BY ALISON BRACKENBURY
How would you prepare to give a reading at one of your favourite festivals?
Imagine that you have been asked to take part in the very first Kendal Poetry Festival, back in the days of freedom, in the summer of 2017. You sailed up the motorway the day before. The white National Express coach, like a homing pigeon, made straight for the most scenic service station. You crumbled cake, while the Cumbrian hills hung on the horizon. Calmly, you practised your poems.
Next morning you woke to Kendal’s stone, lit by steady sun. Before breakfast, you practised your poems thoroughly. Briefly, not too exhaustingly, you explored the town, meeting a friendly sheep…
You ate a sensible lunch in a room warm with dark wood…
Next, you did what home, children, and Life in General never allow. You came back to your quiet hotel room and slept, the gracious restoring sleep of afternoon. Then – of course! – you practised your poems. Hugging your reading folder, you sailed, like the coach, down Kendal’s steep streets, properly nervous, of course, but secure in the knowledge that you were completely prepared to face your eager audience.
Life, dear reader, has some recurring fears. I think we may all have faced, at 3 a.m., an endless exam paper, without a single topic we know… I will not add to the stock of your nightmares! Yours is the good story: you are the poet who prepared! This is mine. I am the poet who did not…
In 2017, I did indeed travel to Kendal Poetry Festival, which proved excellent. I did not spend the long journey mulling over my poems. Instead I listened to the fascinating life story of the lady next to me. How could her husband have done that? As we sliced our cakes in the service station’s evening glow, I told her happily, ‘I am on holiday’! For I had recently done a reading – meticulously rehearsed – in Ledbury. Now, I was simply audience, a happy tourist. On the Festival’s opening day, off I went, carelessly, to explore Kendal.
I lingered beside the model sheep. I spent far too long in the aromatic coffee shop. Then I set off towards a distant, half-ruined tower: Kendal Castle.
I have never developed the muscles to race up slopes. I come from Lincolnshire – and not from the hilly bit… Kendal is exceptionally hilly and exceptionally friendly. In the steep street where I clambered to the Castle, the people tending their beautiful gardens all told me that it was going to rain. I thanked them. I climbed on, slowly. Yes, the Castle was worth the leg-ache. I admired the bold flowers of weeds and the tiny tongues of fern, tenacious between the damp stones.
I even ventured up to the metal barrier guarding a high window, and gazed down at the greenest fields in the world, nourished by the hill rains.
Was that a storm, marshalling itself on the suddenly grey horizon?
It was. Despite excellent waterproofs, I came down the deserted street battered and chilled. I did have a short new poem in my head, from a meeting with a wise mistle thrush, which, true stormcock, had sung out before the rain.
The Festival venues were not close to the Castle. I ate a hasty salad in airy rooms better suited for the long summer evenings I would later spend there during the Festival, talking of many things to younger poets, as a full moon rose over Kendal. Although still cold, I was hopeful that tea and biscuits might surface in the Library, where the very first reading was being held. I have great faith in librarians… And I was really looking forward to sitting amongst the Festival’s first audience, tired, content, listening keenly to the poet.
I will not name the writer I hoped to hear! I still admire them hugely, both for their poetry, and their youthful defiance of a dictator. I would certainly not offer one word of criticism for what happened next…
I have learnt so little in sixty-seven years that I rarely issue stern sentences of warning.. But here is one. Beware Kendal Ring Road! It is not a kindly country lane, but a black hole. It swallows up eminent poets who disregard their map-reading spouses, then sail past the one turning which will take them to Kendal Library and their expectant audience…
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. The audience stopped chatting happily. They looked grave. Watches were checked. The infrequency of country buses was mentioned. The unflappable librarians – of course! – appeared with tea and biscuits.
But I ate none. For I had been spotted by Kim Moore, heroic co-organiser of the Festival. ‘Could you do a reading, Alison? Do you have ‘Skies’ with you?’
I did have ‘Skies’ with me. It was my new collection, and I had brought a copy to give to a friend. Kim’s request was entirely reasonable, for any poet with a new book might be expected to have a current, well-planned reading which they could deliver simply by opening their collection and reading all the relevant poems from its pages.
I am quite old. I was deeply impressed, in my youth, by fine readings by poets of a previous generation, such as Dannie Abse, or Norman MacCaig. They had certain poems, tested by time, which they often read. There was always someone in the audience – like me – who had never heard these poems before, and was deeply moved by them. These favourites seemed to me to add gravity and depth to their readings. I cannot match them, but, now that I have ten collections to choose from, like my betters, I rarely read just from one book. So many of the poems from my current reading were NOT safely inside the serene blue covers of ‘Skies’.
In theory, the poems were still inside my own sleepy, unprepared head. When I first gave the odd reading, in the 1970s, most of us muttered into our books. I was a champion mutterer. Anyone who has tried to talk to me in a crowded room knows that I have never learnt to project my voice. Perhaps fortunately, work and family kept me away from poetry events for decades.
In 2013, when retirement launched me back into a world of many festivals and poetry groups, I was entranced by the younger poets I heard. They were performers. Some, like Kate Tempest, had memorised every word of their poems. By their side, I felt idle and dilettante. I, too, learnt my poems, although they always came with me, in a bright folder: the safety rail at the Castle window. I had no folder today. But I must try to help Kim to hold on to her first audience…
I scribbled out the titles from my Ledbury reading. Kim gave an alarmingly kind introduction. I launched into the title poem of ‘Skies’, which was still quite new to me. In stanza 4, where winter galaxies swam across my poem’s skies, I stumbled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman rise to leave, discreetly but decisively. She might simply have decided that the famous poet was not going to arrive before her bus left… But it was a turning point, like a horse grabbing the bit. I had to stay on, and finish the ride. I had to hold that audience.
For the rest of the reading, I remembered every word. The rest of the audience stayed to the end. Then a deep rich voice sounded in the Library’s hallway. Apologies over, the distinguished poet read with grace and ease, staying on to talk charmingly to the audience. I later reviewed the poet’s new book, with admiration.
I am still cross with myself for stumbling in the fourth stanza of ‘Skies’. I have now performed it, from memory, many times, to hundreds of people. But I always rehearse its galaxies with ferocious attention. I no longer risk my ribs by riding, but I know that the minor dangers of readings demand equal alertness!
I also know that my nerve-wracking afternoon in Kendal Library gave birth to a tiny legend. People who were there – and some who were not – now generously believe that, at any time, unrehearsed, I can remember my own poems. I am more than happy to insist that I cannot. It was only my recent practice for Ledbury that allowed me to stop the Festival audience from rushing off to the Kendal Ring Road. And how much happier I would have been with my beloved reading folder safely in my left hand!
So, kind readers and festival goers, let me venture one last piece of advice. If you have a current – rehearsed – reading, carry it discreetly in your bag when you go to your favourite festival. There is always a cancellation… Then you will not face, as I did, the alarming drop from Kendal Castle
Instead, your reading will flower like its rain-rich gardens!
And, especially at Kendal, I am sure that you will find that, at the end, the organiser has saved you a biscuit!
Finally, in 2021, I am honoured and delighted to be reading in the virtual Kendal Poetry Festival with Ian Humphreys and Hermione MacMillan-Clare. Our reading is on Friday 26th February, 8.00pm-9.00pm.
I can promise that none of us will get lost on the Kendal Ring Road. And there will certainly be biscuits afterwards!
Tickets cost £5 each and are available now. Biscuits not included, although I will read you my poem with the Kendal thrush… But if I meet you at the next non-virtual Kendal Festival, I will be delighted to buy you a cup of real coffee! Here is the link to buy tickets – and do look at all the excellent events in the Festival!