Craft or sullen art?

ways with words in the city of Wells

IMG_7815
The word “sea” is small and easily uttered.
They utter it lightly who know least about it.
A vast ancient terror is locked in the name
like energy in an atom.
– George Mackay Brown, The Sea.

In spite of lashings of wind and rain, we met last night, 6th January, with Sara in the chair. As at previous January meetings, most people brought poems by other people. It was a lively and interesting evening.

Where I could find them, I have added links to the particular poems. Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas  and John Betjeman are reading their own poems, and the Billy Collins link is to a particularly charming animation. Each one is well worth reading/listening to, if you have the time!

Wales was represented by R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas and Gillian Clarke,  Ireland by Greg Delanty and Seamus Heaney, Scotland by Robert Burns, W.S. Graham

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The Many Joys of May

MAY 20th : Claire Coleman , Claire Dyer, Sarah Gregory, John Richardson, Graeme Ryan, Ama Bolton, Michael Loveday,Ruth Sharman, Morag Kiziewicz, Conor Whelan

The meetup on Saturday 20th May was particularly rich in talent and in variety.  It showcased outstanding work by many of the Day’s participants and lead us all into deep and dark places where – given the sense of trust and community which has developed this year among the meetup writers – we all felt safe to go.  An extraordinary Day, even by the standards of the already remarkable Project 2017 year.

Arnold Böcklin’s iconic painting, The Isle of the Dead helped to define a working ‘space’ for the morning where many disparate pieces of writing, and many different approaches to writing came together in fruitful synthesis.  We were very fortunate that Straid prizewinner Ruth Sharman was willing to speak at length about her marvellous collection, Scarlet Tiger, which Ama Bolton had reviewed.  Ruth’s poem inspired by the Böcklin painting also gave us a springboard into the topic of ekphrastic poetry, which Michael Loveday had already written about very usefully on his personal Page on the blog. Michael had referred us to a piece in which Martyn Crucefix explored the poems in the recent Holburne Museum anthology, From Palette to Pen.  We looked carefully at Martyn’s suggested list of approaches to writing about works of art and tried to relate them to some of the individual poems we were sharing through the Day.  The result of this enquiry seemed very interesting: few of the project writers’ poems actually  ‘fitted’ the categories on the list, but the list provided a wonderful set of starting points for attempting new ekphrastic work.

There was strong resistance among the meetup writers to becoming ‘trapped’ in the dark heart of Böcklin’s piece.  This came over in our first writing exercise, and even more strongly when we considered two further powerfully  life-affirming poems –one  by John Richardson of Brokenborough Poets and the other by  Graeme Ryan from Taunton – whose movement in both cases was out of darkness into light and hope. The diptych pieces written in response to this morning session seem likely to emerge soon as an unusually powerful record of an unusually powerful writing day.

We spent part of the afternoon , under Claire Dyer’s generous and lucid guidance, exploring more ideas which Claire is working on as part of the project she is sharing with the group.  Claire helped us to consider  two contrasting but linked ideas, both outlined on her personal Page on this blog, both experimenting with using  incomplete utterance to suggest meanings without committing ( and therefore perhaps without limiting ) them to the words printed on the page.  The exercise based on the alarming term aposiopesis produced some fascinating work.  A companion exercise I suggested to discover what could be created by deliberately rendering an utterance incomplete – how new meanings could be created by omissions from a text – was much less interesting than Claire’s  idea of actual redaction that had given rise to it. It seemed afterwards that the technique of redaction was necessarily one of shifting a poem into a graphic object.  It was therefore essential to see the redacted space, and perhaps even to see the ghostly residue of what had been blotted out. Merely abstracting parts of a piece of writing was not enough.

The final long session of the Day was devoted to a long poem by Graeme Ryan which brought to the surface a challenging series of questions: what level of difficulty an audience can cope with in a longer piece of writing; the nature and importance of narrative ‘thread’; the use of literary allusion; the desirability or otherwise of devising a new formal structure to suit an extended piece; and the problem of creating  work dealing with political/social issues without the piece being misread by people who have a pre-existing perspective on the subject the writer wants to treat.  Graeme’s poem was a meditation on a nuclear power station, about which there were  different strongly held and well-argued opinions in the room.  It was a brave and  ambitious poem and a remarkable testament to the Day that we were still able to grapple with such issues six hours after our working Day began.

This post is only a thin and inadequate record of an outstanding Day.  Thank you so much to everyone who took part and  who contributed so much.  Poems are already coming in to me from some of the writers who shared the Day.  Now this post is away, I can look forward with great excitement and joy to reading them.  The rest of you, I suspect, will have to wait until they find their much deserved way into ‘proper’ print.

If you were part of the May Meetup, please add your comments below this post.

a post from Mark Haworth-Booth

A new discovery for me and perhaps for you

Have you heard of a poet called Bodil Bech? I am assuming that you haven’t but if I’m wrong please leave me a reply and tell me more. She was Danish and wrote in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is her most famous poem:

In the Tram by Bodil Bech

Why I wonder am I so strangely happy?

It’s as if two birds were living

behind my tense breasts –

golden sweetness rises and falls

each time I breathe –

this tender quivering is almost painful –

my feet have an urge to leave the ground,

and my arms to row up into the heavens.

So I am

no ordinary lady –

Or maybe I am

extremely ordinary –

for am I not sitting here

in the tram

paying the conductor

and turning a calm profile

towards the window?

Perhaps there are many such women,

also turning a calm profile

towards the window

who are just as profoundly happy as I am.

Are we all sitting

with birds behind our breasts

and with a lap quivering

like a fiery rose?

Trans. John Irons, 100 Danish poems – from the medieval ballad to the present day (University of Washington Press, 2011). ‘In the Tram’ was first published in 1938.

If you were not impressed you will need read no further – but everyone I’ve shared this poem with has been impressed so I am assuming you are still with me.

This poem has been on my mind recently for several reasons. I’ve just started reading the lively new anthology The Zoo of the New edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson. They feel pleased that they have upped the percentage of women poets considerably from previous anthologies like the Heaney / Hughes Rattlebag. However, I found that I’d assumed (rightly as it turns out) that they would not include Bodil Bech or what has become her signature poem. Although it is easy to find online these days, Bodil Bech is a very unfamiliar name to Anglophone poets. Which is why I have been advancing the cause of this poem in small ways.

I read ‘In the Tram’ at the Teignmouth Poetry Festival a few weeks ago. I’ve attended all the festivals so far – this was the fourth. From the beginning Teignmouth has included a very welcome innovation – an evening of poetry in translation. Such a great idea. There seems to be an abundance of linguists in the area and the number of languages covered is impressive. I asked if I could add the Danish of Bodil Bech this year and was accepted. I read the English first, then the Danish. I wanted the audience to have the pleasure of picking up echoes of those words we adapted from what became Danish into our English word hoard: words like brysterne for breasts, ro for row and, best of all, skd. The last word is the most interesting. It is pronounced ‘skerth’ and means ‘lap’. It looks a bit like English skirt, which might be considered to relate to lap – so I looked up skirt in the OED. I was very happy to find that, in Middle English, skirt occasionally meant lap.

I should perhaps explain that my mother was from Copenhagen. She died almost 60 years ago but I remain a loyal half-Dane in her honour. She might well have taken that same tram and, who knows, had those same thoughts and feelings. In preparation for reading the poem in the original in Danish at Teignmouth, I had a cousin read it in her lovely Danish into my phone. I played it back endlessly, trying to copy her lovely, subtle intonations. I think I got away with the rendition – it was, of course, a labour of love.

Moving Into Spring

Although Saturday 25th February was actually the second meetup of the year, it had a special inaugural quality of its own…..

During January, the PROJECT 2017  blog had filled up with so much inspiring  and challenging material that for the first time we were able to structure the whole meetup day around the ongoing projects of the writers in the room. We are hoping to maintain this pattern for the remaining meetups of the year.

First up was the rich compendium of project writers’ thoughts about deciding which of their poems were most likely to achieve  competition success.  The list was compiled from group work in January and gave the February writers plenty of opportunity for discussion and food for thought.

We were able to apply these ideas to AMA BOLTON’S excellent poem, Fig, which had been highly commended last October in Torbay.  Groups considered Fig as a successful competition entry and took the role of judges explaining the reasons for their choice. One of Fig’s most striking qualities was the poet’s fierce and forensic attention to her word choices.  A piece of writing can only be as good as its weakest word is one of the main themes of this year’s meetups.  Fig, in the judge’s and February group’s opinion, simply had no weak words.

CLAIRE DYER’S project is exploring the ways that words carry meanings below their literal surfaces and the ways in which meanings can come up from the deeps of the mind and heart.  The conscious brain can sometimes be deaf to these subterranean messages so Claire introduced us to an anagram technique to free us from too much attention to the literal.  The music and patterning of her poem Owls was a very effective example of allowing the words to lead a poem’s ‘meaning’ rather than the intended ‘meaning’ putting a  straitjacket on a poem’s words.  Owls appears on Claire’s Page on this blog.

It is only a short step from the idea that words can give us doorways into deeper meanings to SARAH GREGORY’S exploration of the effect of bringing words and images together on one page, giving neither one priority.  Sarah brought seven specially made posters, each based on the same poem, but each combining the poem with a graphic image in a slightly different way.  Sarah has written about the usefulness of the ensuing discussion on her Page.

MICHAEL LOVEDAY had already raised questions about the problems of truth-telling in autobiography.  During the afternoon, we shared poems by several of the meetup writers for whom this was an issue and began to explore the boundaries between fact and fiction, straightforward personal narrative and revelation of the deeper self.

All the themes we explored in February  will play an important part in the April meetup, when LESLEY SAUNDERS will be bringing us into the magical space of her work as a translator and sharing with us some of the detailed decisions a translator has to make.  This close editing is crucial for every writer so we will all be both inspired and (probably) daunted by the experience of sharing Lesley’s work.  There is a recent entry about this on Lesley’s Page on the blog.

Other excellent recent blog contributions to explore….

  • new progress reports from Janet McClean, Marilyn Francis, Verona Bass, Ama Bolton and Ann Preston
  • the new Page from Sara-Jane Arbury outlining her project to create a collection around her neurological condition, with 2 fantastic poems by Norman Macaig
  • the new Page from singer/songwriter Miranda Pender
  • our first musical Page from Graeme Ryan
  • the new Page from writer/artist Paul Michael Browne who will be adding to our Words & Images exploration by introducing us to some of his work with film when we meet up in the BRLSI in June
  • a new Page on successful Pamphlet Submissions first published by the Poetry Business
  • 2 Max Ernst images to trigger experiments with Words & Images (on the Ekphrastic Page )

And, as RSThomas said, “That was only on one island”

We are still hoping to see personal Pages filling up with more project writers’ monthly Progress Reports, and more entries coming in for the Magazine Successes and Competition Placings, and for the upcoming Readings Page. 

It will also be very good to have more Almanac entries month on month, in the manner perhaps of the January contribution from North Devon poet MARK HAWORTH-BOOTH.  I have just added a new Page to the header list –ALMANAC  – to which you are all invited to contribute a brief but brilliant seasonal piece of writing every month.

The April meetup is under construction at the moment.  As well as Lesley Saunders’ translation project mentioned above, ROBIN THOMAS will be sharing his recent Eyewear pamphlet, A Fury of Yellow, which has already been reviewed by AMA BOLTON and SUE SIMS.   We will also ( hopefully) be sharing off piste outcomes from the February meetup with some new ‘anagram’ pieces, some explorations with Words & Images, and pieces inspired by the Böcklin painting, Isle of the Dead, which RUTH SHARMAN posted for us on our Ekphrastic Page.

Happy Writing, Everyone!

Truly Hot Off the Press!

Before many of us got home after today’s meetup, Janet McClean had already posted this poem for the blog!  What a wonderful gift from such an amazing day…. Thank you so much, Janet, and thank you also to everyone who brought such energy, grace of spirit and talent to the Pulteney Room today. 

Door 6516 into Project 17

And so to start

Sitting in this room full of writers

Listening to jewels echoing in the ear

Our lioness urges the pride

To strive for

Truth and excellence

Excellence in Truth

Kindness but no false flattery here

I scribble in pencil

A Papermate with rubber attached

For ease

To erase any clumsy word smudges

And so to start

February the Fascinating Month

Almost a month since the last Project post.  You can see from the way the blog Pages are filling what a creative month it has been.  Here are some February highlights, but this is by no means an exhaustive list!

THIRTY WRITERS are now actively engaged in Project 2017, from places as far afield as Taunton, Wimborne, Exeter, Malmesbury, Reading, Newport in Essex, Glastonbury and Wells.

Singer songwriter MIRANDA PENDER has just joined us as a long distance guest. Miranda is just completing her second album and has written about it extensively on her Page.

PAUL BROWNE  from the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute is planning to let us share and respond to his exploration of the relationship between writing and film.  ( This will be a special, extra workshop session, with details still to be announced.)

Those of us who have been brave enough to keep up with our online progress logs, are now running into obstacles… changing direction…. beginning to discover what our project commitments really mean.  There are eloquent new ‘progress’ entries from LESLEY SAUNDERS, VERONA BASS,  and MICHAEL LOVEDAY, to name three.

MICHAEL LOVEDAY’S progress piece draws attention to one of the core problems we all face when writing personal memoir/autobiography. He puts it very well.   The process of writing and gathering (poems about a relative ) has raised doubts about the viability of my  project. ….Tension and conflict is the stuff of writing, and the writer in me does not have the same agenda as the son. Can I produce a rounded portrait without risking offence? How does one write interesting biography about living relatives?  So many of us have been in this place. We will certainly be visiting this conundrum when we meet up on February 25th.

February’s principal theme is the how writers select the individual words which are the raw materials of everything they  do.  A piece of writing can only be as good as its weakest word.  What does this mean for our poems, our translations, our prose pieces, our magazine and competition entries?  We will have three extraordinary contributions on this, one from LESLEY SAUNDERS who will be drawing us into her experience of translating from the Portuguese, and another from CLAIRE DYER, who is exploring how differently meaning arises from the conscious and the unconscious selves.

Writer/graphic artist SARAH GREGORY will be bringing images to spark verbal responses, and helping us think about how the processes of moving from image to word / word to image really work. How do they feed each other?  How do they qualify each other?  How do they complement each other? How do they conflict?  All these ideas will inform our feedback sessions on the pieces of ongoing writing the thirteen workshop participants will  bring in.

We will also be visiting ANN PRESTON’S project in relation to her fascinating piece about artist Djordje Ozbolt whose work has featured recently at the Holburne Museum.  Please seek this out on Ann’s Page on the blog.  We will be using this as our first portal into the EKPHRASTIC theme which has already appealed to so many writers who have joined Project 2017.

And finally, three marvellously chosen quotes from JANET McCLEAN  who is rejoining the Writing Days this month.

QUOTE ONE :   Instructions for living a life.  Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it. 

QUOTE TWO : Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.” Mary Oliver

QUOTE THREE :  If not now, when?  Anon

a-february-sky

A February Sky

Nothing but Good News

So many good things happening on Project 2017.  Here are just a few which came in this week…. click the names on this post to reach the personal Pages of the writers featured here and learn more about their news.

2016 Templar Poetry Straid Collection Winner RUTH SHARMAN has just joined Project 2017 to work on the poems of French writer Philippe Jaccottet. Ruth will be Guest Reading at Dawn Gorman’s excellent, Words & Ears at The Swan in Bradford on Avon,  on Thursday 26th January next week.

Widely published Exeter poet CHRISSY BANKS has just joined Project 2017 as a long-distance member of the group. Chrissy will be working towards a second full collection. Take a look at the website which heads her Page on the Project blog and which can also be accessed here.

Fresh from his success with  A Fury of Yellow from Eyewear in 2016,  ROBIN THOMAS now has a forthcoming collection to be published by Cinnamon.  Robin will be bringing a sequence of poems to share with us during the Meetups in April and July.

Project 2017 Convenor SUE BOYLE will be Guest Reading at Ware Poets in Hertfordshire on Friday 3rd February with  a new programme titled Safe Passage: the secret history of a poet’s life.

CLAIRE DYER and RUTH SHARMAN  both appear on the May 15th billing at Anne-Marie Fyfe’s impossibly  prestigious London Troubadour. A date for everyone to circle in their poetry diaries.  Be there if you can. And, if you haven’t been to the Troubadour before, prepare to be amazed!

 

glad-day

William Blake : Glad Day or The Dance of Albion

FINALLY, unless the tiny number of  stragglers don’t mail in their cheques by the end of this month, this year’s Cafe Writing Days  are now virtually fully booked.  This has been the fastest ever booking for a Cafe Workshop series – and no wonder, when you read the names of the talented writers already on the list, and the wonderful variety of challenging projects they intend to share.