The Cork International Poetry Festival attracts some of the top names in modern poetry, and this year Swansea-based author of And Suddenly You Find Yourself Natalie Ann Holborow finds inspiration there.
February 2018 marked the sixth annual Cork International Poetry Festival, a multinational event attracting renowned poets from Tipperary to Jamaica, Dublin to the USA, and, as it seems, avid listeners from places as exotic as Swansea. Since its launch in 2012, the Cork Poetry Festival has only grown in status to become what is currently the largest poetry festival in Ireland, with two prestigious writing prizes – the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition and Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize – now associated with it. Organised by the Munster Literature Centre, past readers have included Paul Muldoon, Jo Shapcott and Peter Fallon.
Running from 13th-17th February, I attended days two and three of the festival; unfortunately I had to miss one of my poetry heroes, Medbh McGuckian, as well as Emily Berry, partly because of the awkward Cardiff-Cork flight schedules, and partly because my first flight was cancelled, then redirected to Dublin and I ended up on a three-and-a-half-hour coach to Cork hearing the life story of every person who would talk to me, and getting quite drunk with a very kind Irishman who insisted on sharing with me his carrier bag full of lukewarm bottles of supermarket wine. That’s the thing about travelling alone; you’re not really alone. Everyone I attempted to speak to really wanted to speak, and in just three hours, I’d made three new friends and had deeper, more honest conversations with strangers than you’ve probably had with your family GP after 27 years. Though I unfortunately arrived six hours late and missed Day One of the festival, the wealth of writing material and interesting conversations I gained from it was exactly the reason I decided to return to Ireland for inspiration in the first place. Some highlights included meeting Sarah Byrne, (editor of The Well Review), Cal Doyle, whose poetry I’d seen featured in The Stinging Fly, poets Deane Browne and Billy Ramsell, and finally Danny Denton, whose exciting new novel The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow has just been published by Granta.
Kindly hosted by Wales Book of the Year Award-winner and Writer in Residence at University College Cork, Thomas Morris, I embraced Day Two ready to find some sort of spark that would lure my writing pen back out of hiding from the bottom of a receipt-littered handbag. After a day exploring the gorgeous grounds of University College Cork and mining the shelves of Diagon Alley-esque second-hand bookshops in Cork’s quaint city centre, we awaited the first event of the afternoon with a drink in dimly-lit pubs with crackling fires, talking literature in plush, high-backed armchairs. In one particularly quiet bar, people talked with us like old friends, dogs pressed their warm heads into our laps, and barmaids swept past with saucers of water for four-legged customers. Sipping Jamesons and ice in a quiet old pub near Cork Library, rain purling like diesel at the windows, I removed my notebook from my handbag and scribbled some notes. I could write here, I thought. I could just come here every evening and write a whole book.
The first event I attended was a standing-room-only, free event at Cork City Library: a double reading from University College Cork Professor Graham Allen and the Corkonian William Wall. Graham Allen’s latest publication, Holes: Decade One, is a “ten syllable, one line per day” e-poem recently published by New Binary Press. However, it was Allen’s work from his second collection, The Madhouse System, that was the focus of this reading. His poetry was both startling in its imagery and wonderfully relatable – on more than one occasion I found myself and Tom nodding at a shared sentiment pared down to one startling image. William Wall also read his widely-acclaimed work, his most recent being The Yellow House, his fourth collection of poetry, which he delivered confidently (though I was left more than a little uneasy by a rather tasteless line about Plath’s suicide and relationship with Ted Hughes, which I believe did nothing for the poem other than to shock).
Celebrated for its multiculturalism, the festival that night featured an international collaboration between Bloodaxe Books and award-winning filmmaker Pamela Robertson-Pearce. Realising we’d forgotten the important matter of actually eating something between a packed programme of events, we did have to unfortunately miss this one; however, I will certainly be getting hold of a copy in the near future – it features readings from poets hailing from America, Australia, Canada, India, Kurdistan, Lithuania, Britain and Ireland to name just a few. The response to the event from people I spoke to afterwards was wholly positive and having been a firm fan of Bloodaxe poets and Astley’s books since I first developed an appetite for poetry aged 16, I have no doubt the DVD will be a treat.
Of all the many high-quality readings, the standout of my two days at the festival was Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson, who read from his Faber collection House of Lords and Commons. Accompanied by the delightful Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, who treated us to a beautiful reading in Irish (which, by the way, is as gentle and lyrical as Welsh on the ear when read aloud), Hutchinson delivered a quietly confident reading on “a pursuit of justice and rebalance of a world in which lords and commoners must live side by side”. Unflinchingly, Hutchinson threw impressively-crafted, haunting images of the contrast between those who ‘have’ and those who ‘have not’ in Jamaica, across “the phantom sea fraying/ over Antarctica, Fiji, Beliza, India/ of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce bats”. Both poets provided intelligent and insightful answers during the Q&A session, and as soon as the lights dimmed I rushed straight out, waving my bank card to buy a book to thrust in front of Hutchinson for him to sign. Hutchinson is one of those poets who is not only enviably gifted, but also very humble to speak to in person.
The final reading of the night should have been A.B. Jackson and Brian Turner, but due to unforeseen circumstances, A.B. Jackson couldn’t attend and was replaced by Trevor Joyce, esteemed and award-winning Dublin poet who delivered a powerful and distinctive reading. Like Ghearbhuigh, Joyce’s poetic skill and his respect among the community was easily marked by the way he kept his audience enraptured throughout. Fellow reader Brian Turner is currently the John Montague International Poetry Fellow, a prestigious role given to an acclaimed poet to reside in the city for three months, writing and mentoring poets. Thomas pointed out that this is one of those examples of how Ireland nurtures writers and celebrates them; in the writing community here, a writer doesn’t just wrote but actively engages with the community they live in.
Turner is one of those rare poets who translates as brilliantly from the page as he does to being read aloud; a skilled writer, his words became electric. His war poems were electrifyingly vivid, but it wasn’t until he stopped reading, mid-poem, and looked up at the audience that something shifted. He announced that he was going to stop there; that he was going to read his series of poems dedicated to his late wife, and it was here that his poetry took on an honesty and rawness that left me holding my breath. It was as though through his words, he had thrown open a door and we were there, in the midst of it, feeling that ache, that compassion, the grief almost tangible. That’s the mark of it, right there, I thought, tears quietly melting into my hair, he’s captured that feeling and he’s bent it, shaped it, and made something out of it. It was a remarkable tribute, and I’ve since recommended his work to many others since coming back to Wales.
Would I recommend Cork Poetry Festival to my literary friends back in Wales? Absolutely. With no events exceeding a mere seven euros in entry fees, and with a friendly, relaxed vibe throughout (the festival does not have green rooms, for example; readers and writers are encouraged to mix and share the festival experience collectively). Will I be reading some of these writers again? Without a doubt. Have I started writing again? Take a peek in my handbag. Two weeks on, there’s still pub receipts crumpled up with little snatches of poetry inked on the back, and my pen has continued to drift in and out of its place in the zip compartment to bleed its ink onto my notebook whenever I get the chance. Project: poetry collection number two has already begun.
Festival organiser Pat Cotter has done a wonderful job with the festival, and has saved a frustrated Welsh poet from turning her back on the writing world and thrown her, full-force, arms groaning with books, into a 2018 full of new literary possibility. Maith thú indeed, Cork.
Natalie Ann Holborow’s debut collection, And Suddenly You Find Yourself, is out now.