Living poetry takes centre stage

Tradition and innovation have proved diverse but successful ingredients for the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. Steven Russell hears what’s in store for this year’s audiences.

All good things come to those who wait, and patience has paid off for the organisers of the 16th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Margaret Atwood – Canada's foremost novelist and poet – is heading for the Suffolk Heritage Coast, fulfilling the dreams of many.

She's perhaps best known for her fiction: the futuristic and disturbing The Handmaid's Tale, subsequently made into a film starring Natasha Richardson, just one of her powerful works. Her poetic output is equally significant.

Atwood will take part in a Saturday morning debate on the provocative question – based on a WH Auden quotation – “Poetry makes nothing happen..?”, and the following afternoon will be part of a three-poet reading that closes the festival.

Festival director Naomi Jaffa said: “We have asked her to come every single year for over a decade.

“Her office has always been really lovely and efficient, and says, 'Sorry, her diary doesn't allow it. She's blocked off time to work on her next book' or 'She's out in Australia. But one year she would love to do it'.

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“Happily, this year she's already in the country just before the festival, so now's that time.”

Another highlight, on the Saturday teatime, is a specially-commissioned verse play, Doing the Inferno, that stars Shakespearean actor Alan Howard (also The Voice of the Ring in the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings). It's comic and contemporary, in an irreverent vein and for over-16s only.

Naomi said: “Everyone thinks rhyming couplets mean doublets and hose. Not true.

“Think, more, The Sweeney and The Long Good Friday.”

Sean O'Brien's play lifts the lid on the vanity of the poetry world.

“All I can say is that, ostensibly, it is about two poets at Saxmundham railway station, waiting to be collected and taken to a poetry festival.”

Any resemblance to any real, nearby, poetry festival is simply a coincidence, we're assured.

There is, in fact, much that's new about the 2004 programme. It's spreading itself even wider, in time and distance – it is a fortnight long, not just the three days it might appear at first sight.

This week – thanks to the backing of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation – three poets are doing a whistlestop tour of nine schools. They'll be in each school for an hour and the idea is to excite teenagers by the dynamism of live poetry.

Among the trio is Neil Rollinson, billed as an award-winning poet with attitude who writes about the world as we know it: football, shopping, relationships and so on.

Also new, and running this week, are two residential writing courses – recognition of the fact that many of the festival's one-day workshops are rapidly oversubscribed.

When the festival weekend draws to a close (as usual with free Earl Grey tea in the Jubilee Hall), the third innovation gets up its head of steam.

The Poetry Trust (which runs the festival) is going out on the road – taking the Aldeburgh formula around England. London is followed by Oxford, Southampton, Manchester and Birmingham.

Three poets will be out to thrill: an established British poet (Michael Rosen), an international writer (American Tony Hoagland) and a rising star (Henry Shukman).

Last year's festival drew bigger audiences than ever – selling 3780 tickets to people from as far afield as Switzerland, though about 40-50pc of ticketholders hail from Suffolk.

The Friday morning workshop is called What's in a Name? Hosted by writer-in-residence Jackie Wills, it shows how place names, real or invented, can stimulate writing.

The festival kicks off with the winners of the children's poetry competition reading their work at the Jubilee Hall and receiving their certificates. Michael Rosen, one of the nation's favourite writers for children, will also read some of his poetry.

The first three-poet reading features Mike Jenkins (“fiery and Welsh”), Michael Longley (“Irish and flamboyant”) and Jackie Wills (“up close and personal”). Saturday morning's equivalent has David Constantine, James Lasdun and Sarah Maguire, and the evening has three poets at the height of their powers, says the festival director: Iraqi-born Fadhil Al-Azzawi, America's Tony Hoagland and Paul Muldoon, from County Armagh.

First collections get an airing on Saturday afternoon in a session backed by the Jerwood charity and then Neil Rollinson asks the question: “What makes a good erotic poem?” It's already sold out.

Michael Rosen and Brendan Cleary (“black humour, sardonic”) share a late-night slot on Saturday, before the festival asks the rhetorical question: “How many poets can you cram into a pub?” – The Cross Keys hosts the “open-mike” session from 11pm.

Sunday morning features the acclaimed Radio 3 adaptation of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, featuring evocative sound arrangements. The work of Suffolk-based novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard is under the spotlight just before lunch, during a conversation with New Zealand poet Elizabeth Smither.

Smither also features in the final reading at the Jubilee Hall, where she shares the platform with Margaret Atwood and Hans Magnus Enzensberger – described as Germany's most important living poet and one of Europe's leading political thinkers.

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival runs from Friday to Sunday, November 5-7. Call 01986 835950 for information or visit

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