poetry / pottery

Poet Jacob Polley  standing with banana

Jacob Polley (copyright Harry Rook)

The annual Ledbury Poetry Festival came to town this July; ten days of the best writers, poets and performers, and belatrova took full advantage, enjoying Juliet Stevenson‘s Sylvia Plath reading, as well as Jacob Polley and Sean Borodale together at the Burgage Hall, Martin Rowson‘s tone-lowering Limerickiad, Benjamin Zephania‘s jamming with Tony Benn, and a wonderful celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centenary with Ruthie Culver and the Utter:Jazz quartet and Sam West re-imagining the composer’s settings of WH Auden’s poems.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson (copyright Harry Rook)

There were over ninety events in all, including Japanese and Italian poetry, digital poetry, turntabling with Jah Wobble, bike rides, a Cerys Matthews sing-a-long, underwater sound poetry – belatrova tried to imbibe as much as possible and came out of it satiated and inspired. And there was the bookArt 13 exhibition at the Shell House Gallery with five artists, Jeanette McCulloch being one, giving us a rich visual experience with the text.

We did reject the idea of a Ledbury Pottery Festival to run concurrently with the poetry (and someone also came up with the idea of a yearly Ledbury Poultry Festival), and instead took up Jacob Polley’s suggestion to read an essay by Barry Lopez on anagama ceramic firing (“Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire” from his collection “About this Life”). Anagama kilns are wood-burning tube chambers usually built on a gentle slope to promote draft and reach great temperatures, producing ware that is “licked and scorched by wood flame, glazed and encrusted with wood ash”.

tube shaped anagama kiln

Anagana kiln being built

His descriptions of the process, the patience needed, the constant feeding of the fire night and day, the unpredictability of each firing, explains the attraction it holds for potters drawn to social cooperation, physical work and subtle firings. It is the antithesis of the rigid commercial kiln processes. Anyway, it is beautifully written and is now being circulated amongst the local potters.

opening a top loading kiln


The belatrova kilns are electric, so control over the heating is simple compared with the mixture of instinct, experience and know-how required for the anagama firings, but there is nevertheless a similar feeling of apprehension and excitement just before you open the lid to see what the gods of fire have done with all your hard work. We usually lift the lids when the temperature goes down to 80° or lower, the kilns having spent two days slowly climbing down from their peak, in our case, of 1280°.

split ceramic plate being lifted out of kiln

more than just a hairline crack

A gentle stoicism permeates the workshop on these occasions as the ware is slowly revealed and brought out into the light, sometimes with a tiny hairline crack, sometimes with an obvious split, sometimes in small pieces, but most often the ceramic is good to the eye and it is placed on its shelf ready for any wet sandpapering.

Here’s a three legged bowl that came out unscathed, on a belatrova table:

scooped ceramic on painted table

a happier result: scooped tripod on belatrova table

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