If you haven’t yet booked yourself a place at some of the events at the FREE Writers’ Retreat, Take a look!! And if you have been thinking of coming to the workshop I’ll be running on Thursday 9th June, don’t worry if you haven’t got any ‘family documents’ to bring with you – I’ve planned for ways to inspire your writing, whether you bring something with you or not.
I’ve been having a wonderfully restful and creative break recently – the first event was a weekend writing course that I’d booked several months ago at Holland House– in Copthorne, a small village in the Vale of Evesham. It was my third visit to this retreat centre with its four acres of inspiring gardens sweeping down to the river - it’s an ideal venue for inspiring creativity.
I’d forgotten to charge the batteries on my camera, so these pictures are ones I took in 2006. The course was well planned and enthusiastically delivered by Myra Schneider and John Killick
The theme of this course was ‘Time’ and it provided me with material for a couple of drafts, and several more ideas for future poems. I’m very slow at the process of producing, not just the ideas, but the words to express them, and I always enjoy hearing the other participants reading their work. John will be sending out a piece of writing from each of the fifteen of us on the course, (once we’ve emailed them to him) and I’m really looking forward to reading them at leisure – there were so many excellent poems.
Fortunately for me, I’ve (almost) stopped measuring my work and the pace of my output against that of everyone else’s, who always seem to be far more prolific than I am. After I’ve achieved a draft that feels as though it might be going somewhere, I enjoy the period of re-writing and re-writing, till I’m sure that every word is the best one in the best order for that poem. (This stage usually takes me two or three weeks, and sometimes even longer.)
I’m still working on a poem from a couple of weekends ago, so here’s one from my very first Holland House course, inspired by the yew hedges and other trees in the garden. I was delighted when it won 1st prize for the ‘single poem’ section of the New Writers’ Competition of 2006. (see the poem below)
As for ‘Wuthering Heights’ – this was the venue of another gathering of writers that I took part in last week. That wasn’t really the name of this large stone house on the highest point of a high ridge on the edge of the Dark Peak, not far from Kinder Scout – I called it that because of the persistent gale force winds that boomed and battered at the walls and windows for most of the week. It didn’t affect our enjoyment though, and we were able to stretch our legs most days, in spite of some lashing rain storms.
One afternoon we walked through the Longshaw estate, run by the National Trust.I was interested to find a tenuous connection between the nearby town of Hathersage and Emily Bronte, the author of Wuthering Heights (via her sister, Charlotte, who had spent some time there with a friend). You can find out about its link to her own well-known novel, Jane Eyre, here.
I arrived back home again on Friday afternoon, then on Saturday I was back in Derbyshire to meet up with some of my friends from my M.A. Writing Course at N.T.U.This time I was staying in the picturesque village of Ashover, situated in the Amber valley, just outside the Peak District National Park.
It’s surrounded by hills and we walked up to the top of one, behind my friend’s house, - This rock is called The Fabrick and apparently was once the site of an old Druid temple – it’s a landmark that can be seen from a miles around. The village was first mentioned in the Domesday book and it has been called the valley of ’silence and wild flowers’. You can’t get much more poetic than that!
When I Can Choose
I’ll live in a house with high ceilings,
and practise topiary.
Yew hedges will take root
along the skirting boards.
I’ll clip them into crenellations
below the roses on the coving,
gouge out small, square windows
to let green light spill in.
New fronds, bright as limes
will stroke my cheek, my palms,
and winter berries will kindle
the white tips of my fingers.
I’ll curl up on the springy floor
of camomile and thyme. Trace
familiar features in the dark.
Wind will stream up from the river,
clatter through the aspen leaves.
Drown out the one not chosen.
First of all, I want to let people know about a FREE writers’ week that starts on Monday 6th June and finishes on the following Saturday.
The main theme for the week is , ‘Memoirs’, and I’ve been asked to run one of the workshops, and also to give a talk about self publishing, so if you know anyone who is interested in creative writing and lives within a reasonably easy journey from Erdington in the north of Birmingham, please direct them to this site – whatever kind of writing you want to develop, there’s bound to be something there for you.
In my previous post I mentioned the latest Soundswrite Anthology of poetry. This cover was taken from a painting by the talented artist and poet, Helen Jayne Gunn, one of the many contributors to the anthology.
It will be available from the Soundswrite Website.
(This site is about to be about to be updated)
Anyone who has attended courses on writing poetry, is more than likely to have met Alice Beer, whose obituary appeared in The Guardian on Thursday 7th April 2011. Click
I’m posting this picture of ‘my’ local bluebell wood because it’s a place I visit several times every April, checking on the progress of the brand new beech leaves and the mass of bluebell spears. There was a bluebell wood not far from the house in Sussex where I spent my childhood, but this one is the best I’ve ever come across.
Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago – this photo doesn’t illustrate the poem, but it captures the beautiful light of an April day, two or three weeks ago
Taking Amy For A Walk
When we reach the wood, anemones
like sackfuls of spilt stars
lie scattered between birch
and sycamore. I can only guess
how green spears poised in shade
are holding hidden blue as tight as breath.
Wind tosses sunlight down through
restless branches - her long pale hair
becomes a blur of light. She wears
her denim the way a dryad might
disguise herself to walk with humans.
Eyes as far away as shards of sky.
I thought the bluebells would be out, she says,
half petulant, as though she’s been misled.
She hesitates beside a mound of earth,
amber and burnt sienna, glistening with
movement of seething bodies,
a million legs bent on a single purpose.
They clamber over identical neighbours
without a qualm – those brains
hold nothing singular or strange.
I wriggle a dead stick inches down into
their huge construction. I want to uncover
its hundreds of intricate channels, reach
into secret chambers where white eggs
are hatching in the dark, like thoughts.
I want to bring them into the light of day.
Amy shudders, watching the creatures
scurry and cluster along the stick.
I throw it down and take her cool dry hand.
The last few days have been like another world! The only time I’ve picked up a pen to write anything in a book was on Saturday when I was one of the witnesses to sign the register at St Nicholas Church
in Chiswick at my daughter’s wedding.
I know that many other proud mothers and fathers of the bride will have experienced similar emotions to mine, but I doubt that any can have had quite such a wonderful day as we all did! OK, OK, so you disagree! But I think there’s something about this type of occasion that places it on a higher plane altogether – some kind of parallel universe that we can stumble into for a brief section of time. Once we’re back in our real lives we can store those memories and value them for what they were, rather than cling to them as a bench-mark against which we measure our happiness quotient!
One way of extending the pleasures of a very special event for a little longer, is to meet up with close friends and family the following day and share perceptions of the event, so I felt doubly lucky to have been invited to lunch by Clarissa, my friend and my daughter’s godmother, for a birthday treat at the Goring Hotel together with my husband, my son and his new girlfriend. His presence was an extra treat as, like my daughter, he lives in London. (If you want to read more about this fabulously opulent place, and see a poem I wrote after my first visit there, click here).
Back to the wedding itself: my daughter, Sara and her (now) husband, had organized every detail of the entire event, so all I had to do during the months of preparation was to offer verbal support over the phone and carry out one or two minor tasks. When she showed me the draft of the order of service, and asked if I might be able to write a poem to be placed on the back page, I agreed to try. As you might imagine, this was a huge challenge, so I was very relieved when the creative juices began to flow in the right direction! You can judge for yourselves below.
Sara and Ric met at the Corinthians sailing club,
and they had arranged for the bride’s wedding party to go in a boat, a minute’s walk from their home,to be taken to the beautiful old church further down the river. As mother of the bride, I didn’t take my own camera with me – for one thing, it didn’t fit into my small handbag and anyway, I realised that photographer wasn’t included in my role. I’ll post a few pics in a few days.
The reception was at the club house, an ideal venue for the happy couple!
And here’s the poem:
The Wedding Day
For Sara and Ric
Although the day itself seems magical,
the slow unfolding of a fairytale
in which the princess in a silken gown
glides down the river in the bridal barque,
her radiance out-dazzling the white wings
of her attendant swans, it’s merely
a bright exclamation mark in the elusive
book of chance that led them here.
Now they’ll set out as man and wife in the same
boat, the frail vessel of their hopes and dreams,
but they both know their love, if nurtured,
will be strong enough to anchor them
in times of harsh reality, and light enough
to harness all the winds of happiness.
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Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and the films based on these, I wouldn’t ever have expected to find myself at an event dedicated to his life and work, but there I was, last Sunday in Sarehole Mill Recreation Ground in the Shire Park, Birmingham.
This large grassy space, enclosed with high hedges of flowering May, was filled with marquees, jousting rings and make-shift stalls and tents, staffed by Hobbits, Elves and Medieval Humans.Unfortunately, my camera batteries were dead on arrival, so I’ve had the make use of photos taken from the Middle-earth Weekend site.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I can be relied on to turn up at any event that offers me an opportunity to talk about my writing and I tend to be open to almost any new experiences - as a writer I can never know what unfamiliar sights or sounds might provide useful material for a future poem or story - so when Chris Morgan, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2009, invited me to read some of my own poems at the annual Middle-earth Weekend, I thought, ‘Why not?’
and as usual, said, ‘Yes, I’d love to!’.
The warmth and brightness of the sunshine after so many weeks of grey cold days somehow added to the illusion of stepping into a film set, where small family groups in ordinary clothing strolled around holding ice creams and cans of pop, mingling with characters from The Lord of the Rings. These included a medieval lord and lady each with their own pet baby dragon which looked and felt extraordinarily life like, almost seeming to purr as I stroked one under its clammy chin.
The poetry recital was programmed for 1.00 in the Performance tent, where four of us delivered our poems to a small audience which seemed to be split into two groups: the enthusiasts who’d found their way there on purpose, and the bemused who only wanted a a cup of tea and a piece of Victoria sandwich. Nonetheless , they all listened politely.
I didn’t have any Tolkein-themed poems, so I’d selected a few that seemed in some way to fit in with a fantasy theme and started off with one which is usually popular, even with people who aren’t particular fans of poetry, Becoming a Seal
It’s a long time since I’ve posted a new ‘poem of the Week’ so here’s another of those I read on Sunday.
After that startled awakening and chase through the woods
bears lumbered almost nightly
into her dreams
but by the time she married, she couldn’t remember
why even the smell of porridge
could scald her tongue.
She has a baby now, and her broken sleep is invaded
by bears again – their coarse dark fur
smelling of resin and fungus.
Sometimes she wakes with honey in her throat
hands as cumbersome as boxing gloves
flat white nails thickened to ebony .
When she slides from the bed
it seems natural as breathing
to pad across the carpet on all fours.
Grey light seeps through loosely woven
nursery rhymes. She unravels undertones of
talcum powder, sweat-damp hair
and hints of her own milk on sleeping breath.
Her baby. Is he hers? He seems so
folded in on his unblemished self
as though he’s tumbled through a crack in time
and she can’t touch him.
I wrote this several years ago and was delighted when it won a place in a Mslexia competition.
BEFORE YOU READ ABOUTSutton Park, and ‘Each Year I Forget’,
Click here for my BOOK COVER DESIGN CHALLENGE
and give yourself a LAST CHANCE of winning a FREE copy of Paper Lanterns(CLOSING DATE: 31st December)
Anyone who’s visited this site over the last few weeks will have noticed that I’ve not been posting much since I started my Book Cover Design Challenge, not even a ‘Poem of the Week’ - I’ve been too busy responding to everyone who’s entered. I’ve been delighted by the amount of thinking time that people have given to the task of guessing which of the seven covers is my favourite, and/or telling me which they’ve liked best, and why.
I love this clear and sunny frosty weather – it’s one of the things I like about winter in England. I’m not so keen on dank and foggy days, though they can also have charm of their own, especially in the countryside.
In spite of living on the edge of the second largest conurbation in the UK, I don’t think of myself as a ‘townie’, and I’m lucky to have the second largest enclosed park in Europe on my doorstep, where I can roam at will through ancient woods and open heath lands.
These days, large areas of the countryside might look beautiful, but are often inaccessible to walkers. I often think kindly of Henry VIII who apparently gave this land to the people of Sutton Coldfield in perpetuity. (At least, that’s what I’ve been told, but I’ve just come across an excellent website that gives lots more detail of the history and geography of the park, together with pictures of its seven pools.)
This afternoon I went out with my camera, as I wanted to get a picture to illustrate the poem I’ve selected for December. Being a fine day and part of the holiday season, there were more people around than usual, but fortunately, most of them kept to the tarmac (car-free) roads, while I crunched across the frosty beech leaves on the narrow tracks through the woods.
Each Year I Forget
Each year I forget
the shape of twigs and branches
under froth of summer leaves.
October flaunts nostalgia
in scarlet woods
binding with spells of
yellow and orange light.
Don’t go, don’t go.
Each year December
surprises me again
as trunks of beeches
glow with their own green
and twigs crack open sky.
I wrote this several years ago – as you might have guessed, I love each of the four seasons as they come around, and although I’ve experienced several decades of them, I’m always surprised to find that I’d forgotten so much about the details of the pleasures they bring.
It was so sad to hear of the death of two more British soldiers in Afghanistan, today of all days, when we are reminded of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other men and women killed in wars.
There’s nothing new I can add to this topic – the pros and cons of this war or that - the justifications and condemnations. I can only feel immensely grateful that virtually all my friends and family members are in good health, and (as far as any of us can know) are not in present danger - all except one, a fairly recent addition to our extended family, and he is often in my thoughts, particularly today.
The Sunday Times News Review has lain on the kitchen table all day. My eye was caught by the headline ‘ HIS LAST LONELY WALK’ and a picture of a beautiful young man, Olaf Schmid, who died last weekend, attempting to defuse his 65th bomb, on the eve of returning home on leave.
I was resisting the article – I didn’t want to read about that tragedy. I’ve just done so now, with a big lump in my throat. My heart goes out to his wife, Christina – his parents too. My son is one year older than he was.
What a courageous young man. The newspaper article quotes his words, “I go home, and people go,’ How many f****** Taliban have you killed?’ Well, it’s not really about that. It’s more about how many lives I’ve saved, I think.”
I live not far from Cannock Chase, 26 square miles of woodlands and heather-covered hills, a wonderful place for walking. I’d been visiting the Chase for years before I first came across the German Military Cemetery. Attached to the memorial building, there was a small, obviously lived-in, house probably occupied by a caretaker.
It just happened to be on the last day of the last millennium – a time when the whole country –indeed, the whole world – was in a state of excitement, some anticipating all the computers on earth grinding to a halt, with disastrous consequences, and others getting ready for the party of a lifetime. Hemmed all around by dark pine trees and a wire fence, were the final remains of 5,000 German Servicemen from two World Wars. So many young men. Just a small percentage of all the others from those two wars
There was something unbearably poignant about the headstones in their neat rows – each one shared by two names. This is the poem it inspired.
Millennium Eve in the German War Cemetery, Cannock Chase.
They’ll be restless tonight, mutters
Mr McAllister locking the door.
There are no windows in the back wall
of the bungalow. It looks onto
its own courtyard. Better that way
he said when he took the job.
He keeps all green blades clipped
to the regulation inch – or rather
two point-something centimetres now.
They’d like that. And each brown mound
in every row of every phalanx shows
no hint of grass or pale unfolding leaf.
Beyond these lawns, where Fritz and Heinrich
Hans and Gunter lie, two to a bed
dark pines mass up against the wire fence
that keeps out deer. No place in here
for their unruly steps. Their eyes
are too alive, their breath’s too warm.
He switches on the tele to Sky News
from all around the world. But those Chinese
don’t even have the same New Year as us!
Fireworks cascade above the city squares
on the meridian as midnight after
midnight fizzes past. Hush, he murmurs. Hush.
But all explosions are too far away
to stir the random couples underground -
no trace of sleep inside their hollow skulls.
If they could dream they’d be where only time
can measure distances. They’d watch those stars
whose light has not yet reached our skies, burn out.
What a lovely afternoon it’s been - even the weather cheered up for my long drive to Leicester on a very special occasion: it was the launch of yet another collection of poems by Alice Beer. I wouldn’t normally draw attention to a writer’s date of birth, but this information on the back is relevant to the content of “Window on the Square” :Alice Beer was born in Vienna in 1912, and moved toEngland in 1937. She lives in a flat in Leicester overlooking De Montfort Square
The other important statement on the back cover is:
ALL PROFIT FROM THE SALE OF THIS PAMPHLET
WILL BE DONATED TO HAMLIN FISTULA UK
If you don’t know about this life-destroying condition, (and even if you do) click here to find out more about this charity, and, for a very brief photo story of one young woman’s path to recovery, and a chance of having a normal life restored, click here.
I met Alice in August 1996 at my first residential poetry course with the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire, and, like many others who have fallen under her spell, have kept in touch ever since. This contact was easier to maintain because of the fortnightly poetry group, Soundswrite, that held its first meeting in 2000, and I was delighted to see that Alice also was joining this wonderful group.
If you’d like to find out more about Window on the Square, and support this very worthwhile charity, this book is available via the link to Alice’s web-page above, and also the link to Soundswrite.
One of the poems that were read this afternoon has helped me to decide which of my own will be Poem of the Week. Alice’s is called Puzzling, and recounts her sighting of a fox on three very different occasions . The most recent of these took place below her window on the square,
‘it trotted off,
not leisurely and not in a hurry, intent
on its own business and left me wondering
why I felt as if the clouds
had lifted on this dark December morning
a gift bestowed on me.’
I, too, am fascinated by the urban fox, and its parallel world –
Monochrome foxcubs tumble on the lawn.
Sparrows and finches stir
and test their voices.
As day noses up behind next-door’s
privet hedge and sycamore
the cool earth yawns and calls.
Wet grass springs back after each footfall.
A tunnel strokes damp fur as cubs creep down
into their solid sleep.
Their dreams dissolve above them
and this house, a block of shadow
is rubbed out.
In my latest post, I was talking about re-writing in general, and I mentioned a poetry blog site, How a Poem Happens, that had inspired and impressed me, and I’d intended to write in more detail about this today – But this has been a great week for poetry and that’s now going to have to wait a day or two, as I’m too excited about a package that was delivered by Royal Mail on Friday: I received my own ‘contributor’s’ copy of a wonderful anthology, ‘Cracking On’, in which I’m immensely privileged to have two of my own poems.
“ Outrage is easier for me, but that is here too, particularly in Mind the Gap, which challenges the young head on, rather than fading out quietly and letting them, and everyone else, continue to believe that youth is everything and old age is nothing much at all. Unrepentant, unapologetic, brave, confident and beautiful, these poems show that we older women deserve to live as full and rich a life as any other generation. And the nearer we get to the end, through Sick and Tired, Nearly There and into the Departure Lounge, the braver we get. Or at least these poets do. For those of us who are scared stiff, then these poems can help us through it.”
I’ve not yet had time to do more than dip into a few of these, and what struck me at once was how fresh and unusual these poems are, and how rarely I’ve come across any poems that deal with aging at all, let alone ones which, as Penelope Shuttle is quoted as saying, are ‘Electric, formidable, challenging, witty, sombre, enduring, heart-felt, tender, reflective, valedictory poems.’
No wonder I feel privileged to be among this company! One of mine, (Legacy)has already appeared in a previous post, so this Poem of the Week is the other one from Cracking On.
For my mother
My other dead are setting out to greet me,
their sprawling years
weighing them down like clay
but your compacted life, each heartbeat
counted, speeds towards me
light as a bird.
When my time comes, I’ll skim across the waves,
follow the scent of that girl pacing the deck,
Suez, Gulf of Arabia, Indian Ocean.
I’ll be that self once more under the peepul tree
as I lick the tip of thread for the needle’s eye,
stitch the final daisy on your gown.
I won’t know, yet, the cataclysm of
that love, the danger of giving
too much too soon.
My hands will cup the tautened belly, catch
the undulations of your limbs
against my palms.
I’ll mould my lips into the secret smile,
recover that sense of wonder - the key
to heaven. They’ll let me in.
This might seem a bit confusing to some readers if they don’t realise that the ‘I’ of the poem is my mother, and the ‘you’ is her first born child, the one referred to towards the end of ‘Legacy’ as ‘our long-dead brother’.
The journey through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean in this poem was made by my mother as a young woman, travelling out to India to marry my father, who was in the army out there during the war. Throughout our childhood,our oldest brother, who only lived for about three days, was regularly mentioned in night-time prayers.
It was only when I became a mother myself, that I started to realise what a tragedy that baby’s death would have been.
What a lovely day yesterday – almost warm enough for swimming outside, something I’ve done little of this year. Living in the Midlands, I don’t get many opportunities these days for swimming in the sea, so for me, the combination of warm air, willows and alder, grassy banks and a wide expanse of clear fresh water is (almost) irresistible. However, neither the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal,
nor the Severn Estuary near Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust,would have been a suitable place for me to indulge in that particular hobby.
It reminded me of a different swimming experience a few years ago in one of the lakes in Sutton Park. Sometimes in May and June early in the morning, before there was anyone around to challenge me for breaking the park rules, and the sun was already hot as it rose above the willows, I’d quickly change into my swimming costume and wade carefully over the smooth pebbles until I was in deep enough to swim.
I knew that the water was clean enough at that time of year (before any possibly dangerous algae that sometimes appeared in long spells of hot weather had spread across the surface). When I splashed my feet around beneath me, I could see them gleaming white in the pale brown water, but I knew that this colouration had come from layers of dead leaves and pieces of bark.
The most exotic birds I saw that day were the flamingos,
but nothing there could thrill me as much as the two described in the poem below.
If you see me, it’s disdain
not fear that lifts your wings
in that slow beat,
legs stretched out behind you
like a spear, angled breastbone
a flint arrowhead.
Sun rises into hazy blue
above alder and willow.
The lake’s cool skin
exhales an earthy scent -
in the bark-brown depth,
my white feet gleam like fish.
Here, I’m on a par
with moorhen or grebe.
Kingfisher flames by, inches
from my face – jolts my heart into
my mouth so heart takes wing
almost settles - till you,
heron, reveal your self,
perched in a shrine of leaves,
not bird, but acolyte of sun,
icon, blinding wingspan
wider than a swan’s
or angel’s, even.
This poem was written about five years ago, and it’s a true account of what I experienced that day.
I still like it, as it reminds me of that ‘magic moment’, but I’m not really able to make a subjective judgement on its quality as a poem – Not that great, I’d guess, but good enough for what it is!
I was in Sussex visiting my mother this weekend, and for a change, Gardening Husband came with me. I’m always happy to let him drive, because it means that I can have a good long stretch of reading time. (Something I often find hard to do at home). I’d just started Breath, by Tim Winton, and was able to finish it by the time we arrived. I need more time to mull over this book – I found it enthralling, but haven’t sorted out my thoughts and feelings enough to write anything coherent about it yet.
My return journey took me about a third of the way into RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels. I wish we’d been driving up to John O’ Groats, and back to give me a chance to finish it. I don’t think I’ll get much of a chance to read more long chunks of it this week. I’ll just have to be patient, and wait to find out what happens next.
Yesterday was cloudy with an almost gale force wind. Coming down over the brow of the hill towards Seaford, I could see the white horses scattered across the dark green and purple sea, but today has been another one of those Indian summer days, with a clarity of light that I associate with fine weather in October.
That leads me nicely to this week’s poem – especially as it’s the traditional time of Harvest Festivals.
October is the time to harvest light,
on days when lingering strands of summer
drift into a sky that rings like glass,
honing the dulled edges of your sight
to gather all the shift and shimmer
of slanting sun on trees and tawny grass,
gilding the familiar with surprise.
This morning I escaped into a park
where light lay ripe and waiting for my eyes,
trapped on wet black mud – splintering on dark
green spikes of holly into shards so bright
I’ll feast all winter on this hoard of light.
The original inspiration for this poem came while I was on my MA course at Nottingham Trent. We had one of the occasional Saturday meetings, and went out into the nearby countryside. The sky was absolutely clear and blue, the sun was warm, but there was a hint of chill in the air, and we gradually became aware of strands of tiny threads of cobwebs drifting around us and glistening in the sunlight.
I was delighted when this poem was accepted for publication in Acumen 2000. It’s one that I’m still happy to be reminded of at this time of year.