A Few Wise Words with Beth Cuenco

“Wise Words has its heart in the stars and its feet firmly on the ground”
Lemn Sissay OBE

There are only six weeks left until the creative madness of Wise Words festival descends on the city of Canterbury. It’s a festival that promises to make you feel as if you’re in on the city’s best secret; tucked away in the Franciscan gardens, it’s a secluded haven just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of the city. There will be performances from internationally renowned artists, yoga workshops on the lawn, midnight runs, and long ecstatic spring afternoons interspersed with music and song and dancing.  We. Can’t. Wait.

To learn more about this year’s programme, we catch up with festival director,
Beth Cuenco.

What’s been your most ‘magical moment’ at Wise Words festival?

Wow, that’s hard, there are so many.

The moment that Kate Tempest accepted our invitation and offered our audience the first ever performance of her new collection Hold Your Own was certainly one of my highlights. She performed in a smaller version of our Hideaway, a beautifully lined tent seating just 80 people.

What struck me was how incredibly humble and human Kate was. She arrived feeling nervous and asked for a whisky to steady her nerves. I was surprised because ours was a tiny audience compared to the sell our arenas that she was used to, but for her, this made it scarier. She explained that in a big venue you can hide behind the lights and that there is something about large numbers that is dehumanising, whereas in an intimate venue you are a human talking to other humans and laying your soul bare. And that is exactly what she did. It was the most beautiful, raw and honest performance.

If you had to describe Wise Words festival using 5 adjectives, which would you choose?

Magical, intimate, unexpected, diverse and welcoming

What is one act that you are really looking forward to this year?

Ooh, can I have three?

Shane Koyczan is beyond a doubt my very top tip for this year. We couldn’t believe it when his agent agreed to start his UK Tour early so that he could come to Wise Words – we’ll be the very first place that a UK audience can see him perform.

There are moments when you hear a line performed and it touches something deep within you – perhaps because it reflects your own beliefs, feelings or experience of the world. When you listen to Shane, these lines tumble out one after the other. He has an amazing ability to turn the personal into the universal, giving voice to truths, both beautiful and heartbreaking.

Sophie Willan will be incredible. It is the first time we are bringing comedy to the festival. She has just been nominated for a Chortle Award and her tour is selling out as fast as tickets go on sale. ‘On Record’ the show she is bringing was one of the breakout comedy shows of Edinburgh Festival 2016 and explores her upbringing within the care system and how at 23, the state unexpectedly delivered all of her personal files.

An Evening with an Immigrant will be deeply moving and incredibly relevant to the time we find ourselves in. Award-winning poet Inua Ellams will tell his ridiculous, fantastic, poignant immigrant story of escaping fundamentalist Islam, directing an arts festival at his college in Dublin, performing solo shows at the National Theatre, and drinking wine with the Queen of England, all whilst the matter of his UK residency and his right to work was still in question.

How do you think attitudes to poetry have changed in Canterbury over the past few years?

When we started Wise Words we were warned that people in Canterbury didn’t like poetry. I was sure that this was because the word ‘poetry’ conjures up memories of long boring lessons at school where you either understood it or were made to feel like you were just not clever enough.

We’ve always tried to show that poetry offers something for everyone – whether that’s a raucous evening of poetry, music and humour offered by Roger McGough and LiTTLe MACHiNe; the mash-up of grime with spoken word that will be enjoyed by audiences who go and see Debris Stevenson or the beautiful poetry performed to improvised music done so well by Tongue Fu. Each year at Wise Words audiences have grown and this has been beautiful to see.

What is your favourite poem?

The wonderful Poetry Exchange sums this up for me perfectly. They talk about poems being our friends – to offer comfort, inspiration, advice just as a friend would. The poems I love depend on what I need at that particular time.
The poem that sparked my love of poetry was given to me by my class teacher aged 6 and was called The Fairies by William Allingham. It begins:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men.

I love the idea that nature is full of little spirits bringing life and mischief to the world. In a time of Disney fairies, this poem is beautifully discordant – giving us a healthy respect for the elemental world.

Do you have any festivals that inspire you? Why?

Yes, the Just So Festival. For many reasons but one is their healthy attitude towards risk. They encourage families to dress up as animals and compete in a triple tournament. Throughout the festival, staff reward the children with the best costumes by giving them small pebbles painted gold. There was no warning that these could be a choking hazard – just a belief that parents have some common sense. This attitude ran throughout the festival and I loved it!

How would you like Wise Words to change and to grow over the years?

We are a very tiny team that run the festival on a tiny budget and huge amounts of passion. We spend most of the year trying to find the money to make it happen and feel very lucky to be supported by some wonderful partners. If we could spend less time raising money and more time of creating wonderful experiences for our audience it would be a dream come true.

It feels like Wise Words has grown up and we would love for it to find a long term partner. A good marriage is always about how you can bring out the best in each other and support each other to grow. We are looking for a business or organisation with whom we could explore and start to build a happy partnership.

Who would be your dream headliner?

They are here at this year’s festival, so come check them out.

Wise Words will be running from 28th April to 7th May throughout Canterbury. Find out all that’s going on on the festival website here, and follow Wise Words on Twitter.

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