In his Guide to the Lakes, Wordsworth said of the ever-present Cumbrian rainclouds, “How glorious they are in Nature! How pregnant with imagination for the poet!” All very well if you’re warm and cosy in Dove Cottage with your quill and your notebook, but peering through a steamed up windscreen and trying not skid off the A591 in the pounding rain takes the romance out of it somewhat.
And so the second Flax picnic was forced to take refuge in the Tithebarn, opposite St. Oswald’s and round the corner from Sarah Nelson’s Gingerbread shack. It wasn’t quite as picturesque as the gardens of Dove Cottage, but, despite what I said earlier, there’s something about rainy afternoons, damp coats drying on cast iron radiators, cups of tea, and books that go together nicely.
If you’ve not come across the name before, Flax is the publishing arm of the Lancaster Litfest and since 2006 has put out a number of quality prose and poetry anthologies and commissioned various multi-media projects. To celebrate, many of the writers involved over the last few years turned up eager and dripping wet to read their work.
Editor and picnic-planner, Sarah Hymas, said that what she looked for in putting together the anthologies was quality first, closely followed by diversity - something that was echoed in the mix of poetry and prose, from Hendryk Korzeniowski’s Frakenstein’s Match Dot Com – a monologue spoken by the monster as an angst-ridden teenager – to Brindley Hallam-Dennis’ fable of treachery and trust, The Ratcatcher Stratagem, to Ian Seed’s mysterious prose poems.
I chose to read a number of very short two-hundred word stories – Black Eye, Zoo and Fruit, which was meant to be the more serious of the three but strangely got the most laughs. Ah well.
Some of the highlights of the day included Polly Atkin’s poems from the forthcoming Flax anthology and John Siddique – reading from both his new collection of poetry Recital - An Almanac (Salt) and from his book of children’s poems.
After giving the audience the instructions to ‘sit up straight’ and ‘focus’, Mark Carson read two poems inspired by his work as an engineer about the difficulties of talking fish-cage moorings with Greeks and a frantic dash to an early morning meeting in Bergen told in what he called a ‘stream of hyper-consciousness’.
Poets, in fact, were there in abundance and, by request, read work published in the Flax anthologies. Pauline Keith read the fantastic Flaying Knife, which, like all good poems, fills the ordinary with meaning and, perhaps most importantly, stays with you long after you’ve heard it. Ribchester-based writer, David Borrot, chose Wolf Fell, as well as a number of poems about the strangeness of Mancunian streets. South-Cumbria’s 2005 ‘Poet Laureate’, Jennifer Copley, read the poem to be included in the forthcoming Flax anthology, as well as The Island, which concerns a simple boat trip but has subtle hints at a much darker story. Elizabeth Burns chose Held and Creature from Watermarks, the second Flax anthology.
Lastly, Marita Over gave us a number of poems inspired by her childhood in Ethiopia, where her parents were missionaries. Last time I met Marita, she said that she was giving up writing poetry in favour of prose, which seems a shame, but her short story, Bread, featured in Flax 017, is infused with all the economy, sharpness and truth of her poems, so perhaps she’s onto something...
However, the best thing about these Flax get-togethers, whether they are to launch a new anthology or to celebrate the work already published, is the enthusiasm of the audience coupled with the sense of writers simply enjoying what they do. Egos are left at home, seasoned writers rub shoulders with those at the start of their careers and there is a genuine feeling that you are part of something new.
The anthologies can be downloaded for free and there are frequent live events, the next one being the launch of Flax 018 on the 17th June at the Storey, Lancaster.