this was May, last year, in the hill village of Relleu in Alicante. Relleu is the home of Almaserra, and the Old Olive Press centre for poetry and other arts. It’s run by Christopher North, and his wife Marisa. Imagine an Arvon centre where you do no cooking, have en-suite bedrooms, are surrounded by limestone mountains, and groves of lemons and olives and oranges. And where the tutors are the creme de la creme. Last week was an Ann Sansom week. I sort of promised her that there would be flowers. Because of the most prolonged drought for generations, there were hardly any, not even for the nature table. Though there were bones and carob pods and small almond branches. And a torrential rain storm on Friday turned the streets into canoe slalom courses, and trapped poets and tutor alike in the bar by the church at the top end of the village.
You may have twigged by now that this ‘what I did on my holidays’ stuff is alerting you to the fact that a week of writing, plus landscape sensory overload, has left my brain stuffed. I knew what I meant to write- theories about what colours your poems- remains stubbornly unclear. Maybe if I make a reckless promise, all will be well. I promise to reflect on my belief that imagination is memory in action, and that your preferred modes of memory, conscious or unconscious, are what control and inhabit your poetic voice. I read that back, and reckon it sounds sufficiently pretentious to put me on my toes for next Sunday.
I know that my memory is predominantly visual, and one of my keenest critics told me that I mainly write silent movies. I think we did thirty-four fast workshop exercises in five mornings last week. When I check, most of all of my responses are snapshots of one kind or another, and when they’re not, they’re lists. There should be a post about lists. And one about ‘triggers’. Right; that’s more commitments.
I realise I also made a promise on Facebook. I learned last week that I’d won first prize in The Red Shed Open poetry competition (in tandem with the excellent Currock Press). For those who don’t know it, The Red Shed is a Wakefield institution. It was originally an army barrack hut, bought in the early 60’s, and reassembled in the middle of Wakefield to house the Labour Club, and combines its role of keeping the Socialist heart beating in the middle of this former mining area, with hosting quality live music and poetry readings, as well as selling what were once called Fine Ales. What is specially nice about the Red Shed is that it is, despite its tendency to sag a bit, a Grade 2 listed building. All around, as Wakefield rips down handsome structures and puts up glass and steel shopping centres, there’s the Red Shed. Distinctly unglamorous, and almost certainly an affront to the circling retailers. Sometimes you enter a competition simply because you approve of the people who run it, and you know your entry fee is going to a good cause. So here’s the poem that won. And it started life in a Poetry Business Saturday workshop in Sheffield. I can’t nail down the starting point or the trigger, but as Ann Sansom reminded us last week, when you set off writing for yourself, you find you’re telling yourself things you didn’t know you knew. I need to be surprised into writing. I can’t intend to write. Nothing happens. I suspect this activity could have been one of those about thinking of a group of people and telling yourself what you know about them. This one turned out to be about my father. I come late to writing poetry, and even later to writing about people close to me, and to finding that I loved them in ways I’d never understood. You’ll see why it might ring socialist bells, and maybe that’s what I thought I was doing when I started writing from, and about, memories of my dad’s birdwatching mates. The Yorkshire Naturalists, whose favourite dale was Wharfedale, and its tributaries, and who are firmly rooted, in my memories, in the 1950s.
Here you are then, my dad and all the other
Drawn to MamTor, to Kinder Downfall,
Simon’s Seat, Grass Woods, The Strid;
they came by steam train, on the bus,
away from mill and pit and forge,
an England dark with smoke,
passing crumbled slums, grand
neo-classic terraces, iron-railinged
parks, until the cities petered out
on the edges of high moors, big skies.
They came to the quiet of neat fields,
of drystone walls. They walked miles,
wore caps or trilbies, belted macs,
flapping turn-up trousers, ordinary shoes.
They knew the habitats of birds and flowers;
they knew shortcuts and hidden waterfalls,
would pull aside wired gates,
push over ‘Private: Keep Out’ boards,
would not be kept from bluebell woods.
At school we had to pray they’d be forgiven,
those trepassers who rambled Viking fells
and ghylls and cloughs, sour gritstone moors
and green lanes cropped by mourning sheep.
They knew the land they walked should not be owned,
wished it was theirs; coveted the cottages
of the small stone villages, their tidy gardens.
Those men like my father, the woollen spinner,
namer of birds; presser of wild flowers.
I couldn’t get to the people (I don’t know if I actually do) until I shut my eyes and went on the bus out of Bradford, along Manninngham Lane, through Bingley, Shipley, all the way to Settle. Or out of Leeds, through Otley, Ilkley, up to Grassington. Appletreewick. And it had to be a double decker. You need to be upstairs.
Right, more promises to keep. Hope to see you all next Sunday. Just straighten the chairs before you go.