Matthew Hollis, Liz Berry, Don Paterson, Carrie Etter and Rishi Dastidar will be taking part in a celebration of poetry between April 19 and April 27, which includes readings, discussions and even a ‘slam’ competition.

Although having a national and international feel, the Cheltenham Poetry Festival will shine a spotlight on Gloucestershire and Cotswolds writers, past and present, including Edward Thomas who died in the Battle of Arras in 1917.

Perhaps best known for the poem Adlestrop, which ends with the iconic line ‘Farther and farther, all the birds / Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire’, Thomas had strong links to the region.

On April 27, acclaimed poet and biographer Matthew Hollis will be reading from his biography Now All Roads Lead to France: the Last Years of Edward Thomas.

‘He was a poet of his time, capturing a Georgian vulnerability that was about to be obliterated in the Great War,’ explains Matthew, ‘but he was also a poet ahead of his time, through his unusual understanding of the ecology between people and nature.

‘Today, as our environmental engagement has necessarily accelerated, our reading of Thomas has similarly appreciated. In that sense, we have finally caught up with him. As the world changes, so does our expectation of what we ask its literature to reflect: readerships rise and fall according to broader forces in the world.’

Although a knowledgeable reader of poetry, Thomas didn’t write it for much of his life, points out Matthew, whose recently published collection, Earth House, was described by The Guardian as ‘representing the ecological imagination at its most multi-layered and persuasive’.

‘He might not have done so at all if not for a meeting in the last couple of years of his life with a young American poet, Robert Frost, making his way through literary London and Gloucestershire. Frost recognised the instinctual poet within Thomas, and encouraged him to rewrite his prose in verse form and let his natural, conversational rhythms emerge.’

Another admirer of both Thomas and Frost is the T.S. Eliot prize-winning writer Don Paterson, whose much-praised memoir, Toy Fights: A Boyhood, was published last year, and who is taking part in two events on April 27.

‘Thomas is unusual in that his reputation has grown steadily over the decades without the usual fluctuations many writers suffer. He’s not a particularly ‘noisy’ voice – he just exudes the kind of quiet mastery it maybe takes us a while to truly appreciate,’ says Don.

‘Frost helped Thomas see how his prose was already on the edge of poetry, anyway, and Thomas gets his modern edge through carrying that easy, conversational rhythm into his verse, whereas Frost had to introduce it a bit more self-consciously. Thomas found a very natural route out of all that late Victorian poeticism. You can hear something very modern, and indeed not typically Anglophone in his work. In a poem like Old Man, there’s a real questioning of the self, a sense of the instability of words, and a deep engagement with ‘the void’ in a way that’s much closer to Frost’s nihilism. Both Thomas and Frost are much darker and stranger poets than they first appear.’

Great British Life: Rishi Dastidar.Rishi Dastidar. (Image: Naomi Woddis)

The festival, meanwhile, also encourages visitors who haven’t tried writing before to give it a go – and Rishi Dastidar, who’s taking part in an April 9 online event ahead of the in-person celebrations, reckons there’s no better ‘training’ than to read.

‘It’s the quickest way to discover language at play, new ideas and ways of seeing the world, and to be thrilled by the sensation of seeing a mind put itself across via page and screen,’ says Rishi, who had one of the poems from his recent collection, Neptune’s Projects, included in The Forward Book of Poetry 2024.

‘Don’t worry that reading lots might mean you won’t sound like you,’ he adds. ‘Rather, the reverse will happen. Through reading, you discover who you want to emulate, who you want to ignore, who you want to better – and, by doing that, hopefully the unique voice that only you can provide will emerge.’

Rishi also advises emerging poets to keep an ear and eye out for strange and surprising language. ‘Try to notice an unexpected adjective next to a noun or a noun that has become a verb. You will find these in adverts, captions, headlines, news reports, official reports, in conversations overheard when you’re on the bus… poets are magpies when it comes to language, and you want to be collecting combinations of words and phrases that are surprising to you.’

Great British Life: Carrie Etter. Carrie Etter. (Image: Fabrizia Costa)

How to write specifically about grief will be among the topics touched on by Carrie Etter on April 20, when she discusses her collection, Grief’s Alphabet, a moving elegy for her mother.

It’s a book that resonates with the theme of this year’s festival, ‘to taste life twice’, exploring bereavement and celebrating Carrie’s love for the woman she describes as ‘incredibly strong, generous and who appreciated the best of me better than I could.’

She says, ‘There’s an expression about poetry being “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, but I wanted to convey the rawness of grief, and understand the different types of grief one experiences over time.

‘Sometimes when people write elegy, they try to get it all into a single poem. I approached it by trying to get it all into one book – and that helped because individual poems could isolate particular moments and experiences I had with my mother, and single aspects of her character. That enabled me to particularise rather than generalise – and that’s often the key to making poems about grief original and vivid.’

According to award-winning poet Liz Berry, who’ll be reading on April 19, it’s the interaction between readers and writers that creates such a special atmosphere at festivals.

‘For poets and audiences, there’s something very moving and deep about coming together in person,’ says Liz, whose collection The Republic of Motherhood was described by The Daily Telegraph as ‘an electrifying collection of poems that makes your heart sing’.

‘It’s not just the reading itself, but the conversations that happen before and after, the little chats and connections, the feeling of having been part of a shared moment. As a poet, I love the way each reading is slightly different as the chemistry changes with the audience, the poets, the venue and time. No two events are ever the same. Poems shared aloud carry the gorgeous electricity that live music does.

‘I always enjoy visiting Cheltenham, and I’ll be sure to drink a coffee in a little café in Montpellier and visit some beautiful indie bookshops, like Moss Books and Rossiter Books,’ adds Liz.

Meanwhile, back at poetry festival HQ, founder and organiser Anna Saunders has been putting the final touches to this year’s programme with her team of volunteers.

‘We try to be thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating and inspiring, but also fun,’ she says. ‘Our sole criterion is to have brilliant poets.’

The event has been a labour of love for writer and tutor Anna, since she launched it in 2011, featuring year-round online and digital events, as well the ‘on-the-ground’ week in April.

‘The Cotswolds has an incredible artistic community, and we’re very well served in Cheltenham in terms of superb festivals. Whether you love literature, science, music or film, there’s something for you, but I’ve always felt there was a window for more poetry. When people think of Cheltenham, they probably initially think of horseracing, but I want them to think of poetry, too.’

Cheltenham Poetry Festival runs from April 19-27.