It isn’t often I spend a weekend listening to beat poets, seeing tales of the Stour River acted out in a 13th century Franciscan chapel, wondering about who I am in a yurt, searching an island of lost souls, or debating the extent of Al-Qaeda’s control in the Middle East.
This is probably because I spend most weekends seeking out the legendary Emerald Gin that is fabled to flow behind the bins at M&S if you are pure of heart and strong of stomach.
But even when I take a break from such frivolity, the A Few Wise Words Festival isn’t on in Canterbury every weekend. If it was….it wouldn’t really be a festival. More of a thing that happens. But I digress!
For those not yet in the know, A Few Wise Words is the spring-time sibling of the larger annual Wise Words Festival (which debuted in Canterbury last September). I was invited to attend its first outing, which ran from Friday 4th April to Sunday 6th April in Canterbury’s beautiful Greyfriars Gardens, and around the city streets.
The Wise Words concept was born in 2010, when arts organisation Workers of Art decided to create an event that brought the streets of Canterbury alive through poetry and literature-inspired activities, using the city as its canvas and the people as its inspiration.
Twas a big hit with audience, so much so that some just couldn’t stand to wait a whole year for another dose of wordy wisdom. And so, A Few Wise Words was launched to bridge the gap.
Workers of Art creative director Beth Cuenco said: “It is lovely to have something happening in spring – a time of renewal. So, we have seized this opportunity to create a smaller festival that is a space for us too to learn and test some of our more innovative ideas.”
So, here we are and there I was – at a festival of words, of many words and witticisms, presented to us by an eclectic mix of poets, performers and philosophers, journalists and wordsmiths, musicians and musettes*.
I decided to start my #AFewWW experience at the deep-end – with the Friday night Spoke N Word session in the festival yurt (yes, they had a yurt!), featuring various poets warming up ahead of the evening’s big Slam Poetry event at the Gulbenkian Theatre.
I will level with you: I don’t often go to poetry readings. There are so many incredible poets out there, but having been a journalist and a writer of sorts for several years means I have more often than not been subjected to the awful ones. The sort of ‘poets’ who scamper up to you, cooing “Oh I hear you’re a journalist, you must review my book! Oh I hear you do am dram, you must listen to my performance poetry! Oh I hear you’re alive, please read these eight poems I wrote about my dreams for the next 30 minutes.” Listening to them is like enduring a leg cramp while reading a gas bill.
However, two minutes into the Spoke N Word performance, any fears of such torture were allayed. Five minutes in, and I wondered “really, why the hell don’t I go to more spoken word events?”
Every poet was eloquent and diverse, and the cosy crowd in the yurt lapped it up. It was then the turn of the headliner Dizreali, an awe-inspiring rapper and poet from Bristol. To say he was good would be an understatement. To say I was left chewing on my own fist at the sheer amount of his talent would be about right.
Whether poetry is your personal creative cup of tea or not, it was still an inspiring evening. Determined and passionate young people such as these make you want to be as good, or better, at what you do. And at least they have the nerve to their work out there rather than leave it wallowing in their notebooks. Unlike some of us…But Wise Words do not live on poetry alone! No, they come in many forms – lyrical, theatrical, topical or practical.
The full programme was a solid mix of poets, performers, and speakers. You could learn the virtues of how and what we eat, discovering writing through chronic illness, new ways of living and learn of the restorative powers of poetry for incarcerated women. You could also try your hand at guerrilla knitting (oh yes), and there were further headline performances from sensational poets Hannah Silva and Danny Chivers.
In addition, organisers tweeted each day about extra last minute ‘pop-up’ events to enjoy around the city, and Twitter was on fire with RTs from supporting businesses, visitors and participants. The revolution truly was live.
With such a packed programme it was hard for me to see everything on offer. Luckily, my arch-nemesis/friend Miscriant was also covering the festival, and has some excellent write ups on events I missed. Please read her posts, for they are most good.
But I was able to visit a few other non-poetry related performances on my travels. The young pupils of The Spires Academy led the way in The Stories From The Stour on Saturday afternoon, with the talented youngsters using different sections of the stunning Francisican chapel and its grounds to stage various tales based around the River Stour.
Good Morning Sunshine, The Earth Says Hello! was a particularly eccentric break from the norm. Organised by Playne Face Theatre, a section of the festival gardens was transformed into the island of no return for visitors to explore and search for clues to pieces of a salty-sea story based around Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Names had to be guessed, hearts had to be unlocked, rings had to be tossed and souls were set free – it was very much my cup of tea. So much so that I might have pushed someone into the river who was in danger of getting to a clue ahead of me. Or maybe I dreamt that.
I spent Sunday asking myself a lot of questions. And not the usual kind, such as ‘what was the name of that late night TV show I saw once in the 1990s, with adults in animal costumes? Like alligator costumes…and there were puppet cockroaches too…..Gophers, that was it!”
No, this Sunday the festival provide much finer brain fodder.
There was an excellent talk from Julian Baggini on ‘The Ego Trick – Who or What is the Real You’ in the yurt. This was a fascinating talk about the concept of the self, and if such a thing even exists. Are we just the some of our parts, like a cart or a phone, or are all our parts attached to a thing called a ‘self’ or a ‘soul’ underneath? A simple question inspired the most debate: if you could live your dream life and be your dream person on the condition that you would forget absolutely everything about your current life and personality, would you do it?
My evening ended a little early, for I could not stay for the peddle-powered cinema. But I was able to listen to noted foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn on Syria, Iraq and the rise of Al-Qaeda following 9/11. This was a glorious debate from a highly intelligent and experience journalist, giving us an insider’s look at the value and motives of the ‘war on terror’, and how the crisis in Syria is perceived by those caught in the middle.
Before that talk I was not aware that since 9/11 and the start of the ‘war on terror’ that Al-Qaeda – at the time a fairly small group – has allegedly grown to control an area in the Middle East the size of Britain. Food for thought…
It was at the end of the weekend, as I nestled on a cushion in the yurt, sipping my travel wine**, that the value of the festival really hit home. I felt very lucky to have enjoyed such diverse debate and inspiring performances in my home town, without having to take out a second mortgage to do so. I also met some lovely people, and engaged in furious wordplay on Twitter (Tent puns – they are the future).
The good news is that Wise Words will be back in September, and I strongly urge/beg/seduce you to visit and support it.
This is a festival to cherish and to be part of. We have a great deal of talent in our fair city and, thankfully, people who want to celebrate it.
*Okay, there were no musettes. Apparently no one wants to cavort around to the music of a small bagpipe popular in the French courts of the 17th Century, no matter how much I yell.
**I never go anywhere without it in the event that I suddenly need to be charming and drunk