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Month: February 2013

Poetry in public

This is the day when I should have arrived in New Zealand; and the first of my readings there was to be this evening at the charmingly named ‘Thirsty Dog’. Because disaster struck us half-way over the world, I can’t do this reading, or any of the others I was due to give in the next couple of weeks. Charles Hadfield and Hilary Elfick will be reading at most of the events I was going to, and they are kindly going to present some of my work to those audiences. So, instead of standing up and sharing my poetry, I thought I’d reflect on poetry readings in general in this blog.

All through my adult life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the burden) of giving countless lectures, talks and sermons. In recent years, however, I have far, far preferred to give poetry readings – and I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to read all over Britain and in several other countries as well. If by any chance you’re interested in where all these readings have been, you can find them on the Poetry page of my website ( I get a tremendous kick out of giving readings: writing can be a rather solitary occupation, and suddenly, at a public reading, one has the opportunity to engage with other people, to make them laugh or sigh, and to feel the energy of a common delight in poetry flowing back and forth between reader and audience. It really is a wonderful feeling when other people share and enjoy one’s poetry.

I’ll pick out just a few of my favourites to give a flavour of the range of opportunities for poets to share their work.

I was stunned and excited to be invited to read for a whole evening at Little Gidding a few years ago. The thrill this event gave me, obviously, was because of my life-long love of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The reading took place in a large and crowded, but cosy drawing room; and I was encouraged to go on reading for over two hours.

With Orta San Giulio in background

Poetry on the Lake in northern Italy is one of the highlights of the year for quite a number of poets. Like others, I first went because I was successful in their annual poetry competition – and then I was drawn back year after year. The readings are not so much large public events as good poets getting together to share their work with others who are on the same wavelength.

A & CA


The list of participants is star-studded, and in a beautiful venue in the sunshine (well, mostly in the sunshine), friendships develop and inspiration flows.

A reading on Sacro Monte

One morning at the festival is spent reading at the various shrines on the Sacro Monte. Then, at the end of the weekend we are also treated to a wonderful piano recital in the Casa Tallone, a thousand year old building on the island, where Tallone pianos used to be made.

There are dozens of excellent poetry and/or literature festivals in Britain. Sadly I haven’t yet been invited to read at Aldeburgh, Ledbury or Stanza, but I’ve read at most of the others. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at Ways with Words at Dartington for several years running; and I read at The Space in another part of the Dartington Estate at the end of my poetry residency with dancers and choreographers from the Ballet Rambert. For a poet who is crazy about dance, this was a wonderful opportunity to indulge in some of the best things in life.

Freiburg reading

Venues at the festivals vary, and one of the more interesting ones at which I read was the Freiburg City Festival in Germany. The challenge was to read on a podium in the city square, and although seats were put out, I doubted if anyone would come to sit on them to hear a poet reading in English. However, I was mistaken, and before long all the seats were taken and there was a crowd of onlookers standing as well.

Audiences for poetry readings range from the polite to the wildly enthusiastic. There was a nice example of the latter, when Carol Ann Duffy read at the Torbay Poetry Festival this last autumn and she received a well-deserved standing ovation. I had a particularly warm and enthusiastic audience at this last year’s Guildford Book Festival, when I read and Peter Terry sang a selection of lieder and English songs. Music can work well with poetry readings, and when I read with a couple of other poets in the Lewes Linklater Pavilion recently, our readings were interspersed with guitar pieces.

A reading at WalpoleAs well as festivals, there are many other opportunities for readings. I’ve read in a number of bookshops, at the launch of magazines and anthologies that include poems by me, the launch of my books, prizewinners’ events, as the entertainment at parties, and regular poetry events such as the Troubadour in London, the Uncut readings in Exeter and pub gigs such as Tradewinds on Dartmoor. Other great venues have been the Edinburgh Fringe, the Walpole Old Chapel in Suffolk, the Dower House at Morville Hall in Shropshire, Slimbridge and Leighton Moss bird reserves and at university venues. There’s also usually an opportunity to read after giving a workshop or judging a competition. If you’re looking for readings, the possibilities are endless..

* Sea sandals

And yes, as every poet knows, giving readings is the best way to sell one’s books. In general, the major gatherings of poets do not lead to large sales, as most of the audience have plenty of poetry books already and are probably more interested in selling their own than in adding to their groaning bookshelves. Other audiences will snap up the books and delight in having them signed by the poet.

Then there is the issue of payment. Most poetry events are fairly cash-strapped, and some others have no compunction in exploiting writers if they can get away with it. It is unusual not to receive at least one’s expenses, and there are some shining examples of organisers who value and reward their poets. Among these, Patricia Oxley, the Editor of Acumen and organiser of the Torbay Festival, is one of the best. Of course one writes, and reads in public, for love. But it is amazing how much more valued one feels when someone like Patricia shows her genuine respect and appreciation by paying a proper fee. And several more of the events at which I’ve read have been kind enough to reward me quite generously.

After so many readings this last year, and the fact that I expected to be away now, I rather feared there may not have been so many in 2013. However, the invitations continue to flow in, and between now and the summer I have already been booked to appear at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Poetry Festival, the Bath Week of Good Poetry, the launch of a magazine in Swindon and at Ways with Words.

Pity about New Zealand, though!

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The best-laid plans o’ mice

Having shared quite a bit of our good news recently, I think I owe it to all the lovely people who have been reading our blogs, to share the bad news too.

Two weeks into our seven week ‘holiday of a lifetime’, disaster struck when Hugh got a detached retina. Fortunately we were in San Francisco, rather than several days out at sea, so we were able to fly home straight away, and we are now awaiting an operation to save his sight. We are both, of course, pretty gutted by this; and I am also upset to be letting down the various venues where I was doing poetry readings in New Zealand. And we were really looking forward to seeing Hugh’s sister, Sarah, again after so long. But the main thing now is to get Hugh right and to look forward to spring.

I had intended to do a blog about the ship at some stage, but for now I’ll just put in a few photos to give a taste. We did have a lovely fortnight.

Pool, 500There were two outside swimming pools on board, so we were able to swim each day.  In the intense heat, this was very welcome, particularly after we’d availed ourselves of the gymn – something we never normally do.

It was pretty amazing how many people were able to lie in the sun for hours on end. We thoroughly enjoyed our dose of sunshine; but with temperatures in the high 30s, shade and water also became very attractive.

There was a full programme of lectures and entertainment. One of the celebrities on board was Gerald Scarfe, who happened to be hitting the headlines that week with one of his cartoons. His wife, Jane Asher, was also with us, and acted as his technician for the talks – arranging his powerpoint presentations and microphones.

Gerald Scarfe 500We also had some good lectures on climate change and oceanography.

cabin 500Our cabin was very comfortable, and had a balcony. I know this will sound silly, but it was astonishing how busy we were on board.
As well as the lectures and other presentations, there were dance classes (!), activities in the gymn, swimming and a full programme of entertainments in the evening, some of which were enjoyable and others well worth missing! There was almost unlimited music, with pianists, a harpist, a ‘cellist, a string quartet, several bands and other instrumentalists.

I had also planned to do quite a bit of writing, which is why I took my lap-top.

Then, of course, there were the formal dinners. Over the years I’ve had occasion to buy a few really smart clothes, for weddings and visits to Buckingham Palace and such-like; so it was great to be able to pack them for the holiday and have opportunities to wear them.
Formal dinner 500So, to end on a cheerful note: we very much enjoyed the holiday we had.

There will be more blogs in time; but not from on board the Queen Victoria.

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Not the North West Passage

OK, so it’s not what is normally referred to as the North West passage, but we have been proceeding north west along the coast of Central America and Mexico since we left the Panama Canal. It has been extremely hot, and one just hopes that the real North West passage never approaches this heat as the climate changes and the ice melts.

We spent a very pleasant day in Huatulco, in the south of Mexico. This is a fairly new resort that was developed to improve on the earlier, badly-developed resorts such as Cancun and Acapulco.
Huatulco Bay 500

Strict environmental rules were applied, for instance restricting the height of buildings, and ensuring that no waste water is allowed to enter the sea. There was much to commend here, though I felt that the environmental credentials were rather spoilt by the jet skis speeding noisily around the beach. I was also not happy with the fact that when the resort was developed, the fishermen were all moved from their coastal homes to flats in town. But apart from those two reservations, it was an extremely pleasant resort.

Bird of paradise flower, 500Disembarking at Santa Cruz, the main bay of Huatulco, in the morning, we visited a medicinal herb garden, where we were introduced to the useful properties of many plants, then watched tortillas being made and sampled them.

Making tortillas, grinding maize 400

Making tortillas 1, 400

Making tortillas 2, 400




We were then taken to the town to see the church, where we heard the legend of the cross that arrived on Santa Cruz beach some fifteen hundred years ago and could not be destroyed whatever the English pirate, Thomas Cavendish, did to it. It was eventually cut up to make a series of smaller crosses that are venerated in various places around Mexico and Central America.

Mezcal (agave) for burning, 400Our final stop of the morning was at the plant where Mezcal is produced. This local drink is similar to Tequilla, but is made from the Agave plant, which is burnt and ground up, then the juice isextracted and distilled. We were plied with several variations of the drink, including mango flavour and coconut flavour. The tastiest was the cream version, which was similar to Baileys. We also enjoyed some of the hot chocolate produced there, and were given various snacks, which included the local delicacy of grasshoppers. Apparently, however many of these are caught on the maize each year, they come back in equal force, so it would seem to be a pretty sustainable crop. In the afternoon we braved the fierce sun and went to the beach for a delicious swim.

H & QV 350Since Huatulco we have continued north west, with the mountains of Mexico traced against the sky like a Japanese print over on our starboard side. Next stop San Francisco.

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