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.

 

Viva Espana..or “What I did on my holidays”

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For the last five years I’ve made what has turned into a sort of pilgrimage to Relleu, a handsome village of steep narrow streets of stone setts;  a village with a shady square by the huge church. It’s surrounded by limestone ridges that step higher and higher inland. From the top of the nearest you can see the minature high rise nonsense of Benidorm, 20 or 30 kilometres away. For five years I’ve gone to residential poetry courses at the Old Olive Press of Almaserra… which is the home of the estimable Christopher North. I’ve gone to learn from tutors like Mimi Khalvati, Jane Draycott and Ann Sansom… and I’ve loved it.

A bit of a twist this year, though. Not a course, but a retreat, with just four of us writing every day. I’ll tell you more about that in another post, but the thing was that we ran our own workshops, taking turns every morning, and then, in the late afternoons, critiquing whatever we’d written that day, or brought with us. A sort of DIY Poetry Business. I’d forgotten just how much I love teaching, preparing material, setting up a task, listening, watching, guessing where to take it next. But, boy, is it intense! Just the four of you. On a Poetry Bussiness Writing day there may be up to 30 people…certainly 20;  you can hide, or unobtrusively switch off. Well you can’t do that with four. Just saying.

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And, my words, it was hot. Far too hot for walking .. which is usually how I escape from poetry and company in the afternoons of residentials. So I made lunches, and sat by the pool (did I say there is a pool?), and had desultory swims, and dozed. And switched off. It was an oddly detached time. The wifi is intermittent and frustrating, till you just decide to stop bothering about it. So the awfulness of deranged racist murders, the beyond awfulness of a tower ablaze in Kensington, came like rumours of a distant war. The full horror of it all came all in one crash of revelation when I got home last night, when I watched the Panorama documentary. I’m still appalled, and without any words or frame of reference. I don’t know how to respond.

On Sunday night in the street where we stay ..Carre Mare de Deu del Miracle, narrow and steep all the way up to the square and the great doors of the church….. women were strewing leaves and flowers, making altars in their doorways, embroidered cloths, gimcrack crucifixes, plastic dolls and rosaries. The teenagers in the town band were checking their music at Pepe’s bar. As it grew cooler and later, you could hear them play a slow and melancholy tune through the streets. Corpus Christi. In London people were searching for the dead and politicians were turning themselves inside out to lay blame and deny responsibity. A racist lunatic drove a van into a crowd coming out from worship. Auden told us, didn’t he:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

That’s how I felt about myself when I came home. I thought I’d been more alive than usual. I’d been just walking dully along, after all. What can we do but pray for serenity and courage and wisdom, and be true to one another. And remember the good things as well as the dreadful. The good things are just as true. Let me share a good thing. One day we went first to a hot limestone valley and a cave where men and women lived, 3000 years ago; after, we went to Ca Pinet…a bar and restaurant that’s a shrine to international left-wing revolution and struggle. It’s a place where you quickly learn to cultivate a kind of ambivalence. Or, at least, where I did. So, I’ll finish with a poem. My essay : what I did on my holidays.

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Ca Pinet

 

Morning:  Pla de Petracos; white, dry;

hot and still as a bakehouse;  a cave

high under a limestone overhang

scoured out by an unthinkable river.

Cave paintings in pale scoops of rock.

Shapes like mantises, creatures with arms

like double-handed saws, and things

that might be eyes. Undecipherable.

They meant something by it, the vanished ones.

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Alicia  Fernandez  Gallego, today

I thought of you; I remembered I owe you

a story, remembering your grandfather

who, in the middle of a battle, swopped sides,

legged it, ditched his pack, joined Franco.

Maybe he hoped for better boots, or bread,

or maybe he’d had his fill of Anarchists

who hated Socialists, or Communists

who hated both. Just up to here with dialectic.

ca pinet 1

 

Early afternoon: Ca Pinet. We are pilgrims,

ardent atheists, here to eat paella

under the gaze – benign, stern, disapproving –

of Allende, Che Guevara, La Passionaria;

under the bloody banners of the Red Brigades,

the Republic’s blood and gold and purple.

¡Solidaridad  con el Partido

Obrero de Unificacion Marxista!

¡NO PASERAN! They meant something by it.

ca pinet 2

 

The P.A. plays the Internationale.

The olives in the salad are peppery and sharp.

We’re offered wine from a greasy porron.

Someone who’s read Hemingway says:

it tastes of herbs. Another says: of goat, of resin.

Someone says: the paella’s on the dry side.

The Internationale unites the human race.

Rosa Luxembourg looks as though she means it.

A Russian folk song starts up. The day gets hotter.

 

When it comes to pay the bill, no one’s sure

what to do about a tip. We’ve read our Orwell.

No one complains about the food burned dry.

We leave a tip. Not obviously. We leave.

Alicia  Fernandez  Gallego, I’m thinking of you,

of your grandfather, and also of Jim Connell,

the Belfast boy in Donovan’s who wrote

The Red Flag. 1898. Who sang it

in the pubs of the Shankhill and the Falls.

 

Jim Connell, who tried to teach the Taigs

and Prods there was just the People’s flag,

just one. Forget the Union Jack, the tricolour.

Ach, he united them alright. Papes and Proddies

as one man gave  Jim a kicking , kicked him

out of Ulster. One side kicked him for the Pope,

the other for King Billy and the Queen –

the wee gobshite, godless Bolshevik.

No Surrender. No Paseran. Nothing changes.

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I shall be away next weekend. I will be leading a poetry workshop in Lewes as part of the South Downs Poetry Festival. 2.00-4.00 on Sunday June 25th. There’s still a few places. I’m very excited. Why not come and watch me being excited…..and you can write poems as well. Here’s a link. https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/southdownspoetryfestival  Go on. Spoil youselves.

Looking beyond that, I’m equally excited to know I’ve got some great guest poets signed up for the cobweb, AND there’ll be some ramblings about translating poetry. Until then, be kind to yourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

what survives…and a Gem Revisited: Clare Shaw

pennine

I don’t need much of an excuse to post images of the gritstone/sandstone Pennines. If I want to go walking, I love the limestone Pennines more, but if I want dark sculpture, then the moors between the old mill towns of West Yorkshire and East Lancashire are where I’ll go. Here’s the Upper Calder valley…Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Ted Hughes’ first home..and a later one at Lumb Bank.

Home, too, of today’s returning guest. Many of Clare Shaw’s poems (like those of Steve Ely’s ‘Englaland‘) are those of one of the Edgeland’s inhabitants. I’m thinking of the inbetween landscapes of council estates on the edge of Pennine moors, between the dirty glamour of the Lancashire plain and its cities, and the high sour cottongrass and peat and gritstone, and the small towns of the Calder valley, the Ribble valley, the mix of rundown mills, steep slopes, small farms.

I thought I’d not be writing a cobweb strand today….got to be up at 4.00am tomorrow. Off on holiday, and I thought today would be all packing and panic. Instead of which a) I find I’m better organised than I thought and b) Clare Shaw did much more than send me a brief updated biog and two or three new poems I asked her for. She pretty well wrote the whole post. I could not be happier, and here’s why.

The last time she was a guest was in 2015…if you haven’t met her before, you may like to start there, by following this link :

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/05/24/not-believing-in-silence-a-polished-gem-4-clare-shaw/

Butyou don’t have to. One thing I wrote then was this:

I first saw Clare Shaw read to a less than full house at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield . Striking,beautiful, tall, with an athlete’s poise and grace, and in black, like a gunslinger. I was bowled over. I’d been roped in to compering duties at the last minute; as far as I remember I described her set as a rivetting combination of Patti Smith/Bukowski/ Dylan/ Morrisey and John Cooper Clark if they had that accent of the Lancashire Pennines where they rhyme ‘hair’ with ‘fur’. She reads with a rare intensity and poise. Gunslinger. Her poems have you unwaveringly in their sights. They’re urgent and full of love. I find it hard to separate the poems I hear at a reading, but this time one stuck in my brain. I wanted to hear it again and again.

This baby
This baby is a hurricane –
it’s the thunder of an underground train.
You can hear it coming from miles away.
You can feel it in the walls, the floor.

It’s the roar beneath the city street;
the earthquake that wakes you,
shaking beds, breaking plates.
This baby dislodges slates –

felled a steeple in Dudley.
This baby could kill.

This baby is news, big news.
This baby makes you huge.
Makes you Africa and Russia,
proud. A high hot-air balloon fat-filled with fire.
You could explode with it.
Stand clear! This woman could blow any minute.
*
This quick blood-bloom of certain cell
could grow to anything –
snowflakes forming like a wildflower,
a sly-eyed gull; a dinosaur;

a deep bellyful of weed.
This baby is a fallen seed.
The thin grass blade that ruptures the road.
It could open you up –

your stomach, the shape of a book not yet written;
the curve of the first word
of the book you wake speaking,
always forgotten.

It’s like that, this baby –
the light of a star that no-one can see
travelling ten thousand light years
to catch you unaware

knelt as you are in the slow Autumn rain,
heaving with dreams
and your body a poem
on the theme of ‘This Baby’.

Think of a name.

[from Straight Ahead]

Hard to say how much I enjoyed inexpertly typing this poem, feeling it reveal itself letter by letter, typos and corrections and all, hearing the craft of it that I’d missed in the rush of hearing it read. The universality and particularity of THIS baby, the surprise of the rhymes, the lovely juxtapositions of gulls and wildflowers, the immanence of THIS baby. I love, too, the way it makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s ‘high-riser /my little loaf’ ….but THIS baby’s ‘proud’ way beyond the proud of flesh or a risen loaf, a small insidious force that will grow to an earthquake, ‘the thin grass that ruptures the road.’ Everything is exact and crafted and thunderous with energy. It had me in its sights, alright. I wanted to read more. So I did.”

Right..it’s just over two years since I wrote that, and a lot has happened in the meantime, and as we all know, not all of it good. But there’s a resilience in this world. If I were to devise a coat of arms for Clare Shaw, the motto would not be in Latin..it would be a line from Larkin. What will survive of us is love. Clare recentlydid something I find unnerving even now. She sent me the manuscript of the new collection she’s been putting together and asked me to give her (detailed) feedback on it. Two other poets have asked me to do that. It’s terrifying…if I have to say why, then you wouldn’t understand anyway. In each case, it’s turned out to be a labour of love. And in Clare’s case, a labour of love about a labour of love. (I’ve just re-read that. As rhetoric, it’s pretty sad, don’t you think? But I mean it. So it stays. Soz) . Poems full of the love of her place and her people. What she’s sent us for today will make that plain.

floodtown for clare

“May 24th 2015: it’s been just over two years since I was last on John’s blog. At the time, I’d just finished my first NaPoWriMo*, and I was working towards the completion of my third collection. It’s taken me all this time to finish the bloody thing. It’s been a packed two years, but then aren’t they all?

(* just a comment, here. If you didn’t follow Clare’s progress on NaPoWriMo in April this year, you missed something astonishing. Maybe there’s a way of finding the poems she posted on Facebook. If there is, then do so. Some, like many in her latest draft collecton, working title Floodtown, are poems for her home of Hebden Bridge, flooded once again this year. The image is what Clare saw from the upper window of her house)

 

“In September 2015, I started work as the Royal Literary Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. It’s not as grand as it sounds: I spend two days a week helping students and staff with their writing skills. It’s far from creative – I’m working with grammar, punctuation, style, tone, criticality, on essays about the care of ulcers, or the economic development of Hartlepool. But to say I love it is an understatement: pig in shit is more like. To spend two full days wallowing in words, glorious words – tinkering and restructuring, mending, polishing. It’s a far cry from the work I’ve previously done in mental health, self-injury and suicide awareness – but it’s still underpinned by my absolute conviction that everyone has the right to express themselves to the best of their ability. That to do so is not only a lovely thing, but is potentially transformative.

 

My work in mental health has been tremendously important to me for a long time, and that continues to some degree: since 2015 I’ve delivered training to staff at St Mungo’s and the University of Leeds; and I’ve published more work on self-injury and suicide including “Otis Doesn’t Scratch” (PCCS 2015), a resource for young children affected by self-injury.

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But the bulk of my working life now is spent as a poet. I work for a range of organisations: the Poetry School, the Wordsworth Trust, The National Writer’s Centre of Wales, and the Arvon Foundation, individual mentoring clients – anyone who asks nicely / pays well/ offers me an extraordinary and unforgettable opportunity. I’ve had a few of those … one that springs to mind is working with the University of Chester to provide poetry and text for an exhibition and artbook of Tom Wood’s archive photography of patients in the closing days of Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital (to be published later this year).  Here’s one of the poems:

 

Just look

 

The shelves tell you half of my story.

They are empty of anything good.

 

That tin of sweets

with no sweets in it;

 

if you want me to talk,

just look

 

to the books

which nobody reads;

 

to the chess board

with none of its pieces.

 

Don’t ask me to say how I feel;

ask the carpet.

 

It is like

it has never been clean.

 

I don’t need to speak out.

It’s clear at first sight

 

that the table is angles

and does not count

 

and the chairs

are as red as sin

 

and none of the white

has ever been white

 

and nothing about this has ever been right

and the plant does not fit its pot.

 

Yes.

That’s it.

 

And the corridor flooded with light.

 

(Whatever you do, read this aloud to yourself. Try different speeds. Read the spaces and silences. Read it reflective. Read it in a rage.. Listen, really listen, to every negative, every not, every nothing, and then think hard about how you want to say that final ‘YES’. Listen to the consonants, the assonances, the near rhymes, the echoes. Listen to that understated craft. Right that’s me done. It all Clare from here on in)

 

 

 

I’ve also been working regularly through this year with the Wordsworth Trust’s “West Coast Schools” project, tutoring thirty-plus Year Seven students in a Catholic school in Workington; and I’m currently teaching “The Poetry of Survival”, an Online International Course for the Poetry School.  Here are two excerpts from a recent assignment which illustrate how my life as a mental health activist and my life as a writer are still intimately interwoven:

 

“Today, I ran the fourth of six monthly sessions with a group of 11 and 12 year olds in a school on the west coast of Cumbria. It’s a deprived area; and this school is in a particularly deprived town. The kids span a wide spectrum of ability: some struggle with basic writing skills and few of them had any knowledge or confidence around poetry when we started out. It was a long, long, day but I was energised by the evaluations they had filled out at the previous session: “I didn’t know any poetry but now I know more and I like it”; “I like it more than normal lessons”; “I like it because I can express myself and I am more consus of myself” ….

 

We all need story. Story binds together the disparate moments and facts of our life. It gives us coherence and identity. We are raised with a certain story of ourselves and our families, which is given the status of truth. We may live happily with that story all our lives; or we reach a point where it no longer ‘fits’: in the turmoil of adolescence perhaps, or as a result of a single disordering event later in life – loss of relationship, job, home; rape or assault. The sort of event which, in Susan Brison’s words “shatters one’s fundamental assumptions about the world one’s safety in it” and “severs the sustaining connection between the self and the rest of humanity” (Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self, 2002). It’s a process of liberation and loss: all that we took for granted has been upended, and we can for a time be lost in a dark world in which nothing makes sense or feels safe. And at this point we can come to the possibility that we can tell our own stories and create our own truths. Here lies the saving, sustaining, transforming potential of words – especially poetry.

 

How do I know which truth to tell? Is it the one which makes me feel better? There’s mileage in that – but I think, more importantly, we should tell the truth which needs to be told. In poetry, some essential story emerges. A story we need to tell. When we work with image, metaphor, association – essentially, the unconscious – that story erupts from us – whether we like it or not. It brings us to a knowledge of ourselves, here and now, in this moment. Not catharsis for its own sake; but a new knowing of ourselves; a new and often deeper story. As the young girl in my poetry class said, we don’t just express ourselves, we become conscious of ourselves. This is me. Through my words, I define myself. I tell you who I am. You listen. You tell me who you are. In the meeting of your world and my world, we both exist.

 

Through poetry, our connection with ourselves, the world around us, and each other, is re-established”.

 

I had a rough time a few years ago, and I guess you could say I lost my faith in poetry for a while. In the past two years, I’ve rediscovered it. John has been part of that; and two mutual friends of ours: Kim Moore and Keith Hutson. People with a wildly different but similarly unwavering commitment to language, and an enviable level of energy. Profoundly generous with it too: John, Kim and Keith have all helped me with the task of finishing the third collection, and they should know how grateful I am for their insight and friendship. Another loved and lovely friend, Choman Hardi, in her Anfal sequence in “Considering the Women” – shortlisted for the Forward Prize – exemplified everything that poetry should be: urgent, unflinching, painful and utterly necessary. The cross-pollination of passion, commitment and affection amongst writers  is a wonderful thing: I’m incredibly excited that

Kim and I have recently co-authored a sequence which will be published in the North; we continue to collaborate. In April, we organised and hosted a feminist poetry jambouree as part of a national ‘Persisters: Holding the Line’ event, organised in response to Trump, Brexit, the Tory Austerity government, and other atrocities.  We had hoped that we might attract an audience of say, 25-30 people; as the event started, I stopped counting at seventy. Poetry is alive, and it’s vital.

 

Gregory Orr’s book “Poetry As Survival” was a happy discovery I made recently after agreeing to tutor the Poetry School course. I won’t try to précis the book: suffice to say, it’s like someone cut me open and read what was inside me. Here are two line from it, which seem very relevant this month: “Trauma, either on an intimate or collective  scale, has the power to annihilate the self and shred the web of meaning that support is existence. Yet the evidence of lyric poetry is equally clear – deep in the recesses of the human spirit, there is some instinct to rebuild the web of meanings with the same quiet determination we witness in the garden spider as it repairs the threads wind and weather have torn”. Here’s a poem which pretty much summarises how I feel.  I wrote the first draft of it on the last day of NaPoWriMo 2015: and it’s a kind of thank you letter to Kim Moore and to all the other writers who brought me back. PS. I finished the collection today. Thanks.

(Clare’s told me that wordpress has screwed up the formatting of the poem that comes next. I’ve re-edited it twice, but it keeps getting screwed. Thhis is the stanza line pattern : 7/7/6/8/8/7/3. My apologies if it’s still wrong…as I’m looking at it now it’s as it should be. I’ll update it one more time)

 

I came back

to the sound of birds in the morning,
to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands.
I came back from the storm
to shelter. Though they said
there was no way back
I came back in a taxi, by darkness
and no-one could see my face.

I came back from the brink,                                                                                                        from Broadoak. There was screaming                                                                                        inside my ears. I came back running,                                                                                               back from not speaking.
I made the same noise for years.                                                                                                        I came back by grafting, back                                                                                                          with my arms open wide and laughing.

I was brought back by daisies.
I was brought back by doctors.
Saved by a surplus of air
because somebody needed to breathe it;
I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot
I forgot how to cross the road.

I was not brought back by love.
I was brought back by stone
and by falling. I was brought back
by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket,
brought back by hurting,
by the sight of my own insides
and I did not like it and I could not stop it
but back is the way I came.

I was brought back by words
though I didn’t believe them,
I came back to a yard in the sun.
I was brought back by pain that I could not escape.
When they stitched me, I could not run                                                                                           I was sweating. I will never forget them.                                                                                         I came back to my mother’s eyes                                                                                                    and the sound of the telly left on.

I came back the long way round
and I did not mind about distance.
I was brought back by violence, my own.
I came back for vodka, I came back for fire,
for your animal breath in my ear.
For the colour of leaves in the darkness.
I came back for your eyes in the darkness;

to houses that did not care.
For tracing the flames with my fingers,
how you parted my knees with your hands
and when the fires had all lost their voices
I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.

I came back.
I lived through thunder.
And I did not come back for the sun.

 

Poetry as survival.  Clare Shaw, thank you so much. What will survive of us is love. There’s so much love in Clare Shaw’s writing. Resilience, too. Sinew. Steel. Poems on the edge. Like rockclimbers, seeing just how far you can go and stay in balance. Fingers crossed that the third collection will find its chosen publisher very soon. In the meantime, if you haven’t read them yet, then you can do no better than make up for lost time and buy the first two collections. Both of them.

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on             : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

While you’re at it, you could check out another collaboration

BusBookpage0

http://seeingpoetry.co.uk/about/

Seeing Poetry is a collaboration between acclaimed poet Clare Shaw (Bloodaxe 2006, 2012) and illustrator Louise Crosby.

Louise illustrates poetry by Clare Shaw in comics form. Her illustrations were first designed as single spreads to be shown in exhibitions; these are now being reworked to book format.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

That’s me for a couple of weeks. I’m going away to do some writing, and when I come back, I’m off to my very first poetry festival. AND I’ll be running a poetry workshop, so if you’re around Lewes/ Brighton at the end of June I’d be delighted to see you.

LEWES – workshop, SHAPESHIFTING AND MIND READING with John Foggin

John Foggin is a prize-winning poet, with 30+ years of teaching and in-service training experience.

Actors and children understand how the wearing of masks (which can be other people’s voices) can liberate our ways of seeing and feeling. We get stuck in routines of saying and thinking. In this session, we’ll be giving voices to places, things and people, fictional, mythical and historical, and in the process we’ll find new rhythms of writing. You don’t need to be an experienced writer. All you need is to be willing to suspend some disbelief, to use your empathy and imagination.

Forthcoming Dates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 1913 / June 2017.

Vote now

Some people never had to fight for anything in their lives. Some people never  needed a vote because they were born knowing they owned everything and owed nothing to anyone. Some people had nothing until they had a vote. Don’t tell me you you’d betray the right to use what some people died to give you.

I know when this goes out via Facebook and Twitter I’ll be preaching to the converted. But so are The Sun, The Mail and The Express. And, possibly, the BBC. So if you share this, you’ll do so in solidarity, and who knows…someone you know who thinks voting doesn’t matter may just think again. We do what we can do. Some did more than that.

emily davison

Camera obscura              

 

(Emily Wilding Davison. d. June 1913)

 

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.

 

 

The camera sees the moment you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.

 

 

Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.

 

 

You’re stopped in time. No sound, no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.

 

 

How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?

 

 

The camera cannot tell;

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

 

 

Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

emily 2

 

 

 

“Gap Year” : a collection by Andy Blackford and John Foggin

Gap Year
Gap Year Andy Blackford & John Foggin now available to buy

“Gap Year” is the product of a one year writing exchange in 2014 between me and Andy Blackford, who I toaught in the 6th Form at Middlesbrough High School in the late 60’s and then didn’t meet again for 40 years. It was Andy’s idea that, like Louis Bunel and an artist friend, we would exchange a piece of work (poems, in our case) every week for a year, critiquing and cajoling as we went along. It was Andy’s idea to enter some of the poems for a pamphlet competition run by Sentinel Publications. We were invited to submit a full collection which subsequently won the 1st Prize.

Roger Elkin, the judge, said this about our collection:

Sentinel Writing & Publishing Newsletter

November 30, 2016

We are pleased to announce the results of the SPM Publications Poetry Book Competition (2016) and the comments on the winning collections by judge Roger Elkin

First Prize
Gap Year 
Andy Blackford and John Foggin

This collection of questioning and explorative poetry is offered not as a master-pupil construct, but as a collaborative joint venture – “a harmonious duet” as the submission sample proposed – each poet inspiring the other in a mutual appreciation and understanding of an individual take on the world. And what a wide-ranging read they offer, from the natural world with detailed observation particularly of bird-life, the skies and seascapes, to education and the arts, especially music and painting; to family members and neighbours; to issues central to life, such as love, suicide and death; and to matters spiritual, centring on Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and the Padmaloka retreat. Occasionally, these worlds of now and beyondness (enigmatic yet centring on the immediate) are transformed into something approaching a nightmare reality in which the concrete is made disconcertingly abstract, and vice versa. Similarly, several poems employ the strategy of using negatives (sometimes cataloguing them) and transforming them to positive commentaries on the human predicament. However, the application of an almost Metaphysical wit, leavened by touches of humour, serves to make the writing subtle and nuanced: sometimes gently lyrical in its musings; and at other times hard-edged and disturbing in its raw perceptiveness. Both states are explored via a wide range of structures; a palette of richly-appropriate diction which luxuriates in colour; startling imagery; and skilful lineation. This is a candid and honest poetic partnership. Its fruits are of the highest order. I look forward to reading more.

We couldn’t be happier. I’m especially happy for Andy…this is the first time he’s ventured into the unpredictable world of poetry comps and publishing. We’re equally chuffed about the finished product, and we hope you will be. As a taster, here are two of the poems. If you want to read more, simply head to the Menu at the top of the page, which will take you to My Books, and a Paypal button. The book will come P&P included.

**** There may be a short delay in posting. I’ll be away in Spain from 12-19 June******

 

Taken by the tide

 

I might have sailed with saints into the infinite

Atlantic, lugging their old bone-house burdens,

searching for the furthest place  from man,

which I imagine they supposed

would be the nearest place to God.

 

And maybe  I’d have stood shuddering

and shriven in the wind and spray,

but before too long I know I’d be mumbling

bladderwrack  and dulse, clubbing gannets,

prising limpets, riving clumps of mussels

off knuckle-skinning rocks; stumbling

down cold sluicing gullies just in time to see

the boats taken  by the tide, or broken

by the storm, or by the will of God.

 

And I wonder what they sang,

these old fanatic souls, on the strait summits

of mountains whose feet are oceans deep,

and how they died on Sula Sgeir, on Rona,

and if they knew that gulls and fulmars

would nest in the cloister of their ribs.

 

Tell me they remembered the words

of their mea culpa Masses.Tell me

they were sane. Tell me they held the tune.

 

[John Foggin]

 

Christ in the Peter and Paul Fortress

Christ surveys the wondrous cross

and quietly swears. This is my final crucifixion.

He isn’t one for cursing, generally, but this place

would try the patience of a saint.

 

Clouds of gold hang like bad breath

about the iconostas.

Gold is a melanoma here,

corrupting wings of angels, ears of saints.

 

It’s as if some prelate

in a rage of lust

has spewed this opulence

upon his mother’s pristine feet.

 

Ah, the mother: silent, icy, incorruptible.

All this bling and booty

and not a virgin’s sneer to show for it.

 

Christ, sickened

by such unintended consequences

slips into the confessional.

 

Casting off his showgirl’s costume

he spins three times and reappears

as Jesus in his cotton grave shift

with its world map traced in gore.

 

Escaping by a side door

he lopes the fifty metres to the Bastion,

bribes a guard with Judas’ little toe

and makes his way to Cell Thirteen.

 

An old general sprawls helpless

on an iron bed. Pointlessly

they took his wooden leg away.

He scrawls a message

to his wife of forty years.

The scrap of paper, torn from a Bible,

is no broader than his hand

 

but he makes the letters big –

she’s almost blind from cataracts.

 

My dearest love Alyona,

I don’t know when they’ll let me go.

There is no food or bedding.

Please send bread.

 

He doesn’t mention that the water

in the toilet bowl is frozen and his cheek

is broken from the beating.

 

Next day the General will be bundled

to another gaol and hanged.

 

Jesus silently recites a benediction

then drifts, ghost-like, between the bars.

In the shadow of the domes

of gold and lapis lazuli,

he finds he can no longer raise his eyes.

But still he whispers:

Forgive them Father for they know

exactly what they do.

 

[Andy Blackford]

 

 

Now what? Or: What next?

degas 1

I don’t need many excuses to use this picture. When I was doing A Level Art, my art teacher, Louis Wilde, made me copy it. I mean, really, copy it. It was probably a poor quality reproduction, maybe 4 inches square, at most. He told me I had to figure out how it was all put together. I had to draw it and redraw it. I started to understand what was going on with lines…that strong diagonal of the worktop, the echoed vertical curves of the women’s arms, the shapes made by the orange scarf, the shapes around it. It became more and more abstract the more I looked and looked.

And then I had to paint it and paint it. Bear in mind, this was a Boys’ Grammar School in 1959. I was the only one in the whole 6th form who was doing Art. It was not a well-equipped department. The papers were rubbish. The available paint was powder paint. Still. I struggled and struggled to get the texture of that work top. I put paint on top of paint. I started again. And again. And Louis Wilde just let me struggle. Keep going. he’d say. You’ll see. And I did. I’d have seen straight away if it had been the original, and you can see much clearer with a screen image. But the fact is, there’s hardly any paint on that pale oatmeal-y area at the bottom. Mainly, what you can see is the canvas, as is also true of the top part of the image. He was teaching me to look, was Louis, and I’m still grateful.

Drawing and redrawing the two figures and then painting them made me look at how the upper body is put together, the ways it works. You can feel the weight of bone and flesh and muscle, the ways they flex. I never managed to figure out how Degas managed to suggest that the weight of the figures continues all the way to the unseen floor, hidden by the diagonal line of the worktop. Miraculous. But here’s the kicker…we were into Abstract in 1959. Representional painting was dead. Or unfashionable. Much the same thing, when you’re 16. Louis had me doing synthetic cubism quicker than you could say Braque. So I never really got to think about what the picture was saying about these women and their work. I never for a second considered what Degas was well aware of…their tiredness, the steamy heat…look at that big stove, or copper, or whatever it is…look at the haze of light, muzziness. I was reminded of this, reading U.A.Fanthorpe who voices one of the women in this painting. I can’t remember the title of her poem. But in a footnote, she remarks that Degas got the title of the painting wrong. It’s called Women ironing. Fanthorpe says that these are women trained in a trade involving skill and stamina. They’re professionals. The painting should be called Ironing women.

What she’s interested in isn’t art history. It’s living breathing human beings. I’ll come back to this. Now, when I started writing this yesterday (May 21) I was in an odd frame of mind; no, not odd. Uncomfortable, mean-spirited. Why would that be? I think that it’s because for the last four years in poetry I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to be able to do that. Four pamphlets, a first collection, and now a second, joint collection which will be available in June. And very handsome it looksgap year facebook

Why the odd feeling of flatness? Surely, everything is wonderful? Isn’t this more than you could ever dream of? I remember suddenly realising that Degas wasn’t using much paint at all on that surface that I’d been trying to reproduce by laying paint on paint. I saw how it was done, and what I felt was …deflated. I’d been missing the point all along. Less was much much more. I have to say it was a lot later that I recognised that the women in the picture, their situation, and work and humanity was what mattered, and the technique was a means to an end. Not the end, any more than ‘having a collection’ is an ‘end’. It’s a means of telling what you make of the world.

Poets I love have told me how they went to sleep with their first published collections under their pillow. I watched a poet I love sit in a daze of happiness on the day a parcel of copies of her first collection arrived. I saw her reading the other week, and during her reading she talked about how she’d written nothing, really, for a year after that. Not writers’ block, whatever that is, because I think that describes a kind of desperation. Not wanting to write and being unable. That wasn’t it at all. It was just..not writing.

I haven’t felt it like that. I’ve gone on writing and writing. But I think I may have made a mistake in getting involved in that poem-a-day-April, which coincided with finishing the new collection. I wrote 50+ ‘poems’. I worked on every unfinished draft from two years of going to writers’ workshops. I’ve read them all over and over. I feel as though I’ve spent all my savings in one big splurge, and I’ve nothing to show for it and less to fall back on when it rains. Flat. A bit like realising Degas didn’t use much paint. The ‘is that it?’ feeling. Well, it is what it is, and we’ll ask for the serenity to accept it until it decides to go away. Because it will. In the meantime I found myself writing a series of shortish poems which wonder whether poetry’s all it’s cracked up to be. You know you’re in trouble when you start writing poems about poems. I’ll share them with you. Think of it as confession. Have a read of Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ first.

degas 4

The whole of the moon

 

1.

They give themselves airs, poets,

make large claims on the world,

like starving men

who stake little flags in cairns

in wildernessess of snow and cold.

 

You don’t get painters doing that,

the ones for whom it’s enough

to sit still, to look and look and look

till they almost believe they know

how the moment works,

 

the art where you see all of it

at once, at the same moment

as everything else  inside the frame,

right to the very edges

where the moment stops.

 

A poet wonders how would it be

if the picture went on round

the corner, if you could see

where Breughel’s hunters came from,

and who or what was following.

 

Poets  tell you what matters

is the moment, but really

they’re hooked on narrative,

the why, the who, the what and when,

the dumb ghosts in the machine.

degas 5

 2.

painters give you everything at once,

you stand in the space where they were,

they gift you their eyes, don’t stand

behind you to explain or point.

 

Poets are always at your shoulder,

touching your elbow, you can’t

shut them out. You go at their pace,

top to bottom, left to right.

 

A painter sees the sea, the cliffs,

the clouds, the boy scaring crows,

the ploughman turning clods,

the ship, a splash. Doesn’t write

a title underneath. A poet tells you

what the painter meant.

 

Through the scrim and scaffolding

of words you will never see

again  the world he saw.

 

3.

A painter can stop the moment

of a girl lit from a window,

pouring milk from a jug. The milk

makes no sound, a stilled liquid purl.

degas 6

4.

Intent and still as a cat, a painter

sees a woman ironing, the turn

of her shoulder, the planes

of greenish light, the way flesh

isn’t white at all, how, like snow

it borrows colour, blue and violet.

 

You look through the eyes of the cat

and see with a start that it’s true,

the way a torso shifts to press

down on an iron, how a finger

moves a strand of errant hair,

how red is the inside of a yawn.

 

He watches how a dancer watches

herself in a long mirror. He doesn’t

say she loves herself in her froth

of muslin, her satin shoes. He doesn’t

say how tired is the ironing woman,

how hot, or bored, how long the day.

 

He lends you his eyes and quietly

goes, leaves you to make of it

what you will.

degas 2

What was all that about? Not for a moment was I thinking of stopping writing to take up painting. I think what was behind it was thinking about the whole purpose of signs and symbols as a way of illuminating the world, celebrating it and the people in it. And at the same time thinking that either I’d said as much as I possibly could, or that however much I did it I’d never say anything particulary new or memorable, or both.

And then you’re given a gift. A poet who says she didn’t write anything for a year after her first collection was published. But who is now writing wonderful new stuff. And another; yesterday, I reblogged a post from Julie Mellor. When you’re finished here, do go and read it. It seems ages since she was a Poetry Business Pamphlet Competition winner, and then seemed to go off the radar (though I’ve kept reminding you how good she is via the cobweb). She’s been quietly working away, listening, watching, researching, absorbing. She’s finding herself in new places, exploring things she hadn’t expected to explore. If that doesn’t cheer me up, nothing can.

So when I write: Now what? Or. What next? you can imagine two distinct ways of saying it. One irritable and tetchy. Or one that say, let’s get cracking. Work to be done. This morning, it’s the second voice, and I’m grateful to the ones who made me feel this way.