The Poets of Witch County: A review of the Women’s Poetry Evening, 16th May 2018 (part of Museums at Night)

An audience of over 40 people gathered in the Munnings Studio on 16th May to celebrate the voices of ten female poets from Essex and Suffolk. After a short introduction by Museum Director Jenny Hand and Tim Gardiner (the Museum’s Poet-in-Residence for 2018), the first half was hosted by Wivenhoe’s Lelia Ferro who picked four poets to read. Lelia began by reading a poem from her First Site Residency before moving on to estuarine themes (in Mahala) with such wonderfully evocative language (‘moonlit tombstones’ and ‘purple asters’). The Witch of Wivenhoe then took the evening in a different direction.

People sitting listening to the poet speak
The audience listened to powerful poetry.

Next up was another Wivenhoe poet, Alex Toms, a key member of Poetry Wivenhoe and winner of many poetry prizes. The witchy theme continued with The Summerlands about teenage experiences of witchcraft. There were also sensitive poems of transformation (The Poacher’s Daughter). Alex is known for her love of eels and she did not disappoint with The Eel-Catcher Calls Me Home.

Lelia’s next poet, Sarah Bevins, took over the witches’ broom, introducing a pagan feel to proceedings clearly attuned to nature. Some delicate poetry followed, beautifully read by Sarah. Poems such as Beach Spoil (with its ‘café latte shore’) and Plastic Spoon (‘tumours of plastic’) displayed a heart-felt concern for environmental issues.

Judith Wolton, Lelia’s third poet, read a diverse mix of poems concerning swallows, the Old Man of Coniston, crows, painted lady butterflies, fig wasps and finishing rather aptly with And No Birds Sing, a poem aligned to the pioneering environmental work of Rachel Carson.

The first half finished with Carol Webster, who is an academic studying other worldly experiences. Witches featured again along with Wivenhoe Church via Wivenhoe Books and its ‘moth husks.’ Carol finished a quick-fire set with the West Highlands and the ruined clearance villages. This got me thinking of a song (Letter from America) by the Scottish band, The Proclaimers, who opined the exodus of people during the clearances in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

After audience and poet were refreshed with food and drink from the café, Felixstowe poet and English teacher, Alex Davis, hosted the second half. Alex kicked off with her own brand of maternal poetry, recalling family walks up Mam Tor and down into Blue John Cavern in the Peak District. An emotional reading of a poem about her nan (Nel) followed. In Titania, she recalled a flowery dress which caused some consternation in a colleague. A very diverse set from Alex set the evening running again.

Alex’s first choice of poet, Rosalynde Price, confidently delivered a series of superb poems: Distance, Puddle, Hive Mind, Stars, Rooks, Fox, and Heifers. Roz is a regular on the East Anglia poetry scene and it was lovely to hear her words.

Award winning poet Pam Job juggled humour and poignancy well and transported us from Water Buffalo in Wivenhoe (with references to Kilimanjaro), to the cherry blossoms of Mount Fuji. Pam also read a poem written during Alex’s Emily Dickinson workshop in Wivenhoe.

Alex’s third choice of poet, Fran Reader, blended the political with the personal, even managing to fit in references to male and female genitalia. Fran opened with a sestina (Object) which was a powerful feminist poem in response to the Me Too Movement. Fran expertly used humour to convey the message of her poetry with good use of form.

Alex’s headline act was award winning Suffolk poet Rebecca Goss. Rebecca’s first poem was about a train journey to a poetry reading and Capri-Sun drinkers. The humour of this poem contrasted with the solemnity of the next, Reverse Call Charges, in which Rebecca imagines what she would tell her younger self of the pain to come in later life. Rebecca then moved seamlessly on to the work of artist, Alison Watt, and the erotic connotation of fabric with the poem To Say Everything Is White. Rebecca finished with Suffolk poems and talked about her forthcoming collection. Blacksmiths and Thatchers are notoriously hard to write poetry about as Rebecca espoused; they’re just too happy!  Rebecca finished an excellent set with two poems: Molly and Pip (about her daughter and their dog) and White Currants.

The poetry evening was a resounding success with standing room only, the audience enjoying some of the finest female poets that East Anglia has to offer. After last September’s well attended poetry evening, the Museum is fast becoming a top venue for poetry in north Essex.