Who are we serving?

One of the great joys for me this summer was being able to get back to Greenbelt, a festival of faith, politics and art which I have attended, on an off, for nearly forty years. Some of my oldest friendships have been forged there. In ways I can’t quite describe, it feeds me for the rest of the year that is to come. This year, as so often in the past, within ten minutes of putting my tent, I enjoyed deep conversations (complete with tea and biscuits) with friends I had not seen for more than two years. To coin a phrase, being at Greenbelt has always felt like coming home.

The image you see above was one I snapped at the last full festival, in the late summer heatwave of 2019, before the gates were opened to the public. Until this year’s gathering at Prospect Farm, it’s the only time I have ever seen the site without people. Towards the end of this year’s stripped down gathering, I walked round the lake and to the top of the mound with some friends. We took selfies and gossiped and caught up with each other, the day cloudy and a bit breezy, the leaves just starting to turn and the water rippling.

I had visited parts of the site the day before, taking a poetry ‘walkshop’ into and around some the festival’s hidden corners and finishing in the field usually occupied by the main stage and the Jesus Arms pub. As we rounded the corner and stopped at the top of the field we were able to take in the view of the space we usually walk through on the way to other things.

With no main stage, food trucks, Tiny Tea Tent or Jesus Arms, not to mention fluttering avenue of rainbow-coloured flags, we could see that the field is lined with its own avenues of trees on two sides. In the distance the red brick wall of the old kitchen garden, and to its right a large tree lying across a wire fence, probably blown down in a gale. In place of the usual festival parapanalia was an ordinary sloping meadow of browned summer grass. Sitting and looking at it in silence with my walkshop participants was the highlight of my whole weekend.

I mention the effect of this stripping back because I think it connects to something poet Roger Robinson said to Pádraig Ó Tuama in the podcast-style service that we listened to on the Sunday of the festival: ‘When I talk to younger poets, I ask them ‘Who are you serving in your poetry?” (Click on the link below to download the podcast.) It was a question that cut through me with deep force, stripping me back to some first principles about poetry and its place not just in my life but in the culture at large.

When you have lost confidence in the thing you love, both for it to speak to you, and, by extension, in your ability to hear and feel it at work, as I did earlier this year, this was a powerful reminder that poetry is not and has never been a ‘career’ for me. I am an amateur: I do it for the love. Which means getting my ego out of the way of the poem I am reading or writing. Which means remembering, as Natalie Goldberg says, that we are not the poem. Which means trying to point the light at others.

As I try to inhabit beginner’s mind this autumn, I am grateful for Roger’s question. Like Greenbelt itself, it reminds me of where I started, and for that I am grateful.

Image credit: Martin Wroe

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