OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt a meeting convened by Edna Croft a few weeks ago a discussion took place on the merits and feasibility of a ‘literary festival’ for Carlisle. Subsequently a number of those present began to pursue the means of staging such an event. I had been present at that first meeting, and came away with a head full of ideas, augmented by suggestions sent to me by writers from Litcaff (Carlisle’s own monthly writers get together). The first problem to overcome was that of exactly what was meant by a ‘literary festival.’ I hope it is not unfair to suggest that for most people the common assumption would be that it was an event at which celebrity authors promote their publications. Such a model would fit most of the literary festivals I have visited, where the word ‘books’, meaning mainstream-published books, is incorporated into the title.

I would like to take up a little of your time in consideration of another type of festival, one in which the emphasis is on engagement with and participation in the act of writing. In fact, I would call this a writers’ festival if I had to give it a name.

If I were starting up such a festival, I might aim to fill a day, and two or three venues. I would call upon the involvement of several – half of a dozen or more – local writing groups, and I would ask each of them to stage a themed workshop event – poetry, fiction, drama for example – and to send members to each of the other groups/ workshops. The workshops would be spaced throughout the day, in the same, or, if available, in different venues. The work created would form the basis of a reading that evening – in which perhaps, for a time, the workshop groups would eclipse the writing groups, allowing colleagues to see each other in a new light! A festival publication might also be drawn from this work.

Elsewhere, during the day, I would run a day-long workshop/performance event on recording your writing, in audio, and audio-visual formats. Some pre-planned slots would be set, but an ‘off-the-street’ element would allow spur of the moment recordings too. This material too, could be used later, by participants, or on a festival webpage (Face-book/Vimeo etc). There is a lot to learn from seeing and hearing your own readings, and the event would also provide an on-going performance/audience opportunity for those who were interested, but not actually writing.

A third element would be a festival bookstore, promoting small-press, local and self-publications. Famous writers would, of course, not be excluded, but they would have to creep in unannounced: the playing field would not only be level, the game would start with a nil-nil score!

Two fundamental ideas stand behind such a festival. One is that the practitioners and the audience are indivisible: as at our LitCaff event, the readers arise from the audience, and sink back into it. There are no elites; no stages; no spotlights; no hierarchies. There will be however, writing that is thought to be ‘better’ and some that will be thought to be ‘worse.’

The other fundamental is that the groups to which the whole event is ‘farmed out’ will carry the burden of staging their own part of it. This is a festival for those who wish to share their involvement in a chosen cultural activity, and for their friends, and the curious passer-by. It is not a commercial, promotional model. It is a cultural, participatory one.

If such a model worked, by bringing together and ‘entertaining’ the members of half a dozen local writers’ groups, there would be no reason why the net could not be cast wider in subsequent years, drawing in more groups, providing a wider range of activities over more venues, and extending the duration.

Darren Harper and I have discussed this and would be happy to use the LitCaff event (and its supporters) as a cornerstone of such a venture, and to support it wholeheartedly. We think it might be carried out in co-operation with a more traditional festival model, or as a stand-alone venture. We think an August 2014 date would be manageable if support were to be pledged reasonable quickly. If you think these ideas are worth considering, refining, or refuting, please do respond via the blog, or by e-mail direct, and do please pass this posting on, by re-blogging, networking, quoting from etc, to any groups or individuals that might be interested.

Edna Croft has kicked the wasp’s nest… it’s up to us to provide the stings! Mike Smith.     LitcaffPosterJune2012001