Saturday, 18 May 2013

Alice Oswald at the Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 11th May 2013

Photo by Antonio Olmos

I can't really tell you how excited I was at the prospect to seeing/hearing Alice Oswald read at the Watershed last Saturday ... nor how livid I was when, ten minutes before I was due to leave the house, my border collie, Ted, made a run for it up the park.

Now, when Ted's had a good hurtle after the ball, he's fairly biddable and easy to catch, but I could see from the expression in his eyes exactly what he thought as he barked peremptorily at me - Well, we're here now, so let's have a bit of fun for half an hour. Let's face it, you could do with the exercise.  
In the end I hung the ball - which happened to be on a handy piece of elastic - on the branch of a bush and as he leapt for it, rugby-tackled him to the ground and hauled him home, thus getting to the poetry reading by the skin of my teeth, albeit flustered and earringless.  

I'm sure if I thought hard enough I could find a way of seguing from this image into a description of the reading, but I'm a busy blogger today so I'm just going to post the review I've written for the local rag.  

The last time I had a ticket for an Alice Oswald reading, ten years ago in Bath, she fell ill and was unable to attend, so I was delighted finally to catch her sell-out performance of a selection of her work at the Watershed, put on by the Bristol Festival of Ideas in association with the Bristol Spring Poetry Festival.

I use the word 'performance' advisedly, as Alice Oswald, one of our most intelligent and imaginative poets, learns her poems by heart and is thus able to summon an intense and dramatic delivery that grabs the attention of the audience from beginning to end.

I first encountered Alice Oswald's work when her long dream-like poem Dart was published in 2002.  At the Watershed, the focus was on her most recent collection, 2011's Memorial. Subtitled An Excavation of the Iliad, Memorial departs from the usual telling of the stories of Achilles, Paris, Helen and the rest to focus on the individual, named heroes whose fates are mentioned on in passing.  By providing the reader with sufficient telling detail, she brings them to life only to confront us with the pathos of their deaths.  The resulting work is a haunting exposition of the insanity of war, the enormity of its cost in human lives.  

Apart from Memorial, Alice also read from A Sleepwalk on the Severn, a long poem for several voices which was published in 2009, and earlier poems including Hymn for Iris, a prayer for bridges and connections.  Perhaps the most riveting of all was a poem about her village in Devon which described in the present inhabitants from generations ago, and which, despite its repeated exhortations to the reader not to be alarmed, was decidedly eerie.  

The reading was followed by a fascinating question and answer session chaired by the Director of Poetry Can, Colin Brown. 

The Bristol Festival of Ideas continues until the end of August; Bristol Poetry Festival will be back in the first week of October with an exciting line-up of poets and performances.  

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