The weekend before last (Thursday, 4 June-Sunday, 7 June), I volunteered with Iron Press at their second literary festival, Eclectic Iron. In 2013 they celebrated their fortieth anniversary with the Iron Age Festival. This year they followed its huge success with another fantastic weekend of poetry, theatre, and music. I was lucky to be a part of the Iron Age Festival, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to volunteer again during Eclectic Iron.
Living in a small town in North Yorkshire, it’s easy to feel disconnected from social events, literary or otherwise. There are a number of literary festivals to choose from over the year within driving or (sometimes) public transport distance, but in the interim, it’s hard not to miss Newcastle and its thriving literary community. Needless to say, I am counting down the days until we move back up north.
The festival began Thursday with the performance of “Fracking in Cullercoats”, a play written by founder and editor of Iron Press, Peter Mortimer. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the event, but after seeing the script-in-hand readings of “The Filleting Machine” by Tom Hadaway and “I Knew Him Horatio” by Leonard Barras at the start of the last festival, I was sorry to miss it. According to the other volunteers, it was standing room only and a rousing success. The drama students from Marden High School in Cullercoats, who worked with Peter over the spring term, not only performed the play, but were also involved in various aspects of the production, such as design, publicity, lighting, and sound.
The first event I was set to volunteer at Saturday was a reading by Colette Bryce at the Cullercoats Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), with music by Katie Doherty. When I arrived, there had been a malfunction in the new online booking system they tried to use this year, and attendance had been booked for nearly three times the capacity the RNLI could hold. We were worried about fitting in all the people who had bought tickets, and as they had enough volunteers already, I left to enjoy the sun and the beach. (Luckily they ended up with just a full audience, rather than being beyond capacity.)
I sat on the end of one of the two piers that encloses Cullercoats Bay harbor, which were built late in the nineteenth century to protect the fishing boats, to write. Cullercoats has a long history of fishing, told in folk songs, the paintings of Winslow Homer, and the works of contemporary, often local, artists. I was reminded of how Iron Press always works to include the sea and its influence in their festival, when a man walked up to me and, when I turned around, said, “You’re not Joan.”
“Nope, I’m not.”
He apologized for interrupting me. As part of the festival, Iron Press had organized “the two shortest writers’ residencies known to humankind.” Two writers, Joan Johnston and Sandy Chadwin, each spent three hours on the rocks near Cullercoats Bay at low tide, denied all technology, but left with the natural world for inspiration. Two years ago during the Iron Age Festival, an event had similarly planned to venture out on the sea with a Cullercoats fisherman, and for participants to complete a haiku workshop the next day based on their experience. The event was foiled by a storm; this year’s sea influenced writing faired much better.
By sitting and writing on one of the piers, I had inadvertently appeared like one of these writers-in-residence. Although I wasn’t writing about the sea or the beauty around me, it was inspiring to sit in the midst of it. The wind that day was roaring, sometimes blowing sand into my eyes of course, but still creatively stirring. Of course, I don’t envy the three (continuous) hours the other two writers spent on the rocks; one humorously recounted how she had to hide behind some of the rocks to use the bathroom.
Fisherwomen, Cullercoats, by Winslow Homer
The first event I attended at this year’s Iron Press festival was The Rescue of the Limerick, held at the Fishermen’s Mission. The poetry was introduced by the lovely and soft-spoken Eileen Jones, co-editor of the collection Limerick Nation and one of my fellow volunteers from the Iron Age festival. A number of poets took us on a tour of the UK, with a few limericks for each town, and a fair amount of laughs. The musical accompaniment for the event was provided by the lei-wearing Seaton Sluice Ukulele Band, which maintained the carefree atmosphere.
I’ve always loved how Iron Press always includes music performances with the readings. For some events, it breaks up longer readings, or readings by two writers. But it also reinforces how creative pursuits overlap, and how mutually beneficial exposure to another art can be for an artist. In particular at the Limerick event, I enjoyed the singing of a folk song called “The Cullercoats Fish Lass”. The ukulele band had the audience join in for the chorus, “Will ye buy, will ye buy, will ye buy my fresh fish?” It was yet another way of evoking the fishing history, particularly the fishwives made famous by painter Winslow Homer, and the influence of the sea on Cullercoats and its artists.
I ended the night at the much anticipated Tony Harrison event. Of course, no festival would be complete without an event preceded by a frantic search for extra chairs, but as I perched on one of the tables in the back with the other volunteers and event managers, we could relax knowing there were just enough in the end. When he arrived, Harrison was quietly taken to a private room, where he remained until it was his time to speak. The reading was preceded by cello music by Liz Maynard. While I really love the sound of a cello, without much knowledge about how to play, the first song seemed to get off a little rocky. The rest of the music was beautifully performed, providing a solemn and classical ambience for the stories and poetry to come.
When Tony Harrison came out, I couldn’t help but think how small he looked. I was introduced to his work by my husband, and in the few pictures I’d seen before of Harrison, he was always shown in a large overcoat; so it was a surprise to see the slight man, from whom so many significant works have arisen. He spent nearly half of his time before the audience telling stories. It gave some background information to each poem he read, but they were also gave some insight into the life he has led; these stories were one of my favorite things about his reading. He talked of his mother and father, and of their deaths; he read poems about the hole his mother’s death left in his father’s life, and in the relationship between father and son. (Poems at links)
Harrison spoke also about how he wrote poetry in response to the first Gulf war, and how he insisted the Guardian print them in the news section, because most people would just throw away the culture section and never see them. He had almost jokingly agreed to go into the combat zone during the next war, and send poetry from there, perhaps never expecting the Guardian to follow through. So he had to laugh when they called him up in 1995 and told him to get his helmet; they were sending him to Bosnia. From there, he wrote poems such as “The Cycles of Donji Vakuf”, detailing the pillaging of a town taken by the Bosnian Muslims:
“And tonight some small boy will be glad
he’s got the present of a bike from soldier dad,
who braved the Serb artillery and fire
to bring back a scuffed red bike with one flat tyre.
And among the thousands fleeing north, another
with all his gladness gutted, with his mother,
knowing the nightmare they are cycling in,
will miss the music of his mandolin.”
– “The Cycles of Donji Vakuf”, Collected Poems
Harrison also read “Shrapnel”, a poem about an air raid he survived, because a pilot dropped all his bombs on a nearby park, rather than the surrounding houses. It concludes with mention of the connection his street, which survived the raid, had to the bombers responsible for the 7/7 attacks in London.
“A flicker of faith in man grew from that raid
where this shrapnel that I’m stroking now comes from,
when a German had strict orders but obeyed
some better, deeper instinct not to bomb
the houses down below and be humane.”
– “Shrapnel”, Collected Poems
While I can only write a few things about such a wonderful event, I know it’s not one I’m soon to forget. Harrison, though seemingly reserved when not in front of a podium, is a man who has seen and written much, the intriguing kind of person you’d want to sit and speak with at length, no matter how intimidating it might be.
I wish I could remember the bit he ended on; it had something to do with life being like a pint without a refill—so drink it slowly. Of course it was much more eloquently worded. But with that, Harrison stepped off the stage and disappeared through a side door.
Sunday, the last event I could help out at before driving back down to North Yorkshire was Hot off the Press, a celebration of two new books from Iron Press. Vicky Arthurs and Lisa Rodgers read in the RNLI from their new books, Limehaven and The She Chronicles, respectively, with music by Jack Arthurs. The RNLI is one of my favorite venues in which Iron Press has held their festival events. Situated right on the sand in Cullercoats Bay, the open area upstairs has a fantastic view of the sea from the large windows on two sides of the building. It’s hard not to get caught up in the lull of ocean and sky, stretching out behind the poet or musician.
Limehaven was the name of Vicky Arthurs’ grandparents house, so the collection focuses on them and the childhood memories that inspired her poems. Much of Arthurs’ collection evokes that intangible, ethereal aspect of memory:
“I’m diving for purls in a swirling ocean,
Riding the waters where dreams swim free,
I voyage on your needles — they carry me, carry me,
Carry my coracle far out to sea.”
– “You knit the ocean”, Limehaven
It’s similar to the type of writing I’d like to use to explore my relationships with my own grandparents, so I picked up a copy of her book. Other pieces play with the misunderstandings and creativity of childhood.
The She Chronicles is based on Lisa Rodgers’ research into various pioneering women of history. Another volunteer compared it to the style of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, and I can easily see the resemblance. But Rodgers’ work particularly focuses on women who were vilified in their own time, women who pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in order to follow their own paths. Despite some hairy endings, it’s something many of us could aspire to do, or at least honor in poetry.
Cullercoats Bay at night
As we left Tony Harrison’s reading Saturday night, I said to one of the other volunteers about the festival, “Events like this are exactly why I can’t wait to be near Newcastle again.” Not just listening to the readings, but being around literary types again, was like a breath of fresh air. I know I’ve become too still, too comfortable in an unfulfilling state of monotony over the last few months; but I think it’s important for all people, artist or not, to once in a while touch base with what makes them feel most themselves.
So writers, go to that literary event you’ve been contemplating attending; sporty people, go see a game of something; dramatists, actors, go see a play. Whatever helps you breathe easier, brings you back to your center — go, find what makes your heart sing.
I’ll just be here in my little North Yorkshire town, anticipating the next Iron Press festival, and looking into what events I might make it to when I’m next visiting Atlanta.
This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas. Please contact me if you have recommended events to attend!