The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

Strange girls and poetry challenges

Really, I have no idea

This strange girl, at least, was born to tell YOU what you missed this year in the world of poetry. Stand by for a mammoth blog, as I announce the Bell Jar awards for Lovely Poetic Things, 2011. Drum roll…… no, make that a cheese roll….

Ledbury: Jean Binta Breeze, Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay

Best festival of the year? Well, you might think it was Ledbury Poetry Festival – which I had the honour of programming with Jonathan Davidson – but I couldn’t possibly comment. So it must be StAnza, whose format, location and family feeling make everything very lively. Equally welcoming was the tiny West Port Book Festival, run on sealing wax and string with no loss of quality or friendliness. The Strokestown Festival was a great experience of Irish hospitality and poetic companionship.

Best reader of the year? I must have seen two hundred headline poets this year, and the best is….? Hmmmm. Step forward William Letford, and get your hands out of your pockets. You can read his work in a new Carcanet anthology, or wait for his first collection Bevel next November. The poems are strong, simple and true; he reads them beautifully.

Which reminds me – yes, William’s readings are powerful: he harnesses the strength and audience connection that good performance poets take as… er…. read. So please understand that I mean no discredit to him in saying that I find it unsettling to hear that style praised as ‘unique’. It’s great – but it’s not unique. Performance poets across the UK deliver their work from memory every night of the week. Page poetry has such low expectations in terms of delivery, and is so astonished when anyone does it well as William. So here is the Bell Jar challenge. Poets of all persuasions; let us Raise Our Game in 2012. If you think you’re a page poet, please make the effort to learn three of your poems by heart. It’s easier than you think and it will make an immense difference in connecting with your audience. If you think you’re a stage poet, please make the effort to write one poem that follows a particular structure – the sonnet is a good place to start. Sometimes we say we are writing free verse when we’re just too lazy to give it a form.

At the Roebuck, Southwark every blooming Thursday

Best spoken word evening for my money is London’s Bang Said the Gun. Friendly, immensely energetic and with a constantly changing roll-call of brilliant performers, on a budget of 30p and limitless enthusiasm, this is consistently the best spoken word night I’ve seen. The similarly youthful but immensely competent Bad Language night is also in the top league. The production values are high, the editorial/ MCing eye keen, the welcome warm and the venue (the Castle in Manchester) perfect. For the same reasons I recommend Bohdan Piasecki’s Hit the Ode at the Victoria in Birmingham which brings European spoken-wordists to the UK.

Best books? Oh dear, so many to choose from and of course one remembers the most recently read. But I’ve loved Rachael Boast’s Sidereal, Matt Merritt‘s Troy Town,  Bloodaxe’s Being Human, Roddy Lumsden’s Terrific Melancholy and Andrew Phillips’ The Ambulance Box; Anne Carson’s Nox for its beautiful format and for the same reason, Chris McCabe’s Shad Thames, Broken Wharf.

Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al is a brilliant, tightly-written and faithful take on Catullus; a hit, a palpable hit. Perhaps my favourite of all, Sidekick Books’ Birdbook I for its lovely production values and interesting selection.

The rest, as Hamlet says, is solipsism. A recap of some favourite projects this year: collaboration and boating for a new poetry-and-story show Riverlands with Jo Blake Cave (we’ll hit the stage in April 2012). Seeing my poems for Royal Derby Hospital come to life as a lovely booklet and sound files was smashing. Programming Ledbury was a great pleasure – bringing to the stage talented writers like Ian Duhig and Anthony Thwaite, Stuart Maconie, The Antipoet and Tony Walsh, Luke Wright with his coruscating Cynical Ballads and fresh talents like Paul Stephenson.

Arvon courses – two of’em! at the Hurst and at Lumb Bank – were as usual, life-enhancing and showed me new directions for work. Blessings upon Patience Agbabi, Michael Laskey, Colette Bryce and (especially) Philip Gross, whose comments on writing sequences had all sorts of unintended consequences and have spilled over into new projects. A guest reader at Lumb Bank was Heather Phillipson whose work was subtle, skilled and touching.

Photo by Paul Atherton

Reading from the pulpit, Macclesfield

I loved reading at Strokestown, and at the Royal Festival Hall with luminaries like Jo Shapcott and Simon Armitage: but had cracking gigs closer to home. Reading with Jenn Ashworth for our show Too Much Information was a pleasure in Blackpool. At Shangri La in Prestwich, an audience member said my reading was like ‘getting a blow job from Princess Diana’ (that’s good, right?). At King Edward’s chapel in Macclesfield, we got the audience stomping till plaster fell from the roof; and at the Storm Brewery, our Brewing Up a Storm poetry cabaret was a gas. Thanks, lovely hosts, at these and many other venues including the dozens of public libraries that hosted readings, workshops and events.

It’s been a year of modest success in competitions – commendations in the Wigtown, Hippocrates, Enfield and other prizes, and that shortlisting at Strokestown – and also of collaborations with Jo (above) and with Alastair Cook on his filmpoem project. Have a look at the film here or turn up at StAnza in March to hear me read live alongside it.

If you’ve enjoyed any of my work this year or if I’ve done you any small favour, the best way to repay it is by following the Bugged blog. David Calcutt and I are cooking up a new version of our mass writing project for spring 2012 and we want it to be HUGE; something that writers all over the UK can share and enjoy. Once again we will be forming a community of writers, united by a creative challenge. Last time it resulted in many people being published for the first time. Bugged graduate Calum Kerr now has stories being broadcast by Radio 4 on Christmas Eve! So please help by following us at the blog, on Facebook or on Twitter @buggedproject.

Keep lighting fires, dear poets

I don’t usually mention my day job here, but running National Poetry Day continues as the ever-fixed mark in my working life. It’s a privilege to provide a focal event which so many of you support, use and fill with poetry events across the UK. Poetry is not a glamorous, lucrative or fame-filled field. We do it because we love words; because we are doing our best; because we are trying to tell each other the truth. Even in these darkest nights of the year, poetry lights its little beacons on the hilltops to see us through. Long may they burn.

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5 comments on “Strange girls and poetry challenges

  1. Pete Goulding
    December 23, 2011

    Great advice on the readings but it didn’t do you much good in the final of the Pub Poetry competition in Strokestown, where you were roundly trounced by Maureen’s Ode to the Farmers Market

    • Jo Bell
      December 23, 2011

      I was and deservedly so! A memorable evening though strictly speaking I shouldn’t remember it at all…

  2. Chris Fewings
    December 23, 2011

    National Poetry Day – the star to every wandering bark?

    • Jo Bell
      December 23, 2011

      I’d like to think so!

  3. Pingback: Happy Valley rehersals | Fox Tales

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