Poetry, cider and an excess of seagull poo

I’m in St. Ives in Cornwall. Hilary and I travelled down here by train on Sunday. We had to change trains at Birmingham New Street. The train was packed and as we were trying to get off the train, other passengers were pushing to get on. Someone helped us with our bags, but I nearly got knocked over on the platform, which was crowded with people so you couldn’t move out of the way; in fact it was only the density of people that saved me from falling. They were all wanting a place on the train I’d just left, but there wasn’t any space on the train, so they couldn’t get on until someone got off anyway. It was chaos, so we upgraded to first class for the rest of the journey. It cost us £15 each. Well, be rude not to. We arrived at the hotel on Sunday evening, in time for the evening meal.

I’ve been on a poetry writing course led by Kim Moore and Carola Luther which just got better as the week went on. I’ve had a room with a sea view. The weather has been lovely, sunny and [mostly] warm. The food has been good this year. The hotel took on a new chef team in the autumn, and the food has improved no end. It was so good I think I’ve gone up at least one dress size. And all worth it for the poetry. It’s been a wonderful week; and I have some new poems that I’m excited by.

The theme of the week was ‘Intimacy, distance and perspective’ in poems. We met as a group on Monday at four o’clock: our daily cream tea time. At 4.30 we started the first workshop, exploring what the words of the theme mean. We didn’t do any writing in that workshop, but Kim set us a task to work on in our own time: to write a ‘meandering’ poem, one that wanders around its own country lanes to get to its point. I wrote mine in bed on Tuesday morning, early, while the sun rose over the sea. I wrote it with a pencil, in my notebook. I often write straight from the keyboard, but it’s difficult to meander at the keyboard, the inner editor is too close to the surface, so I wrote with a pencil, then typed it up on the MacBook.

Tuesday and Wednesday Carola and Kim ran workshops that involved reading and discussing poems and then writing poems inspired by our reading. On Tuesday, I wrote a couple of drafts that might become poems in the future; by Wednesday I was warming up, drafting poems with ambition, poems I could see making something of themselves. I wrote a poem about being lost in the book, in my case Alice in Wonderland.I like that draft already, not far to go to be complete. Thursday was a bit different. We had a discussion about Frank O’hara’s ‘personism’ style of poetry, a style that requires the intimacy of writing to one other, as you would in a letter or postcard. We read a lovely O’hara poem, ‘The Day Lady Died’, to illustrate his ‘personism’. Then we were sent into St. Ives to observe and write our own poems in the personist style. Hilary and I sat in a beach bar with a Rattler Cider, observing and taking notes. A woman digging like she meant it in a huge hole she’d made on the beach turned up in several of the poems. She was extraordinary, throwing spadefuls of sand behind her like a mad thing. I wrote my poem when I woke at 4.00 on Friday; it’s a productive time of day for me, and I have a poem I love. Yup, the woman in the hole is in there. It needs a bit more work, but it’s almost done.

As well as the workshops, we have been meeting daily in small groups to discuss and offer feedback on our early drafts. This was really useful. Sometimes you are too close to a poem, you can’t see its flaws. Of course, it’s your poem and you don’t have to act on the feedback, but at least you have your eyes opened and can implement the advice or not; you can act on some of the advice, all or none of it. On Friday morning we met as a whole group. We had to bring one poem from the week to read to the group and have it discussed and critiqued by the group. I took the poem I’d written at 4.00 a.m. and the feedback I received from the group was really useful. I’m quite excited about this poem.

Apart from the writing, there were readings organised for the evenings after dinner. Kim and Carola read from their work on Tuesday evening. Very different poets, their readings were wonderful. On Wednesday, Ann Gray came to read. Ann won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition in 2018; her pamphlet’s called I Wish I Had More Mothers(Smith Doorstop Books, 2018). So I had to buy that, get it signed, didn’t I? Ann read from her two collections and the pamphlet. On Thursday, course members read two poems each of their own work that they’d brought from home. I read a couple of my ‘alternative mothers’. On Friday we read a couple of poems we’d drafted from the week. These were good evenings, such a variety of poems from fourteen poets. And interesting to see how fourteen poets can come up with fourteen distinct solutions to the same prompt. It was fascinating to try to match the poems people read to the prompts from the week. The woman in the hole in the beach was a give-away in some of the poems; others were less easy to spot.

There has been free time in the afternoons to do the ‘holiday’ bit. Hilary and I walked into St. Ives two or three times, looked in the lovely shops, spent money we didn’t intend to spend on things we didn’t need but we wanted. I’m going home with four new tops, a skirt and two pairs of earrings I didn’t bring with me. On two visits to the town centre we were pooped on by seagulls and had to come back to the hotel for a shower before dinner, and to wash clothes that were bombarded. They keep telling me it’s lucky to be pooped on by a bird; perhaps I should buy a lottery ticket?

Yesterday, most of the poets went home after breakfast, but Hilary and I stayed an extra night. We went to the Healey’s cider farm, home of the Rattler cider, between Truro and Newquay. We took the bus to Truro then a taxi out to the cider farm. Oh my, the bus. We were abused by an old man for sitting in the seats reserved for ‘older passengers and those less able to stand’: we both have our own mobility issues, not that it’s his business. As he came down the bus to sit in a similar seat across the aisle, he said we shouldn’t be sitting there, we weren’t disabled. Hilary showed him her walking stick and he said a walking stick didn’t mean anything. He kept moaning on to the man next too him about us taking up the seats reserved for old folk—I’m 72 by the way—even though the man next to him looked about sixty, didn’t even have a walking stick and appeared able bodied. After a couple of minutes I said to him ‘excuse me, would you not talk about us, you know nothing about us.’ Bloody women, he snarled, so perhaps it was gender and not invisible disability that offended him. Bloody misogynist, we might have said but didn’t. The incident didn’t spoil our day. At the cider farm, we had a ride behind a tractor around the orchards; toured the production line and museum; tasted lots of samples; and had a complimentary pint of cider with our cream teas at the end of the tour. The taxi collected us at 3.00 p.m. and we took the relatively uneventful journey back to the hotel.

It was strange in the hotel last night, all the poets had gone and just Hilary and me left of our group. We felt a bit bereft until a lovely couple from London joined us at our table. We got to talking, and by the end of the meal, we’d sold them one of our books, so that was nice. Poetry is such a rewarding way to spend your time.

I’m going to give you a poem from the week, so naturally it’s an early draft. I don’t know if it will mature, if I’ll develop it or leave it as it is. Either way I’m not planning on sending it out to earn its keep any time soon. But it was fun to write. It’s a poem that addresses your own body directly, and I guess poems don’t come more intimate than that. Here’s mine:

Oh, Body

I’ll not give up on you
now you’re no longer pert.

He said my stretch marks were beautiful,
a poem on childbirth. Body, you and I both know

that’s bullshit. Poems are art and you, Body,
are science, a physiological record of degeneration.

You started to die the minute they cut
the umbilical cord. But dying, I’m pleased to say,

is a slow process. And long may it continue.
I’m sorry I didn’t always put you first:

I broke you, cut you, squeezed your feet
into too-tight shoes, soaked you in long hot baths.

On the whole, though, I think
we’re doing alright, Body, you and me.

Rachel Davies
April 2019

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