I live in the UK. In the county of Shropshire. In a town called Much Wenlock. It is a small town and civil parish of about 3,000 people. Unbeknownst to most people, it is in fact the Centre of the Universe. To be precise, the Centre of the Universe lies at the back of AJ’s Super Store – a mysterious portal from whence the proprietor is able to produce any object that has ever existed in the known Universe.
Lying ,as it does, at the Centre of All Things, Wenlock is subject to unusual energetic fields and tends to manifest events disproportionate to its modest size. Most famously, Wenlock is the birthplace of the Modern Olympic Movement. Here was the birthplace of Dr William Penny Brooks, the man who, in 1850, started the Wenlock Olympic Games – an annual event that inspired a Frenchman, Pierre Courbertin, to create the Modern Olympics. It was in memory of this that the strange, one-eyed mascot of the 2012 Olympics was named Wenlock. And, unlike it’s upstart younger imitation, the Wenlock Olympic Games is held every year. Neither is it some shin-kicking, welly-flinging parochial fun day. It is the proper athletic/marathon/triathlon/high jump/shot putt/discus deal. It continues to this day.
But the Olympics is just one of many events that Wenlock’s unique energy field manifests. We have a world class Story Telling Festival, a bi-annual Arts Festival, a legendary Christmas Fayre, another annual Arts Olympics, an Arts Centre that hosts top class comedians and Norwegian jazz musicians whose only other UK dates are in London. Which is the Capital of the UK. But not The Centre Of The Universe.
And, last weekend, it was the Much Wenlock Poetry Festival. This is a weekend, in April each year, when the town plays host to a quite incredible line-up of poetry related events. These include readings by top famous poets, workshops for aspiring poets, poems in the George & Dragon pub and a Poetry Slam – which is like a dance battle that rhymes. The patron is the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Which is not bad for a small rural town.
The Poetry Festival sort of emanates from Wenlock Books. Which is The Best Bookshop In The Universe. This is because it is more than simply a place that sells books. Much more. It is a place that hosts Book Groups, Reading Clubs, Writing Groups. It puts on and promotes a year round cycle of literary and musical events. Organises monthly Poetry Breakfasts at a local teashop. It is simply a place you can go to for a coffee and a chat. Unlike WH Smith or Waterstones, it is not just a place to consume. Unlike Amazon, it does not evade taxes. It does not set out simply to maximize profit. It is a place to share. A place to create. A place where people come together. A place that gives back. A good place.
Now, I must confess that I approach the Poetry Festival with caution. Poetry can be a heady brew. Try and take on board too much too quickly and you can do yourself a serious injury. I have seen some wonderful performances at past festivals but I have also, in the past, tried to see/hear too much and ended up not appreciating what I have seen. Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of words, I end up retreating into a state of cynical inertia. Not good.
This year, I knew that I had other commitments the weekend of the festival. On the Saturday, I had to take Jo, my wife, down to Heathrow. Leaving me to cope alone with teenager and dog. Not a lot of time spare for poetry. But, on Friday morning, a friend recommended a poet he had seen on youtube – Hollie McNish. I took a look myself. So should you:
“She’s good,” I thought. “If I get back from Heathrow in time. And if there are tickets left. I might go and see her.”
I got home at 6pm. Hollie was on at 7pm. I checked online. Tickets were available. Hmmm. I’m tired. It’s been a long day. Hmmmm.
But, if you live in a rural backwater that somehow conspires to be the Centre Of The Universe, you have a certain responsibility to support its manifestations. So, I cleaned my teeth and went along. I was very glad I did. Hollie is good on youtube but, like most things, seeing her live and in person was so much better. Her warmth and humour invited the audience in. Her conversation between poems was funny and charming. It added depth and context. The stories about her grandmothers rang so true – the surprise we feel when we realise that older generations have the same thoughts, feelings, hang-ups and obsessions as us. Her readings were captivating – at once easy and tremendously skilful. She has such a lightness of touch that she is able to make some very serious topics seem approachable and fun. I was hugely impressed. So, impressed that I went home and booked straight onto a 2 hour workshop the following day.
Now, if I approach the Poetry Festival with caution, I approach Poetry Workshops with, well …… strong misgivings. If handled skilfully, they can be enjoyable and productive. But, if handled badly, you can end up locked in a room with a bunch of people with an abundance of ideas and opinions, a strong desire to communicate them and limited ability to do so with any sense of grace or economy. It is not a recipe for a happy Sunday afternoon. But, Hollie had won me over so I was prepared to risk it.
I am glad to report that it was brilliant! “Page to Performance” was the title. Performance was the key. There were 17 of us in the workshop and, right from the outset, we were encouraged to “perform” what we had written. Meaning – read it out aloud to another person. Even our most unedited, unformed thoughts – write ’em down. read ’em out!
We began with a small piece of chocolate lain before us. We had to look at it, smell, taste it, hold it in our mouths and finally eat it. I had done that sort of stuff before, but Hollie’s twist on it was that she quickly got us all up on our feet, meeting each other, reading the very rough words we had written. Genius. It broke down barriers. Stopped us becoming precious about what we had written. The emphasis was on play. Having fun. We walked around the room. Greeting strangers with baffling statements that somehow related to chocolate:
This is going to get messy. I’m melting. Green witches and The Wizard of Oz. Hello Toto. White dogs. Hello Tony. Where’s your stick.
We played musical chairs with poems. We read lines we had written to a variety of strangers. Eventually we began to work in pairs. Hollie took us through a cleverly staged process that led to us each writing a poem about our workshop partner. This involved drawing the face of your partner. Describing it in detail. And then the genius master-stroke – we had to interview our partner. Ask them five questions. The most boring, banal questions we could think of. What did you have for breakfast? How many shoes do you own? Do you watch the TV weather forecast? And we had to weave the answers into our poems about their faces.
And then we performed our poems. Read them out to our partners. In front of every body else. Which is quite something: to write a poem about the face of a complete stranger and then read it aloud to that person. But everybody performed their poem. And they were all worth hearing. And, without exception, the best bits of all the poems were the boring banal bits. The bits from the five interview questions. Very clever. Thank you, Hollie, for pointing the way to the simple truth that the answers to eternal questions lie in the ordinary mundane details of everyday existence.
I think that we all felt good about the experience. We were all proud of what we had written. And what was written about us. This was the poem about me.
Carving a face with words
Your eye sockets are deep set like holes dug with care to deposit two storm grey marbles.
The bones of your skull and cheekbones are sharp and defined – imagine a head carved from granite or limestone
There is something timeless in the shape of your strong nose – makes me think of Anglo-Saxon men chipping away at a huge rock to create something noble and stately.
And in your eyes there is something beyond the physical carving of objects. An emotion that I want to describe as empathy and kindness,
And something beyond my words. Something like a buzzard disturbed from a tree and flying up like a clear, free and soaring thing in the Autumn sky
– the part of you that turns off the news because it is too painful and prefers to gauge the weather from being in it.
I was very happy to have such kind things written about me. Thank you Ruth Stacey – you were a joy to work with. Hollie asked us to give the poems we had written to their subject. So, I got to keep the above poem. I was very happy. I hope Ruth was happy with hers.
Finally, Hollie read us one of her poems. It was this one.
All in all, it was an inspirational weekend. Thank you Hollie. Thank you People Who Make The Poetry Festival Happen. Thank you Much Wenlock. Centre Of The Universe.