‘Programming a festival today can feel like a literary arms race’
Martin Colthorpe, ILFDublin 2019 programme director, on this year’s highlights
The International Literature Festival Dublin at the National Concert Hall
Like politics, the news cycle, weather and social media, programming literature festivals is a year-round activity, though thankfully more rewarding, and certainly much more wholesome. As we unveil the festival programme for 2019, we do so with a sense of excitement and anticipation, and await public response to this year’s manifesto.
Whether they adopt the word book, writers, literature or ideas in their moniker, festivals that involve people sitting-and-talking-to-each-other-in-public are proving an enduring form of entertainment. What’s the appeal? Well, perhaps because, as the ex-Southbank Centre supremo Jude Kelly once said to me, “there’s nothing more interesting than two people having a conversation”.
So who’s talking at ILFDublin this year? Well, Roberto Calasso for one, a public intellectual in the great European tradition, whose new book attempts to define the era we’re currently living through. After Romanticism, Modernism and Postmodernism, which “-ism” defines now? Calasso, who’ll be discussing his writing with John Banville, argues that we live in a reality that we are still aren’t able to grasp, in short, “the Unnamable Present”.
If such existential discussions aren’t necessarily your bag, don’t worry. The pressure for festivals to evolve beyond the readings-and-discussion format is a hot topic right now, with the sheer portability of words allowing for a wide interpretation of what counts as a literary event. I remember reading with envy an excited tweet about an event at West Cork Literary Festival, which involved sailing out into the Atlantic with readings on a boat and thinking – great idea! – how do we replicate that in Dublin? Somehow chugging out from the Liffey past the Poolbeg chimneys didn’t quite cut it; better to stay in the pub and read some Flann O’Brien (which is what we did instead).
Thankfully, at this year’s festival you can experience the great outdoors in the company of Erling Kagge, a Norwegian explorer, writer and publisher who was the first person on Earth to reach the three poles – North, South and the summit of Everest – and who’ll be leading a walk as part of our focus on Norwegian writers. Despite the unpredictable weather, Dublin in May is unlikely to offer such climactic extremes, and Kagge’s walk looks set to be one of the healthier events at the festival this year, for both body and mind.
Formats aside, how else should a festival respond to Ezra Pound’s Modernist battle cry to “make it new”? This year at the festival we launch Building Stories, working alongside the Irish Architecture Foundation and Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, to explore how buildings tell stories and how artists and architects reflect this in their practice. Taking this creative sidestep has been a breath of fresh air, allowing us to step off the new publication treadmill and experiment with new ideas.
As a programmer, my own love/hate relationship with Twitter seems endemic to the role (it’s mostly love by the way). So many recommendations by people who I respect! So many “happy publication days”! So many people Instagramming their latest proof! How to keep up? While online recommendations have opened up some glorious new reading pathways, the competition to showcase the key books in any season – the hottest debuts and the prize-winners (of which there are more than ever) – grows ever more intense. Programming a festival today can sometimes feel like a literary arms race, and one that is increasingly being fought on an international scale.
More challenging, more “curatorial” if you like, is to take a step back and do a litmus test of what writing really matters in the now – “the unnamable present” to channel Calasso. But it’s hard to nail the zeitgeist when you’re living through it. Autofiction has had its moment in the sun, and the essay continues to gain currency, with important new books by Irish writers testament to its hybridity and generosity. And then there’s the Graphic Novels Question which hangs over every festival programmer: to include or not to include? When Nick Drnaso was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Sabrina it wrongfooted the establishment, but the genre’s place at the high table of literature remains uncertain.
The best festival programming might just eschew trends altogether, and make space for what the writer and critic Paul Morley champions, simply, as “the strange, the dark, and the beautiful”. I first encountered the work of Norwegian-French writer Caroline Bergvall in 2014, when her work Drift toured the UK. Here was a poet working with audio text and sound art to tell the tragic story of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean – a story first reported by the group Forensic Architecture – long before it was picked up by mainstream news channels. Bergvall’s piece reinterpreted the themes and language of the Old English elegy The Seafarer in reimagining this contemporary migrant story. This year she brings a new commission to ILFDublin: Conference (after Sweeney) blends live discussion and field recordings of migratory birds and takes as its starting point the Irish epic poem of mad King Sweeney (Buile Suibhne).
If such a work sounds like a strange and unsettling experience, my advice is simple: go experience it! One of the pleasures of my job is visiting other festivals, sitting back, relaxing and not worrying about whether the mics work or the books have been ordered. But what do I see? Too often I find myself opting for the familiar – a favourite novelist talking about their new book or a poet I’ve seen read many times before. Almost always, the cultural events that cut the deepest are the ones that take an artistic gamble, where some people walked out even, and where a sense of intrigue burned long after the final curtain.
This year at ILFDublin we’re branching out, with new commissions and performative work, a more international programme and cross-artform partnerships. For those hardy perennials who visit the festival each year, my advice would be: try something different and let us know what you think. And for those visiting for the first time, there are lots of “ways in” for younger readers. Party in the Park, on the weekend of May 25th and 26th, offers an eclectic and family-friendly introduction, from story workshops to the Wrap-a-room Installation, and the brightest lights in children’s literature will be landing in Dublin, including RJ Palacio, the multi-million selling author of Wonder, and the irrepressible Andy Stanton, author of the Mr Gum series, will read as part of our Tall Tales programme.
Whether a debutant or festival regular, one message applies to all: welcome!
Further programme highlights include: Paul Mason launches Clear Bright Future: a radical defence of the human being (May 20th); Naomi Wolf explores the hot topic of censorship (May 24th); How to be Invisible: A Celebration of Kate Bush (May 22nd); Fintan O’Toole dissects nationalism and identity in the age of Brexit (May 25th) and Emma Dabiri launches her book Don’t Touch My Hair (May 26th).
Martin Colthorpe is programme director of International Literature Festival Dublin. Tickets for International Literature Festival Dublin are on sale now at: ilfdublin.com