In 2020 The Big Poetry Weekend, formerly the Poetry Swindon Festival, was scheduled to go ahead at a new venue, Lydiard Park, in October, but as with so many festivals, the pandemic hit, and the festival was postponed. When 2021 came around and we had to make a decision about whether to have the festival online or in person, we ventured online--and are so glad we did!
The greatest benefit to moving online was greater inclusivity--the festival was now more accessible to a much larger audience, and I was able to invite poets beyond the UK to participate as travel costs were no longer a factor. The result was a wonderful mix: US-based poets Kazim Ali, Elena Karina Byrne, Forrest Gander, Patricia Smith, and Cole Swensen, read alongside UK-based poets Raymond Antrobus, Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo, Mary Jean Chan, and John McCullough. The range of poetries was thus wonderfully broad and exciting.
Of course there were hiccups. I was about to host Saturday morning's seminar with John McCullough, "Risks & Reboots", when I received an email from Martha Sprackland saying she was ill and unable to participate in the Poets & Publishers' panel at 2 p.m. Kindly, Martha volunteered to participate audio-only if needed, as she thought that much she could manage, and she helpfully suggested a few possible replacement editors in her stead. As John's seminar proceeded, Martha, co-panelist and Poetry Birmingham editor Naush Sabah, and I swapped emails, and I messaged a handful of possible replacements. My first response was from Aaron Kent of Broken Sleep Books--he couldn't join us as he was reading for the Swansea Literature Fest at the same time! Luckily, oh so luckily, my next response was from Luke Thompson at Guillemot Books--he could rearrange his plans to join us. Whew! Amid that scramble, I received another email from my co-director Helen Dewbery, who could no longer host the open mic that afternoon and needed a replacement--and so another flurry of emails ensued.
While I believe part of the quality of a festival comes from the quality of its programme, I also know part of it comes from the strength of its volunteers. Poets Sarah L. Dixon, Hannah Linden, Pey Oh, and Julia Webb interchanged roles as technical support and hosts for our events throughout the weekend and did so with skill and good humour. I've promised them each a drink when we have the opportunity to meet in person, but that hardly feels sufficient reward for their efforts!
There's so much from this weekend teeming in my thoughts as I write this, from Mary Jean Chan's powerful new poems, to Patricia Smith's electric performance, to Vahni Anthony's exquisite leaps of thought, to Sandeep and Maryam's insights on poetry reviewing, to John's energizing insights into risk-taking. What a weekend! My gratitude goes out to all our poets--attendees and participants alike, our volunteers, and co-director Helen Dewbery. We did it!