Rainham Poetry Festival – In The Beginning Were Some Words
Poets notice weather, how it changes and how it never really changes. Day one of the new Rainham Poetry Festival - the first ever poetry festival to be held in Rainham, Kent - was still and the sunshine was inviting. Or maybe that’s just how I wanted to remember it...
Slowly at first a trickle of curious people wandered into the cool of St Margaret’s Church, becoming very quickly a river by the time the first poets came to the microphone. Charlotte Ansell opened the show with some work from her collection ‘Deluge’ which was a 2019 Poetry Book Society Winter recommendation. Following soon after Jessica Mookherjee, whose book ‘Tigress’ was shortlisted as best second collection in the Ledbury Munthe Prize in 2021, read from that, and her two recent books Notes From A Shipwreck and Desire Lines.
They had pooled into a large and receptive crowd as the headline guest, the world renowned poet John Agard (Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, BookTrust's Lifetime Achievement Award) took the stage. Agard will be familiar to many students who will have studied his book ‘Half-caste’ which has featured on the GCSE syllabus since 2002! I later found that quite a number of English teachers were indeed present. John versed up a storm with number of poems from his recent collection, The Coming Of The Little Green Man and Border Zone, inviting mass audience participation by the end to join him in a little calypso singing! John was a marvelously generous reader, quoting lines from some poetry friends who were also in the room, and telling us the backgrounds to his poems.
On day two, Jane Burn who judged the Rosemary McLeish Poetry Prize for Wordsmithery last year, appeared as guest reader with her new collection Be Feared. There were also readings from the winners that she chose, Helen Kay (3rd for High Water), Bronach Rae (2nd for Bringing The Outside In), and Sue Proffitt (1st for Owl Pellet At Grey Wethers). Sue was then presented with one of Rosemary McLeish’s artworks by Rosie’s husband Richard Cooper, who finished off the first half by reading one of her poems from her Wordsmithery collection Defragmentation.
The second half saw a performance from 'The Four Poets' who debuted their new anthology by Beckit Books at the festival. Starting with me, Barry Fentiman Hall, co-director of the festival, venting my thoughts about dark night jobs and festival days; Sarah Hehir, poet, playwright and TV/radio writer (Doctors/The Archers) slipping easily from the sensuous The Weight Of Antony to the Dickensian themed Chatham Library (which can still be viewed on the outer wall of that very building); Maggie Harris, winner of the Wales Poetry Award 2020 riffing on Bob Marley; and finally, Bill Lewis, one of the legendary Medway Poets Group regaled with his trademark surreal take on everything from old friends to Doctor Who.
The response from the audience in Rainham over the two days was overwhelmingly positive. A number said they had never been to a live poetry event before and were definitely going to come to one again. The book table was abuzz and the bar was busy. As the people drained away leaving the empty church with its banners and posters coming down, but walls still warm from having them there.
If the 19th century polymath Charles Babbage was correct and that spoken words leave permanent impressions in the air, then this building will not forget what happened here in a hurry. A second Rainham Poetry Festival anyone?
By Barry Fentiman Hall
This event was presented in association with Medway River Lit and Renaissance One. Supported by Hoo Ness.
Thanks to: our helpers Maria, Rachel and Anne-Marie. For use of the church, Nathan and Kayleigh and the St Margaret's community. For the initial idea, Paul Jackson.