In the midst of autumn, when everyone is reaching for a cup of hot cocoa and a good book, organisers of the London Literature Festival are gearing up for another educational event, showcasing some of the best writers in world.

There is nothing quite like strolling into a bookstore and opening the pages to reveal that comforting smell of ink on paper. Whether that is a local Waterstones, or an old antic-store that in the dusty corner, delving into realms of literature that can get you lost in your own imagination. That is something that everyone shares with words thoughtfully placed onto a page is that you can get lost within an entirely different setting, somewhere you can get lost for a day. This is what novelists and readers share alike.

Tom Hanks will discuss his first collection of short stories, Uncommon Type

Throughout the month of October, novelists and poets will be travelling from all across the world to gather at London Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall for a celebration with the London Literature Festival and Poetry International. The Festival features twenty days of live readings, performances, talks and workshops with writers from all different types of backgrounds.

Festival highlights

This year, the festival is turning its focus towards Nordic Literature with the thought-provoking theme of ‘World on the Brink’, combining the topics of politics and the planet. Panel discussions throughout the Nordic weekend (21–22) will push discuss the power of language, as other talks will explore the concept of home and the relation with refugees. The highlight announcements have been Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will discuss her new book in which she is said to ‘let her guard down’ about the presidential race in the memoir What Happened, and Tom Hanks who will be talking about Uncommon Type, his debut collection of short stories.

American portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz will be presenting a selection of word from her new book, Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016. Featuring artists, writers, actors, politicians, athletes and royals who have shaped various time periods, with the likes of Leonard Cohen and Barack Obama.

The Young Adult Literature weekend (28–29) welcomes novelists, bloggers, vloggers, poets and spoken word artists such as Juno Dawson, Hannah Witton and Samantha Shannon.

Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård will be talking about his latest release, Autumn, for ‘World on the Brink’

Poetry International is celebrating its 50th anniversary with special guests Claudia Rankine, Arundhathi Subramaniam and Yang Lian, which began in 1967 and with today being National Poetry Day, it only makes sense to speak to one of the programmers of the festival.

Access speaks to Bea Colley, a literature programmer at Southbank Centre to discuss the challenging troubles of the world that has inspired the festival’s lineup this year.

Endangered languages

Touching on endangered languages again, we have an event called 7000 Words for Human: Endangered Poetry, which will highlight the National Poetry Library’s call-out. Five poets who write in endangered languages or in languages that have been lost to them personally through displacement have been commissioned to write a new poem in their mother tongue. We are honoured that First Nation poet Joy Harjo from Oklahoma is joining us, writing in Mvskoke, the language of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

We also have the as yet unpublished letters of poet Sylvia Plath in a live reading from writers and actors, and finally our sell-out Young Adult Literature Weekender showcasing some of the best writers for young people, features amongst other things a panel discussion around Stripes Publishing’s, A Change Is Gonna Come, a new anthology of short stories and poetry for young adults written by authors from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

Laura Dockdrill, performer and YA author is set to attend the festival

Can you tell me a little more about Poetry International and how the Endangered Poetry Project came about? 

It’s the 50th anniversary of Poetry International here at Southbank Centre, a festival which was set up by Ted Hughes in 1967 to represent some of the very real questions of displacement, exile and alienation that poets writing from the shifting plates of Europe and further afield were experiencing. Hughes said that poetry is ‘a universal language of understanding in which we can all hope to meet’ and this is really inspiration for the festival in its current form, with poets from across the globe including Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Joy Harjo, Yang Lian and more speaking many different languages and bringing many different concerns and urgencies to this one meeting point. For the first time Poetry International joins with our annual London Literature Festival and runs from 13–15 October.

Claudia Rankine, will attend the 50th celebration of Poetry International

Building on the history of the festival and on Southbank Centre’s 2012 Poetry Parnassus, which was the largest poetry festival ever to take place in the UK, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library wants to preserve poetry in many different languages. According to UNESCO, half of the world’s languages are endangered with languages dying out at the rate of one every two weeks. On National Poetry Day 2017, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library is making an international call out to collect poems in endangered languages. The Library aims to archive a poem from as many of the languages that are classed as endangered or at risk as possible, so that future generations can enjoy these poems as we do. We are also commissioning 5 poets to write poems in languages which are endangered or under threat and these poems will receive their world premiere performance at an event at Poetry International on Saturday 14 October.

How does the festival’s lineup take shape?

I am a Literature Programmer here at Southbank Centre so work on our festival programme which entails around 14 festivals per year – from Imagine Children’s Festival to WOW-Women of the World to Alchemy Festival of South Asian arts and culture to the annual London Literature Festival. We also have a year-round literature programme with large scale events such as the godmother of sci-fi and author of the hugely popular The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, as well as the regular Polari series, a night supporting LGBTQ+ established and emerging writers.

With London Literature Festival, we usually focus on a theme with this year’s being ‘World on the Brink’ looking at a swiftly shifting world from climate change to political turmoil to endangerment of language and community. The Literature team gathers ideas and works with partner organisations to create the giant tetris that is a Southbank Centre festival!

Hannah Witton will take to the stage to discuss her book, Doing It, as part of the Young Adult Literature Weekend

What are your future plans for the festival? 

Poetry International as part of London Literature Festival is celebrating its 50th birthday and we very much hope it is around for another 50 years. With no end to the turbulence in the news from continuing wars to the threat from nuclear powers to the refugee crisis and social inequality, we need poets more than ever, to explain and make sense of the world for us. During the continuing refugee crisis, Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home is the Mouth of a Shark’ was shared thousands of times on social media; it was a poem of understanding and tolerance that the general public reached for at this time. Poetry is as vital as it has ever been and offers us comfort and a way of comprehending the world we live in so the festival will continue to grow and shift and respond to our times.

 In terms of some of the bigger names we have at Southbank Centre for this year’s festival, I am really looking forward to seeing Rebecca Solnit with her brilliant and inspired views on gender and social change and also to seeing Forward Prize winning poet Claudia Rankine whose innovative collection Citizen pushes the boundaries between prose, poetry and essay in its often shocking depiction of racism in America.

But the festival isn’t just straightforward events. We will have the dreams of refugee communities projected in lights on the walls of Royal Festival Hall building exterior across the whole festival in a project from Danish poet and artist Morten Søndergaard. We also have a selection of artworks from Sámi artists, tying in with our year-long programme Nordic Matters, which looks at ideas of loss of land and threats to culture and traditions alongside a new half term programme of children’s events including the Children’s’ Laureate Lauren Child.


Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival featuring Poetry International which will be running from 13 October–1 November. For more details, please visit the Southbank Centre