Not the Oxford Literary Festival

Term is at an end. But believe it or not, some things actually happen during the vacation. The Oxford Literary Festival is one of the more famous, but Not the Oxford Literary Festival, featuring the poet Adelle Stripe, will also take place.

Beginning in 2010 with just one event, Not the Oxford Literary Festival – an Albion Beatnik affair – will hold four this year. Its genesis was “one of those back of the envelope moments,” according to Dan Holloway, the organiser. “I was talking with Dennis, who runs the Albion Beatnik Bookstore, and we were lamenting the fact that all festivals seem to have the same speakers talking about the same things for large ticket prices, and we wanted to give space to the amazing local talent… and to types of literature that are traditionally ignored at festivals.”

The Oxford Literary Festival is a much grander event. Patronised by The Sunday Times, it features names like Seamus Heaney, Philip Pullman and Anthony Horowitz. “To be honest, I didn’t think the Festival knew about us, but last year we had some pleasant exchanges – we do very different things so there’s space for both,” continued Holloway. “It’s important to keep the difference, though. It’s not so much a rivalry as saying to people, ‘there’s more to Oxford culture’.”

Adelle Stripe herself, as well as reading for a PhD, is an up-and-coming contemporary poet: her third collection, Dark Corners of the Land, has recently been published to critical acclaim. She lives with her partner Benjamin Myers, a novelist and journalist. “We are both completely broke and have a house that is caving under the weight of dusty tomes,” says Stripe. I did read somewhere that writers end up with writers because nobody else will put up with them. That makes sense to me. We’re anti-social buggers.”

Back in 2006, along with Myers and Tony O’Neill, a musician and writer, Stripe founded the poetry school ‘Brutalism’. “The Brutalists see ourselves as a band who have put down their instruments and picked up their pens and scalpels instead. The only maxim we adhere to is an old punk belief, which we have bastardised for our own means. Here’s a laptop. Here’s a spell-check. Now write a book,” reads part of their manifesto.

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The idea was to be honest and raw, something that modern writing perhaps lacks. “I have real issues with contemporary poetry in the UK,” Stripe claims. “Most poetry I have come across in recent anthologies has a peculiar corpse-like quality to it. It’s as though you have walked into an art gallery, and under glass boxes, on whitewashed plinths, sit a collection of porcelain roses. They are elegant to observe, immaculately rendered, objects of refined beauty, but they don’t smell of roses.”

Yet for all that Stripe strives after honesty in poetry, literary precedent is crucial to her too. In our brief interview, she mentioned more than a dozen writers who are influences on her own writing, though none of them could be called a household name. Modernist poets were particularly conspicuous. “It feels like I was born in the wrong era,” she said.

But if Modernism is an influence on Stripe, it is not conspicuous in her choice of subjects. “I have written at length about being a teenager, the 1990s, working-class culture, death, the wilderness, animals, love, violence, and loss,” she says.

The common theme to all of these, seemingly disparate, topics is that they engage with a personal experience of the past. “I write a poem to try and clarify an event that happened, or to capture an image before it gets buried in my subconscious,” Stripe explains.

Oxford, however, is not a world that Stripe is familiar with. “To me Oxford is the land of the élite. It’s Sebastian and Aloysius wandering through the streets vin Bullingdon tuxedos, drinking champagne and laughing at their ‘bedders’. It’s a life I have never known, and one I’ve always been secretly quite jealous of. I would have loved to have gone to Oxford, but sadly I was too busy getting drunk, flunking my exams, causing trouble and surviving on a steady diet of nothing.” Not that she ought to have been put off; getting drunk and flunking exams were what Brideshead was all about.

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But it turns out the way to live the Brideshead dream is not through a literary career; even Waugh was forever struggling with money. Stripe’s advice for budding writers is: “Do it because if you don’t, you’ll explode. I heard a figure that something like 4% of writers make the minimum wage from writing; the others make much less. If you have a trust fund to fall back on, or a chest full of gold bullion, you’ll be fine.”

She concludes, “One more thing: don’t be frightened to experiment. Try and write something that has never been written before. Insist on defining your own culture.”