Voices from the living poets society

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Whitsun sees the start of the festival of literature at Hay-on-Wye, when the isolated border town becomes briefly crowded with writers and throngs of their admirers. The first thing that strikes you is the green of the hills surrounding Hay and the second is the ebullience of the language, as though a rich linguistic seam has been momentarily exposed. As sixth-formers on the Beacons Project at the Festival Literature last year, we discovered both the landscape and the voices resident in Hay for the week.

Ten students from the border counties under the watchful eye of our mentor Melanie Newton of the Welsh National Parks, under whose auspices the Beacons Project ran, had access to a breathtaking array of writers and celebrities including Nadine Gordimer, Ruth Rendell, Laurie Lee, Eric Hobsbawm, Anthony Sher, Julian Lloyd-Webber, Jools Holland and many, many others. We heard and spoke with more writers and artists than those who teach us had, collectively, in a lifetime. It was tremendously enjoyable, but the real significance was that we were conscious of being surrounded by individuals who were living by exercising their "voice" - while most students' experience of literature is confined to the study of dead poets.

Complementing our time at the Hay Festival site we spent two days walking the beautiful Brecon Beacons with Pam Houston and Margaret Atwood. We knew Pam Houston as a "radical feminist" and, as we walked across the green hills she seemed as vibrant and fresh in herself as in her collection of short stories Cowboys Are My Weakness. She explained how landscape is a major feature of her work and how she uses it as a metaphor for emotions. She said there's "truth in what you see around you" and we found this notable in several of her stories, especially in "Highwater". She said the autobiographical element in her stories is important to her work, because writers should thoroughly understand what they write - and the only way to be sure is if you, the writer, have experienced your fiction. Without this element of self history she finds herself writing much more dramatic and implausible stories: the acute "slice of life" presence is lost.

We contrasted Margaret Atwood's collection of stories, Wilderness Tips, to Houston's. Atwood said the autobiographical element is "vital" to some of her stories, for example she had frequented a coffee house much like the one in "Isis in Darkness" when she was a young poet. Traces of herself haunt the character of Selena.

So, we talked with poets, writers and artists and the experience did something for us. We were exposed to creators, experimenters and adventurers in language and experience. We saw how they sifted the language and experience and made it new. The consequence is that literature is now less likely to be associated with dead poets.

We have sat at the elbows of writers, heard them speak, felt the influences that induced their work and observed them do it. This was a learning experience beyond the treadmill of textual analysis, it was "an idea understood".

Our only regret is that so few students can enjoy such a revelation.

Adrian Ireland, 17, and Eleanor Appleyard, 16.

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