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

Cheltenham Literature Festival: What’s in a name?

My first evening at the festival started with a conversation with an older lady who had got up to let me sit down(!). Of course, I explained this was entirely unnecessary but we got talking, about The Reader (which she remembered from its early days) and Merseyside experiences (of which she has many). Her enthusiasm was engaging but a holler of “Ok, one minute!” across the Writers’ Room jolted me back to reality and I began to end our conversation, knowing that I too needed to be at an event. It was at this point she asked me my name: “Jenny”, I said. “Oh! I’m a Jenny too, Jenny Joseph”. I couldn’t believe it, Jenny Joseph in front of me, two minutes ago talking about West Kirby and now telling me the meanings of our names. I’m a Jennifer really, a derivative of Guinevere, meaning ‘white wave’ (so Jenny tells me); Jenny Joseph, on the other hand, is a genuine Jenny, a corruption of Joan, which comes from John. She told me that her name wasn’t as pure as mine yet Jenny means ‘gracious gift of God’. Ms Joseph told me that she wishes she could have lived her life as the ‘white wave’ but had to settle for whichever wave it was that came her way. Confused? Me too. A gift dressed in purple nonetheless.

Featured Poem: The Stone Beach

In the last of our poetry recommendations for this week Reader outreach worker and Reader Online editor Katie Peters chooses Simon Armitage’s ‘The Stone Beach’. She says: “I like stanzas 4 and 6 best, and especially the idea of living in the present but simultaneously carrying the memory of a distant past life which lives on in the present through that memory and through those who shared that life with you.”

Of course we asked permission to print this poem and Simon Armitage replied through his agent that he was happy for it to appear here, but to contact Faber, the publisher, to confirm. The agent said there was unlikely to be a problem. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I contacted the permissions department of Faber earlier in the week to ask if we could post the poem here. We promised of course to cite the conditions of the permission offered and it goes without saying that we would have linked to the Faber catalogue and to places where our readers could buy the collection The Universal Home Doctor, which was published in 2002. ‘The Stone Beach’ is characteristic of the collection, which was described by The Guardian at the time as “amusing and charming – effortlessly winning over an audience when read out loud – yet essentially serious, substantial enough to repay reconsidering. [The poems] achieve this because their preferred method is allegory, “mouthing off” about one thing while thinking about another.”

In the end on Friday I received word from Faber that we would be able to publish the poem here, but at a cost of £155 (ex. VAT, naturally). That would buy us a year of having the poem on this page, but Faber would retain the right to take it down with a month’s notice. Since we would be providing publicity for Faber, rather than the other way around, I declined this generous offer. So instead of the poem, let us all consider Faber’s permissions letter, published in full below. I’m going to be writing more on this topic in the next few days, since it seems to resonate with the mistakes made by the music industry over the last few years. I just love the bit about not ‘photocopying downloads,’ whatever that means. In the mean time if you think this document is as ridiculous as I do, feel free to contact Faber to tell them so. A contact address is available on this page.

The Permissions Form in Full:

Thank you for your email requesting permission to reproduce the above on your open-access web site (sic) in textual form.

We have certain conditions for the use of our copyright material on the internet and I have listed these below together with our fees for non-exclusive English Language permission throughout the UK and Commonwealth.

Fee: £155.00 plus VAT

This permission is granted for the period of one year only and we reserve the right to withdraw our permission with one month’s notice. A copyright line including the title of the work, the source of the poem, the author and Faber and Faber Ltd as the publisher must be printed, as well as a warning that photocopying downloads is against copyright law. We would also request that your web site is linked to a book shop site or our own web site [].

Please indicate below how you wish to proceed and then return this fax to (+44) (0)20 7465 0108.

If we do not receive a reply within thirty days we will assume that you have proceeded.


If after all that you still feel like reading the poem ‘The Stone Beach’ is freely available online here. Interestingly very few of the conditions imposed above have been met.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Eric Hobsbawm

I have just heard Eric Hobsbawm, amongst the first of the speakers at this year’s festival, talking at length about the issues raised in his new book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism: a polemic against the powerful democracies of the world and the barbarisation of our times. In this controversial discussion with Christopher Cook, the Marxist historian urged us to slow down our lives and stop seeking short-term solutions to long-term problems, warning that there are “no shortcuts in history”. Howbsbawm’s fierce critique of Western democracy, surveillence (which, despite its constant intrusion, provides the state with very little information about the actual lives of its inhabitants) and globalisation went deep into the internal contradictions of nations, which have both international and national interests that meet in a peculiar conflict of interests.

Despite the strong-minded political stance of this examination of twenty-first century living and the dangers of inflicting Western values on other nations, Hobsbawn punctuated his speech with amusing comments, saying as he came on stage, “It’s good to see that Cheltenham Literature Festival is more punctual than British Rail”, and provided an interesting insight into why writers come to literary festivals. He says it’s not really do to with book sales but to do with coming eye-to-eye with your reader in an attempt to “cross the void” from the truly closed act of writing to the open communication of reading. An honest comment, and no doubt true in sentiment, but the cynic in me can’t help but think of the huge book tent that is fixed to the back of Cheltenham’s Town Hall.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Cheltenham Literature Festival: The Inner Sanctum

In the first of her reports from the Cheltenham Literature Festival Jen Tomkins picks up her press pack and gets to eat cake:

In the four hours that I have been at the festival, the crowds have begun to swarm to the main hub around Imperial Square. Luckily for me, I have access to the Writer’s Room, an inner sanctum of calm and quietude. Yet gaining my press pass wasn’t quite an easy as it could have been: I was shimmied from the box office to the information point to the press office to the Writer’s Room, no one could find my press pack. Eventually the (slightly ineffective) walky-talky operating system that is in operation behind the scenes of the festival located the person, my pack was discovered and here I am, writing away in the Writer’s Room: a beautifully decorated Georgian room, full of large white sofas, glass tables and the literary folk of Cheltenham (and a collection of frantic journalists and festival organisers) . It is here that I am hoping to ask some of the festival guests a few questions. I just need to pluck up the courage. I am sure that the delicious selection of cakes, fresh coffee and waiter service may help the situation. Let’s just hope I don’t spill coffee over any of the VIPs.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Featured Poem: Morning Mudslinging

Marion Leibl has chosen ‘Morning Mudslinging’ by Erich Fried as our featured poem for today. She writes: ‘Sometimes I meet the people I see every day in my dreams as well. When in dreams I have conversations with them, or something happens that upsets me or makes me happy, I cannot help but either hold it against them or feel more warmly towards them the next time I see them. There’s always a little voice in the dark recesses of my brain that says: you know very well what happened – you can pretend now that it was nothing, but we both know better. Reading this poem, I am relieved to find that I’m not the only one with this problem.

Morning Mudslinging

When I proposed love
you declined
and explained to me:
‘I just met
a nice man
in a dream
He was blind
And a German
Isn’t that funny?’

I wished you sweet dreams
and went down
to my desk
but so jealous
I was hardly ever before


This poem appears in Eric Fried’s Love Poems, published by Calder
Publications, £11.99
Translation (c) Stuart Hood, 1991, reprinted with permission

Cheltenham Literature Festival

The time has come for me to leave The Reader office, pack my bags and head to Cheltenham for this year’s Literature Festival. This year’s festival focuses on the question ‘What does change mean to us?’, which will undoubtedly lead to some lively debates and controversial answers. I will be submitting regular posts on this blog about the events that I have seen, the people I’ve been speaking to, recommended reads and news from the Festival site. Amongst the events that I will be attending this weekend are: Eric Hobsbawn examining our personal pursuit of happiness; Germaine Greer’s keynote lecture about Shakespeare’s private life and a discussion of her recently published book Shakespeare’s Wife; Jeremy Bowen, Michael Boyd and Michael Wood join James Naughtie to consider Shakespeare’s history plays and their relevance to today’s society; The Festival’s Guest Director Armando Iannucci shares some of his literary favourites, joined by actors to bring some of his own writing to life. It’s going to be a busy time but I shall keep you posted!

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Reader Editor Philip Davis on BBC Radio 3

Tomorrow (Friday October 5) Philip Davis, editor of The Reader magazine, is going to be talking with Ian Macmillan about his biography of Bernard Malamud on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb show, which airs between 9.45 and 10.30pm, BST:

In this programme, Ian and guests ask if there is such a thing as northern and southern poetry, and discover the neglected work of American writer Bernard Malamud, who for many once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.

If you miss it you can listen online. The show is available for a week after the original broadcast.

Featured Poem: The Dream

Today is National Poetry Day and this year its focus is dreams, a subject that poets (and readers alike) are continually beguiled by. When we enter sleep, we enter an entirely new world, one that is filled with dreams carrying their own pleasure and pain. In Part One of ‘The Dream’, Byron separates our lives into waking and dreaming worlds, explicating how dreams render their own reality, through power of vision and intensity of thought. Yet equally pertinent is the amalgamation of the two: how dreams borrow from our conscious thought and how we, in turn, bring essences of our dreams into our waking world.

From The Dream

Our life is twofold: Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of Joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off our waking toils,
They do divide our being; they become
A portion of ourselves as of our time,
And look like heralds of Eternity;
They pass like spirits of the past,—they speak
Like Sibyls of the future; they have power—
The tyranny of pleasure and of pain;
They make us what we were not—what they will,
And shake us with the vision that’s gone by,
The dread of vanished shadows—Are they so?
Is not the past all shadow?—What are they?
Creations of the mind?—The mind can make
Substance, and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh.
I would recall a vision which I dreamed
Perchance in sleep—for in itself a thought,
A slumbering thought, is capable of years,
And curdles a long life into one hour.


Posted by Jen Tomkins

Sean O’Brien Wins the Forward Poetry Prize

Sean O’Brien has become the first person to win the Forward Poetry Prize three times, picking up the £10,000 poobah for his collection The Drowned Book. Daljit Nagra won the £5,000 prize for best first collection while Alice Oswald took home £1,000 for best poem, the category won by Nagra in 2004.

We reported on the shortlist back in August.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana