Esther Beadle finds rhyme and reason behind the popularity of Woodstock Poetry Festival

Think Woodstock, think festival, think Joni Mitchell strumming a guitar and hordes of hippies experimenting with substances in fields. Well, not any more if bookshop owner Rachel Phipps has anything to do with it.

Woodstock Poetry Festival has gone from strength to strength since it started in 2012. Born as a simple way to encourage local performers in the comfort of country pubs and churches, the event has blossomed into a third year of rhymes, rhythm and revelry.

The music of poetry seems to be a theme this year. A celebration of Rosemary Tonks, presented by Bloodaxe editor Neil Astley and read by Jo Shapcott, will bring to life a previously suppressed selection of Tonks’ work. Now available for the first time in 40 years fo llowing Tonks’ death aged 85, the reading’s inclusion at this year’s festival gives a sense that Woodstock is allowing poetry to reverberate, to bounce off and echo through its audience.

It feels like Woodstock is keen to give the otherwise silent a voice. That it wants to celebrate the musicality, the noise of poetry, rather than keep it quiet on the page of a book. Oxford group Stanza 2 will showcase local talent, some published, some newer to the circuit.

Jenny Lewis, who runs poetry workshops at Oxford University, will host an open evening for local poets to read at the Woodstock Arms.

Organiser Rachel runs Woodstock Bookshop, which opened in 2008. She said: “I like to break down barriers, to bring poetry to people who might think they don’t like it or aren’t sure about it. School ruins poetry for a lot of people!

“It’s treated as a puzzle to unravel rather than as music, some-thing to enjoy and savour for the sound of it.

“Last year we opened the festival with Pam Ayres who drew in a large audience who might not otherwise have come to a poetry festival. This year is opened by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who is also proving a great draw.”

Securing such a big name is testament to Rachel’s determination to put Woodstock on the map, and Duffy’s place in the line-up adds a tenacious touch of rock and roll, shouting from the rooftops that the festival, albeit a baby compared to Cheltenham and Wells, is keen to cement its place in the literary calendar.

“Often I just write to people whose work I like. Poets usually are hugely supportive of independent bookshops and very willing to support bookshops interested in promoting their work,” added Rachel.

“I contact publishers, too, and ask what they have coming out over the next year. I discuss poetry with customers, who recommend poets they love and put out wishlists of who they would they would like to see here. I go to poetry readings, in London or Oxford. Liz Berry, for example, I first heard a few years ago at the Albion Beatnik bookshop in Jericho and thought she was excellent — she reads so well and has such a distinctive voice.”

This theme of noise, of voice, is a potent one. Woodstock Poetry Festival encompasses a sense of audio, of being heard, as the brave little event seethes into life, ready to be noticed.

Musicality is peppered around the line-up, be it the folk balladering of Katrina Porteous, who focuses on Northumbria oral tradition, or the night of Irish music, tempered with readings from Wadham College's Bernard O'Donoghue, who taught Rachel as a student.

Oxford Mail:
Carol Ann Duffy

Mum-of-one Liz Berry has been dubbed a “rising star”, having this year won the Forward Prize for best first collection for her work, Black Country.

Her lyricism and sturdy dialect-driven poems lend themselves well to the thrill of live readings.

“I’m so looking forward to reading with Katrina Porteous at the Woodstock Festival as she’s a wonderful writer and her use of dialect, folk song and ballads in her work has been very influential to me,” said Liz, a former infant teacher.

“I’m also excited to hear Jo Shapcott and Neil Astley talking about the elusive and fascinating late poet Rosemary Tonks. And, of course, I can’t wait to have a snoop around the beautiful Woodstock Bookshop."

As Rachel puts it: “The people who come are very mixed. I think poetry attracts a wide audience. Most of the people who attend are regular customers, but some travel miles and stay locally just to be here. We want to keep the festival small and personal and are lucky to have some good venues in Woodstock.

“It seems to work — the success is down to the many fantastic customers here who have supported the bookshop for almost seven years now through very difficult times for bookselling.”

As Yeats put it in Literature and Living Voice: “If they are to read poetry at all, if they are to enjoy beautiful rhythm, if they are to get from poetry anything but what it has common in prose, they must hear it spoken by men who have music in their voices and a learned understanding of its sound.”

It may not be a festival as the kids on the street would have it, but this Woodstock is set to make some noise.

Woodstock Poetry Festival
November 14-16
* Carol Ann Duffy; tomorrow (Fri), 7pm
* Saturday: Oxford Stanza 2 3.30pm; Michael Longley 6pm; Bernard O’Donoghue, Mick Henry and Nick Hooper 8.30pm.
* Sunday: Andrew McNeillie, 12pm; Jenny Lewis and John Greening; 4pm Neil Astley and Jo Shapcott read Rosemary Tonks. 6.30pm Katrina Porteous and Liz Berry. 8.30pm Open Platform at The Woodstock Arms
* Visit