Oh so soon I fall behind! Yesterday’s prompt was to write an elegy for someone dead, lost but not forgotten. I’m afraid I just didn’t get myself in gear, but I have written a VERY SHORT not-really-an-elegy-more-like-a-ditty about the long-extinct sharp-toothed fox that lived in what is now Tibet during the Ice Age.
Mountain-top prowler when Tibet was polar,
Prehistoric, cold-adapted, hypercarnivore.
Lament this lofty canine reduced here to molar,
Body, pack, species now just one fossil jaw.
A recipe prompt! But, but – foxes? Surely people don’t eat foxes? Oh yes they do. In the case of the Fat Lady Clarissa Dickson Wright, they eat them stewed with chestnut pasta.
Remove guts and skin,
That’s how to begin,
Says Clarissa, when prepping a fox.
Now submerge in a brook.
Do it all by the book!
Nags Clarissa, when cleaning a fox.
In only three days
That smell washes away,
Claims Clarissa, when drying a fox.
And after its bath
I just chop it in half,
Laughs Clarissa, when jointing a fox.
It can taste rather nice
With a touch of allspice,
Winks Clarissa, when cooking a fox.
But the best by a mile
Is Italian style,
Slurps Clarissa, when eating a fox.
Oh heaven help me, here we are again! Some of you may know that last year I completed ‘National Poetry Writing Month’ or NaPoWriMo for the very first time, not by following the official prompts but by combining them with a personal imperative to feature otters in every poem. No-one was more surprised than me at the success of this gambit. So, this year…..
Again, I have every expectation of abject failure.
The first official prompt is inspired by Kay Ryan, sometimes known as a ‘poet of compression’, and looks for short lines, tightly-woven rhymes and an animal. An animal, you say? Riddle me this…
out pops the ‘o’,
a slippery pip,
leaving behind ‘fx’,
shorthand for tricks
magicked to Orcs.
Reduce by ‘f’ and
to a lumbering
oxen-free, an ‘f’
will play louder
‘X’-less, it leaves
corridors of power,
but tell the F.O.
to f.o., it’ll leave you
with a vote on
a treasure map,
a perfect kiss. Press
‘fox’ if you must,
it will be the greater,
Ash Flower (after Anselm Keifer)
The dead, who are thinner than gas,
might fit comfortably in their millions
in a simple cardboard box.
So why this desolate hangar?
Ankle-deep in guano and plaster-dust,
quiet as a sick forest –
(was Buchenwald once really a forest?)
Trees, acid-stripped and skeletal,
grow down out of a broken pane of sky.
Why has he painted such a mighty space?
Must we fit in there with them?
The millions whose last words
were a scrabbled cunieform on the inside
of the heavy chamber doors,
thickest where the handle should have been?
A small hello from me, with a collage of my current and recent reading material…oops, missed out Bunny by Selima Hill, which I’m re-reading for the poetry book club I go to. Ah well, you’ll just have to imagine a cover for that one.
Hello! This is for anyone who would like to know what kind of stuff happened in my recent creative writing workshops for The Forge in Stanley. It’s also a bit about how poems might develop after such a workshop. If that’s not for you, then no worries, see you later xx
I recently ran two versions of the same workshop, one as an open public 3-hour workshop for Northern Writes Festival, and a shorter 2-hour version this morning for the Just For Women group. The basic structure was the same, but with 3 writing exercises in the longer version, 2 in the shorter session. In both, we start by drawing a map of somewhere we knew well as children. Over 30-45 minutes, we add on layers of details – street names and nicknames; people, animals, significant trees; places where stories happened to us and to others; urban legends; colours, sounds, textures and smells. It’s incredible how much detail you can recall using the technique of mapping.
Then we read a couple of example poems. I think of this bit as a choice between ‘landscape’ and ‘portrait’. The poems I’ve been using have been The Bight by Elizabeth Bishop, and Jean by my friend Jane Burn. We talk for a while about images, how to make them vivid, how to make verbs work hard for you. (Jean’s hair doesn’t curl, it ‘fizzes’, for example). Then we free write a landscape or portrait of our own, using the maps and their memories as our inspiration.
In the longer workshop I also ask people to try a short prose-poem or piece of flash fiction telling a real or imagined anecdote, and hand people some examples of ludicrous but real headlines to get them going. (One person in Stanley used this one – Ghost Hunters Stumble On Graveyard Porn Shoot). At some point we have tea. At the end we give our pieces a bit of spit-and-polish, talk about what editing we might do at home, share the bits we like so far. And then…
Freewrite in workshop
Edit 1 in workshop
Well this is what happened to mine – huge frustration, followed by a couple of edits that got me quite close to a finished poem. It may not be brilliant, but it’s more interesting than versions 1 or 2. In my opinion.
Edit 2 at home
Edit 3 at home
Edit 4 at home
Sleek among the rotten
leaves are blackbirds
swallowing small things
whole; should a brother
wear a white patch
volleying pecks at him
(naturally to death)
other as he is to the Race
and Nation of Blackbird,
that reaches in the dark
to the outermost edges
of the next bird’s song.
I lied! There is one more showing of The Trouble With Compassion to come this year, because the fine folk of Stanley have booked me for the Northern Writes Festival next week. So if you’re in the vicinity at 4pm next Wednesday 7th December, please bob along to the Forge for some fun, film, poetry, music, musings, sketching, chocolates and clementines. All the details here.
Even more excitingly, it doesn’t stop there! I am also running a full-day workshop for the festival on Saturday 10th December, which will feature map-making and truly ridonkulous news headlines. More details here.
Well, of course I should and shall still be trying to do my compassion meditation (although I am failing in dramatic style whenever I try to extend metta to Tories these days) – but what I mean is, that’s the end of this year’s tour for The Trouble With Compassion. Many thanks to all my venues and all my audience members. You can still buy the poetry collection from Burning Eye Books.
In the meantime, here is my scary-lovely alter ego Imelda, taking out her frustration and self-loathing on a party-sized chocolate cake.
And here are all the wonderful pieces of advice and encouragement given to Imelda via the Heart Of Hearts…
Wonderful times at Jabberwocky Market Festival, where these delightful souls drew pictures of one another whilst finding out what made their subject happy. Kudos to Katie who likes ‘control’ and ‘sarcasm’! Her own, or other people’s, I wonder?
LAST SHOW is on National Poetry Day, this Thursday 6 October, 1pm at City Library, Sunderland for Sunderland Literature Festival. It’s only a suggested donation of £2, so you can easy afford to buy a copy of my collection as well 😉
Compassion without action is nothing, so they say. I’ve been looking for examples of concrete goodness in the communities around me, so a few weeks back I went to a deserted car park in Middlesbrough on a Monday evening, to help members of the Sikh temple hand out food to the homeless.
Now, I think I’ve been conditioned by many TV shows to expect a certain kind of soup-kitchen vibe, perhaps featuring a cheery guitar-playing proselytiser or two, and of course a load of grateful recipients. But it’s not like that. Of course it’s not like that. For one thing, Sikhs aren’t big on preaching while they work. The development and practical application of compassion is an essential part of devotion for Sikhs, with particular emphasis on the distribution of food. In cities with larger Temples, for example in Birmingham, the community goes into the town centre on a weekly basis and simply gives away free hot food to whoever wants it. In our slightly Walking Dead-style Boro car park, we were five people, two camping tables, forty takeaway cartons of lentils and rice, and two boxes of second-hand Greggs donuts. The handout was swift, slightly chaotic, and mostly conducted in silence by both givers and receivers. I wondered what the youngest member of our group, just a boy, made of this dutiful work.
I had a bit of a chat on with one woman, who carried in her head the days, times and locations of all the charitable food handouts currently running in the area. It’s obvious they are essential for her and many others. But do they provide compassion, emotional sustenance beyond the bare nutritional essentials? It was very difficult to make human contact, very difficult for both sides of the table to make eye contact, very difficult indeed to feel anything other than desperately sad as the thirty-minute feeding frenzy came to an end and the last six spoons of sugar were ladled into the last cup of coffee, and the forty homeless men and women drifted away to places I can’t fully imagine.
I swear, I don’t know I’m born.