A huge thank you to Caitlin Kendall for writing this guest post for the Culture Northumberland blog, about her experience at the amazing New York Poetry festival earlier this year.
Caitlin Kendall is a poet who loves wild swimming, nights under the stars and yoga. Her writing follows themes of nature and wanderlust, using the world around her as both physical inspiration as well as dew-soaked metaphors on early morning grass. Her poetry is as weird and wonderful as you could wish for from a hermitic Northumbrian residing by the river.
Over to Caitlin...
It was back in April I received a message from my publisher: if you're receiving this email, congratulations! Your organisation has been accepted to read at the New York City Poetry Festival. Bent Key Publishing is a small innovative queer indie press based in Manchester and founded by Rebecca Kenny in 2021.
We never expected to be performing internationally, in New York no less, by 2023. As Rebecca said, "I applied for lols" and yet here was this incredible opportunity. Rebecca and Bent Key are like that; they make dreams come true.
So, on 28th July 2023 I, along with Rebecca and 4 other Bent Key writers (Scarlett Ellson, John Clifford, Rebecca Pythian and Stevie Turner), flew from Manchester into JFK. The 31 degree heat was a welcome change from the wet weather we'd left behind in the UK and as we rode the subway to the Empire State Building to find our apartment which would be home for the next 4 days it still didn't feel really real.
We were joined in New York but one more writer: Dorian North, originally from the north of England now residing in Virginia, was the finishing touch our roster needed. That evening, drinking cocktails on the rooftop at Good Behaviour NYC, watching the sunset over the city was like something out of a movie, like watching your dreams coming true.
There's a familiarity to New York City that is both comforting and alienating. You've seen it so many times, on the big screen, on the small screen, and then here it is in real life both bigger and smaller than you imagined. It's an assault on your senses: so much to see, it's never quiet, the heat, the smell. Movies don't prepare you for the smell. So that looking back on it now, that Saturday morning journey from our apartment to the ferry, after a stereotypically epic bagel breakfast at Ess-a-Bagel, feels like a blur of colour and sound. Watching the Statue of Liberty emerge in the distance as we sailed towards Governors Island felt like the first moment of stillness.
The New York City Poetry Festival is an annual poetry festival organised by The Poetry Society of New York under the creative guidance of Tova Greene with the goal of uniting the community of poets and offering a unique setting for literary activity, to bring poetry to new light in the public eye. They invite poetry organisations and collectives of all shapes and sizes to bring their unique formats, aesthetics, and personalities to the festival grounds, which are ringed with a collection of beautiful Victorian houses and tucked beneath the wide, green canopies of dozens of century old trees.
Our little band of queer northern poets arrived as the festival began at 11am. It had a fantastic atmosphere from the outset: a very relaxed bohemian vibe of stages and artisan stalls, food trucks and open houses. The bar, in the centre of the festival site, restricted alcohol to a very small section of the setting - nothing like the booze fuelled festivals back home. We immediately set about finding our stage The Algonquin and felt a giddy little rush of elation at seeing Bent Key Publishing on the running order at 5pm. Each organisation only has a half-hour performance window and with 6 poets to showcase, timings were tight so about 3pm we gathered together to rehearse.
My debut poetry chapbook Nothing is Yours was published by Bent Key in March of this year and so I had decided to read just two poems from that collection: Shampoo 2004 and Wintering 2021.
I'm not a natural performer by any means. I'm a writer. I like to sit alone and put pen to paper and to communicate with the wider world in writing so I was beginning to get very very scared at the prospect of performing in front of a crowd of people on an international stage.
My fellow poets though are born to be in the spotlight. Rebecca opened our show by introducing Bent Key and performing, from memory, her own phenomenal poem Elephant Juice from her collection Crash and Learn. This spoken word performance poetry was very different in style to a lot of the pieces we had heard throughout the day and the crowd loved it!
Then it was my turn: sun in my eyes, butterflies in my stomach, heart in my mouth. I talked about motherhood and identity, the universal experiences of parenting, about maiden, mother and crone, about the shadow of death and the risks of living. Not bad for 5 minutes. And then it was over and I walked back across the grass, already knowing that this was an experience, a memory that could now never be taken from me. And I settled down to enjoy the rest of the set. Scarlett, as part of Bent key's queer poets collective, read from her stunning debut Beams of Light; Dorian's 'Crisis' poem was filled with righteous anger; John's poem for his dad in Tell Us What We Are made us weep and hunger for fresh baked bread, Stevie reminded us of The Lost Decades of falling out of night clubs, and our closing act was Rebecca Pythian, performing at the New York City Poetry Festival on her 28th birthday, reading and singing from her full length collection Perfect Mess.
We celebrated by the waterfront watching the sun sinking low over the Hudson river. We'd each travelled 3334 miles to spend 300 seconds on that New York stage and it was so worth it.
Caitlin Kendall's work is magical, melodic and homely, whilst retaining an air of politically- charged attitude. Currently firmly ensconced in the far reaches of Northern England, she got her first Bent Key publication as part of our first period zine, Bloody Hell, and is a valued member of the Bent Key community. With poetry that zips together the turbulent journey of motherhood with a deep connection with the earth and nature wrapped in human emotion, her words will grab you by the wrist and pull you into another world.
All Bent Key publications can be purchased direct at Bent Key Publishing or from Waterstones
The full Bent Key New York City Poetry Festival set can be viewed on YouTube.
More information about the New York City Poetry Festival is available https://www.newyorkcitypoetryfestival.com/