Poetry and metapoetry

On Sunday we got down to work at about 11.00, later than we intended, but we had a leisurely breakfast: we were on holiday. We did a writing exercise to kick us off: I wrote a poem about being torn in half through the spine, which was rubbish and I won’t dwell on it. I could feel that post deadline writer’s block; I’d almost hurdled it by the end of the week, but on Sunday my writing muscle was withered. Passing on, we had the rest of the morning to plan the writing workshop, ‘My Family and Other Curiosities’, that we’re running on Saturday June 22nd for Didsbury Arts Festival: https://www.didsburyartsfestival.org/what-s-on/76-my-family-and-other-curiositiesI think there are still places available if you fancy coming along. We spent a couple of hours reading and choosing suitable poems to use as writing prompts, and deciding how we’re going to use them. We have a plan. Our Tesco online shopping order arrived at lunchtime: enough food to feed a family of five for a week. We put it away and carried on working for an hour. We stopped for lunch about 1.30 then went into Coniston to explore the locality. We got as far as the pub, had an al fresco pint. The sun was warm; when it went behind the clouds the air cooled considerably. We walked around the village, came to a café and had a coffee then back to the cottage to cook a vegetarian roast dinner. The meal took us all evening to eat and we talked over wine until late. We’d booked a cottage without a dishwasher, so by the time we washed the dishes it was bedtime.

Monday followed a similar format: breakfast then work. We were at our books by 10.00. We took some old writing notebooks/journals away with us to try to develop some of the forgotten pieces buried in them. On Monday we went back through some of them and revisited old attempts. I found my notebook from my last visit to Australia in 2011. I rewrote some of the poems from then; interesting exercise. I found one about the fruit bats in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens; one about the Queensland cricket ground at Woolloongabba—the ‘Gabba’—in Brisbane. It was good to revisit the poems: almost like revisiting the places. I came across a couple of notes I need to google to find out more information; they might make new poems too. After an hour or so, we did some more planning. Earlier this year we met up with Lydgate Stitchers, an Oldham-based embroidery/textiles group. They are currently sewing a huge mural of the development of Lydgate, an area of Oldham on the edge of Saddleworth. We met to see how we could put words into the mix; we’re planning a poetic response to their artwork. We spent time on Monday planning the project. It has to be said, we didn’t get far; we need another meeting with the stitchers, I think. But I’ve committed to writing some short forms—haiku, cinquaine, nonettes etc—about the on-going mural in the meantime. After lunch we walked to the Lake to see if there was a boat trip. We had time for a coffee before the final Launch—a sort of waterbus—of the day at 3.55 p.m. Everyone else on board (there were only a couple of couples) seemed to be going somewhere, a destination: getting off at Brantwood House, for instance. We just wanted to do the round trip. Our start and destination was the Coniston jetty. We took our notebooks to make notes for poems. I love a boat trip, and the weather was glorious, the Lake still as a millpond. We learned a lot about Donald Campbell’s Bluebird.  Hilary’s turn to cook tea on Monday: she’d taken her Raclette grill and we had grilled vegetables with melted Raclette cheese: delicious; and a very sociable way of eating.

Tuesday, and we went out for the day. I drove us to Little Salkeld near Penrith to see Long Meg and Her Daughters, a bronze age stone circle. We’d both written poems about Long Meg in a Jennifer Copley workshop about six years ago. Hilary had seen the circle years ago, I’d never been there. We wanted to read our poems to Meg. The legend is that Meg had gone to the meadow on May Day morning with her daughters to wash their faces in the dew and forsee their future husbands. A predatory village elder had seen the women dancing and had raped them: it must have been a monolithic task—pardon the pun—because there are about fifty of them! Anyway, he slandered them as witches to save his own reputation; the villagers hounded them and they were literally petrified where they stand to this day. We read our poems to Meg and, as Hilary said, she was speechless.  It has to be said, if I was writing that poem again after my visit it would be a different poem: you can’t beat a bit of first-hand experience, as I always advocated as a primary school teacher. We went from the stone circle to the Little Salkeld Mill, a working flour mill, for lunch. When we got back to Coniston we went for a pint in the sunshine; I wanted to look for a bowl big enough to cook a portion of porridge: the cereal bowls in the cottage were too small. I found one, and a Beatrix Potter ‘Percy Pig’ felt toy. This is the Year of the Pig in Chinese astrology; and I’m a pig.

Reading my poem to Long Meg

On Wednesday I drove us into Arnside after breakfast. We visited the dress agency there, ‘She Sells’. I bought a tunic. We had coffee and crumpets in the café next door, then drove on to Leighton Moss RSPB bird reserve. We’d read at the launch of a Beautiful Dragons anthology, Watch the Birdie, in November last year. The anthology drew attention to the many birds in the UK that have become endangered species: everyday garden birds like the sparrow and the thrush among them. The proceeds from the sale of the anthology were donated to the RSPB for conservation work. I wanted to hand over the money I had in my purse from copies of the book I’d sold. We walked round the reserve, what we call ‘extreme benching’: we stopped at any benches we passed and wrote notes for poems. Leighton Moss must be a highly desirable residence for birds, and I wondered if they have to put their names down, go on a waiting list like humans for social housing. We spent half an hour in one of the reserve’s hides watching the beautiful mating dance of a pair of crested grebes and the low flight of the greylag geese over the water. It’s a lovely, peaceful and uplifting place.

On Thursday we got down to more table-top work. We intended to do another Napowrimo prompt. We checked out the recording of a poem online, read the Sharon Olds poem, ‘The Connoisseuse of Slugs’; but we couldn’t get inspired to write anything. So we settled on a piece of automatic writing, taking a line from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song to J. Alfred Prufrock’ as our launch phrase. We wrote for five minutes. Still uninspired to come up with a poem, we reverted to another Jennifer Copley activity. After we’d written a poem in one of her workshops, she ordered us to get rid of 50% of the words. We did that with our automatic writing, reducing the word count from about 100 words to about 50. Interesting exercise if you’re ever stuck with an idea, because we ended up with something that began to look like a poem. We had the audacity to do it to the Sharon Olds poem too. Not many people can say they edited (I won’t say bettered) a poem of Sharon Olds! We tried the exercise on some poems in our old notebooks too: trust me, it really is a worthwhile exercise.

We walked to the Lake again after work, Hilary wanted to buy a couple of salt lamps for a friend at the retail park en route. We had a coffee in the sunshine, went back to the cottage for lunch. Here’s where I tell you about our open-mic at Troutbeck. At 3.15 we left the cottage to drive to Ambleside for a look around the shops, drive on to Troutbeck for a pub meal before the open-mic at 9.00 p.m. That was the plan; but the best laid plans…it took us two and a half hours to drive two miles out of Coniston. The roads were gridlocked due to an accident—serious enough to need an air ambulance—somewhere earlier in the day, that road being closed and all traffic diverted onto other roads. We got less than half way to Ambleside before we decided to turn the car round and go home. I did a perfect 23 point turn on the narrow road and we walked up the hill from our cottage to the Sun pub, had a pint in the beer garden. We never did make it to the Troutbeck reading; but then, I don’t suppose many people did if they needed a car to get there. We ate left-overs for supper and had a very different evening from the one we planned.

Friday we dedicated to redesigning our submissions systems. We looked online for an A2 desk calendar pad to write deadlines in; I found one on Amazon, ordered a copy. I know I’ve wasted the first five months; I checked academic year versions, but the only one I found had its price doubled by postage from USA, so I reckon wasting five months was first favourite. We then took time to rethink our spreadsheets. I love a spreadsheet when you first set it up; but it becomes so ungainly when you add to it. You end up with huge amounts you can’t see any more. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a spreadsheet expert: I’m a self-taught user. I decided I’d stick with a form I can see the whole of; so I’m concentrating for now on 24 of my best poems. I submitted a selection to various journals before we stopped work for lunch. I’ll just work on submitting those for now, see how it goes, resubmit them somewhere else when they’re rejected. If they’re accepted, I’ll substitute them for new poems. That’s the plan anyway. On Friday afternoon we made it to Ambleside to look around the shops, I saw lots I would have liked to buy, but I kept my purse strings tight. We came home to packing our suitcases for leaving on Saturday morning; had a chippie tea.

On Saturday we finished packing, had a brew, packed the car and left the cottage. We drove home via Low Sizergh Barn where we had breakfast. Hilary bought me a lovely hairy sloth, because I wouldn’t take any money for petrol. My ‘alternative mother’ poem about the three-toed sloth is one of my favourites, so I’ll be taking my Sloth Mummy to readings with me in future. We left the Barn and drove home, the end of a wonderful week of poetry and meta-poetry; and beer, wine and food and general good stuff.

Hilary (R), me (L) and Sloth Mummy (C) (photo courtesy of Ben Robinson).

If If

I’m going to leave you with my Long Meg poem this week. I revisited it, redrafted it last year for the portfolio. Legend has it, you can’t count them: you arrive at a different total each time you try. All I can say is, my poem reflects the legend and Meg liked it. At least, she didn’t say she didn’t like it, so that’ll do me.

Long Meg and her Daughters

On that magical day heralding summer
Meg brought her enchantment of girls
to wash their faces in the dew
as dawn rose behind their virgin skirts.

One hypocritical elder
slanders the euphoria of women
and he’s lauded as saint, sees the dancers
hounded as witches by the villagers.

The snake venom in the standing prick
of that horny zealot paralysed their dance.
Petrified, yet they still seem to move in the ring.
Count them if you can. I dare you.

Rachel Davies

2018

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