In Review: Ilkley Literature Festival 2017

Poet-in-Residence Daljit Nagra at the Ilkley Literature Festival 2017

The Ilkley Literature Festival is one of the country’s most prestigious literary festivals, held over 17 days at the start of October in this miniature Victorian spa town at the foot of the breath-taking Ilkley Moor countryside.

The Festival is supported by Arts Council England Yorkshire and over the last forty years, has welcomed innumerable famous authors – from international figures and Nobel prize winners to poets like Ted Hughes and Benjamin Zephaniah.  The 2017 programme featured over 250 events including Alan Bennett and Simon Armitage, and there are far more workshops, exhibitions, performances, residencies, literary walks, and discussions to take part in than you could possibly imagine. But here are some of the highlights.

I’ve always been really inspired by the humble-hearted wisdom and resilience of trees as a writer, so I was delighted to devise a (sold out!) ‘Poetry of Trees: Writing Workshop’ with a full house of 15 writers who were just as keen to muse and marvel at these magnificent creatures as I was. We drew inspiration from the fascinating things they can do like self-amputate, self-combust and even commit suicide to save themselves from shrivelling up, giving a glimpse into some of their breath-taking capabilities.

Ilkley Festival even acquired a stash of stethoscopes for us to turn speculation into scientific investigation – sort of – in the sense of stepping into the shoes of a scientist engaging in the synthesis of symbolic poetic moments, stethoscope in hand, actively exploring the fascinating links between trees and humans in the local woodland.

We drew inspiration from the hum of their heartbeat shivering down each sinewy spine, the tangle and turn of their watery threads, in order to ponder from the perspective of a tree who’s lost its leaves, stripped back to bare bone, haunted by the memory of warmth like a person may be towards a past lover… It was magical. We worked through a series of similar creative writing exercises that focused on metaphor and personification as means to making sense of the natural world in my ‘Riverside Walk Workshop’ as well.

In terms of attending workshops, one I found particularly inspiring was ‘Walking the Line: Workshop’ with award-winning poet Ian Duhig. His theme was ‘Borders, Boundaries and Partition’ and the session explored how poetry today flourishes on borders: with those of prose in new forms such as the lyric essay, music in performance or art as with Ian Hamilton Finlay. Since the fabulous Ian Hamilton Finlay visual poetry exhibition was just around the corner at The Manor House, we all went on a little excursion mid-way through the workshop to draw inspiration directly from his canvases.

A piece of his visual poetry artwork that has particularly stuck in my mind is ‘Sea ms’ where this word is split down the middle and listed vertically as a visual echo of a split seam. I was commissioned to write some poetry in response and found it so inspiring that I produced a film-poem as well.

Daljit Nagra, lead poetry tutor for the Faber & Faber Poetry Academy, ran a mind-bending masterclass called ‘Make it New’. The famous mantra from Ezra Pound found its revival as Daljit presented and encouraged us to discuss the most exciting and weird poetry emerging in Britain right now. We were encouraged to embrace the visual craft of poetry, which led me to experiment with writing a poem about trees inside the leaves it scatters as a poetic-visual work of art.

In terms of performances, I was honoured to give a poetry reading alongside Daljit Nagra and Colette Bryce at Ilkley Playhouse Wildman, and fell in love with Daljit’s new collection British Museum, which invokes a cast of characters from Britain’s past and reconsiders both his own, and the nation’s, identity. It’s an exciting departure from his memorable first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover! that won the Forward Prize. Colette Bryce read from her hot-off-the press Selected Poems too, a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation, that was an equal delight to the imagination.

Overall, I would describe Ilkley Literature Festival as one of the most inspiring festivals I have ever attended. The diverse spectrum of events to choose from, and the sheer uniqueness of each one has yielded inspiration beyond measure. I would recommend staying for the entirety of the festival rather than trying to cram in a few events over a few days, allowing you to stumble across surprising Fringe events in any dull moments and also explore and draw inspiration from the gorgeous countryside just sitting on your doorstep.


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Jade Cuttle read Modern & Medieval Literature at Cambridge University. She has written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Observer, The Times, and the Poetry Book Society. Currently she is Poet-In-Residence for Ilkley Literature Festival with Daljit Nagra touring literature festivals, and she has also been selected by Ledbury Poetry Festival as an Emerging Critic. Her poetry has been performed on Radio 3 for BBC Proms and commissioned for BBC podcasts after winning 1st in the Proms Poetry Competition. She is a Young Poet Networker and BBC Introducing poetic-folk songwriter with album ‘Leaves & Lovers’.
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