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Highlights from the Winchester Poetry Festival

Following the success of the inaugural Winchester Poetry Festival, we asked poets, performers, organisers, attendees and Magma team members for their highlight of the weekend and to share an individual moment that might have gone hidden or unseen. Check back over the coming days to read more highlights, and, if you attended or have something to say, feel free to share and discuss your experiences in the comments section below. (Hover over the images to see the captions.) 


Kate Firth, Voice Coach & Actress

Well, certainly my workshop highlights were people discovering the sonic juice in the word combinations and phrasing of Seamus Heaney’s Helmet. And helping people discover the joy of ‘walking a poem ‘ to find what the poem wants from the reader in terms of phrasing and where the flow and energy changes with the breath and thought change. My favourite poet’s performance was Michael Longley reading Harmonica.  Now there’s someone who knows how to breathe life into his words and lift the text off the page.  I could hear, see, smell taste every image because he really knew how to let his images hang in the air. I was practically singing with joy at the end of his reading. Gorgeous. I’ve taken it home with me.

Hidden bits: well, the encounter on Jewry St near the library of the poet on the bike and her colleague approaching two men walking past and saying ‘hello, we’re the Poetry Festival’ (or something thereabouts).

The first man’s response: ‘What’s that?’

The second man says to his mate ‘Poetry. Poems.’

The first man says, ‘Oh.  Poems. Good old Winchester.’

They walk on.




Ian McEwen, Magma Treasurer

At the risk of being self-serving my highlight of the festival was the Magma event and specifically seeing Christopher Reid’s very strong reaction to the clip from The Goon Show which was played as one of his five things.

The holiness of silliness.And sticking to the silly theme, who could resist a poetry postie’s invitation to make an edible poem on a nice biscuit?


Stephen Boyce, Winchester Festival Co-organiser

As one of the organisers of the Winchester Poetry Festival I was keen to see as many events as possible but I also knew there were likely to be other priorities on the day. As it happened, I was able to attend most of the readings and talks. One event I was especially keen to be at was David Constantine’s ‘close reading’ on Sunday morning. Over supper the previous evening he had lamented the decline of critical study, this gentle man becoming intense, brooding and passionate as he advocated the importance of a studied appreciation of form, metre, rhyme, etc.

The close reading is an idea we borrowed from Aldeburgh, in which a poet gives a personal insight into a poem which has inspired them. Imtiaz Dharker, Brian Patten, Ros Barber and Edna Longley also gave close readings and we offered these as free events. David’s choice of poem was Eden Rock by Charles Causley.

He jumped straight in with a clear, unadorned reading of the poem. He followed this with a straightforward analysis of the poem’s form and structure: “five quatrains with the last line detached, rhyming abab with off rhyme throughout”, etc. His clear-sighted focus on Causley’s craftsmanship flowed with increasing urgency from the poet’s metrical dexterity, his effective use of enjambement and end stopped lines, to the choice of plain language and, in Blake’s famous words, the ‘holiness of minute particulars’. Constantine’s detailed appraisal was informed, academically rigorous and revealing, the observations rippling from him without a moment’s pause.

But then came the ‘turn’ as he switched gear to confide his personal appreciation of Eden Rock, his acquaintance with Causley, the impact of the poem on his own work and his interpretation of its meaning. Both tone and mood changed as he shifted from cool analysis to evident deep feeling. The connections became clear – Cornwall, teaching, the loss of one’s parents and reconnection with them, the directness of language, awareness of mortality. As he pursued his theme David himself became increasingly intense and emotionally engaged and the clock ticked well beyond the allotted 15 minutes.

In the intimate setting of the Theatre Royal’s Back Garden Bar the packed audience was also visibly moved as we absorbed Constantine’s, almost breathless, passion for the poem, his sensitivity to its subtleties and Causely’s exemplary skill. All of which is perhaps summed up in the beauty and simplicity of Causley’s detached closing line, the most regular in the poem: ‘I had not thought that it would be like this.’




Wes Brown, Magma Administrator

My highlight of the festival had to be seeing Michael Longley perform his deeply-moving poems of loss, love and war. “Are you asleep, Achilles? Have you forgotten me? Bury me quickly, please, and let me through Death’s / Gates…”

For a more personal moment, where else but a poetry festival would you be serenaded with fourteen impromptu verses of a poem by a ninety-three year old lady?


Jon Sayers, Magma Chair

My official highlight of the festival (Magma’s own events aside, of course!) and among the many higher, more epic moments, was Julia Copus’s tender reading of her quietly touching, personal poem about her Uncle Ray, ‘Raymond, at 60’ in her trademark ‘specular’ form.  Chatting to Julia afterwards, she told me that the form is more effective for some subjects that others. This was a wonderful example of it, and if you weren’t there, I urge you to find it and read it in Julia’s latest collection ‘The World’s Two Smallest Humans‘.  My personal memorable moment – and again there were many – was sneaking off from duties at the Magma stand, with Nick Sunderland, our vice chair, for my first ever view of the famous cathedral, and finding myself comparing its front elevation disappointingly (and completely unfairly!) with Notre Dame, but then being terribly impressed by its fine and imposing profile.




Some further highlights…


Madelaine Smith, Marketing Manager at Winchester Poetry Festival

For me the festival was largely about making sure that everyone was in the right place at the right time with the right pieces of paper. By Sunday afternoon I was able for the first time to relax a bit (especially once all poets were present and accounted for). At this point an elderly lady who I know arrived and said that she had come to hear her grandson read. I said ‘Oh no, you’ve missed him, Dominic read at the Student Slam on Friday.’ ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘he’s won a competition, his mother has just rung. I’ve come to hear him read.’ It turned out that Dom Cramp had indeed won the Magma pop up competition on Nationhood and would be reading between Ros Barber and Jackie Kay in the final reading of the festival.

I went in to listen to the final reading. This was the only occasion I managed to hear a reading all weekend. (With the exception of Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales which I booked months ago and told all the festival team that Patience’s reading was the only 45 minutes during the weekend when I would not, under any circumstances, be available. Patience was as brilliant as I’d expected and I thoroughly enjoyed my 45 mins off!)

All of the Magma winners were great but when Dom read, hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Before the poetry slam, Dom had apparently never read his work aloud to an audience. He said ‘I read and I liked it. It felt good. So I decided to give it another go.’ Dom also read at one of the ‘NottheWinchesterPoetryFestival’ fringe events on Saturday night. I think that captured for me what it is all about; passing on a love of poetry, in whatever form, enthusing young people to engage and the chance to bring people together to share the joy.


Jacqueline Saphra, Poet

When, some months ago, I received an invitation to read at Winchester, I was both amazed and delighted that in these times of austerity, the intrepid and hardworking committee had managed to pull together a brand new, properly funded festival. So first of all, bravo to all those for achieving this varied, buzzy weekend of events.

Saying yes to the reading was the easy part: the hard (and most satisfying) part of it was building my own reading based around the festival’s central theme of conflict.  But the more I thought about it, the wider the theme became. This became apparent in Patience Agbabi’s brilliant multi-voiced 21st Century rendition of her version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Telling Tales’. Her Parson’s Tale is a rap about violence on South London streets: Seven Sins was my Crew, you can ask them, use ta be ‘The Pimp’ but now I’m ‘The Parson’. In another, the ‘Wife of Bafa’, a Nigerian woman who has survived several husbands ruminates on the advantages of having power over your partner: He wanted ten children to pass my hip/but I learned how to wield de whip. Abgabi’s remix of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, with which she started the reading, was a highlight for me: beautifully constructed, utterly credible – a true homage to the original.

One of the lovely things about poetry festivals is that you really have an opportunity to converse with readers and other poets and audience. In this sense poetry is surely one of the most democratic of the arts. I even managed a brief exchange of words with Michael Longley. Can you imagine going to Glastonbury and being able to have a wee chat with Bruce Springsteen as he walks off The Pyramid Stage?

Patience Agbabi and I shared the train journey back to London and we talked of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and pretty much everything else in the world, as poets often do. I told her how much I admired the assurance and daring of the remix of Anthem for Doomed Youth. She replied with something to the effect that she’d run it off in a couple of minutes really, that she’d ‘done’ about eight of them as preparation for running a school workshop. What can you say?

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I was glad to meet the winners of the Wilfred Owen Poetry Competition at Winchester on Sunday. Alan Franks’ prizewinning poem is superb and you can read it and the runners-up on the Wilfred Owen Association website.

  2. I wanted to add a word of thanks to all who organised the festival and to all who contributed to the special blend of depth, breadth, thoughtfulness and joie de vivre … not forgetting the small parcels of fun delivered by the Poetry Posties!

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