The view from my hotel bedroom, across Carbis Bay
I’ve been in St Ives for a week with some lovely people, the community of poets: old poetry friends: Hilary Robinson, John Foggin, Bernice Reynolds; and lovely new friends: Liz, Sally, Harriet. There’s no literary merit in a list of names, so I’ll just say everyone on the course was talented and kind, it was a fantastic week of poets, poems, reading, writing, discussing. It’s been terrific. Hilary and I left Manchester Piccadilly at 9.30 a.m. on Sunday and arrived at the hotel just before 6.00 p.m. Sunday evening was our own time, the poetry course started on Monday afternoon. We decided on an early night: I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug that had laid me low last week.
On Monday morning we walked into St Ives for a look around. We went to Tate Modern for a guided talk about the Virginia Woolf exhibition; although in truth it was a misguided tour: the tour guide talked about Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of Your Own’; and talked of Freud’s theory of the subconscious. Anyone who knows Woolf recognises the mistaken ‘Your’ in that title; and Freud talked of the Unconscious, not the subconscious. But still, it was interesting to listen to someone who appeared to know about the artwork. The Laura Knight landscapes were extraordinary, they could’ve been painted last week, and her portraits are legendary. So altogether it was a morning well spent. We bought a combined ticket to visit the Tate and the Barbara Hepworth museum within the week, so we still had the Hepworth to look forward to. We had a look around the shops in St Ives; I bought two long sleeve tee shirts from Seasalt, because I’d only brought warm clothing away with me and it was summer in St Ives.
The poetry course started at 4.00 p.m. with a joint workshop from Kim Moore and Helen Mort. Oh my, what two terrific poets to work with. The workshop focused on silence, white space, line breaks. It was only an hour long, to get us in the mood, but I got a decent, very short poem from the writing exercise. We were given one-liners from published poems and had to use that as a first line or the title of a poem. I got ‘a large silence’, and I wrote two pages of words before a very short poem—only thirteen words—formed itself.
After the evening meal, we all read a favourite poem by a published poet. I chose Simon Armitage’s specular poem from his collection ‘Out of the Blue’ (London: Enitharmon 2008). It is a series he wrote as a Channel 5 commission to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 9:11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. A specular poem is a poem that repeats itself backwards, as if in a mirror. The extraordinary thing about this particular one is that it’s a prose poem, a big block of print. You don’t realise it’s a specular poem for some time past the turn. The crafting in it is impeccable. After we’d all read our favourite poems—and there were some cracking poems people had chosen—we all dispersed to our beds.
After breakfast on Tuesday we had a workshop led by Helen Mort on ‘Saying the Unsayable’ in poetry. The best part for me was writing a ‘not’ poem, describing a difficult event as if it hadn’t happened. I’ll post the poem that came from this activity at the end of the blog. We had a free afternoon; I spent it drafting the morning’s poems onto my laptop. After dinner Kim and Helen gave us readings of their poetry, a master-class in presenting poetry to an audience.
Wednesday, a workshop led by Kim: ‘Who are you talking to?” looking at point of view and imagined audience. It was really about subverting the focus, ‘lying’ in poems, telling others’ stories as if they are your own. There were some really good poets on the course and the standard of work participants were prepared to share was very high. I wrote an eighteenth ‘alternative mother’ from this workshop, based on Alice in Wonderland. Hilary and I walked into St Ives for lunch after the workshop then we visited the Barbara Hepworth Museum. If you’re ever in St Ives, this is well worth a visit. The sculptures in the garden are particularly gorgeous. They cry out to be touched, and most of them you are allowed to touch: they are so smooth and curvily tactile.
Local based poet Katrina Naomi joined us for dinner and gave a reading in the evening. I wanted to stay and talk to Katrina after her reading: I really enjoyed her PhD thesis last year and I wanted to tell her so. But I still wasn’t entirely over the tummy bug from last week: and I just had to go to bed, I felt so tired. I fell asleep before I remembered I hadn’t even spoken to my partner, Bill.
After breakfast on Thursday we had a workshop—‘Leave it out’—with input from both Kim and Helen. It was about subverting the truth in a poem, how we write unpleasant experiences, find a way to address difficult subjects. I wrote about an art teacher I had when I was in the first year of grammar school. She had a nervous breakdown while she was teaching us, although we didn’t know that at eleven. She kept asking us to paint arctic scenes then just upped and left the classroom mid-lesson and never returned. I embellished the story to make it ‘tellable’.
We walked into St Ives in the afternoon because Hilary wanted to get some fabric she’d seen the day before; but we had to be back at 3.00 p.m. because we had individual tutorials with Helen Mort. We’d given her three poems earlier in the week and we met to get feedback on them, one-to-one. I’d given Helen a couple of my ‘alternative mother’ poems and I had some really useful feedback. The good news is, she really liked them; and it’s a good feeling when a poet as good as Helen Mort says positive things about your work. I had my first Cornish Cream Tea after the tutorial; it’s a mark of how much better I was feeling on Thursday. I hadn’t fancied a cream scone all week.
On Thursday evening we had a sort of poetry quiz. We’d been asked to submit a poem of our own, anonymously, and these were distributed among the group. We each read the poem we’d been dealt and then we had to try to decide which of us had written it. Obviously, we all got at least one right, because our own poems were in the mix; and Bernice, who is from South Wales originally, had submitted a poem with the huge clue of a Welsh cake in it, so most people—although not everyone—got that one right. At the end of the evening, these were the only two I’d guessed correctly, but Hilary won the prize for having five correct guesses. She won a Weetabix purloined from the breakfast buffet with some after-dinner mints left on the dinner table when the evening meal was done.
Friday we had a critiquing workshop. We all took one poem, either brought from home or one we’d written in the week, and received feedback from group members. I took the ‘Alice poem’ I wrote earlier in the week and I had lovely, positive feedback. Mostly they wanted more of it, so I’m committed to developing it. The standard of poetry we discussed was incredibly high. In the evening, course members held a reading. Each of us read two poems to the group. I chose to read two of my ‘alternative mother’ poems, including ‘Pope Joan’, which I’d been working on during the day; and one of the poems I’d taken to the tutorial with Helen on Thursday. I’d worked on it as a result of her feedback and it’s a stronger poem for the redrafting. It was a good night: everyone read some cracking poems, lots of different styles. It highlighted what a talented bunch of poets I’ve been working with all week.
After breakfast on Saturday, most people started to wend their ways home. Hilary and I had booked an extra night at the hotel because we’re in Cornwall and it seems wrong not to see something of the area while we’re here. We planned to go to Healey’s Farm, between Truro and Newquay, where they make Rattler Cyder, a favourite tipple of ours while we’re here. We were going to do some serious tasting. But it takes about three weeks to get there on public transport so we decided to give it a miss and visit Penzance instead. We had a good look around the shops: I bought a brand new maxi-dress in a charity shop, still with the original tickets on; and a ‘vintage’ knee length black velvet jacket which had been revamped with gold printed cog wheel patterns. It’s lovely, and dirt cheap.
This evening there were just us and two other poets who have also booked extra nights at the hotel. We all had dinner together and shared a bottle of wine and it was a good end to the evening. You’ll notice I am writing this on Saturday evening, that’s because tomorrow will be a bit rushed. We’re all packed and ready to leave after breakfast. I won’t be able to post my blog until later, probably from the train home, because my MacBook stopped talking to the hotel wi-fi for some reason. Ho hum.
So, here’s the ‘no’ poem, where you write about an event by saying it didn’t happen. I think it makes it more interesting than just narrating the event. I don’t think you could get away with it too often; but it was an interesting exercise to do it once.
Remember, it’s very early draft:
How it didn’t happen
a football rolling along Mossley hill.
It wasn’t raining and
the March wind didn’t howl.
She wasn’t surprised by his car
not standing in the drive.
Night wasn’t washed
with India ink, windows
weren’t black squares in pebbledash.
House wasn’t silent as death.
Note wasn’t propped on mantle,
wouldn’t tell her
in that unfamiliar hand
what she didn’t know already:
that she wasn’t just dust
scattered by the closing door.