Monday, 29 June 2009

French House Party

I'm just back from my French holiday no no it's a job really week.

Last year I had an email out of the blue asking me if I'd like to run four days of creative writing workshops at a renovated house, called St Raymond, near Carcassonne for an organisation called French House Party.

Naturally I said, Yes, that sounds lovely.

And it was. So I was asked back and it was even better this year, because I knew what to expect. I worked with six apprentice writers every morning on a variety of games and exercises to get their imaginations cranked up, or to create characters or playing about with verbs, then we had the afternoons off, although I did offer one-to-one sessions if anyone wanted them. They all took up that offer. There we talked about their ambitions or time management or how the hell could they figure out finishing the novel they're writing.

I am also given a room in the villa with the writing holiday makers, which could be hell, but everyone's very respectful, and I spent the afternoons swimming and lying in the shade acting like I was thinking very intensely, except when I woke myself up snoring.

What I love most about the week is
1. the energy and enthusiasm the people bring to their first footsteps into writing
2. how a bunch of disparate people create a cohesively strange group
3. the discovery of imaginations
4. the fabulous food and wine I eat almost continuously for five days
5. meeting people I may never have otherwise crossed paths with.

And, so, please allow me to introduce them to you in the order in which I met them:
Tina, a freelance journalist from Leeds,
Eric, a golfer/freelance journo from North Carolina,
Rick, a professional origamist, whose signature is this butterfly,
Marie Louise, a painter who lives in Venice and sometimes in the south of France,
Peter, an semi-retired accountant with a taste for pastis,
and Helen, who likes wolves.

They all brought a contribution of personality to the five days and were immensely generous with their ideas and honesty. I think (or perhaps hope would be more accurate) at some point during the week each of them had a small YES moment about their writing, which are the moments I will treasure in my mind, instead of holiday snaps.

After all, it was work, not a holiday. And as if to prove the point I did tinker with an old poem and start a new one, and what was possibly most exciting (for me) was on the train home I was flooded with ideas I wanted to explore further. I suddenly felt enormously stimulated. As if I'd be on a writing retreat.

And they have been shining a light on my path. A great result. I'd like to thank them

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


I was a little nervous about the launch last week, given that it was following the wonderful launch of Unsaid Undone at Carnforth train station, which was a lovely relaxed affair in the gorgeous tea rooms.
However, I needn't have been. With Harrogate Brass Band (not in person, sadly) setting the proceedings off, we (or at least I was and hope others) were propelled into a space of strength, melancholy and uplift.
Which is exactly the kind of resonance the poems within The Crowd Without also have.

All the poets gave highly personalised readings of their work, which emphasised the distinctions between their work.
From the lyric narratives of Segun Lee-French, via the exhuberent celebrations of nature of Polly Atkin, the quieter rhythmic observations of Ruth Allen, the sobering commentry on mental health from Chris Culshaw, the unsettlingly sad humour of Andrew McMillan we ended the evening with the askew world of childhood as seen by Jennifer Copley.
Coo, what a lot of adjectives.
The auditorium was also a star worth mentioning - it manged to provide a warm, informal space for the poets to project their work, and to chat with the audience. It was the first evening we'd had use of the bar and (despite my freezing the white wine) people clearly enjoyed the sliding between the two spaces during the interval, giving a sense of expanse and digestion for the poems we were told.
And with it being the last event/anthology with Martin Chester in situ as designer for Flax, I'm glad it went off so well and was a fine showcase for his brilliant work.

Friday, 19 June 2009


I mentioned a while back I'd been watching starlings roost and how mesmerising I found the sight to be.

So I'm very happy to be involved in an engrossing project called Likestarlings.

I'm working with a poet called Jo Brandon, whom I've never met. We've exchanged a poem apiece (in response to each other's poem) so far. And I'm thinking again of how the murmuration swells and disappears on the wing, as words are echoed and riffed from and others are made stronger by absence from the sequential poem.

I love the open endedness of the process, how we don't know where we'll end up, and the generosity of spirit in sharing a poem so freshly worked with a complete stranger (we have a tuirnaround time of a week).

I'll let you know and hopefully read how it turns out

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Piel and Roa Isands

Thanks to those who made the following suggestions for decision-making:

Spin the wheel
Toss a coin
Make the decision, then if you feel sad, change your mind
Five frogs are sat on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many remain? Detention for anyone who answers "1" (thanks Norman, for that last one, I'll remember that for next time)

The best thing is to sit as comfortably with the final decision as poss
which I think we did admirably
and to prove it some lovely pics

Piel Castle

Roa Island

Monday, 15 June 2009

Choices choices everywhere and not a drop to drink

Never good at these. I often wonder if having a double would help. With it I could see the outcome of an alternative decision. Although that would then lead to deciding which had been the better choice - argh! another decision.

Had an ultra tough one on Saturday.

We were four, sailing to the Isle of Man, approximately a ten hour sail. An hour or so into the trip - the cloud beginning to break up, the wind a constant breeze - one starts to throw up. And throw up some more.

This is not unusual.

We continue to sail. Most people in my experience are sick, get sleep and doze for a few hours and often actually start to feel better. But then she starts to have diarrhea. And continues to vomit.

I am more concerned. This is not usual. I check our position on the chart. We have come about ten miles, with about thirty to go. We could turn round and be back on a nice flat anchorage in three hours, or we could continue for another seven. If we carry on for a wee while to see if she gets any better and conforms to my experience but doesn't, we'll have further to sail back.

I suggest to Richard (who is skipper for the day) we could turn round. He says nothing. He doesn't have to. I know he doesn't want to. I don't want to. It's turned into a beautiful sunny day, brilliant wind, reasonable flat sea (to the initiated) and we're actually out there heading to the Isle of Man - where neither of have been and have talked about going to for months.

She fouls her trousers. Now she is dry retching, loudly, violently. Says she wants to go home. Lee, the fourth crew, is consulted. He takes a minute to answer.

We turn round. The wind coming from behind us now means everything feels slower, flatter. I finally persuade Mim to lie down under a pile of fleeces, blankets and wet weather gear. None of us can say how disappointed we feel. We are all focused on making sure Mim is okay, feels comfortable. We anchor three hours later. She instantly feels better. This is usual.

Alone we three admit this to each other. I ask if they think, now, if it was the right decision. Richard tells me he wouldn't have considered turning around if I hadn't mentioned it. Lee says it's his experience that people sail through it.

On the short trial sail we'd made the previous day she had taken her seasickness tablets. But because they'd made her feel drowsy she was reluctant to take them for the longer trip. I suggested it'd be a good idea. But decided not to insist. I didn't want to nag. She was an adult, after all. She could make her own decisions and be responsible to them.

If we had just not decided to turn around, she would have suffered for another three hours - nothing in the scheme of things, but when you're seasick, interminable - and then we'd have been at anchor as we were now. Calm. She would've had to ferry home. Although she could have taken her tablets for that four hour trip (less if she got the super speedy catamaran).

How many decisions do we not make in the course of one day? How many decisions could we avoid making and get away with it?

We could have decided to insist she either took her seasick tablets or not allow her to come, or say if she decided not to take them then she was stuck with that decision.

Or decided not to have asker her in the first place since it was a long trip and she has a history of travel sickness.

It's all so easy in hindsight - or harder, depending on your decision

Monday, 8 June 2009


I mentioned some time ago I was working in a school on nature writing. We were asked to select two pieces of all the writing to be made into permanent displays for the playground

TA DAH! With great unveiling of red satin rouched curtains ...

Friday, 5 June 2009

In Conversation with Anne Caldwell

The latest in my terribly informal series of conversations (Melvyn Bragg really need not worry) is with Anne Caldwell, author of Slug Language, a pamphlet published by Happenstance Press.

Sarah: I found Slug Language a wonderfully quiet book about our interaction with the natural world, recurring images of water, valleys and wind reinforced our smallness in the face of these elements. I was curious, therefore, as to the choice of the title poem, when it is one of the few in which the human presence is magnified. Can you talk a little bit about your thinking?

Anne: I thought a lot about the title and it went through several changes. In the end, I think the unusual combination of 'slug' and 'language', and the fact that the poem is about the nature of writing and sex swung it for me. I think writing does not come from the head, but somewhere lower - not even the heart! I did not want a 'lady poet' flowerery title if you know what I mean.

Sarah: I'm going to be awkward here, Anne, and say, no, I don't know exactly what you mean! Could you expand a little on this?

Anne: I had thought about calling the collection 'Longing is Opened By the Wind - which is one of the other poems in the collection, but response from other reader was that it sounded a bit like a 'lady poet' flowery title - i.e A little bit whimsical for a collection.

Sarah: There are a few poems in the collection that rework archetypal and traditional folk/fairy tales. What has been the significance of these to your poetry writing over the years?

Anne: Many writers plunder this heritage in their work, and I hope I have my own take on this material. I find myths fascinating, but have not related particularly to classical Greek stories. Folk and fairy tales are more subversive and lodge deep within us, so to use them as a basis for writing seems very fruitful to me. I am a big fan of Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. As a feminist, I also like the idea of taking a fairy tale and twisting it, or looking at it from a different perspective. This is an obvious strand in a lot of women's writing, but for me I think I am attracted to making the idea of a story very visceral, very rooted in the physical world and the experience of our bodies. I also love the thread of violence that sits at the base of many fairy tales - Cinderella's sisters chopping their toes off to fit the slipper, or the wolf being slit open in Red Riding Hood. I think this thread speaks to us about our nightmares and fears and how they can hover just on the edge of everyday life.

Sarah: How much do you feel poetry 'hovers on the edge of everyday life'? I'm wondering about a crossover here.

Anne: I am not sure that I completely understand what you are asking me here, Sarah, but I do think that poetry is found on the edge of ordinary life, often just out of range, or just under our everyday perception. Fairy tales do this as well I think -opening doors to danger, scare, love, fear etc. Areas of life that we do our best to avoid most of the time. I am also a great believer in making 'every day things extraordinary', like many other poets who write today. I don't think there is any such thing as an original idea, but I do think every writer can have an original take on the familiar. Larkin does this very well in my opinion.

Sarah: As a writer and lover of the natural world, myself, I'm interested in your views on the importance and status of 'eco'poetry in these days of increasing changes of our environment. What do you feel about this as a genre and where do you place your own work in this context?

Anne: It is another area that fascinates me, Sarah. Although I do not like labels. Poets have always written in response to the natural world, but because that world is now in crisis this new label seems to have emerged. I have been reading a lot of non-fiction this year, such as work by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane and this has inspired me to think through my own response to this subject matter - in prose and in poetry. I think such writing needs to explore 'eco' issues, but not head on. A lateral approach seems to give writing more of an imaginative rather than didactic feel to the work and more room/space to breathe. There is a lovely poem by Jean Sprackland in the poetry book, 'Feeling the Pressure' (edited by Paul Munden) that explores the inside of a greenhouse but also gets you thinking about greenhouse gases. In the Bloodaxe anthology - 'Earth Shattering' I really responded to John Burnside's poem 'Swimming in the Flood'. (There seems to be a lot of flooding in my own work because I live in an area prone to this threat!). I think if the label 'Eco' brings in a newer, younger audience to poetry then it will serve a good purpose. If it limits what people can write about in relation to the natural world then it will not be so helpful. My son is suffering from 'Eco' fatigue at the moment because it is over done as a theme at school.

Sarah: How do you think we can avoid such fatigue in poetry?

Anne: I think it is very difficult, but avoiding being didactic, or preaching can help. Illuminating the natural world and giving people a way to connect with it can also help. I know poets have been doing that for centuries but I think the need is now more urgent. I was listening to the radio today about an environmentalist/sculptor called Sebastian Brockley who is creating a memorial to extinct species in a circular sculpture on the isle of Portland - what a fantastic idea to also write about!

Sarah: Thank you, Anne, for taking the time to answer my questions and in giving leads to more writers to make connections with. There's a review here for Slug Language

FX applause

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Speaking in Boat

I love speaking (or mashing) a different language, speaking Spanish, for example, forces my voice to climb octaves, demands only essential information is related, and requires imaginative connections to cover (my huge) lack of knowledge. Speaking Italian a few years ago, was even more fabulous - I've never learnt it so mashed up Spanish, French and because I was in the north I threw in whatever German came to hand for good measure. I seemed to be understood. I certainly ate, travelled, slept in guest houses. More importantly I was improvising, pulling in any reference I could hold for long enough, as I went along. And because the words became highly valuable currency, my need for expression deepened. To communicate was urgent.

I had forgotten how much learning of boat language I'd done.

This was pointed out to me over and over last weekend by the landlubbers.

It is now prefectly natural to me to have four different names for ropes (sheets, warps, lines and halyards depending what's on either end of them). Although I can obviously see the difficulty for quick translation. And certainly 'the blue one' works just as well in some cases.

But precision in language is a gift. And there's the poetry of the words, the opportunity to get your mouth around words rarely spoken. And using these words specific to the boat helps me assimilate into that world (like morphing into that cultural oddity that was Italian Sarah). It helps me to hone my thinking. I have left land and my landself behind. Function becomes evident. A rope can't just be a rope, it has to have something attached to it, or bundled within. Just as it isn't tied to any corner of a sail, but either the head, clew or tack, depending which corner. Location needs to be identified.

Because the relationship between everything is crucial. And while this is true on land, on board it is unavoidable. Back to the urgency of language, of communication. Back to the essential existence of sailing: weather, sea, mechanics. Back to us trying to ride the natural world as best we can.