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

Tuesday 31 May 2011

books of wings

Vellator (detail): Roselle Angwin, mixed media

Tall hedges, lush with high summer – dog roses, hemp agrimony, honeysuckle, vetch.

The lane canted towards the moor and a high-flying evening with flurries of cloud grazing the sun.

Fledglings attempting liftoff, curious, unafraid.

Ever smelled a buzzard's or a crow's feather? Smells of old libraries. All those stories in a pair of wings.

Monday 30 May 2011

Elements of Poetry: next course

It's that time of year again: my next six-monthly poetry correspondence course is about to roll again, and I'm inviting applications for it. Material will be sent out during July. You can contact me with the email button on my profile, when I'll give you the address to send to, etc.

The course is personally tutored by me, and feedback is tailored entirely to the individual. This is a rich and comprehensive course, and my feedback is detailed, with at least 1 to (more usually) 3, 4 or even more A4 pages each time (depending on the module, and your ability).

This will be the fourth course, and I have to say that feedback has been consistently excellent (when I've finally managed to sort out the mess that is my website I shall post the testimonials). However, I'm told it's tough, intensive and not for either novices or the fainthearted. I expect a lot of reading of contemporary poetry, a lot of reflective as well as creative writing, and some hours dedicated to it each week. If you could do with some mentoring, brushing up your poetry skills and really focusing on accessing your creative imagination as well as refining the way you express what it is that you want to say, you might want to read on, below.

If you would prefer to be writing a novel, you can join my Storymaking correspondence course at any time. I've been running this for many years, and once again feedback is that it's both unique and effective.

I'm delighted to say that people rate my work very favourably in comparison with the other better-known courses in the UK...

elements of poetry
correspondence course (email or post)
a holistic approach
six individually-tutored modules

This correspondence course is an approach to writing poetry rooted in the fertile soil of the language of heart, soul & mind combined. It also assumes that poetry is a crucial human art.
   Poetry feeds a hunger; the need, as Clayton Eshleman  said, ‘for a more profound and ensouled world’. It’s a way of offsetting what Robert Bly describes as the ‘language of the advertising agency’.
   While this is an approach that favours the holistic, I’d like to think however that authenticity of voice, knowledge of the requirements of poetry & of the poetry world, & mastery of technique are given equal attention. I’m keen that literary quality is not sacrificed to the demand that poetry be also a means of connection, & a vibrant & essential aspect of inner work.

A poem in its way is a small self-contained unit of mystery that, as we approach, might just give us a high-voltage jolt to the heart. A poem can enlarge our experience; if it reveals something to us we are nourished by it, even if we don’t entirely understand it, even if the subject matter of the poem is strange, or sad, or difficult.

‘...this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life... Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another's experience and imaginative life.’ Adrienne Rich

‘It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.’ William Carlos Williams

‘Poetry is that
which arrives at the intellect
by way of the heart.’ R S Thomas

Course content


Module 1
What is poetry? Making a poem 
Poems to read
Assignments, reading & reflection

Module 2
The tools 1
Visual language – fundamental techniques
Imagery & metaphor
Poems to read
Assignments, reading & reflection

Module 3
The tools 2
Verbal music – rhythm, rhyme, pattern
Poems to read
Assignments, reading & reflection

Module 4
Rivers & canals
Free verse vs form; voice; inscape
Poems to read
Assignments, reading & reflection

Module 5
Drafting, editing, redrafting
Poems to explore
Assignments, reading & reflection

Module 6
Last words: (suggestions for this month’s work & for the future; publishing advice
if appropriate; assessment of new/redrafted work; overview)
Body of poems/project to send in
Assignments, reading & reflection x2
Essay or review

NB: I reserve the right to change or modify
course content as necessary
Before you sign up:
This course is intensive, & will suit both intermediate writers who are already involved in the poetry ‘scene’ & poetry writing & reading, as well as experienced writers who need a ‘top-up’ of inspiration, some brushing-up of their skills, or the discipline of a monthly deadline, & feedback. IT IS NOT FOR NOVICES.

If you don’t read contemporary poetry, this course will not be the one for you. Please don’t be offended if I reject your application & ask you to read (more) contemporary poetry before reapplying.

You need to be clear that you need to be passionate about poetry & willing to immerse yourself in it. You will be asked to borrow or buy Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive anthology on acceptance onto the course. You will need to refer to some of the poems in the anthologies for the modules. You might also findThe Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. You will also find it invaluable to read Ruth Padel: 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem; & Strong Words: modern poets on modern poetry, if you haven’t already.

This course asks of you commitment to ‘staying the course’ & to regularly making time to complete the assignments & send them in on the agreed dates. Not for the faint-hearted!  If you are in the middle of moving, divorcing, changing jobs, or have a fulltime job & family, experience suggests leaving this till another time!

Within each assignment I shall also ask you for a reflective ‘report’ on the process of working through each module, with a view to your illuminating for yourself your relationship to your own creative processes. At the end of the course, I will ask for an overall reflection, plus a review/essay.

On application you will be asked to send:
  • a covering letter explaining why you want to take this course & what you would like to achieve by working through it
  • three sample poems (applicants are selected on the basis of the above two pieces of writing)
  • the first instalment of the fee (the balance is due on the return of the third assignment). If for any reason I need to return your application this will be refunded.   

Practical details
With your acceptance letter I also send the Introduction & two modules. You will need to send me the assignments from module 1 by the end of the following month, & I will respond by the end of the next month; and so on. At the end you’ll receive an overview of your work & recommendations for continuing. I’m considering an optional 7th module, too, on the art of haiku - a useful and interesting discipline.

I am now inviting submissions from people who would like to work with me in this way, & are willing to commit themselves to completing a module a month with its associated coursework, required reading, & writing.

Next course dates are from July 2011.  Enrolments are being accepted now, with the first modules being sent out towards the end of that month. You will be returning the first assignment to me by the end of August.

What you can expect
  • An immersion in the experience of poetry, through training the eye and ear, through reading, and through writing
  • The encouragement and refining of personal creative expression
  • The development or progression of individual voice
  • An increasing confidence and assuredness in your writing
  • An enhanced recognition of what makes a ‘good’ poem
  • An ability to more usefully assess and refine your own work
  • A greater understanding of what poetry is, what its requirements are, and what it has to offer
  • A wider and deeper understanding of the poetic canon, of its range, and of the continuing importance of poetry
I have been tutoring & mentoring poets & leading workshops, courses & retreats in creative, reflective & therapeutic writing for twenty years. I’m passionate about poetry, & about the connections between creativity & wellbeing. I run the Fire in the Head writing programme, & have tutored extensively for other organisations & bodies such as Oxford University, the Open College of the Arts & the Arvon Foundation. I’ve been writer-in-residence in a variety of locations. My books include: Riding the Dragon; Creative Novel Writing; Looking For Icarus & Bardo (poetry) & Writing the Bright Moment. I’ve collaborated on a number of poetry projects. My novel Imago came out in 2011.

Fee & course content
The course fee is £395. A first instalment of £200 is required on booking; the balance is payable with the return of your third module. The fee includes an introduction, all modules with their relevant exercises, my personal report on the assignments from each module, & general further advice. (For reasons of time, it can’t include my reading of extra poetry outside of the coursework modules.) Work can be emailed as a Word doc, or posted to me. (Please let me know when signing up whether you prefer working by email or Royal Mail.)

THE SMALL PRINT: Please note that no refunds are made once I have responded to your first assignment. If for any reason you decide, on receipt of the Introduction and the first two modules, that the course is not for you, I will refund your deposit minus a £50 admin fee provided you return all the course materials within a fortnight of their receipt.

Sunday 29 May 2011

wildlife, magpies & panic (incl poem)

Drought across Europe, that young guy
being court-martialled for leaking dirty secrets
another dictator nailed and Bin Laden
swaying on the seabed and our own
storm-force gales rocking the trees
in this end-of-May rain that’s not enough
to seal the cracks in parched earth
nor to offer the swallows mud for their nests

and these things wake me up shuddering
in the lonely night. But here, this Bank Holiday
Saturday, we have enough food, the fire’s lit,
two of the three children are gathered
in safe from across the continents, and my
daughter and I after the recent turbulence
are lounging on the sofa losing ourselves
in the film we save for special occasions –

‘The English Patient’, ('the heart is an organ 
of fire') and at peace, right now, with our lives, 
under the slates that screen off the sky, 
protect us from the sometimes-too-fierce
gaze of the naked and close-by heavens.


The lanes are full of fledglings. We've been watching fox cubs and young deer, too. This morning the great tits brought their young to the feeder – clinging and oscillating their wings like hummingbirds, already au fait with what feeding from a commercial rather than natural deliverer of foodsource requires.

We have, here, a remarkably well-adapted magpie, evolutionarily speaking. It/he/she has learned how to cling on to the peanut feeder in the same way as the tits and woodpeckers do – theoretically impossible for magpies – so is not only emptying the feeder itself on a very frequent basis, but calling in all its mates, too, to strut and police the yard. In between they hang out on the roof and divebomb any other visitor to the feeders. I tried suspending the feeder from a long piece of string which did foil the magpie, but after watching the woodpecker, on landing, whirl round and round at speed as if on a carousel until staggering off to go and recover, presumably still hungry, on the fence post, I went back to the original suspension. 

In addition, I lost a few new peanut feeders to the plump and acrobatic squirrel, nicknamed the FFS ('fut facking squirrel'), this winter until I sussed that I really needed to buy entirely metal feeders, ie with no plastic to be chewed through. This creature, too, though, is learning how to adapt by prising the metal mesh away from the base of the feeder so that the nuts drop out.

The Man, witnessing my yelling at both magpie and squirrel in the otherwise-peaceful Sunday drizzle, says thoughtfully: 'I suppose what we see out here reflects what even sympathetic critics of anarchy, such as us, would point to as a potential problem with the anarchist ideology in practice – it lets the bullies in. So maybe a degree of centralisation might, in fact, offer a democratic way of countering the bullies... And OK the cops might pull someone out of a wheelchair and hit him with a baton and we're all quite justifiably outraged, but they might also prevent the hoodlums from completely taking over.'


It's been, for me, a wonderful week for poetry. Christmases and birthdays galore. 

It started with the Keats workshop, followed by a gift in the post from a dear friend: a book of essays and poems entitled Can Poetry Save the Earth? which, synchronistically, opens with a quote from Keats: 'The poetry of earth is never dead'.

Two new, to me, collections of Charles Wright's had arrived the previous week, into which I've been dipping; and then  Giles Goodland sent me his collection Littorals, prompted by my workshop of the same name which was held in a similar location, as his collection is a series of poem reflections on walking the SouthWest CoastPath. (Speaking of that, my intrepid adventuring sister, who – counter-intuitively – moved last year to Wester Ross in northwest Scotland but whose work consists in walking and writing up circular walks on the SWCP, is heading southwest again today, as her first two coastpath books are coming out this week [more anon].) 

I've also had particularly satisfying poems returned by my students on the poetry correspondence course: profound, original, moving.

And then my old friend Rupert Loydell, he of Stride publishers and a consummate poet, and with whom I completed an exciting collaborative long prose poem sequence a few years ago (A Hawk Into Everywhere), sent through his new collection Wildlife – possibly his best and strongest to date. More of both those another time; but I want to quote a few lines of Loydell's here: although they're not typical of the range of the book they do have a recognisable Loydell 'voice' in them, a mixture of the poignant, the philosophical and the humorous:

Panic, though not without reason,
is fundamentally without cause...

Write it in magic marker on your bottom:
smudged capitals, with the word (PANIC)
written smaller and in parentheses.
Now run naked through the shopping arcade.

Meantime Tony Frazer, my publisher for Bardo, dropped said book off here – it's an indescribable thing, even for a poet, having your new book out; and it's also a bit trepidatious. Even when disguised, a poem contains a germ of deeply personal material, or at least material that will be interpreted as personal, and to put that out into the world with no sense of how it will be received by a reader but knowing that some will hate it as much as others love it, is an act of courage akin to going naked. I could panic, I suppose...

As I think about how to finish this blog, my eyes fall on the last lines of Loydell's poem quoted above ('Rescue Mission'):

'Reborn, I am ready to be my own design...
I'll take Zen over frantic meltdown any day.'

That's as good a place to end as any.

Thursday 26 May 2011

the common bough beneath the surface

I love it when little moments of synchronicity make themselves felt. I also love how it can be sometimes when you meet a stranger, and find commonality. I know we live in an interconnected universe, and I don't need more proof of that. Nonetheless, there's something both affirming and reassuring about such occurrences. I'm reminded again (I've mentioned it before) of the detective's words in Juli Zeh's insightful and gripping novel Dark Matter, about the two tips of a bough being all that are visible above the surface, breaking the water's face at different points, and yet our knowing – or assuming, anyway – that chances are they belong to the same bough. In this case, poetry turned out to be that bough.

So yesterday morning I started out somewhat harassed by the fact that I knew my day would be disrupted, and there is too much going on on all fronts at the moment in what is a time of personal and professional challenge to be able to comfortably spend a morning away from work-related matters.

I had committed to a visit from a wildlife organisation which is 'mapping' habitat and wildlife corridors in our valley, which is unusual in that there are a number of small holdings being managed by individuals and couples/small groups who have bought a few acres and are farming, if that's the word for such small scale operations, organically and sympathetically to the land. I'm reasonably well informed about wildlife, habitat, ecology etc – I've lived all my life in the country and am a keen naturalist. However, I spent a fruitful hour with the lovely woman who came to check out and advise. And we may even be able to have some help opening up a green lane or holloway, an ancient trackway that borders our land; and also thinning out the little margin of woodland. At the end, having done what we'd set out to do, we discovered some more esoteric interests in common; found that there might be a possibility that I could run a workshop on poetry and environmental awareness (a big aspect of my work), and, more, that she too is a closet poet...

Then Eddie turned up to drop off some wood for the winter burners, as a big oak had come down on a neighbour's land. This necessitated a bit more time and the boiling of a kettle. In the little time I spent with him, though (I hadn't met him before), we had a conversation also about poetry and its connection with song lyrics – Eddie, I discovered, makes and plays guitars, and we spoke of the importance of cadence, sound and percussiveness in relation to song and poetry – that was an unexpected bonus. Plus he had some sound things to say about the current crisis facing larch trees here in Britain which, carrying as they do the phytophthora virus, are being burnt in their thousands/millions in situ... what a waste of wood and energy. I thought Eddie's solution was ingenious: use the energy to power mobile ovens to cook meals for the elderly, or homeless. Or at the very least, make charcoal.

Next A, our vet who has become a friend, arrived to look at an eye problem in she-of-the-grey-matter-worn-on-the-outside. When I came back in from fetching my cheque book, A was perusing Bardo, sitting on my desk. She too turns out to be if not a writer of poetry then a lover of it; and her 'fee', at her suggestion, was a copy of Imago and of Bardo. When I earned my living as a shoemaker, I furnished my house with handmade bookcases, tables etc, acquired my handthrown crockery, many of my handmade clothes and my winter wood by a process of barter for shoes and boots. Even my accountancy fees were taken care of that way! So far it's been rare, as a writer, to find people willing to take books instead of a fee – so that was a delight.

And I may not have done any work towards finding any definite and paid work, something that is a bit of a preoccupation at the moment, but I had a lovely, and interesting, morning... eating strawberries, I suppose you could say, and finding connections.

Wednesday 25 May 2011


I'm delighted to be able to tell you here that Bardo, my new book of prose poems and poetry ('proems') is here with me as of yesterday afternoon! 

I see the book as being records of journeys and transitions. A bardo, as you may know, in the Tibetan tradition is a liminal space; more commonly known as being a series of subtle realms that the spirit enters after the body dies, it can also refer simply to any moment, which is how I've used it. Francesca Fremantle says: '[T]he essence of bardo... can... be applied to every moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a continual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future.' These poems, then, are reflections on the now as I travel it, seeming to be in movement.

Bardo's blurb says: 'Whether she's contemplating a Neolithic longbarrow, the woodpecker on her birdfeeder, the metaphysical implications of quantum reality, a Palestinian refugee camp or the unpredictability of human love, her attention turns on how we navigate transience and uncertainty and find a stillpoint within that.'

It's available @ £8.95 from Amazon, from me (see profile and click email; £2 p&p), to order from a bookshop or direct from Shearsman Books. If you go to this link, you can click on a pdf of the first few pages:

These are a couple of the opening proems:

One true thing

The land streams past the window. The heart asks for both clarity and paradox, aches equally for freedom and for joining, being part of and apart.

To be like a tree. To be that horse dreaming, one hoof delicately pointed, muzzle lowered and relaxed, at home completely in the day.

Tell me the truest thing you can, is what this journey seems to say.

Ridgeway Near Uffington

It was a hard ascent up to the chalklands into places that didn’t know water. Then stepping into a sky bigger than anything except mind, and how we live sometimes as if the sky were not big enough to swallow us whole, holy, but that day we parted the tranches of barley like waves in a field canted towards the horizon and knew that we could fly, upwards into the scudding blue intervals; and later though you were a foot away I could hear your heartbeat through the chalk and the day breathing the greengold barley and the silvermauve grasses and little downland flowers that knew something of blue and the skylark kiting its song, and below us the white horse dreaming in its long slow sleep as it has for millennia and the sky came down anyway – a moment when we might enter someone else’s life, and remember.


– Roselle Angwin

Tuesday 24 May 2011

after the strawberries & the woodpecker: Charles Wright

After my few minutes watching the woodpecker after my last post, I picked up – delight! – Charles Wright's new-to-me Sestets. Wright is one of my lights in the darkness. Here are the opening words of his opening poem, which seem to me to articulate, in the beauty of a few well-chosen words, what I was gesturing at in that 'cliff' post:

'The metaphysics of the quotidian was what he was after:
A little dew on the sunrise grass,
A drop of blood in the evening trees,
                                                           a drop of fire.

If you don't shine you are darkness...'

The now. All we ever have...

cliffs, strawberries and being awake in the gap...

So there are these moments in every life, when none of your plans seems to lead where you'd – well, planned, when every avenue seems to bring you to a cul-de-sac and where your current 'where' is completely, as far as you can tell, untenable (we all arrive there, wherever 'there' is, I guess; but does this happen even more in the life of a freelance in the creative field than in other lives?)...

And it has to be said that the word 'plan' is not one that my family and friends would say in the same breath as my name. It's true that I (and certainly my younger self) have rather disdained the whole notion of 'planning' as being stultifying, seeing in it that phrase of T S Eliot's about 'measuring out my life in coffee spoons'. Planning can be a bit of an anathema to the creative process too, which requires a certain fluidity. Plus I was seduced by that line by Laurens van der Post as a young and impressionable romantic adolescent: 'And so I came to live my life not by conscious plan or intentional design, but rather as someone following the flight of a bird...' And on the whole, it has to be said, I've hugely enjoyed that flight-following adventure, though it's not always easy in a money-fixated culture to live in that way when money has not been for me a major motivating force.

But plan or no plan, the winds take you just the same, it seems to me.

And then sometimes they drop you mid-ocean. What do you do in this place of utter becalm-ment (a bit of a misnomer, as for most of us arrival at such a situation evokes rather less – or do I mean more – than a calm response)? Well, of course, you catch fish; or, if you're a vegetarian, you pick strawberries (to mix my sea metaphor with a land one).

Do you remember that teaching tale – it must be from Zen, or maybe it's a Sufi or Indian story – about just that? A man has arrived at a cliff's edge and is gazing at the horizon of his life. Suddenly he becomes aware, too late, that the cliff beneath his feet is crumbling, and almost simultaneously he's gone over the edge and is plummeting to the rocks hundreds of feet below. Flashing past his face, then, is a small bush – and miraculously his outstretched hand just catches hold of a branch; and just in time he can break his fall. With a struggle he cements his grip enough as not to be in immediate danger of the plummet to death. Looking up, though, there's a white tiger baring its teeth at him over the cliff edge. Glancing down, he sees to his dismay that below him is a black tiger, jaws agape. And then he hears the horrifying tearing sound of the bush's roots beginning to come away from the cliff face. Just at that moment he spots a tiny wild strawberry plant in front of him, the fruit so juicy, so red, so luscious... and ah! the sweetness of those few fruit, the sweetness! – suspended as he is between the moment of his birth and the truth of his death...

Some would call that 'fiddling while Rome burns'. I've found, though, that there is a profound truth in being able to suck the strawberry of the present moment instead of allowing myself to wallow in despair and despondency; fears for the future, regrets about the past (that's not to say that I don't, of course! – just that finally, after 30 years of practice, I'm getting better, sometimes, at returning to sit at the hub of the wheel of the present moment rather than identifying 'me' and 'my life' with the emotions that threaten to spin me around at speed on the periphery).

This is mindfulness: paying attention to how things are, in the present moment, with all of myself and without judgement, as John Kabat-Zinn defines it. The secret is not to identify one's Self, one's true self, with the ego; and to remember transience is simply how it is. Oh yes – easy to say, Roselle...

And recently I've come across Daniel Goleman's words (he of Emotional Intelligence) which sum up the essence of mindfulness for me: 'everything happens in that gap between impulse and action' (my paraphrase). That's where the electricity is: the charge, the means to change our life, each moment, every moment: in being awake in that gap, remembering we have choice. This is T S Eliot's 'stillpoint / where the dance is'.

Me? Far more to do than I can manage today. Future completely opaque and rather daunting. Solution? Ten minutes out, watching the woodpecker at the feeder. ('Following the flight of a bird.') How it is. This. Here. Now. Then bringing that being into doing, in the present moment, without losing myself in fear and anxiety...

Sunday 22 May 2011

enviro-rant (you have been warned)

Here in Devon the meadow grasses on the hillsides have reached the height at which they appear to run in the wind, like a herd of (small) deer rippling across the field. It's one of the things I wait for in the calendar of the year, like the swallows' return, or the appearance of dog roses and honeysuckle in the hedgerows, or the first broad beans.

When I came back from the Hebrides in early April, already many of the fields in the Westcountry had been cut for silage, over a month earlier than usual. April was the hottest on record here.

I'm on a rant – turn away here if you don't want to know.

The Man is tired of my banging on about it to him, so I'll bang on about it here instead, but the threatening global water crisis preoccupies me (yes of course along with the not-unconnected issues of climate change, and over-population, and peak oil, and the demise of species). Why I mention it now is because the rivers and reservoirs are so low here in Britain despite what seemed like an astonishing amount of rain during the last three, if not four or more, summers. And that's Britain, green and temperate land. I had reason to cross the Exe the other day, one of Devon's major waterways, and I have never seen it so low in the decades I've lived in Devon.

Of course it's worse, much much worse, in Africa and even many places in Europe, but with a growing global population, the manufacturing industry at the levels at which it is, the farming industry, and even things we take for granted here like car-washes, and, for some, swimming pools as standard in some parts rather than luxuries, and of course household consumption, it's perhaps not as surprising as it first sounds that there is less water per capita available in the (admittedly densely populated in comparison) southeast of England than in the Yemen.

In America, the typical family home uses 69.3 gallons of water PER CAPITA PER DAY, with 15.7% of that usage being bathroom taps left running when eg washing hands or cleaning teeth. I haven't yet tracked down the figure for GB, but simply wetting your toothbrush and using a glass of water to rinse your teeth would make a huge difference.

The trouble is that the aquifers related to the water table are being drawn off at a rate faster than that with which they are being replenished. My understanding too is that there are two things relevant here: the aquifers in non-porous rock are standing water aquifers, which take millennia or more to refill. The aquifers in porous rock are more readily filled, but are interconnected, and our drawing on them depletes the whole at a rate beyond which water can be returned to them. And yes, I know about the seemingly contradictory issues of the melting of the ice caps etc – but ironically that water is not easily available to us for drinking or irrigation without massive infrastructural energy-output for the desalination and transportation; and it will be centuries or millennia before it starts to refill the rivers inland through the cyclical processes involved in precipitation etc and is available as groundwater in the water table.

We have a biggish vegetable garden in which we attempt to produce organically a great deal of our food. Even with minimal watering, we still must use several hundred litres most days at the moment from our borehole.

Another trouble is that much as we'd like to think that drought in Africa, or South America, is nothing to do with us, we need to remember that climate change is partly due to the effects of industry, logging, soil erosion etc as a result of the globalisation of a capitalist economy and our demand for non-local food (massive amounts of the Amazon and elsewhere have been cleared, and are being cleared, as you will know, to run cattle on or grow grain for the feeding of cattle to satisfy our demand for beefburgers). Yes, I know there are upsides too to the global economy, but the downsides are less visible and arguably increasingly speedily potentially fatal for us, as well as other species.

Most of us are not systems thinkers; we don't see the holistic picture. Every action of mine has an effect somewhere, whether or not I perceive it. And isn't it easy to overlook what we can't see, happening on the other side of the world; and if we do see it ignore the fact that it might also have to do with us?

And here's a slightly sobering fact: it takes 283 litres of water to produce an omelette made with two eggs and a tomato. And it takes (vegetarians can feel a bit smug here) 100% more water to produce a hamburger than a cheese pizza. However, since the latter takes 4 times as much water to produce as a tomato pizza, vegans can feel even smugger.

But wait – it takes 13 litres of water to produce ONE TOMATO in Morocco for our import market. That's not our water, but theirs. And 140 litres to produce what you drink in one cup of coffee. Yes, I'm guilty. And actually I've just tracked down the figures for water usage in the UK: each of us uses, if you include, as we have to, embodied water in the food we eat, clothes we wear and transportation, around 60 baths full of water per day. Yes, 60 baths. Each.

'This extraordinary figure comes from a report published by the World Wildlife Fund, which makes clear that the overwhelming majority of this water is virtual. That is to say, it is used to produce our food and clothing – much of it in places that already suffer water shortages.

'So Britain's businesses and its people are inadvertently contributing to the slow death of some of the world's most iconic rivers.

'The report – UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources – says each of us drink, flush and wash our way through about 150 litres of mains water a day. But we use 30 times as much to produce our food and clothing.'

And: 'Stuart Orr, WWF-UK's water footprint expert, points out that the UK is the world's sixth largest importer of water – only 38 per cent of what we use comes from our own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves. The remaining 62 per cent is taken from bodies of water elsewhere in the world to irrigate and process food and fibre crops that we subsequently consume.'

On that note I now feel so depressed that I might go and sit in the courtyard and brood over some conceptual coffee on the real cup of coffee that I might have liked that I now feel completely unjustified in making.

There again, I could determine to do something more about it. Meantime I shall go and weed the comfrey and blackcurrant bed.

I'm sorry if that's spoilt your Sunday lunch/tea/dinner...

Saturday 21 May 2011

Keats & the 'Vale of Soul-making'

Today I've been at a rich and stimulating workshop given by my friend Peter Brennan, poet, publisher and kabbalist, on Keats. Considering I make my way in the world as a poet, and read English at A level, I'm astonishingly ignorant of some classical poetry. Today I've been delighted by these observations of Keats':
   'Intelligences are atoms of perception...'
   'I am ...straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness...'
   'Circumstances are like clouds continually gathering and bursting.'
   And 'The noble animal man for his amusement smokes his pipe, the hawk balances about the clouds – that is the only difference of their leisures...'

I also met phrases I had forgotten came from Keats: 'Tender is the night'; and 'To cease upon the midnight with no pain.'

And of course I like this: '... a poet is a sage / A humanist, physician to all men.'

You might remember that Keats described this world as the 'vale of soul-making' – a significant phrase in the context of the transpersonal pyschology training school which I attended.

And I also think his notion of 'negative capability' is a profoundly perceptive comment from someone who was in his twenties (almost all his great work was written when he was in his twenties): this is basically akin to Buddhist notions of being able to sit with uncertainty and paradox, even suffering, without needing to rush to 'solve' the problem or question out of discomfort (as I understand his meaning). It's also perhaps relevant in the creative life: being able to wait when an idea is incubating; the wisdom of timing.

And look at this on soul-making: 'This is effected by three great materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three materials are the intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or mind) and the world or elemental space suited for the proper action of mind and heart on each other for the purpose of forming the soul or intelligence destined to possess the sense of identity.

He goes on to describe this process in the analogy of the world as a school, the human heart the book read in that school, and the child able to read as the soul made from world and the book.

This, by the way, is not a paper or thesis in the conventional sense, but comes from a letter to his brother and sister-in-law – three months in the making! I couldn't help comparing this to the soundbite texts of which I too am guilty as a common means of communication... Mind you, his elder brother might well have been pissed-off to receive such lofty prescriptions; sufficiently annoyed, indeed, maybe, as to make off with the family fortune while John Keats was communing with the higher realms...

Peter, who gave an equally inspiring workshop on Coleridge and Wordsworth last autumn, will be back this autumn to Devon to offer one on that great visionary William Blake. If you're in or near London, Peter also teaches at CityLit.

Friday 20 May 2011

Poem: the watcher behind the windows; Sue Proffitt

More than time for a post from our anthology, Confluence.

Sue Proffitt joined us recently. She lives where the sea meets the land; the poem I've chosen, although its subject matter is metaphorical, could also apply to that part of the coast that is in constant threat of erosion. In fact, Sue's village was notorious for having been partly swept away in dramatic storms some time ago.

Living here keeps one aware of transience, I imagine. These threshold places have a kind of depth of mystery, and Sue's work acknowledges the borders between people and places.

The House of Change

This is the house of temporary.
Nothing lasts here,
not the shingle and mortar
dissolving in the knowing salt,
teased apart in the vivisecting wind.

Not the small tides
of lives, sieved through
the sea’s seasons,
not our dreams,
polished proudly to a gleam,

put out in the sun,
and flayed on the snagging edge
of the unexpected.
We learn to absorb
the tarnish, learn to discard.

Our certainties:
health, here, us, forever, happy,
are stretched tight across
terrible frames; assumptions
break with the strain

or re-emerge, changed
utterly – we learn new names
for what matters. Change
in this house
is the watcher behind the windows,

who saw us arrive,

Sue Proffit

Confluence is available from me – see email on profile page –  @ £.8.99 plus £2 p&p in the UK

Thursday 19 May 2011


This now is both always and never
and neither

the beech tree is a voice for the wind
the stream for the river-rocks

I am a vessel for sunlight
and soil, the dreams of stars

let me be a voice for the 10,000 things
the earth's song unending

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday 18 May 2011

'I write' (Charles Wright extract)

'I write, as I said before, to untie myself, to stand clear,
To extricate an absence
The ultimate hush of language...
The silence that turns the silence off.'

Charles Wright (from Buffalo Yoga)

Tuesday 17 May 2011

the springs of creativity

It has seemed to me for many years now that at the heart of our global crisis is a blank space where something free and untamed, alive, truthful, trusting, creative, palpating should be breathing. In other words, our crisis is a crisis of meaning.

In my first book, Riding the Dragon, I considered this concept, why it might have arisen, and what might remedy it. Of course, these issues have been the matter of philosophical consideration for centuries and millennia.

It has seemed to me that since the Cartesian model, despite what it might (also) have brought in terms of further understanding, we have lost touch, collectively, in our industrialised societies, with the imaginal life, and somehow that has become annexed to the margins, the 'inconsequential' concerns of artists and poets. We have also lost touch with a felt sense of ourselves within the 'family of things'; as part of the web of life.

Without imagination, we cannot invest life with vitality. Without imagination, the world becomes, as James Hillman has observed, populated with inanimate disconnected objects which we push around at our will.

Without imagination the earth becomes resource, ours to exploit. Without imagination the species with whom we share this planet cannot but continue to decline at the current, or an even more accelerated, rate. Without imagination, we also cannot halt what it is that is taking us ourselves to the edge.

'Where there is no vision the people perish,' says the biblical book of Job (I think it is).

'Without imagination, compassion is not possible,' says one of my favourite people, the novelist Lindsay Clarke.

I am preoccupied too with how we can restore imagination to our own individual lives, in order to live more fully and more wholly, in order to have a well on which to draw. In restoring our own wholeness we are also adding to the collective sum of inspiration and wisdom, I believe.

Many years ago, having long before read Clarke's wonderful The Chymical Wedding, an erudite and inspiring novel about restoring meaning and the feeling function through the alchemy of the imagination, I attended a course given by him at Dartington which, I believe, was titled 'The Shaping Spirit of the Imagination'. I approached him to lead a workshop and give a reading at a small literary festival I directed on Dartmoor. Both occasions were hugely inspiring events.

Later again, I interviewed Lindsay for a magazine. Among the many things he spoke of, the simplicity and, once I'd heard it, obviousness of his statement above smacked me to a standstill. I think of these few words often; and I think how very much we need to consider them.

A different event at Dartington had Clarke and John Moat, poet and painter, together leading a workshop. Moat I know less well, although we have coincided occasionally: we both wrote poems for the buses in Plymouth as part of a Theatre Royal project; we have a friend in common (Michael Fairfax with whom I collaborate creatively at times – he of the Branscombe day); and Michael's father, John Fairfax, the poet, with John Moat was the founder of the Arvon Foundation, the biggest and best-loved writing organisation in the UK, and one which I know well as a student, tutor and occasional stand-in centre director. Moat has a Blakeian sensibility, and 'vision' would describe his work as well.

For me, my own work focuses on the need for restoration of poetry and myth (both the above would also of course agree that it's central) to our felt experience of being alive; and that we need fairly urgently to address our relationship to the planet and its other species (ditto). One of the things we need, I believe, is a direct experience of interconnectedness; and to further this much of my own work takes place outdoors. I also draw on transpersonal psychology, with its use of archetype, dream and metaphysical awareness, as will both Clarke and Moat.

I am telling you all this because I'm deeply privileged to have been invited to give an afternoon's workshop on Dartmoor in June on a course Clarke and Moat are offering at Schumacher College, the holistic teaching centre at Dartington in the UK set up by Satish Kumar.

The course covers all that I have mentioned and a great deal more. It should be a truly inspiring and uplifting experience.

Here's the course blurb: 

The Springs of Creativity

What do we mean by Creativity and what is the nature of Imagination? How do they relate to the generative processes of the natural world, and are there fresh ways in which we can activate their energy in our life and work?

Course Detail

By exploring these questions and working imaginatively with them, this course will seek to illuminate the deep ground of our creativity in the personal, collective and ecological layers of the unconscious mind. While drawing on recent findings in neurological research, it will tend to work more with images than with concepts, recruiting all four psychological functions – intuition, sensation and feeling as well as thought – to the task in hand.

Through reflections on the poetics of experience, on the archetypal wisdom of dreams, the roles of muses, daimons, traditional incubation rituals, oracular insights, and the visionary power of alchemical imagery, the course will seek to open transrational perspectives on our creative processes. Participants will be encouraged to explore untried and previously unfamiliar areas of themselves. They may also take the opportunity to submit a creative problem currently engaging them to consideration by groups of people who may be unfamiliar with their context and their customary terms of reference.

Through presentations, group discussions and imaginative exercises, participants will enlarge and strengthen their vision and practice. People from diverse fields of activity – professional, scientific, administrative, therapeutic, educational and artistic – will share their experiences in ways which will relate individual creative enterprise to wider, perhaps universal, orders of meaning and value.

One afternoon will be spent on Dartmoor with Roselle Angwin, exploring the Ground of Being: re-imagining the world. She says: 'Relationship is our natural state, and yet so many of us feel alienated – from each other, from the natural world, even from ourselves, our Self. This afternoon will be spent out in the sacred megalithic landscape of Merrivale, on Dartmoor, and, using imagination, mindfulness, poetry, silence, gentle walking, writing and our six senses participants will explore ways of making connection.'

This is the URL, and perhaps I might see some of you there?

Monday 16 May 2011

the branscombe day

Six of us plus dog (plus northwesterly wind at my neck) gather at the gate to the path to the beach. Under the poplar: a huge rush of wind, a jostle and thrum as of wings. We stop talking, greet the day through the senses, receive the world. A sign advertising handmade wooden shepherds' huts on wheels. Benches girding trees. Cows, ginger black dun and red-and-white, calves at foot, newly-turned-out on lush pasture trudge bovine-bellowing towards the sea. Such depth of scent in the shade under the chestnuts trees, where the cattle must have lain in the dawn cool. A splash of ragged robin in the marsh-rushes, alkanet, yellow flag irises. Crossing the stream, dissonant pattern of steps on the wooden footbridge (under which later we'll shoo a young calf, escaped by stream to the wrong side of his herd's fence). Above on the hillside a sculpted man, arms thrown wide

breaking from leafy 
cover to the dazzle of
sun on sea

And all the shades of indigo borage-blue cobalt aqua steel jade olive platinum as clouds trail shadows, wind drags fingers, across the ocean. We settle where the little river dives beneath the pebble ridge to emerge just metres on at the sea

over the water
clouds come and go
come and go

To the west the red sandstone that belts the waist of Devon coast to coast. To the east the whiter cliffs – yellow sandstone? limestone? Can't remember – that lead to Lyme Bay. This stream: dividing and connecting (tadpoles, swallows skimming low)

the wash and thwack of waves

being Neruda's dark stone 
that the river bears away

A crow, picking along the tideline (R says they clean up the wilderness: thinking about tidying my life)... The horizon's curving straights – no beginning no end... wind skipping over the water. Salt wind, sun, on my face. Direct dazzle from ocean to retina to heart. And the wheels of words, of stone, that we make there on the strand.

This flint, a miniature : tidelines of rose ochre cream gunpowder flame rust soot – and then the hagstone, the holey one, amulet and talisman, the one the wind whistles through, just more matter than hole...

I wore that one I found with you (all those years ago)
a decade, maybe more, on that red cord round my neck
then hung it in my red van, to gather dreams and dust

and here's another: still more stone than not
but nothing is solid; not the rocks, not you, not me

on the cusp of being and becoming

if I could slip through this eye of stone

I am coming of age; there will be a time
when my atoms too decline, recycle 'me'
back into where I belong – this everywhere

This planet, spinning in space, third in line from the sun, laced and interlaced with its waters lands lives – the age of its day, its journey towards night.

Saturday 14 May 2011

social media, stellar time and Rippon Tor

Well, I think it's time to admit that I'm two-timing you; no, wait, three-timing you. As all my friends know, I'm a Luddite who is anxious about virtual communication displacing fleshly togetherness (that sounds a bit ugh) and time outdoors; and who swears she'd rather be out with her notebook, or with her hands in the soil, than on the computer. As all my friends know, too, I spend the larger part of many of my days on the computer...

Never had a TV, until moving in with The Man; and we never think to watch it. Clear of that vice. BUT: first it was the Amstrad (remember those?). Then the Mac (3). Then the mobile. Then the website. Then the blog. Now I have actually been on a whole day workshop where I had to face up to my deep resistance to social media: a kind of Alcoholics Anonymous for electronic aversives. We wept. We confessed. We shared. We empathised. We talked about our histories. We wept a bit more. We caved in. And how I have caved in! As we all know, the cure for arachniphobia is facing the spiders. So yes, it's true: I have a facebook account. And heaven forbid I tweet... next, LinkedIn. Desperate times call for desperate measures...


Yesterday, after a stressful week (not least because of this infidelity to my principles), I took time out that I didn't have, but found anyway.

Let me take you on a little trip up near Buckland-in-the-Moor - fourth time this year after twenty years having no reason to go there! - and then towards Haytor and Hound Tor. It is one of those days of scudding clouds and fleeting light slicking the moor's broad shoulders. This edge of Dartmoor, the mid-eastern edge, is treed, and the lanes are tiny and twisting and lined with beautiful granite boulders, currently sprouting campions and stitchwort and bluebells. At Hemsworthy Gate you park up (at this point the hound is barely containing her excitement). Ahead of you is a small herd of Dartmoor mares and a stallion; very new foals with bottlebrush tails, who gallop away from the cars jolting over the cattle grid (the cars jolt, not the foals) on awkward rocking-horse stilty legs. Go through a narrow wooden gate with Rippon Tor ahead of you. The path between bracken and granite boulders is studded with the royal blue eyes of chalky milkwort, and already the fruits are forming among the russet/gold/green leaves of the tiny blueberry bushes. Below you is a herd of the little belted Galloway cattle that do well on the moor. As you ascend, the ocean over towards Torquay is clearly visible, as are the red ploughed fields of the South Hams. We've had a haycut already - in some places a whole month ago, almost unprecedented, so some fields are shaven and golden. Now turn - and Oh! - a spill of light over on Hound Tor and the whole eastern flank of HT is purpled with bluebells! Another bubble of joy rises. A pair of blackcaps flits across. The tor looms ahead, and there's a strong northwesterly at this height. Climb the rocks, and carry on towards the east, where there are a couple of - I think Bronze Age - cairns. Below you the South Hams spread, languid in the spring light. Nearer, flushed acid green, is a copse of beech newly in leaf.

If I hadn't broken my camera and my mobile was more than the bottomest-of-the-range I'd send you a photo or ten.

That rock, yes, that long flat one, roughly 5'3", hunkered down amongst turf and eyebright: perfect. Lie and look at the stars that are not visible but you know are there. Count back through time – all that time the light has been travelling to reach you, fragment of stardust that you (literally) are. Money worries? Work worries? Time worries? Relationship worries? Family worries? Perspective girl, that's what you need. Stellar time – sidereal time...

Hound rests her head on your stomach. No rush. No stress. No I you it he she they we... just – this.

Blog Archive