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Written by Madelaine Smith

Winchester Poetry Festival: more than just a poetry event

Like nearly all events, 2020 was an extremely tough year. When the pandemic hit, and lockdown ensued, we had to make some hard choices about the future of the Winchester Poetry Festival. After months of planning and preparations we made the decision to Postpone the 2020 event, which was extremely disappointing for everyone involved, especially our American friends who were looking forward to coming to the UK to share their work.

Winchester Poetry Festival on The Table Read
Photo by Ena Marinkovic on

But soon after we made that decision, our focus turned to 2021 and what sort of event we would be able to give our devoted supporters. 

A new type of festival

It was clear we would have to plan for every COVID eventuality, which was a challenge. But in addition, it was clear we would need to organise a completely different festival to the ones that have gone before. This was a new beginning for the Winchester Poetry Festival. 

Due to the pandemic, online events became the norm. They have allowed events to be held when lockdowns were in place and opened up new experiences to new audiences. We wanted to embrace this new opportunity in our 2021 programme and announced a ‘stretched’ festival comprising a five-month programme of exciting workshops, readings and discussion events culminating in the live festival in October.

Starting in June, the online events have been well attended and really well received. The events have explored journaling techniques, writing in prose and have looked into some of the work that will be performed at the Festival. Rising stars such as Jen Hadfield, Raymond Antrobus, Leo Boix and Joyelle Sweeney from the USA, have held stimulating conversations and readings; and this year’s Robert Hutchison Lecture, given by Professor Will May, explored the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Stevie Smith and featured readings by actress Juliet Stevenson.

Giving back to the community

Over the years, the Winchester Poetry Festival has become a major event in the poetry world, and we are proud to have had visitors and performers from across the globe. However, our success would not be what it is today without the Winchester community’s support. As part of our 2021 programme, we wanted to give something extra special to that community as a way of saying thank you.

Jonny Fluffypunk at Winchester Poetry Festival on The Table Read
Jonny Fluffypunk at Winchester Poetry Festival

With support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we announced a poetry residency – the Poet on the High Street, to take Winchester’s communities and businesses on a journey of expression, imagination and creativity and to shine a light on the changing face of the historic city’s High Street.

We recruited the fantastic Jonny Fluffypunk, a stand-up poet and performer who fuses bittersweet autobiography, disillusionment and wonder into work, and who is a firm favourite at gigs, festivals and arts centres up and down the country. Since beginning his residency in June, Jonny has held various events within the city encouraging people of all ages to express what matters to them about the past and to explore their individual heritage in relationship to the city and share its significance with others.

The activity has ignited a creative spark in all of us and helped to re-establish our sense of wellbeing after what has been a very difficult time. This is something that we will definitely consider for future festivals.

The next generation

Winchester Poetry Festival is known for sponsoring and nurturing new talent and championing many of the most exciting poets from the UK and beyond. As part of this ethos, we have continued with the Winchester Poetry Prize and the Young Poet’s Prize and have launched the Poetry Ambassadors Scheme.

Poetry Ambassadors is a  year-long project that has matched three young poets with professional writers who have provided mentorship, support and encouragement. The group has spent time developing skills and writing original pieces that will be published in an anthology towards the end of September. The poets will also be performing at the live festival in October, which is very exciting for everyone involved. This scheme, which is run in partnership with the University of Southampton and ArtfulScribe, is something we are truly proud of. Poetry is more than just a live performic e – it is a way of life, and the more we can do to support the poets of the future, the better.

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October’s event

As the summer draws to a close, our attentions turn to our festival weekend in October. After all, a festival is best experienced in person with other like-minded poetry enthusiasts.

Winchester Poetry Festival on The Table Read
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Taking place at the Winchester Discovery Centre, the enticing programme includes familiar events such as Things Being Various, which will feature outstanding Irish poet and professor of poetry Paul Muldoon discussing ‘five things’ that have inspired him and are symbolic of stages in his artistic development. The successful format for ‘Things Being Various’ was devised by Jon Sayers for the inaugural Winchester Poetry Festival in 2014 and has been a firm favourite ever since.

The remarkable poets Liz Berry, Patience Agbabi and Romalyn Ante will be performing and Aviva Dautch will explore closely the poem ‘The New Colossus’ by Emma Lazarus, the poem mounted on The Statue of Liberty.

We will also be announcing the winners of our poetry competitions and hearing their readings.

After a turbulent 18 months, we are incredibly proud of the festival we have provided this year. Poetry goes beyond the word on the page and this year, the Winchester Poetry Festival goes beyond a normal poetry event. We hope everyone who has attended an event online or who will attend the live festival enjoys the experience. We are already looking forward to the next one.

Find More About Winchester Poetry Festival:

Winchester Poetry Festival will take place from 8 to 10 October at the Winchester Discovery Centre. For more information visit Tickets and information for the Poet on the High Street events is available at

To find out more visit, follow us on Twitter @WinPoetryFest, Facebook: or on Instagram @WinchesterPoetry

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