18:00 September 19, 2022
You might not necessarily associate Cheltenham with poetry, but Anna Saunders is on a mission to change that
“A feast of poetry with a good dose of anarchy”, that’s what The Guardian formerly called the Cheltenham Poetry Festival – and that’s a description its founder, Anna Saunders says, sums it up nicely.
“We try to be challenging, intellectually challenging and inspiring, but also fun,” says Anna, who started it in 2011 and has been running it as a labor of love ever since.
“After the pandemic and two years of online activity, it really feels like the event is ‘coming home’ to Cheltenham this year,” she says.
“The digital program is really important for people who might not be able to attend events on the ground due to physical, financial or geographical barriers, but we are also looking forward to starting the 10 days of events. “in person” on September 14.
“It’s such a dynamic and creative city, it will be nice to meet and mix with so many poets and poetry lovers.”
Anna’s vision has been to create a stage for internationally renowned and emerging poets. Established writers and performers such as John Cooper Clarke, George Szirtes and Kim Moore attended, alongside relative unknowns.
“Our only criterion is to have really strong poets. We resist the temptation to book TV stars and politicians if they don’t check this box.
“Some of our audiences are large, but if we have an event that ends with a small, intimate audience, that’s still perfectly valid.”
The whole festival, although with a national and even international flair, has a strong Gloucestershire element.
On September 23, Zoe Brooks, JM Morton, Angela France and Emily Wills will share works written while living in the county, taking audiences on a poetic journey through the city, above Leckhampton Hill, along The Winchcombe Way and through the Stroud Valleys.
Kicking off the festival on September 14 will be poet and writer Fiona Sampson MBE FRSL, who will reveal and discuss ‘the Gloucestershire school of poets’.
Fiona – whose new book Starlight Wood: Return to the Romantic Countryside is published this month by Little, Brown – was commissioned by the festival to define which historical Gloucestershire poets make up this never-before-defined cohort.
“Festivals – and those who run them – should be part of the ‘fabric’ of a town or city,” says Anna. “I am part of the Cheltenham Culture Board and we are working on a more integrated culture strategy. This is more necessary than ever, following the Covid pandemic.
“I hope there will be more crossover and synergy between all the different artistic activities, which will give a real boost to local places.
“The Cotswolds have an amazing arts community. I took poets to the Wychwood Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse in early June, and even took a few to 2,000 Trees in July – a 15,000 capacity music festival in Withington – as it featured spoken word events this year.
Having a personal connection to a festival location is important, suggests Anna. “You’ll be more aware of what’s happening artistically and be able to support local artists, as well as being able to bring people into the city. Practically, it is also useful to be based in this place. I may be the general manager, but I always get my hands dirty doing a little bit of everything, whether it’s walking around town with big bags of leaflets or stocking up on tea and coffee for our artists! »
The pandemic has taken a toll on the festival’s bottom line, but ensuring commercial viability is an ongoing challenge, she says.
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“Finding sponsors can be tricky,” she admits. “It’s all about fit”, so we try to reach people who share the same point of view as us, in terms of community attachment and eco-references. However, no matter what company they work for, the list includes everyone from the University of Gloucestershire to Cheltenham Cycles!
“We certainly don’t exclude sponsors that aren’t local, but involving organizations or charities based in the city or county feels like it’s an embodiment of our values. We have even been fortunate to have always been supported by a wonderful Cheltenham-based broadcaster, John Oldham, who also chairs the Oldham Foundation.
“People still sometimes assume we’re part of Cheltenham’s biggest literature festival, but we’re actually entirely separate and much smaller!”
Ultimately, the effort is “largely driven by the big hearts of volunteers”, with Zoe Brooks and Annie Ellis also integral to its success, spanning everything from fundraising to social media.
“There have been times when we’ve all worked ridiculously long hours, but it’s a passion project and it gets you through the toughest times,” Anna says.
‘Our audience has grown thanks to the ability to connect digitally with new people, but it’s a tragedy how Cheltenham’s business landscape – like towns around the world – has suffered during the Covid pandemic. The High Street has been through such a difficult time. We want to play our part in helping to revitalize that.
“When people think of Cheltenham they probably think of horse racing first, but I want them to think of poetry too.”