Our Story

Launched by poet Anna Saunders in 2011, the Festival kicked off with a sell-out performance by iconic punk poet John Cooper Clarke at Cheltenham Town Hall. It has since gone from strength to strength with audiences growing rapidly. In the last nine years the Festival has offered events featuring our greatest living poets, spoken word artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers and film makers.

As Festival Founding Director Anna Saunders plans the 2020 festival, she looks back with pleasure on another artistically successful and well attended festival recently completed. . .

The Ninth Cheltenham Poetry Festival, April 25 – May 4, 2019

Thank you to everyone who made our Festival such an explosive, exciting and inspiring festival this year — poets and performers, sponsors, venues and their staff, volunteers and technicians, and of course our wonderful, supportive, and (thankfully) large audiences.

Over 10 days we offered an absolute feast of poetry, prose, music, spoken word, comedy and even steam punk hip hop! Click to see the Festival programme.

In venues ranging from the boho Smokey Joe’s to the atmospheric and elegant Playhouse Theatre, we staged ground-breaking and provocative performances from uncompromising artists such as Jamie Thrasivoulou, Nafeesa Hamid, poet and rapper Casey Bailey, multi-prize winning poet Kim Moore, Richard Skinner, Pete Raynard, Duncan Forbes, Anne Drysdale, Bobby Parker, Charley Barnes, Paul Deaton, David Clarke, Ziggy Dicks, Jennie Farley, Angela France, John Porter, Graham Clifford, Ross Cogan, Neil Richards, and Brenda Read Brown.

Outstanding performance specialists were Rowan McCabe (the world’s first Door-to-Door Poet) and the lovely bonkers and hilarious Professor Elemental (with comedian Joy Amy Wigman, and JPDL). Our phenomenal spoken word line up included rising stars Abdul-Ahad Patel, Charlie Chitty, Joe Cooke, Jack Crowe, Saili Katebe, and Shaun Hill.

We celebrated the power of poetry to raise awareness and facilitate change by featuring the work of protest poets and activists such as James Kearns. Acclaimed poets spoke out against the cruelty of blood sports in the launch of For the Silent – an new anthology from Indigo Dreams in aid of the League against Cruel Sports. (The event featured poets Alison Brackenbury, Angela France, Carole Bromley, Matt Duggan, and Sharon Larkin.)
Our exciting music programme featured a sparkling electro performance from Cheltenham-based dance act Charlie Baxter with 1990’s Chris. Rapper Scott James and BBC Introducing featured singer/songwriter Dan Hartland delivered powerful sets to a packed-out venue. We also welcomed blues musician and Blood Brothers star Davey Edge to pair up with Chris Hemingway to offer some poetic songwriting and lyrical songs.

We guffawed in the aisles at our comedy acts who included Ben Davies, Richard James and Nick Mazonowicz and whooped and cheered for the winners of our smoking hot slam hosted by the incredible Tina Sederholm and Neil Spokes. (Huge congratulations to winner Clare Bold.)
Anna Saunders, Festival Founding Director    18 May 2019

2018

Highlights of 2018 include BBC Radio 6 Music’s Poet in Residence Murray Lachlan Young – ‘A rock ‘n’ roll poet of our time’ (Chrissie Hynde),‘Chap hop’s leading exponent’ (The Wall Street Journal) Professor Elemental, Salford star JB Barrington, acclaimed spoken word artist Jim Higo, hip hop artist TrueMendous, ‘the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Roger McGough’ (Irish Times), the national treasure – Vinny Peculiar, internationally acclaimed writer Amir Darwish, ex judo champ turned poet Owen Lowery and TS Eliot Prize winner Jacob Polley.

As ever the Festival welcomed some of the UK’s most important contemporary poets to the stage. They included Jonathan Davidson, Martyn Crucefix, Sam Willets, Costa- Prize winner Jonathan Edwards, Rishi Dastidar, Pat Borthwick, Gill McEvoy, Peter Raynard, Tom Sastry, Wayne Holloway Smith,  Cora Greenhill, Adam Horovitz, Jane Commane, Chrys Salt, Rachael Allen and Patrick Mackie.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival offered poetry film showcases from Elephants Footprint, screened the critically acclaimed film Love Somehow – a poetic re-telling of Caitlin’s relationship with Dylan Thomas (starring Griff Rhys Jones as the voice of Dylan), and showed Scarestories – a multi-media dystopian vision of the western word featuring poetry from David Clarke. We also offered our audiences the chance explore local history with Angela France’s praised poetry show The Hill.

2017

Our seventh festival was celebrated with a rich line-up of events and ‘The Future’ as its theme. Alongside an electrifying mix of internationally acclaimed writers and performers, we looked to the future with a series of exciting new multi-media presentations of new writing fused film, live performance by poets and djs and electronica.

Highlights of the Festival included: a visit from British–Jamaican spoken word star Raymond Antrobus, readings by some of the UK’s most acclaimed poets (Ben Parker, Sasha Dugdale, Rory Waterman, Matthew Sweeney, Paul Stephenson, Owen Lowery, Kathy Towers, Geraldine Monk, Roy Mcfarlane), a Slam Champ showcase featuring Jasmine Gardosi, new drama inspired by Oscar Wilde, a plethora of stimulating talks including Fiona Sampson on Mary Shelley, electrifying poetry cinema, djs, a ‘poetry jam’ with a local orchestra.  Stuart Maconie returned to share his love of 20th Century poetry, Festival favourite John Hegley performed comic poetry old and new, and there were workshops and open mic slots galore.

2016

A return visit by ‘National Treasure’  television presenter, best-selling author and BBC Radio 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie was one highlight of this festival 2016.  Stuart shared his love of poetry and read work by WH Auden and Philip Larkin. Other highlights included a visit from Christopher Somerville – The Telegraph’s Walking Correspondent and poet, a poetry cinema programme by director Diana Taylor, Times columnist Rosie Millard gave a saucy romp through London suburbs, and internationally acclaimed poet George Szirtes read work inspired by folk stories,  history, and his life in Hungary.

As ever we offered an incredible line-up of contemporary poets with Carrie Etter, Rhian Edwards, Helen Moore, David Clarke, Angela France, Pete Mullineaux, Linda Rose Black and Sarah James taking to the stage plus comedy from Angie Belcher, story-telling from The Bard of Windmill Hill, and the legendary performance-poetry Slam.

2015

The theme for the 2015 Festival was the ‘Environment’ and we went ‘green’. Highlights included a reading, sponsored by The Campaign to Protect Rural England (Gloucestershire), by one of  our iconic poets Sean O’Brien, who read with Michael McKimm. We launched Dear World – a new pamphlet from the  Festival’s publishing arm Frosted Fire featuring poems by some poets reading at the Festival. These include Adam Horovitz, David Morley and Ann Segrave, whose work teemed with organic life and lyrical imagery of the natural world.

Other highlights included: the Festival’s (and Carol Ann Duffy’s) favourite poetry band Little Machine; a galaxy of acclaimed poets such as Claire Trevien, Tim Liardet, Martyn Crucefix, Stephen James, Charles Bennett, Jo Bell, Wendy Klein and many more, plus showcases from prestigious publishing houses and a host of distinguished local writers; bands; comedy; freestyle from Martin Dawes; hip hop from Petra Vita plus children’s poetry shows.

2014

Our fourth festival included a reading by all-local all-female troupe ‘Picaresque‘, lead by Jennie Farley, we staged the heartbreaking show In Tune With Dementia by Howard Timms, and offered a reading of Laurie Lee‘s work in the Chapel of Frances Close Hall at the University of Gloucestershire.

Our line up of internationally acclaimed artists included Pat Borthwick, Maria Butonoi, Sujata Bhatt and Gillian Barker. A full house enjoyed Women’s Words‘, with Angela France and Dani Schlosser. a humorous, raw and direct take on everyday sexism, Ross Cogan talked about the sonnet form and our stellar line up included readings by Peter Carpenter, Lesley Ingram, Ruth Padel, Cristina Newton, Michael Conley, Richard Moorhead, Sophie Hannah, Nic Aubury. We also offered a tribute to the Dymock Poets – a standing- room-only end to the Festival

2013

Highlights of 2013 included the world premiere of The Dance Around The Fire – featuring a reading from the new collection by Pete Wyre and musical improvisation from acclaimed singer Evelyne Beech and composer Robert Perry, plus a performance by American Beat Poet Jeremy Toombs. The programme also featured The Captain’s Tower – A tribute to Bob Dylan in words and music, with Philip Bowen.

Our audiences enjoyed exciting contemporary poets such as Bobby Parker and Liz Berry. We offered slams and themed readings and a feast of established names including Fiona Sampson, Bernard O’Donaghue, Elaine Feinstein, Jeremy Reed, Christopher Reed plus Maria and Jonathan Taylor and Nichola Deane.

2012

We celebrated our second Cheltenham Poetry Festival by bringing over 100 poets and performers to the town – and offered an electrifying mix of performance poetry, music, comedy and more.

Highlights included the critically acclaimed show Take Heart featuring slam poet Anna Freeman, Jonny Fluffypunk – stand up poet and ‘comedy colossus’, a tribute in music and words to William Blake, Jazz poet and improviser Martin Dawes, Martin Figura’s ground breaking show Whistle and we welcomed acclaimed poets Penelope Shuttle, Bobby Parker, Luke Kennard, Cliff Yates, Helen Mort, Helen Ivory and Bobby Parker.

We also staged the hilarious, hard hitting and inventive Under Stokes Croft – penned and performed by Jack Dean and we offered spoken word cabaret nights with some of the hottest spoken word stars including Ash Dickinson and Spoz and the People’s Poet Laureate John Hegley.

2011

The inaugural Cheltenham Poetry Festival was described as ‘a triumph!’ by Alison Brackenbury.

We ran 40 events and received some wonderful testimonials from press and public alike. Our programme was inspiring and eclectic and inclusive, celebrating poetry in all its manifestations and we fused poetry with performance arts, visual art and even food!  Our killer line up featured performances from 
John Hegley , Rachel Pantechnicon, Philip Gross , George Szirtes, 
Clare Pollard, New Faber Poet Sam Riviere, Cliff Yates, Af Harrold, Rosemary Dun, 
Brown Torpedo, Mab Jones, Alison Brumfitt and many more.

We launched the Festival with a bang – thanks to a performance by punk poet John Cooper Clarke in a packed out 300 seater venue.

An outstanding festival! When I think of the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, I reach for superlatives. I am constantly amazed at the sheer number of events as well as the quality and range of writers represented. Hamish Wilson

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