me to browse John Haynes’ books which she had bought and which I will be adding to my collection at some stage.

Our afternoon started with another talk by Neil Astley about his series of anthologies and the fourth book Essential Poems from Staying Alive which contains highlights from the series. Neil provided an interesting overview of the reasons behind lauching the series, the incredible costs involved and the steps he took which lead to it becoming a best seller (a quarter of a million copies sold). He finished by reading a selection of poems from the series and showing a film of a some of the poets reading their own work.

This was followed by an interview of two Bloodaxe poets Robyn Bolam and Stephanie Norgate for Express FM. I am always amazed by the articulate responses that people give during interviews.

The events downstairs were being to run overtime so We left before the end of Stephanie’s interview to end upstairs for an ekphrastic poetry workshop. We were each dealt a postcard each and given ten minutes to write a response to it. Followed by being allowed to choose our own postcard to write a poem about. Fortunately the organiser Stephan Boyce had bought plenty of postcards as the event was packed. Ten minutes always flies past when trying to complete these exercises.

The afternoon end with the results of the festival poetry competition which had gathered more than 600 entries, with readings by the commended and winning poets. After this was an open mic which started off with readings by the shortlisted poets followed by poets who had signed up. A very high quality open mic event.

This was followed by a quick dash to the local pub (The Wellington) for an excellent meal before returning an hour later for the evening entertainment. This began with George Marsh reading a series of mesmersing poems about the life and death of a convicted murderer (George reading a different poem http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1isQgpSBR6M). This was followed by Maggie Sawkins. Maggie read one particular poem from her collection The Zig Zag Woman entitled Silence which grabbed me. It is similar to a poem I had written on the same subject, but one of those moments when you recognise that the other person has captured the subject with far more eloquence and finesse. I was compelled to buy her book afterwards.

Next we had music from the talented Hanging Tree Band, followed by a performance from the outstanding John Agard. I am ashamed to say that John’s is one of those names I have seen around, his photo on the Poetry Archive is familiar, but I can’t recall reading before. Sandra was looking forward to the reading as John is one of the poets who got her hooked on poetry. There is nothing I can write to do justice to John and his poetry he was simply amazing, a sharp intellect married to an equally sharp humour and the time just flew past during his performance. Previously in the day I had considered cutting the day short and now was so glad I hadn’t.

Finally the evening ended with the four piece band Les Kazoos D’Amour and Friends who I will definitely be seeking out in the future. Once again I started by thinking I would stay for one song and then leave early, but found myself compelled to remain even for the encore. The front woman Janet Ayers was not only a good singer and musician, but she knew how to engage the audience as well.

I have come home with far more books than I intended and memories of so many poets and poems, including many I haven’t mentioned here. Once again it is clear that poetry is alive and well. Many thanks to Sandra for her like minded company throughout the day.

As a footnote I arrived home to a parcel from Amazon of Louise Gl├╝ck’s collected poems (all 650 pages), which I ordered months ago. So the day even ended well.