Friday, 18 October 2013

A Few Words from Off The Shelf (Festival of Words in Sheffield) ...

Who's been a busy boy, then?

Besides some scrub clearance for the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, Parkland Ranging for Wentworth Castle, Guide Dog training, administering to and singing with the Waldershelf Singers this week, a lot of other literate things are happening in this part of the world. I’ve been to three events, which are part the Off The Shelf Festival Of Words, Sheffield's own Literature Fest. Saturday was a marathon open mic poetry slam in the Winter Gardens, compered by Word Life Project Manager, Joe Kriss; I only managed to get to the last couple of hours, so missed Ian Enters' reading, but enjoyed the whole experience, including readings from 'The Rhyme of King Harold', a novel about the Norman curse, entirely in verse by Ian MacGill.

On Wednesday we attended an event that was a very special piece of story telling. "The Old Woman, The Buffalo and The Lion of Manding" (links to a sample of the show) produced by Adverse Camber Productions, founded by Naomi Wilds, English Literature Alumnus of the University of Leeds. I attended the singing workshop beforehand, run by the three performers of the 'play' itself, Jan Blake, the story teller (Griot) and musician brothers, Raymond and Kouame Sereba. This workshop was an eye (mouth and brain) opener with a certain amount of physical movement and coordination as well singing, following the lead of one of the two brothers chanting the lead. One piece we performed in the workshop was also performed in the live show itself, which we (about a dozen of us) were expected to remember and join in, which, with a bit of encouragement, we all did ... with gusto! This performance was engaging, enthralling and certainly entertaining; I highly recommended you see it if it ever comes your way.

On Thursday night we went to a poetry reading run by the Sheffield based Poetry Business. Readings from winners of the pamphlet and book competition, David Attwool, Emma Danes and Kim Lasky. The star of the show, who was also judge of this year's Prize Book and Pamphlet competition, and who did some readings of his own poetry in the second half of the evening, was the one and only Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage (links to his reading of "Harmonium") is not only one of the best poets of his generation, besides being Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield, his poetry is also Yorkshire dry, lightly sardonic, amusing, sometimes laugh out loud funny as well as having a poignant touch. The combination of all these qualities makes him, for me, one of my favourite contemporary poets, certainly in live performance. In one of the poems he read, he announced the first two lines to be the funniest he’d ever written, which went something like “I gave up writing poetry and sunk the profits into a restaurant…” he had to read these twice before the ‘funny’ sunk in to an expectant but slightly slow audience! 

Another great line from a very amusing poem called “Poundland” after one of his students declared they’d discovered a copy of Ezra Pound’s poems in the shop of the above name. So he wrote this poem in the style of several of Ezra Pound’s Cantos (involving Homer's Odyssey). In this poem Simon Armitage described the “Manager, with a face like Doncaster”. Now you may not be able imagine why, at this point, the audience, who had already got the giggle going from earlier parts of his poem, then broke into almost uncontrollable fits of laughter! He had to take a run at those opening lines again, but claimed not to have a clue where they came from!

I made note of one more interesting point Simon Armitage made. He spoke of a quotation made by the poet, Blake Morrison, who said words to the effect "if you try to write a poem that tells us the meaning of life, you'll come up against a brick wall. If, on the other hand, you write a poem about a brick wall, you may just shed some light on the meaning of life". He subsequently adjusted his writing habits and explained that, every three weeks or so, he makes a point of writing about something quite trivial. To demonstrate this, he read a poem he'd written when, one day, he'd gone into their garden and "kicked a mushroom", which was "the highlight of his week". It sounds daft, but the poem he read was quite extraordinary and even felt quite poignant in places. I do sometimes find this myself, starting to describe something that maybe quite ordinary, but which then turns into something else altogether, something deeper.

Listening to and reading Simon Armitage leaves me with two conflicting feelings. The first is that, in the face of his brilliance, I should give up trying to become a poet! The second feeling is that I am inspired. The second should have my vote; we shall have to wait and see. One thing I know is that I'd love to attend one of his lectures on writing poetry.

Next year's Book and Pamphlet Prize competition is being judged by another quite well known poet, a certain Carol Ann Duffy! I’m very tempted to enter, but could be pushed for time, since the closing date is 30th November. I think my priorities need realigning!

So, all in all, a very entertaining and enjoyable week, so far, and there’s more to come from the Off The Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield, which runs until 2nd November.

P.S. And on Saturday evening, we went to see Bernard Wrigley, aka the "Bolton Bullfrog"; a very, very funny man. Go see him if you want you stomach to ache from laughter. Value for money. So, along with a couple of family get-togethers this weekend, that completes a very full but thoroughly stimulating week.

Watch this space for more reports on the Off The Shelf Festival.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Poets Against War, Poets for Peace

We are fast approaching that time of year when, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we remember the fallen in (as well as those affected by) the many wars and conflicts from World War 1 onwards.  Also, next year is a particularly important centenary of the start of that first world war, which was an unmitigated disaster and tragedy for human life, aside from being a complete and utter failure in military tactics and strategy by the hapless leadership of the time. 
This may not be the first time that poets have railed against war and it won't be the last, but it is important that poets, as well as every other thinking person in the world, keep on doing so. 
Please, therefore, can I invite you to unite with us on Into the Bardo next week for Poets Against War, which is really saying Poets for Peace. 
We will start with something special on Sunday (it may or may not include a poem, Terri Stewart will surprise us) and then each of the next six days we’ll host poems from six different poets.  Throughout the week, we’d like you to join us – not only as readers – but as writers by putting links to your own anti-war or pro-peace poems in the comment section on Into the Bardo. We’ll gather the links together in one post and put them up as a single special page. Please don’t worry about questions like whether you’ve been published or whether you think the work is good. These questions are irrelevant. It’s your heart in the work that counts. That’s where the power is.   So please unite with us in this one thing. Let’s put that energy out into the world. If you are so inclined, please also reblog this post and help us get the word out about our week of Poets Against War. 
Thank you! ♥

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Fortune Favours the Bold ... An Epilogue

[My previous post, Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat (Fortune Favours the Bold), published on Into The Bardo and reblogged here at the beginning of August, was deeply thoughtful but, with hindsight, there was more to it than I originally envisaged. In consequence, and particularly with due deference to the several readers, who persevered to read, like and even comment on it, here is my attempt to explain it better, prompted it must be said, by a chance conversation].

I attended a poetry reading at the end of August, after which I had a chance conversation with one of those present, who was an active Christian. The conversation seemed to be going well; it was a very open and enjoyable chat, which I also thought was progressing. This was until, having listened to a bit of his life story that inevitably involved poetry and writing as well as a somewhat troubled childhood, it entered the realms of conflict in the Middle East and, of course, religion. 

I confessed that I had started my life as a church going Christian, but, on reaching the age of majority, having escaped the clutches of childhood and commenced the study of science, I started to develop my own habits of deep philosophical thought, that from very early adulthood had involved an awareness that everything, and I mean everything, starts and ends with what goes on inside our heads, between our ears. Ghosts, spirits, the unknown, all reveal themselves with a chemical reaction, a spark between selected synapses. I then ventured to say that, whilst I could probably go back to church in certain circumstances, because its teachings were ingrained in me and I appreciated its values, I had begun to appreciate that I was possibly an atheist, or more likely that I had some kind of pantheistic outlook. It was then that I, seemingly, made a mistake by making the statement - preceded by my admission of the fact that I was no scholar in the field of theology - that I thought all religions had the same purpose, the same basic values: that they all engendered the need to bring the people of a community together, under one roof, under one set of common values, to encourage and teach us all to be respectful of our fellow beings ...

"Have you experienced other religions" he interjected
"No" replied I, rather taken aback, "and, as I said, I'm not a theologian"
"Do you beat your wife?" I saw a flame in his eyes.
"No!" I confirmed.

Now, he had already made reference, in a reading he'd done earlier in the evening, to Islam, which I sensed was quite a long way from complimentary. But I wasn't expecting this. This being his uneasiness with what I was saying, a clear, to me anyway, display of a kind of insecurity, but also a barely disguised, but controlled anger welling up inside him, or, if not anger, an uneasiness, a tension that stopped me short, not long after I had begun to explain my own belief system.

He had said that Islam, and the Koran itself, decreed and positively encouraged a man to beat his wife. Now, although I already have a declared intention to do so, I have not yet read the Koran, so I could not argue factually with his claim. I would most certainly need to read how the words were concatenated in that book, to interpret them for myself. During the course of this conversation, I discerned that he is clearly a man with a good intellect, high intelligence, so, for the time being I need to respect his right to hold his views. I may not be doing myself any favours by confessing my ignorance in public, but this does confirm for me, if confirmation were needed, that, to a greater or lesser degree, we are all ignorant; we all lack a certain knowledge of the details of other people's lives. We cannot, nay, should not therefore judge other people, otherwise we, consciously or unconsciously, sow the seeds of our own judgement by others and, inevitably, conflict; otherwise we form a barrier; we partition ourselves; we wrap ourselves in that protective blanket, of which I previously spoke, we put on blinkers, so as to avoid confusing our perspective.

What this conversation confirms for me is the fact that, in our ignorance of others, we have choices. We can either open our minds and accept the vast variety of human life, concede that we are all unique and therefore different, which in turn impacts on our different perspectives on life, in a major way, or ... we can leave our minds closed and defensive. Being aware of this, makes me feel that we must at least try to improve our knowledge of those other ways of life, those alternative perspectives, otherwise we become guilty of a degree of bigoted behaviour. There is no excuse for being a bigot, we have a choice. We can make a decision to go out and learn more about the world, so too we can learn about other cultures; thereby we learn to understand them better. 

I know there is no need for me to be angry, or even unhappy about his response, or my own inclination to start arguing with him, because there are very few people on this earth, I would say, who, under stress, are mentally and emotionally secure enough not to resort to these self protecting responses from time to time. I think this is the ego, in the strict definition of the word, at work here, that unconscious mechanism of self preservation.

If only we could learn to accept our own and other's uniqueness, we wouldn't have to feel insecure, alone or vulnerable. By becoming fully conscious of this physical and psychological condition, we might, just might, be better placed to cope with our differences, to begin with a universal knowledge that there is and always will be a difference between us and our neighbours. But, perhaps more important, are the differences between us and our distant neighbours in other parts of the world, whose climate, whose whole culture and environmental influences seem to widen the cavernous gap between us. We cannot ever expect fully to understand them, because it could take a lifetime or even several lifetimes to achieve that, any more than we can expect them to understand us. We have to start with a different mindset.

I therefore make an observation that the outbreak of conflict isn't like a sudden flare, or a big unexpected step, or a sudden revelation. It is an insidious process, that starts at the very thin end of a wedge, a feathered edge, so thin that the conscious thought of it is often imperceptible. That feathered edge represents the first seed of a thought that can enter our head when we are confronted with something we don't fully understand. It is the beginning of a thought process that weighs heavier and heavier, as the wedge becomes thicker and thicker, until it turns from uneasiness into stress, agitation, anger and hate, which then turns into a vote for action, physical action, retaliation, sabres rattling and, before we know where we are, we're at war again; and the next war won't necessarily be in some distant desert, leaving us in the comfort of our own homes, watching the news on our TV's, shaking our heads at the terrible foreigners killing our boys ... it could be on our own doorsteps!

We have to start somewhere, to educate ourselves, our children, for the benefit of future generations, into a mindset that enables us to recognise and protect our own individuality, and that of every other human, every other living creature on this earth for that fact. Only then will we have a chance of accepting this individuality, this difference in others, of taking for granted what is for me the most fundamental of facts. We should never be afraid to stand up for that difference, stand up and be counted; and leave our vanity and our pride at the entrance to a new order of things.

Be a part of your community, your group, your business, the establishment as much as you are your family, but don't allow your own convictions, which form an essential part of your identity, to be smothered by the creed promoted by someone else's loud voice, by someone else's agenda. If you don't agree with all of it, respect it, but be prepared to question the things you don't understand, otherwise the establishment will become, at best, staid and stale, at worst, dictatorial. We cannot afford for that to happen, at least not if we want to preserve our identity, to maintain our own convictions and, above all, to live in a relatively free society - free, that is, from central, dictatorial control. The greatest courage comes from those who don't hold a sabre in their hand, rather the pen and the still calm voice of reconciliation. There is no need to be afraid of alternative points of view, of other ways of living. Be bold and you may yet have even greater fortune.

For each of us to develop an understanding of our individuality, our particular uniqueness as human beings, I have come to the conclusion that the key to greater tolerance between cultures and religions is an inseparable part of that understanding; it is that an acceptance of our own small personal differences - between us and our close neighbour for example - could be the lever that helps us translate into a natural acceptance of the difference between us and a very different foreign culture. Would there be enough good people, who are enlightened enough and bold enough to facilitate this? I wonder. Perhaps there are, already doing good work for humanity out there in the big wide, dangerous world.

I hope that I will have the opportunity to finish this conversation with my new found friend, because I, and I suspect he also, has need to find closure on an interrupted exchange of views. The reason we could not complete it was because someone interrupted me with a request to buy the anthology ("Petrichor Rising"), from which I had read some poems during the evening, and they even asked me to sign it. It was a rewarding way for me to conclude an evening of poetry, but perhaps not for my friend?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

And So, It Happened ...

Last month saw the conclusion for me of a project, whose seeds were first sown two years ago with the coming together of a group of poets, who later came to be known as the Grass Roots Poetry Group. Thus my goal was realised with the publication by Aquillrelle of an anthology of poetry, titled "Petrichor Rising". Its purpose is twofold.

Firstly, it is to recognise grass roots poets, who, whilst they might have been published in various places, may never win prizes or have awards bestowed on them. This is not because they don't have the potential to win competitions or to be honoured in some way; far from it, they have plenty of talent and, more's the point, the combination of their skills in one book runs the gamut of what poetry can offer the world.

The second and perhaps most important purpose of this book, evolved from a discussion amongst us on what we should do with the profits from its sale. It didn't take long for us unanimously to agree that donating them to charity was what we wanted to do. It doesn't take much philosophical debate to recognise that the future of the earth is dependant on our children and so this international group of authors agreed that all profits from the sale of the book should be donated to that international charity, the United Nations Children's Fund, better known as UNICEF.

Here are some details: -

Title: "Petrichor Rising"
Type: Anthology of poetry
Publisher: Aquillrelle
Format: Paperback and eBook
No. Pages: 120


[ If you don't want to buy the book, that's ok, we understand. You can still make a donation to UNICEF via the fundraising page, which can be found at: ]


"Petrichor Rising takes you on a journey that exposes you to the full spectrum of emotions, from barely concealed despair to hope, from love to sorrow, with a clear appreciation of nature’s value and humanity’s shortcomings. It rides a roller-coaster that moves you to consider many of life’s challenges from a different perspective, as all good poetry should. It is at once haunting, yet shocking, with aching nostalgia alongside enchanting stories about dragons. It gives you optimism and hope tinged with shadows of doubt. It writes about places never seen and humanity’s uncaring nature, in prosodic social commentaries and observations of the minutest details of life, mood, atmosphere and romance. It contains clever writing that brings you close to the edge of society, still capable of moving you, but not pulling any punches. It has poetry with a universal appeal covering subjects as varied as the loss of a cat or a harrowing account of the 7/7 London bombings, poetry that focuses on the roots of all that makes us respond to life and long for something better."

I hope you will feel something in your heart that supports the course, if not of grass roots poets, then of children ... and that sounds awfully like emotional bribery, but it isn't intended that way ... honest ;)

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Next Big Thing ...

Friends in the Forest (eCollage by Anu)

Within the past few days, a friend asked me to participate in an micro-interview.  He proceeded to nominate me on his blog 'A Thing for Words', which is normally a haven of story telling poetry.  Before I go on, let me say a few things about him.

His name is Joe Hesch. He is an Albany man, living in upstate New York.  He has been a writer in various guises, all his life, but four or so years ago, a life threatening experience gave him new insights and prompted one of his friends to suggest he write some poetry, to express his deepest feelings about this experience and a whole load of other stuff.  To cut the story short, he started and never stopped writing the most extraordinarily good poetry, which is in the process of taking him to bigger things.

So my feelings lay somewhere between delight and surprise, when he asked me to be his 'Next Big Thing' in this blog hop, which I gladly accepted because it is very timely for me to talk about something that is brewing ...


So, without further ado, here is our conversation:

What is the working title of your book?

"Petrichor Rising".

Where did the idea come from for the book?

That'll take a little longer to explain.  It came out of a deeply engaging and fairly long process between eleven people, who met on Twitter two years ago.  It was one, but I think an important one, of several sparks that welded us together as a group and spawned this project.  Suffice to say it represents the essence of what we are.  If you look up the derivation of the word 'Petrichor', it tells us that it means 'the scent of rain on dry earth' and is comprised of the Greek word 'Petra' - a stone - and 'ichor' - the fluid that flows in the veins of the Greek mythological Gods.  What a word!  But it also has a lot to do with grass roots, both literal and literary.  In this respect, it also has a great deal to do with one of those eleven people, Craig Morris, Grassland Scientist, who also happens to have written poetry.  Primarily, he proved to be the one, whose left field humour was always (and continues to be) the catalyst either for some fun or, as is often the case, remarkable creative interaction.  It also, undoubtedly, came from a shared, common sense of humour and a passion for poetry.

What genre does the book fall under?

An anthology of poetry, which presents the work of nine of us.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Each poet would, of course, be played by a different actor.  Given that the 'plot' is rather more difficult to define than it would be for a novel, I asked each of them who they would like to be played by and here is the result:

Matt Damon, Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks, Audrey Hepburn, Clint Eastwood, Juliette Binoche, Emily Browning, Jane Horrocks and Sophia Loren ... if that doesn't give you a hint of the diversity of characters in this group, I suppose nothing will!

I will leave it to you to decide who has chosen to be played by which actor ...

In no particular order, the contributing Poets (characters) are: Abigail Baker, Peter Wilkin, Louise Hastings, Shan Ellis-Williams, Quirina Roode-Gutzmer, Joseph Hesch, Jacqueline Dick, Marsha Berry and myself. The Catalyst, Grassland Scientist, alternating Poet, is Craig Morris, who also wrote the introduction.  The eleventh member, who designed the "Collage of Culprits", is Mystery Man himself. Known simply as 'Anu', he has offered to design the book cover as well, should that be needed, and has contributed in all sorts of ways to other design aspects.  So, there you have it.  P.S. Note there are four men and six women, but three actors and seven actresses ... hmmm!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

It is a product of the work of ten poets (one of whom declined to submit any poetry), who may not have won any significant awards yet, all of whom are already published, and all of whom have proved they are capable of writing remarkably moving and thought provoking material.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although it contains the work of only nine poets, it is not all the same kind of poetry.  It is redolent and sometimes reeks with character from a diverse range of personalities, who are from different parts of the world, that you wouldn't normally expect to find in a small group of friends.  For many reasons, quite frankly, I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe that we actually got here; but here is where we are, with a final draft ready to submit!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

We have options.  Self publishing has become an increasingly valid choice for writers these days, but there are three possible publishers, one of whom already expressed an interest in the book.  So we shall be pursuing this first.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

For ever!  Hah, you know, the rigours of producing books of the written word should never be underestimated.  Developing a theme, a title, the content and layout and, of course, the editing, has taken time and 'other life stuff' has from time to time intervened to delay the project, but, in answer to the question, from inception to where we are now, it has taken eighteen months.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

This question takes me back to where we began.  It all started in May or June of 2011, with some harmless, always well meaning but often amusing banter.  The conversations seemed to centre on food, art, music, poetry (of course) and random silliness!  We shared a common sense of humour and a passion for poetry.  Every now and then our resident Grassland Scientist, Ecologist and, though he would deny it, poet, Craig Morris, would move the conversation in another direction and inject some form of poetic inspiration, or introduce us to the mysterious underworld of the rhizosphere.  By August, it occurred to me to ask them all if they fancied making a book! It seemed such a natural thing to do.  I was a little surprised when they all responded with an unqualified "yes"!

It has been a great adventure, supported by great friends.


Watch this space for announcement of the writer, who will be publishing an interview on their 'Next Big Thing' ...

Thursday, 14 February 2013

One for Valentine's Day... Inspiration from a Love Letter

I was clearing out some clart from around, above, below, behind and on my desk, when I found this note, well, it was a letter actually. Dated August 1978, it was from the one and only true love of my life. It had an extraordinary, but perhaps not unexpected effect on me.

You know what it's like when you turn out old memorabilia, whether they are letters, books, pictures or artifacts, something happens in the brain that brings back images, memories, feelings and emotions that you'd forgotten in the heat of present life. And so it was with this letter, but, whilst it induced immediate feelings inside me, as I re-read it, it wasn't until I lay in bed that night that I realised, being the eve of St Valentine's Day, I hadn't prepared anything for the day. And then it struck me, but, unlike many of my poems, the inspiration did not arrive from a line or two of verse that so often provides the spark, the trigger to the rest of the poem. This time it presented itself to me as a story, an almost revelatory story, which just unfolded in front of, or rather behind my eyes, as I lay in bed, ready for sleep.

I fell asleep before I'd got very far, but, somewhat earlier than I'd normally prefer, it woke me up again, and the rest of the poem came forth.

The moral of this tale is that letters, particularly old ones, are probably a powerful source of inspiration for poetry and story telling

I hope you enjoy reading "And I Love Her Still" as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Secrets of Life... of Family, Friends, Community and More

"Ha-ha!" I might hear you say, on seeing this headline, "I must read this... the secrets of life" or, more likely, "not another promise of everlasting joy, health and happiness... I don't believe it!"

Well, maybe you should, but don't get too excited, at least until I've told you what it's about!

So, if I were to tell you that it takes some lessons from classical Greek mythology, a legendary Italian Poet, Dante Alighieri, who is, some say, the father of the Italian language; a knock on the door of our own Poet and Playwright, Mr William Shakespeare, by reference to that famous soliloquy in 'Hamlet', as well as from a little known South African, Eugene N Marais, who did some fascinating and revealing research on the social life of ants; and that it is a poem called... "The Secrets of Life" then will you have a different reaction? Or will you think it's a bit overly preachy?

I hope not and trust you will give it a read and tell me what you think about it and, perhaps, give me your alternative views.

What it does come down to for me is the need for some contentment, a reduction in the stress induced in all of us by, on the one hand a fundamental, genetic and unconscious driving force and, on the other, a conscious material greed; one which can help us survive, the other can cause us to fail to find happiness. There is a balance, somewhere.

I'd like to invite you to read the poem here, and tell me where you think that balance is, for you.

Thank you for reading.