ShortbreadStories: The Blog

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This column could change your life: volunteering at a literary festival

/by Kathleen Gray/

I know, I know. Any blog with the above heading usually gets my scorn not my attention, but stick with me on this one and I will explain. I’m not trying to be dramatic or cynical, but for me volunteering at my local literary festival keeps me from disintegration into despair and despondency. It’s my life-raft in what, for me, are increasingly disturbing times. I find I can’t bear to read a newspaper or listen to the news without my heart being ripped out — I understand less and less about the world I live in and the people who are in it. My bulwark has become poetry and writing: these twin pillars are the only things at the moment that make sense to me.  Volunteering is also tied into my sense of helplessness and a need to make a difference — I want to do something good, but what?  Being part of a literary festival is doing good and creating goodness, and I firmly believe this.

I crossed the line between participant and volunteer a few years ago.  I held back initially because I thought, ‘I’m not published; I’m not a famous writer; I’m just a charlatan, playing at being a writer. What possible use could I be?’ But what festival directors want are enthusiastic, reliable and sensible people as volunteers.  They want people who will turn up for their shift on time and, if necessary, cover other shifts for sick volunteers.  They want people who will smile and deal effectively with any complaints from the audience. (Although in my experience audiences at literary festivals are remarkably patient and no trouble at all.) The directors want passion above knowledge and zest above knowing how to write a sestina.  

At most festivals there are a variety of different volunteering positions and as such you can choose what you are comfortable with. You may prefer a behind the scenes role with minimum contact with the performers and the audiences, or you might enjoy a more prominent role, up front and introducing the acts. You might have a particular skill you could offer — auditors seem to be in demand, as are technicians but often just having a pair of willing hands is all that’s needed. Muscles can come in handy, as often there is heavy equipment to be moved from one venue to another. Of course, being a volunteer involves an element of responsibility and with that a certain amount of stress. You are part of the ‘corporate’ image of the festival and as such you are expected to be thoughtful about the way you speak and act. But if there is stress involved, this is always offset by a true sense of purpose. I am ridiculously proud of my name badge and feel bereft when I have to hand it back at the end of the festival.

The festival I volunteer at has a primary focus in poetry, but there are usually overlaps with artists, musicians, philosophers, thinkers and general all round creative types. When so much of our modern world is carried on via email and internet, it is rather wonderful to have a live poet, in the flesh, to talk to. In my experience they are all immensely approachable, even the ‘big names’, and when the literary prizes are dished out it is rather nice to know – and okay, I admit there might be a bit of boasting – that you spoke to that particular lauded poet during your stint on the festival desk. 

Preparing for the festival forces me to read more poetry than I usually do, which invariably introduces me to new contemporary poets and dead poets I had previously never heard of. It broadens my reading horizon in a way I’m not self-disciplined enough to do myself. Of course I’m secretly hoping that a little of the creative magic will rub off on my own writing and I believe it does. Being submerged in all the language and literature does fire up my own writing, and I find my pieces are invariably enriched in the afterglow of the festival. 

As a writer I lead quite a solitary life; most evenings it’s just me and the computer. In my real job I rarely get the chance to discuss poetry and, to be honest, I rarely admit that I write. So it is wonderful to meet other volunteers and to have, straight away, a common bond. There are none of those awkward silences after the first introductions; generally you are launched into a meaningful conversation about literature/poetry/writing, and what a blessed relief it is too. This easy compatibility with such a broad cross-section of people contrasts with the superficiality of other types of encounters I have, mainly at work. I never underestimate the joy of being on the same wave length as other volunteers. Of course there are squabbles and clashes, but it’s mainly because people feel ardently about defending this poet or that author, and that makes it a good disagreement.  (I know, I’m using that word good again, but I like it and it’s good to be writing about good things – back to my premise at the start of this piece).

The poetry festival I volunteer for takes place in March which is a good time of year for me to be involved in something like this. I can get quite fed up with the bad weather and long, dark days of January and February, so to be planning and involved in something worthwhile at this particular time of year is all the more important to me.  I get a buzz out of the momentum and it gives me a focus when I could otherwise become quite depressed and lethargic. The festival coincides with daffodils appearing and the emerging from winter hibernation.  The benefits of the March festival have encouraged me to volunteer in a much smaller capacity with another local festival. The theme at this festival is ‘the environment’, and I’m reassured it has a good dose of poetry, storytelling, literature and debate as well. My role in this festival is quite small and very different from my more substantial role at the literary festival, but it feels equally as nourishing and fulfilling and gives me that same sense of connection to some force for good.  

On a purely practical level volunteering is good for your CV, especially if you are interested in eventually getting a paid job in the arts. You shouldn’t be short of a festival to volunteer at. It seems that most towns and certainly all the major cities have some type of festival where literature is either the major focus or has some place in it. 

There is no doubt about it, volunteering is a two-way process.  The committee gets to keep the costs of the festival low and the volunteer gets, well, a community of pals who share your ideals about the forces of poetry and literature to do good in the world. Oh, and there is usually a free lunch and coffee – and in my experience it’s jolly good food too. There may be other perks such as discounts on performance tickets, perhaps free entry to events. Each festival will have its own reward system. 

It’s very easy for me to feel overwhelmed by all the negatively going around in society today, but through my volunteering I’ve found a ballast of sorts: the festivals are peaceful, joyful and gentle spaces that allow people to come together albeit for a brief few days to celebrate, reflect, listen and refresh their souls and to be part of something better and good. Oh, and at the ‘green’ festival I’ll be learning how to make a compost toilet.  Watch this space…

Kathleen current volunteers for the StAnza Poetry Festival and the Big Tent Festival.


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