Wise indeed: interview with Beth Cuenco

Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion

There are some famous names coming to Canterbury next week, as the Wise Words Festival returns for the second year running. The festival, which was recently a winner at the Canterbury Culture awards, describes itself as “a festival that reawakens wonder & encourages curiosity.” As well as readings from Sir Andrew Motion and Nancy Gaffield, there’s also an appearance from poet Ian McMillan in the company of composer Luke Carver Goss.Ahead of the creative mayhem set to burst into the city next week, I caught up with founder and festival-organiser, Beth Cuenco, to find out what’s in store.

DH: Tell us about the ideas behind Wise Words.

BC: Wise Words aims to reawaken wonder and inspire curiosity. It offers innovative encounters with poetry & storytelling that invite people to see the world from a different perspective and to take a moment out of their busy lives to pause and to reconnect with people and world around them. We place events in unusual and unexpected places – at the heart of people’s everyday lives so that we can then engage the wides possible audience.

DH: And what is it that excites you about contemporary poetry ?

BC: There is a quote that inspires me and captures why I think poetry is important. An American-born philosopher called Heschel said, “We go out to meet the world not only by way of expediency but also by way of wonder. In the first we accumulate information in order to dominate; in the second we deepen our appreciation in order to respond. Power is the language of expediency; poetry the language of wonder”.

As people move from child to adulthood they get caught up in the responsibilities of life and consequently find little time to wonder. If we pause for just a moment, observing and reflecting on the world around us we can be amazed by things that we take for granted – technology or simply the beauty of the world around us. Without curiosity and wonder apathy and disinterest set in and the commensurate affects can be culturally and socially far-reaching.

Through contemporary poetry we share our experiences, learn from our past and imagine our future. It encourage empathy, offers new perspectives, develops imaginations, helps make sense of the world and reawakens wonder and curiosity.

DH: Why Canterbury ?

BC: I grew up in and around Canterbury and its streets and spaces hold many memories. I passionately believe in the potential of Canterbury to be a vibrant and exciting place where contemporary art and literature is supported, celebrated and integrated into everyday life.

For us it is still very much about testing things out and learning about what people in Canterbury want. This year’s festival will teach us a lot about our audience and will help us to continue to shape Wise Words into a festival that fits the city and its community.

DH: I notice that composer Luke Carver Goss will be appearing at the festival next week: what’s happening ?

Ian McMillan / Luke Carver Goss

Ian McMillan / Luke Carver Goss

BC: That’s right! Luke is coming with the poet Ian Macmillan for several events next Friday. They’ll be presenting a wild and whacky session of improvised music and poetry, and later on will be at the Gulbenkian in ‘Talking Myself Home.’

DH: They collaborated on a piece for the 20×12 Cultural Olympiad as part of last year’s Olympic Games, didn’t they, Pure Gold ?

BC: They did: Ian wrote the poetry, and Luke provided the music. Next week, Luke’s bringing his accordion; it’ll be a very entertaining time!

DH: So, what should we be looking out for in particular at this year’s festival ?

BC: Because we aim to engage the widest possible audience, our programme is incredibly diverse. We are thrilled to be hosting the launch of the eagerly awaited final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road with Artemis Cooper and couldn’t quite believe our luck when Sir Andrew Motion agreed to not only give a talk but also a workshop. I am very much looking forward to Ian McMillan because I know he will have us in stitches and Xanthe Gresham’s performances are always incredible!

But alongside this programme of high profile artists are many innovative installations and exciting events that offer people unexpected encounters with poetry. The Alternative Tourist Information Station will send people on bespoke tours of the city – tours that are shaped by the by participants mood, favourite colour or even their star sign. These tours will encourage people to explore the spaces between. To notice the beauty in things too often overlooked. To uncover the hidden.


Poetry workshop in 2012

The Poetry Survey invites people to book a slot in our recording studio where they will explore their chosen poem in conversation with an actor and director. Through this conversation a unique recording of the poem will be created – a personal soundtrack to keep forever.

And what could be more magical than drifting along in a punt listening to world class poets and storytellers?

There really will be something for everyone and many events are free!

wisewords_logoThanks to Beth for giving up her time at this crucial point in the run-up to the festival! Wise Words runs from Thursday 12 to Sunday 15 September throughout Canterbury. Find out all that’s going on on the festival website here, and follow Wise Words on Twitter.

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