from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

springing the trap

I'm back. I'm doing some work with poetry for the Prince's Trust with rural primary schools at the moment; we're gearing up for the first performance in Exeter Phoenix on Thursday. This has all been pretty back-to-back and interspersed with workshops for adults, and has involved hundreds of miles of travel and early starts and late nights.

Yesterday, I spent 10 hours straight trying to work out why my email outgoing server, after years of working fine, has been refusing to send my emails – although they appear in my 'sent' box. I didn't know they weren't going, so the ramifications re deadlines for copy, articles and approving the cover for my new book, not to mention a great many people not receiving responses to their emails, are wide-ranging and I'm feeling pretty sore about it all, as so much of my work is email-based. (I haven't solved the problem, but those of you who have my internet-today email address please use the one on my Fire in the Head website instead.)

The joys of e-communication. And I need to add to the list of People I Appreciate my mac-guru, Jim, in Tavy Typesetting, who has spent hours and hours without charging me over many years now sorting technical/electronic problems. And those of you who have emailed to ask if I'm OK – thank you to you too.

On a brighter note: I've just had the proofs for the cover of my next poetry collection: All the Missing Names of Love will appear from IDP in early April.


One of the rigours and joys both of my life facilitating workshops is that I have to think up new ones all the time. I've been doing this now for 21 years, and I try my best never to repeat exactly what I've delivered before. Of course there are many overlaps, and some exercises come back in different clothes. Workshops such as my outdoor 'Ground of Being' ones on Dartmoor (advance notice of this as a weeklong residential in France, 1–8 September), held on the equinoxes (next one 18 March) and solstices, take loosely the same shape with addenda and changes according to the season.

The common core in my practice though is a trust in the subconscious. Poetry depends at least in part on freshness, surprise and originality of the images and metaphors used, and this happens best when we get out of our own light. A great deal of my time is dedicated to helping people unlearn the tyranny of the conscious rational mind; or at least to be able to sidestep its grip at times (the more highly educated the mind, the harder this often appears to be). The most inspired and inspiring writing, creatively speaking, springs from somewhere other than the 'thinking' aspect of mind which, to me, is employed as a secondary shaping process.

So there is 'thinking logically', and there is 'thinking associatively', which is not really thinking so much as a kind of linked-particle slipslide connectivity. Poetry employs and needs both, but in my view the more alive and vital a poem is the more likely its genesis in the associative – an undervalued mode in the West, at least since the Enlightenment, I believe.

So I try and offer 'bait', as it were, to the feeling- and image-based associative aspects of the unconscious mind; the 'right brain', as it has been described (Roger Sperry and others).

One of the ways I do this is to offer exercises that prompt free association; usually I offer my prompts at speed, so there is no time for participants to think and dither, but instead go with 'first thought right thought'. I work with triggers for images. I also like to suggest that people use others' words as starting points, erasing them later; this injection of a different vocab/style can often catalyse new expression.

On Monday evening for the Poetry School I wanted to concentrate on metaphors. Our working text is the wonderful Bloodaxe anthology Staying Alive. I offered a series of exercises: we picked and read out ten metaphors each at random from the book; then we wrote some of our own; then we used the last line of a couple of the poems from which we'd lifted our metaphors as a starting-line for, first, ten disconnected lines of our own, one beneath the other; then for ten connected lines. I asked people then to remove the borrowed lines but to use the rest to quarry something new, without too much thought (aka rational intervention).

Because we'd been working with images 'foreign' to our own personal subconscious, but some of them at least recognisable as 'felt' images from, let's say, the collective unconscious, much of our own work in response to the trigger was different from our usual. For myself, I ended up with some bizarre and quite dark imagery (I have also been thinking about the myth of Persephone, relevant to this time of year), which, while not necessarily comfortable, offered me new details.

Again, in relation to the idea of loosening the grip of the conscious mind, I reminded people that poetry, unlike prose, does not have to unfold in the shape of a linear syntactically-senseful narrative. In poetry it is not just the rational mind of the reader or audience that's being engaged but also their imagination, which can make leaps and somersaults and bridge gaps. Don't spell it all out, I say. And don't feel you have to write in complete sentences. And especially 'show, don't tell'. In the interests of this I also suggested they try reading their poem, with a few tweaks as necessary, from the bottom up – often so much more dynamic and surprising.

Here's the first draft of my own weird little piece from the workshop, turned the other way up, so to speak:

Springing the Trap

in the news from a distant star
back where you started
finding home –
and, contraflow,
in cold clear air
breaching gold
where, moonlight lying
on grass like frosted tresses,
you, being salmon,
leap, and leap         until –

or, leaning on wind,
comes at last
a kind of solution
one that cannot arise
from words from semen
from haemoglobin

but only
in dialogue with silence
speaking in tongues
like the dead

~ Roselle Angwin


  1. I really like this. One of those poems that I can read again and again...

    1. Thanks Sophia... not sure I'd even grace it with the title of 'poem', but I appreciate the comment, and you were after all in on the conception so to speak... :-)

  2. I get the same sort of feeling reading little jewels like this as I do from reading Toon Tellegen's Raptors though I'm observing something from a long distance through a zoom lens, something private and ineviatble.

  3. Karen, thank you - I'll take that as a compliment! :-). I'm not even sure what the 'poem' is about, although perhaps my subconscious has some idea (if 'ideas' are part of the subconscious realm at all, of course!).


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