Lost and found in translation: Hilary Elfick

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Here’s the second of the posts featuring interpretations, (translations, adaptations, or what you will) of two poems by Gyula Friewald. These two are by Hilary Elfick.

Hilary has been, in her time, a producer for BBC Radio 4, and subsequently on radio/television in New Zealand, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and has featured on BBC Radio 2 and BBC World Service..

She has lectured and performed presentations in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Hilary is a member of ASLEC-ANZ (Association for the Study of Literature, the Environment and Culture, Australia and New Zealand) and of The Australia and New Zealand Shakespeare Association.

An Ordinary Storm, a sequence based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and based in Polynesia was published, performed, recorded and filmed by The University of Otago in Dunedin.. Recently she has collaborated with award-winning photographer David Malikoff on two books: Bush Fire, and Red Hill: the dreaming (Blurb Books:Australia)

her other work includes the following:

The Horse Might Sing (1990), Unexpected Spring (1992) and Going Places (1994) Envoi Poets Press

Bush Track, Harpoon the Breeze (1999) and The Third Mile ( 2009) Guildford Poets Press . A new edition of her novel, The Sleeping Warrior (1999) Cromwell Press, was published in 2016 .

Hilary say this about the translation workshop process:

We talked about the shape of his stanzas being echoed by ours, about echoing the spirit/feeling rather than word by word, by our translations being ‘after GF’ rather than a direct translation. And in his answering our questions and so our reaching the backstory, we helped him to find, as we would in any other workshop, what he remembered and wanted to say, that was not yet present in the poem. In my version I incorporate some of that.
He is a live poet. His poems are organic, still developing. Our versions serve him when they find ways the things he discovers he wants to say, and incorporate those in our versions. Neither his Hungarian nor his English versions were yet set in stone. This was a workshop for him as well as an exercise for us.

So here we go. Like I say, I’ll reflect on the different ways in which we read and heard the heft and meanings of these two poems once I’ve finally posted my own versions tomorrow.

music box



One music box, Early 21st C.Hungarian. Some damage to mechanism

(after Gyula Friewald)


Bulbous as a globe this mother they found yesterday,

homeless in the street. But now she’s in The System.

Has a plastic card. ‘Mental disability’.


Her husband vanished long ago. Since then

a slow descent, seeing nothing, sprawling,

struggling to find her next breath.


Those wasted years clogged by now

with the strangulated hernias of endless arguments

with righteous men in uniform,

desk-bound and backed by Law.


O, she can take her Sunday season ticket

into the Public Welfare Garden,

stocked with intoxicating toxic herbs, weed and parsley


or in her pension-free retirement

she can slouch before Daytime Television

meticulously crafted into Motor Sport and Panel Shows,

repeated formulae to pass all her remaining time.

To awaken her. Awaken what? Her connections now psychotic.


The System has placed her in a broken clockwork toy.

She wakes. She is Ophelia, her melodies distorted into wailing.

Trapped by old flexible springs she croons the half-remembered songs,

the pentatonic music of her childhood. She has become mechanical.






A Gothic Parliament, gum-chewing politicians

cynically feeding all her kind with explanations simple

as a Border fence, mind-numbing, as they’re meant to be,

high-minded arrogance obliterating any sense of shame,

remorse. Legitimised delirium enforced by impotent electorate

spellbound, held in checkmate, by the scent of poisonous herbs.


The Breaking

(after Gyula Friewald)

The green mountains framing Buda to the north smiled in the distance.

Hope planted the whispering trees which grew

to tower over my widowed grandmother.

The nine carpenters of my family

felled and seasoned the wood,

their stories cradling my emerging life

in the safety of the structures I watched them build.


But the rafters decayed, began to fall,

silencing the trumpets of the daffodils in my garden

where I would wait on the steps for my

ash-grey father. Waited. And again.

A waiting that entered myth.


We lived in a backwater of the Danube,

the only river, green and muddy between the trees.

I would crouch on the banks over our own slowly silting water,

seeing sleeping dragons. Watched an anthill circus, drawn to the detail

of this world on the edgelands, whole days passing, gradually blotting out

the slow fragmentation of my whole family advancing like a terrible mutilation.


If you’re faithfully following this, I feel deeply apologetic about the fact that you need to go back and forth between posts to compare the original with the reworkings. If I could overcome the formatting problems I’d do it like a shot. But I promised people I’d do this, and I’ll press on. I’ll post my own versions tomorrow, and then reflect briefly on the completely different poems that the ‘translations’ produced. Thank you for your patience x


Lost and found in translation: Christopher North

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If you missed yesterday’ post, this may not make sense, and you’ll be better off reading that first. And if you didn’t miss it, this is just a reminder that I’m reflecting on the business of translating/interpreting/adapting poems from other languages; in this case with the built in advantage of being to workshop the poems with the poet him/herself.

Today’s interpreter is Christopher North.His poetry has won many prizes. His first pamphlet collection A Mesh of Wires was short-listed for the Forward Prize in 1999. His first full collection Explaining the Circumstances was published in 2010, followed by a bilingual joint collection Al Otro Lado del Aguilar in 2011 and a second full collection The Night Surveyor in 2014 (all Oversteps Books). Wolves Recently Sighted  was a winner in the 2014 Templar Pamphlet & Collection Awards. He facilitates poetry retreats at the Almassera Vella in Relleu, Alicante and chairs Stanza Alacant for The Poetry Society.


Chris said this about the process..

“The workshop began a process for Gyula and for us.

I would say our first drafts were interpretations, hence versions rather than translations.

I attempted to pare down somewhat, seeking the core. A fascinating workshop.”

I have say, I really like the notion of ‘interpretations’. I’m comfortable with that.


Musical Box

(Translation from ‘Lejárt zenélödoboz)


Found on the Street yesterday,

the fat women sprawled

but clutching her ‘Mental Disability Card’.


Husband vanished long ago,

she sinks down and through the hours,

her breath rasps and snags.


After all those years, scarcely alive

and filled of strangling arguments

with the force of law,


all she can do with this ‘season ticket’

is enter their henbane ‘Garden of Welfare’

with its fake scent of flowers and parsley.


But concealed within her

there is music – inside

she is Ophelia screaming.


In this hard edged mechanism of wire,

she croons and hums her melody

locked inside her catatonia


They try to calm her with hypnosis.

They tranquillize her,

calm her defiance, her psychosis.


Step into pension-free retirement!

Drop into its embroidered TV fakerie

and the pit of daily alcohol.


The gum-chewing politician

feeding his crap,

his explanations simple as a border fence;


his doctrines create a stupor.

They beggar remorse

with lofty arrogance.


This ‘Respected Parliament’,

this Gothic delirium-quarry,

this spell bound electorate of pawns.



The next poem really interested me because it was Chris who finally unpicked the connection between the craft of the nine carpenters and the ‘severered hands’ that stood for the breaking of families. Hands as craftsmen and hands as employees. Hands as the makers and shapers of things. Hands that can touch lovingly and hands that can strike, can curl into fists. I like the way the title draws attention to this, now


The Hands

The green mountains of Budapest

smiled in the distance.

Hope had planted whispering trees

and the hands of my carpenter forefathers

raised from them the lofted roof

that covered the cradle of my emerging life.


Then rafters of the collapsing years

fell down to nodding daffodils

beside the garden steps

where I waited

for my ash-grey father

cloaked in his immortality.


Yes, on the green and muddy Danube

I couched beside a backwater

to gaze on sleeping dragons

and later on an ant hill circus.

I slowly forgot the last grasping tugs

of my severed family’s hands.


Thank you so much for these, Chris. I’ll wait until all three sets of interpretations/adaptations are posted and then try to draw some conclusions. Tomorrow’s post will feature Hilary Elfick. See you then






Lost and found in translation: Gyula Friewald

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Three weeks ago (as I wrote in an earlier post) I was part of a writing retreat in Alicante with poets Hilary Elfick, Gyula Friewald, and Christopher North …who is the presiding spirit of  Almaserra Vella at the Old Olive Press in Relleu, Alicante. (If you’re interested in the residential courses he offers just follow this link: http://www.oldolivepress.com/).

We’d agreed that each of us would volunteer to run at least one morning workshop over the seven days. For me it was a chance to try out some workshop activities; Hilary and Chrisptopher are already experienced tutors. I wanted to find a role for my friend Gyula.

Actually, I should introduce him, before we go any further. Gyula, as you can see from the image, his Tree of life, is a craftsman. These days he does relatively small pieces, working in a variety of metals and wood. What you can’t see in the image is that it’s a laminate of layers of worked sheets. It’s intricate, and as full of stories and significance as the cave paintings we went to see during the week. Gyula used to create monumental ornamental works..street pieces; great ornamental embassy gates, beautifully forged lamps, doors, staircases. His works grace the streets of Budapest, and the streets of London. He’s a talented man. He’s also a courageous man. A Hungarian with German forebears (as are so many, since Hungary’s been used as moveable feast by its stronger and conscienceless neighbours.) He’s had access to senior government offices in his time, because of his work. But he left it behind..family, work, workshop, tools…he’ll describe himself as a dissident. He left Hungary and just kept going until he reached London, and built up a new workshop and a new life. He now lives in Murcia, and makes small, beautiful pieces of work in his garage workshop. And he writes poems.



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I met him five years ago at Almaserra Vella. We went for long walks; he found the bones of a fox for me and told me about his life and his philosophy. I wrote a poem for him, as you do for a man who remarks casually that his father once had to hide, in a hollow tree, from Stalin’s motorcade. The backstory is worth a book on its own. Still. Translations. That’s what this will be about.

I’ve spent time workshopping Gyula’s poems with him, and at a distance via email. Two difficulties emerge…he tends to explore life philosophically and metaphysically. This tends to shift his writing towards abstraction, and it leave me pushing him, for good or ill, to find the moments (images, stories, objects, landscapes) that the abstract meanings grow out of. Sometimes he writes directly in English, sometimes he translates from his Hungarian originals. In either case, we’ll come up against the problems of idiom and syntax that stop his intentions coming through. You’ll see how this works before long. Anyway, I though it would be good to spend a morning which he could lead by giving us poems in Hungarian, and also their English adaptations. He could read the Hungarian so we could hear the texture, rhythm and rhyme of the original; we’d read his English version back to him. The key thing is that when the idiom /syntax made the meaning puzzling or unclear, we could ask him to unravel them for us. He could give us backstories where we needed them. And then we’d go off and write our translations/adaptations. And later, we’d workshop them in the afternoon sessions we set aside everyday. So, there we are. The context and the rationale.

What I’ll do now is three posts in a row illustrating what happened.

In this first post, I’ll give the texts that Gyula brought to the sessions, but I’ll also annotate the English version, adding the questions we asked him for clarification, and the answers we needed. I’ll leave those of you determined to press on to think about how you might set about writing your versions, and then day by day, I’ll post what three of us wrote in response. How’s that?

Ideally, I’d set Gyula’s Hungarian text side by side with his English version. WordPress has defeated me when I’ve tried to do this, which makes it a bit awkward to work between the two texts. I hope you’ll find itt worthwhile


Lejárt zenélődoboz                                 


Panoráma szélesnyomtávú anyuka,

tegnap óta, járdán heverő

szavatossági félcédula birtokosa.


Embere rég nem került elő

Elmerülő, a terpeszkedő vak idő

lassan,szárnysuhogva énekel a vastüdő.


El nem töltött  évekkel,

kiforduló sérvekkel,

jogerővel átitatott érvekkel,


Vasárnapos  bértlettel beléphet

a Népjóléti beléndek kertjébe,

a vadvirágos, petrezselymes tömjénbe.


Nyugdíjmentes jólétbe,

a tv, kézihímzett kamuterhes ölébe,

onnan a napi alkohol gödrébe.


A törvény kötényében elrejtve

cifra kis szelencében

nyekergő Offélia eszmélve,


a rugók kelepcéjében dudorász,

pentaton dallamot.

Állapota kataton.


Gyökvonással hipnózis.

növekvő adrenalin dózis

a család élesztője:  pszichózis.


Rádiógumin edzett politikus

egyszerűen, ravaszul etet:

a kerítéssel a határaidon életed véded.


Tanítása…? Ereklyézett bódulat,

Kolduló alázat és

Fennhéjázó gyalázat.


Újgótikus álomfejtő hagymázas,

választási, bizományi varázslat

övezi a T. házat.


You’ll pick up on qualities of sound and something of rhythm….you can see the end rhymes, and you’ll certainly have a sense of the rythm of polysyllabled words (they may look impenetrable, but just think how easily you deal with them in your own language: multiplication, reciprocity, comprehensible). You’ll also get the sense that there are a good many hard ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds as well as the softer ‘j’ and ‘ch’ , and the soft and hard ‘th/d’ . You may think about whether translation includes translating sound. It’s nice to have a Hungarian text, I think, because, like Finnish, it’s not an Indo-Europen language. You’re not much distracted by things you think you know as you may with German or Spanish, say. Right, here’s Gyula’s version in English with the notes that resulted from our asking questions about what was puzzling us.

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Elapsed Musical Clockwork                                                  (Musical box)


Panoramic wide stance mother,             (she’s gross, obese; we don’t know why)

yesterday found on the street and now,

she has a valid mental disability card.       (in theory this guarantees some help)


Husband vanished long ago, since

she sinks in sprawling blind hours,

Her iron lung sings on slow wings.          ( she can’t breathe, her lungs are shot)


Her never lived years, turned into

strangulated hernias of arguments,

bulging with full force of the law.


With her Sunday season ticket she can go        (metaphor; the social system is  a trap,

into the Public Welfare henbane garden,          a deceit; it’s a poison garden

scented with wild flowers and parsley.              camouflaged with herbs and simples)


Step into the pension free retirement, drop in          (pension-free. Think on.

the hand embroidered, fake loaded lap of TV,            Daytime TV..same everywhere…

from there into the pit of alcohol, daily.                      this what you sink into)


Concealed in the apron of the law,                       (the apparatus of the apparatchik)

a  little hidden fancy box. Inside,                          (the music box,the central image)

Ophelia awakens and caterwauls.


In the trap of stiff  hard springs              (coiled clockwork springs…not sofa springs)

she croons, hums pentatonic melodies,                    (discords)

her condition is catatonic.


Extraction of roots with hypnosis               (basically, the lying diagnoses and ‘cures’

growing adrenalin doses,                              of the system and the state)

the yeast of family is psychosis.


Gum chewing radio politician                      (we suggest that these last three

Shrewdly hand feeding us.                            stanzas could be collapsed)

Explanations simple as a borderfence.


His doctrines…?  cause

residual stupor, beggers remorse

with haughty, lofty arrogance


The Respected Parliament:

a New Gothic delirium quarry,    (the building is Neo-Gothic)

a spell bound electorate of pawns.

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The second poem is more obviously personal, autobiographical. I think all three of us felt on more familiar/accessible ground. The literal meaning of the title is ‘Decay’



Buda hegyei a távolban mosolyogtak.

A remény dúdolgató fákat ültetett.

Családomba született ácsok

vénen és korhadtan faragták

érkező életem inoga kunyhójául

ősatyai legendák lobogózott tornyait.


A roskadó évek gerendái hullottak

a virágoskertjem megsüketült

sárga, bókolgató nárciszaira,

amint a hallhatatlanságba

csomagolt hamuszürke

apámra várakoztam.


A zöld sárfolyó öblében

a két kőparton kuporogva,

alvó sárkányokat dédelgetve,

a hangyaboly cirkuszán ámulva,

lassan elfeledtem a család levágott

kezeinek utolsó görcsös rángatódzását.


And Gyula’s English version: When we talked it through, the backstory emerged..the storyof his childhood, an absentee father who worked on the State railway, a grandmother living on the banks of a Danube backwater….a woman who managed the forest that surrounded them, and nine relatives, forebears, who were carpenter roofbuilders. He also talked about how he would sit on the step, waiting for his father to come on a weekend visit. You hear that, and the poem breaks open like a flower.


Budapest Boy´s Birth

Buda´s green mountains

smiled in the distance.

Hope planted whispering trees.

Aged carpenters of my family    (these are the nine relatives, uncles..)

built flagged towers of forefathers,  (the intricate structures they built)

to cradle my emerging life.


Rafters of collapsing years

fell on deafened yellow nodding

daffodils in my garden,

as I waited for my

ashgray father,

wrapped in immortality.


In the bay of the green, muddy river   (for ‘bay’ think ‘backwater’)

crouching over  both banks,

I saw sleeping dragons.

Amazed by an anthill circus,

slowly I forgot the last convulsive

twitches of my family´s severed hands.   (this is the broken family)

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So, there you are. You go away and try to write your own version that’s as true to the intention, the meaning, and possibly the shape and heft of the original as you can. Have a go. Tomorrow I’ll start to post what we came up with. And reflect on what we might have learned from it. See you soon.





Keep on running: poetry workshops

This post’s not coming up on my Facebook page. But it’s reaching people..possibly via Twitter. Anyway, I’m not going OTT on self-publicising. I just want to check the links are working xx

The Great Fogginzo's Cobweb

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Two Sundays ago, I was writing a post about a week in Spain, about feeling alive because I was cushioned from the horrible realities of a blazing tower block, the cynicisms of English politics (I purposely don’t write ‘British Politics’, and I suppose that by ‘English’ I mean an England that is not mine, not one I belong to or want to live in. There’s another England that’s not a Tory or a UKIP England. An England that knows its hard-won history.)

I went on building a kind of cultural jet lag, and I’m not sure that I’m over it yet. As soon as I got back, I was busy preparing for something I’ve never done before…I was getting ready to go to my first poetry festival: the South Downs Poetry Festival in Lewes. I was getting ready to run my first full-on writers’ workshop. I’ve never prepared for anything…

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Keep on running: poetry workshops

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Two Sundays ago, I was writing a post about a week in Spain, about feeling alive because I was cushioned from the horrible realities of a blazing tower block, the cynicisms of English politics (I purposely don’t write ‘British Politics’, and I suppose that by ‘English’ I mean an England that is not mine, not one I belong to or want to live in. There’s another England that’s not a Tory or a UKIP England. An England that knows its hard-won history.)

I went on building a kind of cultural jet lag, and I’m not sure that I’m over it yet. As soon as I got back, I was busy preparing for something I’ve never done before…I was getting ready to go to my first poetry festival: the South Downs Poetry Festival in Lewes. I was getting ready to run my first full-on writers’ workshop. I’ve never prepared for anything as hard in my life.

I had a rehearsal for it in Spain, when I ran a couple of mornings of workshop activities on a ‘retreat’ for just four of us. That was a real eye-opener. In the event, it was a lot harder than running a workshop for the 13 lovely folk who signed up for last Sunday afternoon in the Linklater Pavilion in Lewes. I’d driven down to Lewes on Saturday. It’s a 250 mile trip that in theory takes about five hours. In the event, having experienced the delights of the west-bound M25, it took seven and a half. Nigel Planer reading Terry Pratchett kept me sane all the way there (and, indeed, all the way back), but I was knackered before I started.

I dozed through the PigHog open mic for an hour or so. At 6.00pm I was reading a couple of poems along with the winners of the Havant Poetry Competition. 7.30, and it was two hours of reading from Ann-Marie Fyfe, Tole Agedolusi, John McCullough and the timeless Grace Nichols. By this time, fine poetry was turning into sludge in what passes for my brain. And then, a drive to Haywards Heath  to stay the night, along with Rebecca Gethin, courtesy of the indefatigable and wholly lovely Wendy Klein. I’d been meeting all sorts of heroes, and doing none of it any justice.

I guess I started Sunday morning in a punch-drunk haze, but had a solitary hour in a very nice coffee shop, and a calming sit by Lewes’ fascinating tidal river. There’s something entrancing about a river that flows confidently in two directions on a regular basis. Isn’t the moon wonderful! So I was well refreshed and happy by 2.00pm and utterly chuffed to find 13 had signed up for the workshop. Mandy Pannet was there; Sarah Miles, too, and Rebecca Gethin.The real deal. And new faces….Louisa, Laura from Hull, Penny, Morven,Adele, Kai, Mike, Eileen, Sam, Ellie Dawes…you worked and worked and I love everyone of you.

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I’m going to reflect on the business of running a workshop, as opposed to being a punter, but I had a job remembering it clearly. At 4.30 I was doing my Desert Island Poems…along with Tim Dawes (the driving force behind it all) and Grace Nichols!  Blimey. On the same bill as Grace Nichols!!  At 6.00 we were in for two hours of readings. Wendy Klein, Rebecca Gethin, Naomi Foyle and me. I was up last. I said I felt something of what Hendrix must have felt at Woodstock. By 7.50 what remained of the audience was glassy-eyed. There was no litter blowing about, but you get the idea. I did four fast poems, and we all went home. Or, in my case, back to Wendy Klein’s in Haywards Heath. You’ve heard that line about sleeping on a clothesline. If you know your Orwell, you’ll know this was literally true: there were doss-houses where the clients sat on benches, a rope was stretched in front of them, and they slept with their folded arms over the rope. In the morning the rope was untied and thus they were woken. I could have done that. Fallen over, that is. And that was my first Poetry Festival. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the stamina for another. Bits of one, maybe. But what a remarkable achievement for Tim Dawes to pull it off…each year it gets that bit more (or lots more) ambitious. He should have a medal.

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OK then. Workshops. As I said earlier, this is reflective. I want to figure out what I learned by running my first workshop for paying customers, and acknowledge where I learned it, and who from. Because I firmly believe you learn from the company you keep. Specifically, the four workshop I’ve learned most from are:

Ann and Peter Sansom: they’ve taught me more than anyone about the need to put people at their ease, to distract them from that nagging inner voice that does its damndest to persuade you not to put pen to paper in case something awful happens. They remind me that people need to be reassured that what they’ve done is worth listening to. And they’ve taught me the deceptive business of timings and pacing. Oh..and the need, every now and them, to make people laugh.

Kim Moore: as a teacher and trainer with 40 years of the job, one way or another, I know that preparation’s important. But when it comes to the business of preparing and presenting materials, she’s the one I’ll choose to model myself on. What I also learn from Kim is the value of a holding frame …a particular focus, or topic..for a sequence of tasks. All her residential workshops will have a theme that implies a unity of purpose and a potential outcome. I think this is really important. Her enormous enthusiasm for the work and her pleasure in the company of her writers goes without saying, but not unnoticed.

Jane Draycott. I go to lots of poetry workshops, but I’ve never been on another course which so subtly and purposefully created a sense of building and building from task to task. In the case of the residential I went on with Jane, I became more and more aware of how we were being given a step-by-step, piece by piece, tool box of ways in which you can dramatise your own poems and poetry…and all based on the crucial five Ws. Who, where+when, what, hoW, and…crucially, why.

The thing is, I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I’m a magpie, a hoarder of anything that works for me, or I see to work with others. This was true of my English teaching and, especially, of my drama teaching. The thing about drama is that its sort of amorphous..but unless it’s purposeful, there’ll be no true discovery or learning. And you can’t do it unless you have tools to do it with. It’s not unlike this strange business of writing poems. And I decided early on that if I had a large group I’d tap into some of what I learned from teaching drama. Including breathing and stretching to get rid of kinks and clear your mind. So, OK, in the event, what did I do with those thirteen lovely folk in a calm room by a river in Lewes? Or more accurately, how did I script it. Because script it I did. Here we go.

  1. Clear the space. Make it clean. Water. Glasses. Paper. Work out sightlines. Make it look like a space in which things are meant to happen.
  2. I’m rubbish at names and faces. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’ve never got any better at it. So, appear to know the names. Send a sheet of paper round, clockwise. Ask your writers to write their preferred name in capitals. Once it’s gone round and it’s in front of me, I feel better. I rely on the curious fact that folk hardly ever move from the seat they first sit on.
  3. Plan timings. For me (this I learned from the Sansoms) the key is to work at a pace that won’t allow for distracting ‘what if’ editing reflection. So the first task has to be pressured, no longer than 4 minutes. Subsequent tasks can take longer as writers hit their rhythm and stop being anxious. Plan introduction and feedback time, too. If you want to get through 5 or 6 writing activities, as I did, you’d better be sure to get the time right. Because you need to tell them (well I do) how much they’re going to achieve. Timings involve a reliable watch. I’ve always liked Ann Sansom’s big fob watch. I like the theatre of it.

Introduction. I want them to hit the ground running, knowing why they’re there, and what to expect. I put this in my script:

The object of this two hour session is to write in different voice from your own..ventriloquism, or acting, if you like. Why? Because we fall into a default voice that’s comforting in its known rhythms amd lexis. But it can stop you from surprising yourself. And what I want to do more than anything is to ambush you into saying things you never knew you knew. I want you surprise yourselves

Needful things

* Regardless of what you’ve done, you’re all equal

* You’re not here to write poetry. Poems, perhaps, because they’re short

* What we’re after is THE MOMENT…when we/you/I find we/you/I urgently want to say something we never knew we knew

* We’re here to be ambushed

* THE MOMENT. This is what Clive James say…and I believe him

    ‘There is a phrase, something you want to say aloud

    * it seems to be memorising itself as you read it

    * it’s the moment that ignites

    * everything depends …on the quality of the moment

   SO just be open for it. You can’t make it happen. Just be open. Don’t second guess, don’t edit. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing. The only one who matters is you. You are going to say things that will surprise you. You are not an editor. You are a voice.

  1. And without further ado, we’re into the first task. It’s one I’ve been asked to do more than once at the Poetry Business. We read a poem ‘(When this is all over, said) The Swineherd’.  The Swineherd’s dream is of a life utterly different from the one he has. He doesn’t say what it inolves. You understand that from what he dreams of. Now, Pick a task or occupation. Maybe you’ve done it, dreamed of it, would hate it. Lighthouse keeper, pigs head boner, chiropodist, dentist, mudlark, lady’s maid. What will you dream of doing once it’s all over.GO GO GO. FOUR MINUTES. Don’t stop, cross out, look up, do line breaks, write poems. Just write. Don’t think.

While this is happening, I’ll watch for the ones who are looking around, not writing, crossing out. Every now and then I’ll remind them all of the rules. Keep going. It doesn’t matter. Just write. It’ll happen.

Task two. I like to go straight on, no break, no feed back, just so we don’t lose that rhythm. The next task will involve some kind of memory, some sort of narrative.

Five minutes. No thinking, no editing. No stopping to ask yourself questions or cross things out or punctuate or line break.

First line: That was the day when

I think that was the day when

That would have been the day when

Another . I remember it was a………

Another   If I could, I would have

Another.  Because/and …….use it three times or more

Because what I want to do from now on is build in some sort of linguistic structure. And repetition gives you a list, a rhythm, and a forward momentum, as well as a shape, and possibly and ending. Which is a bonus.

  1. By this time we’ll need a break, roll our shoulders, stand up, stretch, breathe deeply, anything to shift the tension of writing fast. And we could do with asomething like a laugh. Peter Sansom is good at this sort of moment. So I copy him


SET HOMEWORK. what happens if you change from I to you to he to she to we?

I want my witers to go home with an idea of how to revise or tweak or restart a draft. And to notice just how powerful those pronouns are in shifting the voice of a poem

INTERLUDE: Introductions

I’m John from Ossett and in a previous existence I was…. whatever we chose in our last writing task; we go round the table. I’m delighted by the answers. Magician’s assistants, chiropodists, dentists (I liked this one), escapologists….great

It’s a good time for a bit of read back. Not necessarily a full ‘poem’ yet. Just an extract.

What are the rules? Listen for the ‘moment that draws you in’. Pick out a phrase that you never expected to write. One that you know will take you somewhere, something we’ll probably remember. There were ones I really loved during the afternoon. The dentist who would ‘put my tongue in your mouth instead of metal’, the one whose experience of magic tricks was ‘claustrophobia’,  and especially ‘that hat, that hair..I’d like to fast fry it and feed it to him’ and the one who wanted one to ‘run to me over the waves’, and the one in an uncomfortable conversation ‘picking up the undertow’. You get the idea. And it’s fast and focussing, before we crack on with the next four tasks that get that just bit more complicated or challenging, and involve thinking our way into images…painting and sculpture..of people at some significant point of change. We’ll do the poetry equivalent of those drama conventions: tableaux, thought-track, dialogue, narration. And we’ll recycle some of those earlier elements. ‘I remember’. ‘That was the moment/day when’. And some of the structural elements. We’ll have a ten minute break after the third task..and we have longer for that one. Because we’re warmed up and buzzing. So it goes.

6.Winding up and reviewing.

This was in my script, and because we seemed to be having a great time, and because folk were writing wonderful things…yes they were….I forgot to do it. Just didn’t allow for that last timed five minutes. Because I truly believe we need to reflect. What did I expect? What surprised me? What do I know or understand that I didn’t before I came in? What can I do that I couldn’t do before? Mea culpa, you folk of Lewes. You didn’t get your moneysworth.


Too late to put that right. My first workshop with paying customers. Did I enjoy it? You bet. I’d forgotten just how much I love teaching receptive bright creative talented people. I’ve liked teaching the foul-mouthed, aggressive and recalcitrant in my time . But that was in the past. Another country. They do things differently there.

Is there anything to regret? Yes. I’d not explicitly taken this into account. I know there were some really good things being written last Sunday afternoon. Poems, even. And I never get to read them. Here’s a thought. When I post this on Facebook I’ll add all the course memebers’ names and ask them if they’d like to send me stuff they have written up and feel chipper about. And if it’s as good as I suspect, then I’ll put them on the cobweb. Best I can do.

Right. I’ve run out of time. I’m off to Leeds and I’m going to watch Minions with two of my grandchildren. Poetry’s all well and good, but Minions are important. I meant to post some of the translation work we did in Spain, and reflect on the process. And I’ve started to build a queue of guest poets. Tell you what…I’ll do three posts in the next week in which I remind myself what sort of things I’ve learned from trying to translate from the Hungarian. There you go.