Cheltenham Literature Festival: Life Lines

Life Lines is an audio poetry anthology of some of the best poets writing in the English language today, including Fleur Adcock, Carol Ann Duffy, Blake Morrison, Andrew Motion and Benjamin Zephaniah. Its editor, Todd Swift, is Oxfam’s Poet in Residence and it was his idea to ask established and new poets to contribute their writing in support of Oxfam’s charitable work. Contibutors Kate Clanchy and Michael Rosen joined Todd Swift at the festival last night to launch Life Lines 2, reading extracts from it and from their own collections.

The event started with an lively discussion about the relevance and importance of poetry to our lives today. Poetry is often regarded as a ‘dying art’ but these poets are flying their flag high, believing poetry to be blazing with life and eager to feel that their words are able to make a difference in this world. Recently a newspaper journalist had written, “now that poetry is dead…”, which prompted Michael Rosen to write a swift response on the paper’s blog in defence of poetry (rather Shelley-esque). His indignation was still obvious last night, “it’s crazy to say that, of course it’s not!”, “it’s an extrapolation outwards of the egocentric self to say poetry’s dead” and there was not a soul in the room that would have consider poetry a dying art after hearing these efficacious speakers. “It’s not dead, just listen to rap music, that’s poetry: a new way to deliver rhythm and rhyme,” says Rosen, “but us poets, we were there first!”

Todd Swift read four poems from his new collection Winter Tennis, all touching accounts written about his father and their relationship (Swift’s father died last year). Kate Clanchy’s ‘War Poetry’ delves into the realities and unrealities of our lives, about our ability to watch television war reports with silent abashment, distancing ourselves from the reality. Then Michael Rosen took centre stage and had the audience captivated with his piercing blue eyes and animated delivery; it was an amusing, poignant and powerful reading of some of his most loved work (although I was most disappointed not to hear ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’, a favourite from my childhood). Three very different poetic voices but with the same common goal: to use poetry to make us rethink the how we use words and how they can change the world for the better.

Inspired by the vibrancy of the poets event, I dashed out of the room to the book tent to buy a copy of this CD. This, you may think, would be easy. Not so. I saw Todd Swift sitting down ready to sign away so I asked him where his fantastic anthology could be found. He didn’t know. This was obviously a little worrying for Todd and whilst people were off looking for the cds I was able to talk to him about his work and The Reader (delighted that he was familiar with it). I am now the proud owner of his personal copy of Winter Tennis, which he read from last night (he wrote in the inside cover but I can’t work out what it says, any handwriting decoders out there?). In this time the CDs were found and I duly went to pay (which itself proved difficult: lack of change and surplus of people at the till) before taking them back for the grand signing (which was also difficult: neither myself, Todd Swift or Michael Rosen could get the cellophane off for a good while, ultimately a biro proved invaluable). Thinking that I had then made enough fuss around this table, it was time to leave, so I said goodbye and off I went. Only I had forgotten my CDs, to their amusement and my embarrassment. It is now firmly in my possession and once I have some moments of calm solitude, I will listen to the anthology and review it in full.

Posted by Jen Tomkins