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.
Tuesday, 28 November 2017
These two, of course, are takes on William Carlos William's playful* poem THIS IS JUST TO SAY.
* (or angry-making, depending on your viewpoint – on my online poetry course there's an enormous range of responses to this poem)**
THIS IS JUST TO SAY
I ate the
going to Lidl's
This Is Just To Say
I have taken
the ten dollar bill
that you had put in
you were probably
for Friday night
I'll be back
** the poems on Proper Poetry Tuesdays are not representative of the work created on my course. Instead we focus on Improper Poems.
Monday, 27 November 2017
I'm under pressure. This is nothing new: for the best part of 40 years, I've worked extremely long hours for little financial reward, and that's just how it is. Making your way through creativity, freelance, has its own stresses – like those above two points – but not the stress of commuting to eg an office in a city to be an employee jumping through others' hoops on others' terms in an environment that is perhaps not nurturing. Being self-employed in the arts also fits my ethos, and stretches my imagination.
But there's pressure and there's pressure. I cannot at the moment see – this is about ten days ago – how I can meet the various different deadlines.
Do you know what I mean if I say you can drive yourself and you can drive yourself and then there's more piled on, and suddenly inertia sets in? But not the kind of inertia that might make me do something sensible, like take a break, have a walk, get some rest, see a film. More the kind of inertia that resists the priority task at hand and turns to something seemingly extraneous.
Having promoted my work, mainly the courses and retreats I lead, mostly online for five years or so now, I decide it's imperative to create a new paper brochure for my 2018 work, right now.
Courtesy of some friends (thank you J and M) I have an old version of Pages, the Mac software, on my computer again. Hooray! – it has some wonderful templates that the new version hasn't.
Most of us are notified of events via the internet these days. I notice that I'm much more likely to remember them if I have a paper leaflet. And my local printer uses recycled paper. So half a day later I have a PDF which I think looks good. Two days later the brochures are in my hands.
Gone are the days where I'm willing to spend the week between Christmas and New Year stuffing several hundred envelopes with 2018 brochures – and paying the postage. So these are just to take around the place, like for my final sessions at Greenway.
Ah yes, Greenway. My residency, which is about to come to an end.
This is what I ducked out of in order to spend some time (actually, lovely time) on visuals instead of words: prepping and delivering two more workshops; putting together all the writing ('ALL' the writing?? – aaarrggh) that I've created myself in my residency for an exhibition on the last weekend; and starting and completing a 2000-word essay arising from my time at Greenway.
And because it's the last week of the month, I also have the work of three poets on my online Elements of Poetry course to comment on – between 2 and 3 days' work without fail.
It's not possible, unless I give up on sleep entirely (always an elusive beast, sleep, but see here).
A neighbour texts me to ask if I could let out and later shut in again her ducks and chickens for the week. A lovely task, but an extra hour+ to find in the day, including the short walk.
I just slip in under the wire some redrafted poems for a couple of competitions and another Dark Mountain anthology – such a long time since I put anything out there, but DM has published some of my work. I also meet a copy deadline for some ads that I do at the end of the year for the courses.
The publisher of my next poetry collection emails to ask if I'll be around for the week for a back-and-forth on matters editorial. (Unused as I am to having a publisher engage so closely with my work I'm taken aback – and delighted. But am barely here in any coherent sense.)
I realise it's NOT the end of the month this week (that is, last week). Jubilation! In celebration I go out and scrub the birdfeeders; tell the dog that IF she were still mobile we'd have a long walk. Then have a long walk minus dog.
Come back to 2 greater spotted woodpeckers; 1 nuthatch; masses of great tits and bluetits, 1 coaltit, a willow tit and 2 marsh tits – and hooray a pair of goldfinch at the newly-installed nyger-seed feeder.
Start the essay.
Finish first draft of the essay.
Dog sends me into panic as all her legs stop working, entirely (her hindlegs have often failed her lately. She's truly ancient for a deerhound-type) – it's no fun half-lifting half-dragging 42kilos of wet dog in the dark from where she's collapsed in mud and let's-not-enquire-what-else.
Brace self to call vet in morning. We've been here many times, one way and another, in the last 6 years.
Dog staggers up and gets herself out for pee etc. Don't call vet.
Email my co-conspirator at Greenway basically saying HEEELLPPP about the exhibition. After having come up with a poem for the children's poetry pumpkin trail to be carved into Greenway pumpkins, and then a 15-poem (OK, very short poems) lyrical trail to be painted on 15 slates and placed in the woodland garden, I feel a bit poemed-out and fresh out of new creative ideas for display, too. She's very calm; says she has loads of ideas and lots of my course participants have sent in material, some beautifully presented (a series of haiku on postcards with illustrations from one person, for example). Leave it to her. Phew. I do find some more material of my own in the notebook to send her.
Tweak the essay. Prep the 3rd novel-writing session.
Write to my accountant of 35 years to say I can no longer justify his fees (I never could, but they're higher now and my income isn't). Seem to have committed myself to doing my own s/e tax return for the first time online (my books are complicated, even if the sums are small). Further cause for panic.
Try not to think about the fact that I lost a third of my income this year anyway through events that had to be cancelled beyond my control, and that there's almost nothing guaranteed for the next few months. Wonder again about a Proper Job. Decide would rather live on potatoes.
Deliver final novel session. Will miss group. Decide to offer more one-day workshops again closer to home.
Attend Positive Money meeting in Exeter with TM and my daughter, who both feel that monetary reform is crucial before anything else changes. I feel that our attitude to the rest of the natural world – the planet, the other-than-human, and topically the sentience of the latter – is even more fundamental. But it's not either/or, and Positive Money is an important movement:
Our current financial system has left us with the biggest debt in history, unaffordable housing, worsening inequality, high unemployment and banks that are subsidised and underwritten by the taxpayer... Do you know what's behind it?
97% OF ALL MONEY IN CIRCULATION IS CREATED AND CONTROLLED BY PRIVATE COMMERCIAL BANKS AS DEBT – that is, as loans with interest. It is NOT created by the Government. Did you know that?
Return the power to create money and decide what it is used for to public control.
Write and send feedback to one of the poetry mentees. Redraft essay. A bit.
Lovely day: a kind of tribute to a Westcountry publisher, Indigo Dreams Press, who have done much for so many Westcountry poets. 13 of us read, there was lunch, and it was fun, relaxing and often very inspiring. I don't remember the last time I attended a gathering of poets where I wasn't organising, facilitating or delivering something (other than 3 of my poems) and could simply listen, socialise and eat.
It was the first time I'd met the publishers, too – despite the fact that Ronnie had pulled me out of a hole about 12 years ago. I'd just had my first collection published by the then Bluechrome Press (Ronnie now of IDP was poetry editor at that point for Bluechrome and had put me forward for a potential collection to the publisher), and they had also taken on and designed the cover for my first novel, Imago, which had had a chequered backstory – 16 years of it – at that point.
Then Bluechrome simply vanished. The publisher had been ill, and we don't know the rest.
It had been SUCH a long journey to that point for Imago, with various publishers, including Penguin, so nearly taking it on but feeling in the end it was 'too esoteric' for the times. Then I lost my agent after she withdrew from the agency.
So I was utterly despondent at that point. Then out of the blue, as they say, I received an email from Ronnie asking me what I was going to do now. I emailed back saying I had no idea. He responded: 'Girl, I'm offering you a deal.' A 4-book deal, as it turned out.
was yesterday, and I had another wonderful day at Greenway (albeit arriving with some fullblown allergic reaction to something or other, with face, eyes and tonsils all swollen, and initially sneezing for Devon).
Several people I knew or who attended my workshops at Greenway came by, and we had a wealth of conversations on art, Hungarian poetry in translation(!), the lost feminine, the statue of Kwan Yin in the woodland garden and Buddhism in general, the North Devon beaches, the exact name of my favourite silver birch in the gardens (betula ermanii we think), and how to keep the novel-writing sessions going.
The exhibition looked great (no thanks to me), and the afternoon session, my last one, was a reading circle and discussion on the theme of RIVERS in prose and poetry (do you know how few good poems there are about rivers? - I was astonished).
That turned out to be a really lovely session, and it has made me want to do more. Watch this space.
To rival that, Carly the National Trust wonderwoman who'd pulled all my events together, including the exhibition, had brought in a cake that she'd iced.
Two of my favourite friends had turned up for the afternoon event, and we all had tea and cake together, at which point Carly presented my with the Poirot bag, some goodies, and the lovely little book by Robert MacFarlane in the top picture.
And so. Farewell, then, Greenway House...
I'm tempted to write some spoof doggerel here about leaving Agatha Christie's home (with no murder-mystery-plot burning a hole in my imagination) à la Tuesday Proper Poem – I think it might be time to close that soon, before I find I can't write any improper poems any more...
Tuesday, 21 November 2017
I was hot
Tuesday, 14 November 2017
She is also delighted that 2 or 3 other Proper Poets have stepped forward.
Hail blithe weede,
Who werte once a seede,
A Robin or Blackbird to feede.
But Thou muckest up the grounde
When you're chucked all arounde
By the Tits that abounde!
(Who thoughtest it wise
Just because of its size
to put the bird table there, anywaye?)
Monday, 13 November 2017
It is a genuinely wonderful thing that the idea and application of mindfulness has swept across the globe as it has. Anything that empowers individuals to take control of their wellbeing and reduce their stress levels can only be beneficial – for community health as well as individual health.
A great deal of its popularity is down to that most inspirational man Jon Kabat-Zinn, who set up clinics across America to teach MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, a very effective mode of calming oneself and being present. His book Wherever You Go There You Are has lived permanently by my bedside for more than 25 years now. I dip into it frequently, even though I know it by heart.
We know that it can radically affect one's health, and the quality of one's life, for the better. How can that be anything other than good?
Can you hear a 'but' coming?
When I hear the term, I squirm a little; partly because that's my reaction to anything that becomes a cultish trend, but partly also because mindfulness divorced from its ground of being is like naming anything laid out on the page in 3 lines of 5, 7, 5 syllables respectively a haiku; or confusing an acorn with a forest.
I don't mean that to sound dismissive. It's just that, in the Zen tradition specifically and the Buddhist tradition generally from which the concept comes, mindfulness meditation is about so much more than a 'feelgood factor'. It's about how we live: the thoughts we have, the words we say, the things we do. It's about the practice of kindness. It's about waking up.
It's about waking up, too, to the fact that everything we say and do has consequences for others as well as for ourselves, and if mindfulness doesn't make us more aware of these things then arguably its huge potential for collective change (as a society is only as good as its individuals' levels of awareness and self-awareness) is wasted.
So yes, it's about consciousness.
As Zoe Williams in her column in the Guardian weekend magazine of 11.11.17 said so well (and this is what focused my mind on a topic to which I return often in my thoughts, as a Zen practitioner): 'The problem with mindfulness is that it spread across the world unhinged from the philosophy of human goodness that was supposed to underpin it.'
Yes, exactly that.
I've written before here of my Zen teacher Ken Jones' words: 'Meditation begins when you get off the cushion.' Ken was the founder of the Network of Engaged (that is socially and environmentally active) Buddhists, which will tell you something.
Meditation is of course a turning inward, and that in itself is a fine thing in a very outer-focused society. Inevitably, if you practice with enough intent, over time you will come up against your demons, your failings, your weaknesses, your reactivity, your attachments to having things your way, the way your desires and aversions drive you. This is an unrivalled opportunity (OK, it is rivalled by other things, actually, like good therapy) to examine your unconscious beliefs, habits and drives, and then to challenge them.
I am reminded of a four-day Zen retreat I went on some years back. As we were packing to leave at the very end of the retreat, I could hear from outside one of people responsible for leading some of the dharma talks bawling his partner out at the other end of the house. It's not my intention to judge him and we all lose our cool, but after such a period of quiet calmness, intense concentration, kindness and discussions of our insights on the meditation cushions it ripped through those of us who heard it like emotional cannon-shot.
So if it doesn't change how we live in relation to everyone and everything with whom we share this planet – and of course the planet herself – and how aware we become of our own small contributions to the ignorance and suffering of the world and what we might do about it then it remains focused only on our own wellbeing.
Is there a problem with that, you might say? Well, no, not per se; but it could go so much further. This is what disturbs me about the way it's touted.
Coupled with personal insight, sensitivity and self-examination, plus a willingness to change oneself, mindfulness from the standpoint of Zen is a very powerful tool for changing the world.
As Zoe says, 'Mindfulness has to be principled, otherwise it’s just a guy in California eating a raisin really, really slowly.'
Wednesday, 8 November 2017
If spring is the cruellest season – or at least April the cruellest month (an idea to which I don't subscribe, actually), autumn must be the kindest. At home the garden is full of colour still – nasturtia(ums), marigolds, those madonna-blue cranesbill gerania(ums). It's also full of hornets – despite a couple of really quite heavy frosts they are resisting the natural order of things, and refusing to die. This means we can't actually get into our lean-to to refuel.
Our pumpkin harvest is in.
So, too, is the pumpkin harvest at the National Trust's Greenway, where I'm writer-in-residence till the end of this month. With the help of my co-conspirator, Carly, the closest I've ever had to a line manager, and both creative in her thinking and indefatigable even when ill in her help, I created a pumpkin trail for schoolchildren for half term.
|The bandstand in the walled garden (exhibition of Agatha Christie archives behind)|
|Carly plus pumpkin shades|
|Writer-in-res + pumpkin shades|
The way we did it was for me to write a little poem which Carly then had printed up into a leaflet. We missed out a number of the words, which Carly carved into pumpkins dotted around the grounds of Greenway (you can see which one of us did the work and which was able to lie on her back and gaze at the few clouds sailing by – at least metaphorically speaking). The children picked up this poem:
leaves ________ down
in a ______ of gold
acorns _____ on the ____ slow river
and now earth’s ________ come
sweet ________ season
rainbow ______ for our autumn tables
– and had to find and fill in the lost words (which were: spinning shower strewn wide harvests pumpkin month chestnut bounty).
I came up with another 70 words related to autumn a few of which were posted beside each pumpkin. The children were asked to collect a few to write on paper leaves (that's what are in the basket Carly's holding), and when they'd completed both tasks to come to the bandstand, which Carly had filled with all manner of creative things, so that they could make new poems with me and then decorate a craft pumpkin with their poem and accessories.
We had a mad rush at the end of the morning with children dressed in all sorts of Hallowe'en wear coming back with the words to shape and craft into something pretty, or scary, depending on individual whim (and rather more on gender than is politically correct to note). I wish I could show you the costumes and creations, but for privacy reasons I couldn't photograph the children.
This was followed by a turnaround time for me of about 20 minutes to swallow a half sandwich and get my head into gear from thinking children's poems to adults' fiction writing for an afternoon of the second of the novel-writing sessions I'm teaching at Greenway.
Just a few days later and I'm back, this time to create another poetry trail, predominantly I suppose for adults, in the garden.
When I wrote the little vignettes a mere fortnight before, the entrance drive was smothered with cyclamen. The first slate vignette is now a commemoration, as only about 6 cyclamen remained. Ah! The transience of it all...
That one wasn't my best anyway, so below it are half a dozen I prefer, all painted on slate by the (indefatigable) Ms C:
|(As you can see, not much mist the day I installed this one)|
And then yesterday – bliss! – the second of my Greenway 'reading circles' 'A Sense of Place': a whole afternoon for five of us to share passages of writing on trees and woodland. Between us and among other books I can't now recall, we brought The Magic Faraway Tree (a neatly – and sadly – prescient children's book from decades ago); Robert MacFarlane's The Wild Places; a poem by Jane Hirshfield; a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson; Beechcombings by Richard Mabey and my current rave-book The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. We told stories of our encounters with trees, shared knowledge and wisdom, and deepened the love we all already have for these arboreal geniuses.*
I'm going to leave you with some words on trees and autumn from Mabey's book; we ourselves tend to relate to autumn as a time of slowing-down after summer, don't we? Not so trees. (Actually, not so for teachers, pupils and parents with the new academic year, I suppose. I'm long out of the latter two and never was the former.)
'Autumn isn't a season of decline. It's a season of furious activity by trees, the opposite of the slow windings-down of senility or hibernation. Leaves are probably shed to help hardwood trees reduce water loss during the winter months, when cold ground water doesn't easily enter the roots. But leaf-fall also provides an opportunity for trees to get rid of waste products built up over the year, including toxins absorbed from the soil. In some cases, the level of poisonous metals in leaves increases a thousandfold just before they're shed.' [Makes me wonder about the wisdom of putting leaf mulch on food plants.] 'At the same time the tree is breaking down chlorophyll and sugars in its leaves and withdrawing them into its woody parts, conserving them. When the green goes, what is left are the brightly-coloured carotinoids – orange and brown and yellow anti-oxidant chemicals similar to those that make tomatoes red – which are believed to bind with toxins. This flurry of chemical activity is stressful for the leaves, and to protect them during the crucial transfer of chlorophyll many trees synthesise yet another anti-oxidant, the bright red anthocyanin. The final mix of all these pigments, and the tints of specific trees in a particular autumn, depend on factors such as summer sunshine, soil drainage, early frosts.
'That is what the season of mellow fruitfulness is all about...'
*The final reading circle will be on my last afternoon as writer-in-residence at Greenway, and will be on rivers. I shall also be reading my own River Suite long poem.
Further details and to book: Greenway.
Friday, 3 November 2017
Thank you to Deborah Harvey for this deep and moving poem:
O Autumn Crocus!
Herald of Autumn!
Thou growest from bulbs.
I bought 'em
In the Garden Centre.
See also #1and #2.
It would be good
if you could
keep 'em coming
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