Another year begins. The joy of January! The bliss of beginning again, eh? There was a time when we crept into each new year – a slow beginning, a trawl through silvery, grey January, the possibility of snowdrops perhaps by the end of the month. No major plans either. Things would happen. February was still ahead, and March. But now, as with everything else, plans, schedules, schemes are drawn up well in advance of the beginning of each new year. Take Listowel Writers’ Week, for example – as usual I received not one, but three programmes in the post for their 2011 Festival. In December. Quick off the mark, aren’t they? All the other festivals we writers know and love are equally efficient and pro-active in their planning, with writers and performers booked months – as in nine months – in advance. It’s a sign of the new professionalism, the arts managed nature of things, whether or not one likes this. Even Poetry Now at Dun Laoghaire is well planned in advance, with a good and solid line-up of visiting and native writers heading for the Pavillion Theatre this spring. Rumour has it though that the festival is in its last year out in the Borough of Dun Laoghaire, and that plans are already afoot to uproot the already perfectly-working festival and move it into the city for a ‘big’ Dublin-city poetry bash. Why fix something that’s not broken? And who are the schemers behind such a move? I throw this out in case somebody has some thoughts or insights on the matter.
I enjoy some festivals a lot, although I don’t attend as many as I’d like to. Call it time of life, the seeming impossibility of being free to travel hither and tither across the country for major gatherings in the arts. The best thing about them is the collegiality, the peer-meeting, the being with others of the same species, the total gentleness that usually goes with arts festivals. On the other hand, festivals world-wide have become more ‘celebrity’ and ‘personality’ oriented, the result of which is that quieter voices, or readers who are not also performers, may rarely be invited to participate. Then again behind the scenes at the planning stage, most people are aware of the muscular workings and manoeuverings that may take place at committee and board level when it comes to the selection of certain writers and artists. It is not encouraging to discover just how some of the planning is done in some of our cities and towns, and it all seems a long long way distant from the excitement, idealism and genuine creativity which should go into the making of a festival. Because what is a festival? Surely it’s a gathering together of people who have similar interests – though sometimes not so – who wish to enjoy themselves, who want stimulation, challenge, and a call to something new. That’s a tall order, but only in the arts is it possible that such ideals can be met. Nevertheless, festival-jealousies do occur – the ‘my city is better than your city’ sing-song, the rivalry of getting a better (i.e. more international) ‘line-up’ of writers, and the hegemony of selection whereby one dominant person can rig festivals year after year and achieve pretty much what bad anthologists achieve: the deliberate non-selection of potential artists who could also add to the mix.
The festival I want to attend sometime is a pretty unique music festival in Mali, called The Festival of the Desert. I can’t think of anything better than going there and hearing the great bands and acts from all across Africa (and other places too, obviously). In Ireland I still have to go to the Lisdoonvarna festival, the West Cork Arts Festival, and one or two others I know to be outstanding places where excellence survives hand in hand with humanity, fun, and a germ or two of creativity.