Today, we continue our author interview series by speaking to Helen Gregory, who’s a poet and a lecturer and also the organiser of the Poetry & Words tent at Glastonbury Festival, one of the best places on the planet during the one week a year that it actually exists.
You can find out more about Helen over on her website, or learn about the Poetry & Words tent here. Of course and as always, you can also listen to what we talked about below, or read on to find out more…
“You can’t compare cheese and turnips.“
We speak to poet Helen Gregory
Helen’s a tricky person to get hold of – I caught up with her on a Tuesday evening after work, when she’d just got back from Larmer Tree. As a poet, performer and event organiser, it’s not surprising that she’s a little busy during festival season, especially with next year’s events already threatening to overtake her!
“I’ve been organising it [Poetry & Words at Glastonbury] since 2008,” Helen tells us. “A woman called Pat V. T. West set it up many years ago now. She passed away that year and she handed it over to me just before she died, and so I’ve been doing it ever since then, and it’s just gone from strength to strength ever since.”
I’ve certainly seen it get bigger and better every year since I started going to Glastonbury in 2010, and it’s getting to the point where I bump in to people I know there just because we’re both drawn in by the line-up. “We started off with a smaller tent than we’re in now for just a few hours a day,” Helen explains. “And now we run solidly from 12-7 every day. There’s a lot to organise with seven hours a day worth of performances – we had 32 poets this year. That’s a lot of different poets to bring together and co-ordinate!”
Still, and like the festival itself, the Poetry & Words tent is constantly evolving. “It’s quite a different thing to when Pat ran it,” she says. “It used to be in a corner of the Green Fields – when Pat ran it, she was given a corner of the Green Fields and she did everything, so she transformed that little corner in to a tent with a backstage area and everything. When I took it over I said ‘I can’t do what you do, I don’t have the time and resources, but if there’s a tent there…’”
“That was when it moved to Theatre & Circus,” Helen explains. “And it’s certainly been growing every year in terms of programming and stage and all the rest of it.” The good thing about moving to the Theatre & Circus field is that it makes it easier for crossovers to happen. “Sometimes we share artists,” Helen tells us. “We have Atilla the Stockbroker every year for instance, and we’ve had John Hegley for the last couple of years and he’s done a stint in cabaret in the past.”
And then there’s Porky the Poet, who’s perhaps better known as comedian and panel show host Phill Jupitus – “he’s performed in both Cabaret and Poetry & Words,” Helen says. “So we do get performers from elsewhere on site and elsewhere in Theatre & Circus as well, but it sort of runs on its own.”
Of course, Glastonbury isn’t the only festival that Helen works on – “I do Larmer Tree festival,” she tells us, adding that she just got back from there the day before the interview. “I do the poetry line-up there, which is just a couple of hours in the evenings in an area called The Lost Woods. Larmer Tree festival is at the opposite end of the scale to Glastonbury, it’s a lovely little festival in Dorset at a botanical gardens. The Lost Woods stage is literally in the woods, a little copse that you go through – you wind through the woods and get to this little clearing and that’s where the poetry stage is. I program that on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.”
Over the years, then, Helen has seen some of the most talented poets not just in the country but in the world, and she’s hard pressed to choose a favourite. “They’re all fantastic,” she explains. “There’s so much variety anyway that you can’t compare cheese and turnips. We’ve got poets who are funny, we’ve got poets who use music in their acts, we’ve got poets who are very serious and political, we’ve got some who are punk poets, some who do slam poetry and spoken word, and we’ve got people who work in groups. We had The Fugitives, who are a poetry band, this year. You just can’t put them all a pot and rank them, it’s just not possible, but we get hundreds and hundreds of applications every year to perform on the stage, and so everyone who performs is at the top of their game.”
But it’s not just Helen who decides who gets to grace the stage – “I have a committee,” she says. “I put together a shortlist and the committee will look at the applications. I think it’s quite important that it’s not just one person’s decision about what goes on that stage.”
As for what will impress the judges, Helen says that “it’s very important that they’re a performer – you can be a brilliant writer, but you need to be able to perform your work, particularly at somewhere like a festival . You need to come across as an engaging performer – we’ve had applications from people who are excellent authors who want to read a chapter of their book. There are ways of reading from a piece of paper and performing, but often that doesn’t engage people, and you need to do that at Glastonbury. You have to excite people’s attention, so you need to be a good performer as well as a good writer. There’s so much variety that it’s all about the balance as well.”
And if you want to perform at 2015‘s festival, you’d better start practicing. Helen and the team have a quiet period after the festival because otherwise they’d be doing it all of the time, but she says, “I open the applications in January so that people can apply to perform, but I tend not to do much between July and December, so there’s not really much to tell about 2015 just yet.”
One thing that she does add is that a video artist called Matt Gillett has been recording all of the performances. “They’ll be going up on to our YouTube channel soon,” she says. “They’re trickling in to my inbox now and they’ll be going up any day really, so that’s something to look out for. I’m actually off to another festival tomorrow, but when I get back, they’ll start to go up.”
As well as being a promoter, Helen is a poet in her own write (get it?), but she says that it’s not always easy to bring her two loves together. “A lot of the time, people just put you in to one box or another. You’d think that running a poetry stage at Glastonbury would make people think ‘this is a poet I want to look out for’, but instead they think ‘oh, you’re a promoter’. Getting that balance can be quite tricky.”
“At Larmer Tree,” she continues, “I compère there and I always do a set there. When I compère, I end up smattering a few poems in, and so they work quite well together. At Glastonbury, I always do a set as well, but it’s usually a very tiny set – I did about ten minutes this year. It’s very strange going from running the stage to suddenly being on it – there’s quite a shift involved in doing that.”
And even when she’s not at a festival, Helen occasionally gets a chance to work with the written word. “A lot of what I do is about poetry and the arts in one form or another,” she says. My main job is as a lecturer – I’m a psychology lecturer and I cover, amongst other things, the psychology of creativity and the arts. I use poetry in lots of different forms with lots of different hats on.”
In fact, Helen’s in the middle of carrying out a psychological experiment – “I’m working with a group of researchers at the CRACKLE Centre at the University of Gloucestershire,” she tells us. “My role in it is that of a qualititve researcher – a couple of researchers, Graham Edgar and Di Catherwood, specialise in neuropsychology and deal with the EEG and that kind of thing. Then I interview people after the study.”
“We got people to create pairings,” she continues. “Essentially a metaphor of how one thing is like another thing. We showed the participants a pairing of an image and a word and then asked them to think of something that links them. We did that with several different pairings, and we did that with both creative writers and visual artists. What we were interested in was partly whether different processes were happening amongst people who work visually and amongst people who worked with words.”
“My role,” she clarifies. “Was to come along and interview people afterwards and ask them much more about that creative process to try and make sense of the EEG data, because the EEG data gives you lots and lots of different numbers and we need to find out where to look and where the meaning is. The interviews have allowed us to be a bit more focused on where we’re looking and what sort of thing we might be looking for.”
The study is ongoing – “There are a lot of different researchers involved in it,” Helen says. “And so coordinating us all with all of our various other commitments has meant it’s been relatively slow-going. I’ve already started to look at the interview data, and I’ve found some really interesting things about the creative process. I’m hoping to go back to that at some point to do a separate set of analyses which is just about the creative process as a whole, rather than specifically on what’s going on in the brain while we create metaphors.”
But somehow, she still finds time to sit down and read – “I’ve just finished The Dark Tower series by Stephen King,” she tells us. “I didn’t think the first one was very good, so I would say to anyone who’s planning on reading the series, labour through the first one because it’s worth it. There are seven of them so there are quite a lot of them, and it’s kind of a cross between sci-fi, fantasy and spaghetti western.”
“It’s one of those things that I was reading for so long,” she tells us, that because there are seven books and they’re all quite long, “I felt quite bereft when I finished it. This was the first time I’ve ever read Stephen King and I just associated him with horror, and I’m not a big horror fan. There certainly are bits in the series which are a little bit gruesome, but there’s also an awful lot that isn’t.”
“One thing that I found notable was that it’s something he wrote throughout his life. He wrote the first book when he was nineteen, and you can really tell the difference between the maturity of the writing as you go through the books. There’s a book that he wrote very late which sits between books four and five – that’s the first book that I read, and if I hadn’t read that one then I wouldn’t have read the series.”
Now that that’s over, and now that she’s back from Larmer Tree, she’s going to have to find a new set of books to read – it’s a long wait until January, when preparations for the festivals begin again. First, though, she’s moving house – best of luck with the house move, Helen, and we’ll see you at the festival next year!
Helen Gregory is a poet and a lecturer and also the organiser of the Poetry & Words tent at Glastonbury Festival. You can find out more about Helen over on her website, or learn about the Poetry & Words tent here
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