Poetry in the spotlight: Ian Soutar gives chapter and verse on the first Sheffield Poetry Festival, which is taking place across the city this weekend

L to R Ann Sansom, Matt Black,Adam Piette and Rob Hindle
L to R Ann Sansom, Matt Black,Adam Piette and Rob Hindle

A READING from Sheffield’s Professor of Poetry, Simon Armitage, an evening of video, audio and taxidermy experiment and a University Challenge between staff at the city’s two seats of learning illustrate the range of diverse events on offer this weekend at the Sheffield Poetry Festival.

It is the first of its kind in the city. The event will see the different poetry communities of Sheffield coming together in a series of workshops, readings and performance events, some of which are free to the public. From small writers’ groups to national voices, mainstream readings to poetry slams, the festival aims to showcase the breadth of Sheffield’s thriving poetry scene.

“A number of people thought it would be nice to have a dedicated festival,” explains one of the prime movers behind the event, Matt Black.

“A concentrated weekend festival has particular benefits. I remember at the very first Off the Shelf which ran over a weekend I kept meeting the same people and built up relationships and had some interesting conversations.”

The festival has been funded by Arts Council England and Sheffield Town Trust. The key partners in the event which brings together more than 50 poets from both the local area and across the UK to celebrate poetry and Sheffield’s involvement with it are the city’s two universities, Signposts writing development project and publishers The Poetry Business and Longbarrow Press.

The festival launch takes place at the Workstation on Friday evening when people are being encouraged to bring along a couplet inspired by the city and these will be collected together and then read out. “It’s an evening which promises to be all about Pritt Sticks, scissors and glasses of wine,” says Black.

It will be followed by the opening reading by Simon Armitage, along with Bradford’s Ed Reiss and Sheffield writer Nell Farrell launching her first pamphlet, A Drink with Camus After the Match.

Rob Hindle, chair of the festival, highlighted the participation of Simon Armitage. “As one of the most important poets in the UK, and with his recent appointment as Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, it is great that he is playing so prominent a role in the festival.”

Armitage will also discuss the art of translation with TS Eliot Prize winner George Szirtes, who will later share a platform with fellow Hungarian poet and translator Agnes Lehoczky, who teaches creative writing at the University of Sheffield.

On Saturday night there will be a celebration of literary magazine The North’s 25th anniversary since its first issue which featured offerings by three young poets by the name of Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy and Ian McMillan.

Goat Boy and Other Journeys involves a collection of vivid, often surprising stories combining video, poetry, taxidermy and audio experiment from Susannah Gent, artist and film-maker, and poet Fay Musselwhite at Bank Street Arts on Saturday afternoon.

Laureates on Your Doorstep will feature River Wolton who was Derbyshire Poet Laureate from 2007-9, and Ann Atkinson (2009-11) talking about their experience working with the community such as leading writing groups, running workshops in libraries, museums and schools.

In Atkinson’s case it included a visit to Mamelodi, a township outside Pretoria, with a group of Derbyshire artists, dancers, musicians and film-makers, to work with artists in that community, some of whom have visited Derbyshire and indeed plan another visit in September.

From further afield, the Lagan Press which has been publishing poetry in the north of Ireland for 20 years and is now looking to develop links and new audiences across the UK, is bringing two of its brightest stars to Sheffield, Moyra Donaldson and Martin Mooney.

University Poetry Challenge on Sunday afternoon is one of the more unusual offerings of the festival. Members of staff of the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University, many of them literary names, will put their reputations on the line in a battle of wits, answering questions on anything from limericks and Lennon and McCartney to advertising jingles and the Bard himself.

Playing Bamber Gascoigne/ Jeremy Paxman will be BBC Radio Sheffield’s Rony Robinson and it is hoped that the atmosphere of the TV show will be re-created with many students turning up to wave scarves and mascots. It is free and open to the public.

The festival has support of all kinds from Sheffield City Council, The Poetry Business, Sheffield Hallam University, The University of Sheffield, Longbarrow Press, Signposts, the WEA, Bank Street Arts, Rhyme ‘n’ Reason Bookshop and other organisations and individuals.

“There are plenty of social opportunities in lots of great venues, with music, food and art,” says Rob Hindle. “Rhyme ‘n’ Reason, Sheffield’s independent bookshop and the bookseller for Off the Shelf, is running a festival bookshop at Bank Street Arts on Saturday and at the Showroom on Sunday, where many of the main events will be held.

“Tickets are on sale via the Showroom Box Office – including a whole-festival ticket for £50 (£30 concessionary) – the cost of two seats to see a volleyball eliminator at the Olympics!”