Welcome to the Pitshanger Poets

Welcome to the Pitshanger Poets Workshop Blog.

We hold a weekly workshop at the Questor’s Theatre in Ealing to read and discuss our work; you are welcome to join us. This blog will keep you updated with news from the workshop, poetry events and examples from our membership, old and new.

We meet every Tuesday night from 8pm in The Library, Questor’s Theatre, Mattock Lane, Ealing, London. Bring a poem, bring copies and be ready to discuss it in a friendly, enthusiastic group.

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Workshop 23rd March 2015

I have do admit to a slightly strained relationship with my local bookshop, or more specifically, the Self-Help section of my local bookshop. I am a demon for a bit of self-improvement, and as soon as I catch sight of a title such as How to Eat, How to Whistle, The Gaffer Tape Book of Automotive Maintenance, A Survivor’s Guide to Employment Tribunals, Create Your Own Personality Cult in Five Days or Endovascular Neurosurgery for Dummies, I am in for the duration, and it takes a fire alarm or the Store Manager threatening me with a bucket of cold water to shift me from my wing-backed leather reading stool and eject me blinking into the streets.

Which is by way of an apology, for to my knowledge, in the centuries of this blog’s existence, back into the mists to times immemorially past, when this bulletin existed merely as set of hastily-scribbled notes wound around the legs of a ramshackle flock of carrier pigeons, ready to be hoist to Pitshanger Poetry devotees who-knows-where, I do not believe we have ever thought to give any advice on how to actually write poetry. This is a lapse upon the scale of the San Andreas Lapse in California or the Sunda MegaLapse in the Indian Ocean and will be addressed by means of a simple tip or two every week, building to a polychromatic panoply of poetry tips which will compliment the interior of any domestic downstairs water closet.

It’s not like the Pitshanger Poets don’t know a thing or two about the technique of writing poetry, as tonight’s Workshop ably demonstrated. Djivan Souren kicked things off with a tightly-argued appraisal of the urban well-heeled’s invasion of the countryside. John Hurley showed us all a thing or two about strong rhythm and imaginative rhyme in his political satire built upon a walk up Horsenden Hill. Owen Gallagher brought sardonic humour to a piece about ensuring one’s coat has big pockets when shopping in Glasgow. Daphne Gloag taught us all about space and time in a poem illustrating a meeting between Haydn and Herschel. Martin Choules brought another concentrated tour-de-force concerning the real miracle of Richard III. Gillian Spragg can teach you all you need to know about the beauty of the long line, as demonstrated by her piece on a past Lunar Eclipse. Olwyn Grimshaw brought us a deftly-turned debate about whether it can be regarded as safe to eat anything at all. Marissa Sepas brought us a shocking poem concerning the killing of a young woman in Afghanistan which contained an entirely justified use of the word ‘fuck’, as ought to be obvious to all. Finally, Nick Barth asked us to speculate on whether we will need to believe in God in the miracle of a Multiverse.

Which brings me to my initial top tip in what will undoubtedly become an increasingly intermittent series. As a poet or poetry devotee, you will know that rhythm is crucial to an effective poem. While I would agree that meter is important and would never denigrate those who would toy with a trochee or seek to become intimate with an iamb, when approached by the novice eager for the inside track I always point to the more subtle concept of timing for anyone aspiring to make it big in the glittering poetry biz.  Just as in comedy, effective timing is vital in a poet and split-second delivery can mean the difference between a flop and a Poetry Please hit. To give an example, let’s say you intend to attend a reputable poetry workshop to discuss your work at eight o’clock on a Tuesday evening. It would be extremely poor timing to arrive on the Monday, printouts trembling in eager hand. Equally, it would show disastrous timing to arrive on Wednesday at the same time, a full twenty-four hours after the workshop was billed to start, to find the room still, cold and bereft of poets in that slightly musty way only a room bereft of poets can be.  Good timing is a valuable a skill every poet should seek to develop. Happily it is one that can be honed by attempting to catch a specific bus or train based on timetable alone, or listening to Radio Four while avoiding exposure to the execrable ‘Archers’. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 17th March 2015

This Friday sees a consolation-prize eclipse descend over Britain. Not a proper eclipse, of course, but if we try really hard we can pretend that it’s still pretty good. But there was no need for disappointment on Tuesday 22nd April 1715 (by the Julian Calendar) when Ealing witnessed over 3 minutes of totality just after 9 ayem.

Naturally, the cosmic coincidence was much discussed that evening at Pitzhanger Manor, and our new Dewey Decimal archive has a full report. Daniel Defoe presented an allegorical essay likening the sudden darkness over breakfast to the struggle of the new Union, while Alexander Pope read his new dialogue of epistles between the sun and the moon. Matthew Prior, as Father of the House, chaired the meeting and introduced the guest speaker: Edmond ‘Comet’ Halley. Alas, his past success had rather gone to his head, and he spent his allotted time boasting at his predictive powers: “You see”, the archive records “I said it would go dark…and it did!”

No such boorish behaviour at tonight’s session. Olwyn Grimshaw made first contact with a fruitless search for the island of lost youth, while Alan Chambers felt adrift amid dotty colours and memory mazes. Next into the penumbra was Martin Choules, eulogising the creator of a very different planet but a very familiar world. John Hurley brought us back to the real topic in hand, telling us all about St Patrick’s fear of snakes and tedium of pigs, while Daphne Gloag dreamt of the moon not occultating but shining onto an old Ford. It fell to Owen Gallagher to remember the importance of the shamrock in the head of a creamy pint, while at last contact Anne Furneaux was remembering how she had forgotten to keep her resolutions.

Jonathan Swift was also in Ealing that Tuesday night. There has been much speculation over the subsequent 300 years if the good doctor’s performance was to resurface some years later in the flying island of Laputa as encountered by Mr Gulliver. Still, perhaps the last laugh will be Professor Halley’s: in these days of dwindling oil and rising tides, the time may have finally come for extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.

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Workshop 10th March 2015

You know, I take my role as the lynch-pin of the declamatory arts in this great land of ours very seriously and there’s barely a week that goes by when I don’t find myself meditating on the current state of this thing called Poetry.   I can be minding my own business, engaged in one of my many Herculean Labours when I am struck between the ears by some devastating or if I am lucky, merely profound thought. Why, only last week I was busy swinging my little club on the putting green when I suddenly found myself wondering; ‘which font does Carol Ann Duffy use?’ Then, approaching the ninth hole; ‘is that John Kinsella’s natural hair colour?’ Followed by ‘Does Glyn Maxwell have a conservatory?’ Then (and this is a poser), ‘does David Crystal ever get fed up with being confused with David Crystal, or David Crystal get fed up with being confused with him?’

By the time I got to my Life Class later that afternoon (taken at the Town Hall by the perpetually grumpy Pharrell Williams, no relation), my mind was a mass of search questions and inter-leaved analyses, such as; ‘does Ian Macmillan get free toilet paper?’ ‘Would Michael Rosen be able to recommend a good orthodontist?’ ‘What is Jo Shapcott’s favourite Fleetwood Mac album?’ and ‘Does Gillian Clarke have loft insulation, and if not, why not?’ Now some might tell you that poetry is all about the words on the page, but I say no, for if I don’t know whether John Szirtes prefers Darjeeling or Earl Grey, then how do I know which tea to sip while taking a shimmy through his wonderful ‘Reel’?

This hunger for detail must emerge from my weekly exposure to poetry in the raw at Pitshanger Poets. We have been attracting a varied and eclectic group of late and I am keeping a note of font and paper choices in case those details come in useful in future. Olwyn Grimshaw (Times New Roman) kicked things off with an examination on her own abilities as a poet. John Hurley (Calibri, though I’m willing to be corrected) is torn between lost love and lost romance. Martin Choules (I would hazard a guess at Goudy Old Style, but you never know with Martin) then poured out a sympathetic treatise to the Blobfish, which no one has seen alive. Nayna Kumari (Times New Roman, but in blue, nice touch) wrote about a lost opportunity to tell her father the last thing he would want to hear. Gerry Goddin flourished a new tune for us (Arial Bold, guitar strings by D’Addario, my ear is as acute as ever) concerning a woman he knows who lives under a neon sign. Andrei Russel-Gebbett (Times New Roman on one third of a piece of A4, thinking of the planet) brought a poignant jewel of a poem concerning the loss of a parent.  Djivan Souren (Avenir Book and pointed hand-written amendments in biro) brought a pixelated race through the outskirts of the city. Owen Gallagher (Cambria, though I wish he would try a non-serif font) brought us a dimly-illuminated West of Scotland. Finally, Nick Barth (set as ever on Calibri) is clearly preparing for an open-mic gig.

Perhaps it’s possible to know too much about some poets, and while the Pitshanger Poetry Archive is replete with detail some of it is decidedly unsavoury to our eyes. For example, in the Sixties when smoking was still de rigeur for the jobbing poet, the variety and quantity of pipe tobacco consumed was commonly listed in the margin next to the Workshop running order. On one notable evening in 1966 the redoubtable Al Alvarez pitched up from the Red Lion with a veritable crowd of the New Poets shanghaied from his seminal anthology. By the mid-point of the meeting the clouds of deep blue ready-rubbed had become so replete and visibility so poor that the Secretary was forced to interrupt the meeting and call for miner’s helmets and lamps to be brought from the maintenance cupboard, where they were kept for just such an eventuality. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 3rd March 2015

The passing of Leonard Nimoy last week inspired tribunes of tributes, many mentioning in passing at his passing that he had a sideline in poetry. He is not the first star to have a more aesthetical private life – Jimmy Stewart, Stephen Fry and Britney Spears have all dabbled with the quill. The poetry world is usually very contemptuous over such ‘hobbyists’, although one suspects an underlying envy that they do not get invited to these polymaths’ parties.

Here at the Pitshanger Poets, we have a proud tradition of welcoming the branching-out celebrity, and never sneering at their first tentative steps into the vicarious varieties of verse – if there are any ill-feelings among the regulars at the ease with which such neophytes are able to be published, it is respectfully kept on the down-low. For whether footballer or weathergirl, poetry is an equal-opportunities muse.

This week’s celebrated non-celebs started with John Hurley being beset with political canvassers and moved on to Caroline Maldonado being haunted by a witch and some miners. A lack of sleep was no worry for Ben Lawrence, whereas Olwyn Grimshaw ventured deep into the realm of Somnus in her own translating of Ovid. Nayna Kumari brought a sobering change of tone with a powerful piece about sibling abuse, followed and contrasted by Andrei Russell-Gebbett’s parody of Robert Browning and an important reminder on health & safety in the laboratory. New member Djivan Souren was next up with memories of beaches and hedges, while Christine Shirley memories were full of tall houses and wyvern-painted sails.   Nuptual lepidopterans were consuming Martin Choules’s thoughts, if not the local vegetation, while Owen Gallagher was taken aim at his regrets with his blowgun. All told, an evening of high drama, if low notoriety.

The revamped Pitshanger Archives reveal that Mr Nimoy himself dropped in one Tuesday evening back in the 1980s (we haven’t worked out how to get the precise ‘year’ function to work yet on our new DOS-based filing system). He was in London for a Star Trek convention, but stepped out to feed his soul in the glory of language and to be freed from the tyranny of the split infinitive. His poem about the intricacies of pebble collecting was well received, although one or two commenters did express disappointment that it was not written in Klingon. Leonard is reported to have bridled at the impossibility of not only being forever associated with his character, but then not even having said character correctly remembered – Mr Spock would have written in Vulcan, in fact. He was quickly calmed by the next reader, however, as Molly Sugden shared her beautiful reflections on the ineffable wonders of the cosmos.

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Workshop 24th February 2015

Loyal readers of this column will be aware of this author’s forward looking attitude towards new technology. I regard myself as the very epitome of the ‘early adopter’ and I am always on the lookout for some gadget, gew-gaw or twerligger to smooth the passage of this trammelled existence and de-fetter the slow accretion of previous actions, as my Zen Master would have it. Why, only last week I stopped by my local Garagist and had the two-seater fitted with a set of those new-fangled ‘radial’ tyres. My Apple MacIntosh is now sporting a voluminous 512k of memory and using this and an Apple LaserWriter it takes my man a mere three hours on average to print out my daily emails ready to be handed to me with the morning reviver.

Of course, this passionate desire to remain at the very vertex of the zeitgeist has forced me to become bosom pals with the Maître ‘ds of the internet, to wit, the Log-In prompts of the many Stores, Clouds, Social Networks and Portals one is forced to frequent these days. This has exposed a somewhat devastating chink in my armour, my flat inability to remember passwords. So, to eliminate the obligation to have my Man at my shoulder whenever I am on-line, ready with the mot juste, (or is that pass?) I have arrived at a most remarkable ruse, a sparklingly original idea that I will pass on to you now. It goes like this; I have written short poetical sequence containing all the usernames, passwords and answers to the myriad footling ‘security questions’ that web sites insist one has to hold at the top of one’s bean, encrypted in such a way that is obvious only to me. When required to enter my password, I simply flip to the poem in question and decrypt the vital info. I have to say, while this idea is proving almost fool proof, my Publisher is baulking somewhat at the titles I have submitted for my next slim volume, although I feel that ‘Clouds, My First Pet, My First Car’, ‘Taking Account of Numbers’ and ‘Pass Strong Word for Book Face’ are rather enigmatic, don’t you?

Poetry is always enigmatic, but this evening was standing room only and there was scant time to pause and reflect.   John Hurley set sail with a braid-encrusted Admiral and his bouncing cheques. Daphne Gloag is looking up the road in order to live in the moment. Ben Lawrence was stuck by the sight of a blind mime wrestling with the welfare state. Olwyn Grimshaw offered sage advice for aspiring politicians to keep their traps shut. Marissa Sepas watched while her motherland swallowed up her brothers. Gillian Spragg cannot do a thing with her twenty-five year old son, though he is only three.   Caroline Maldonado wonders what colour Vladimir Putin would advise her Ukrainian handyman to paint her kitchen. Nick Barth should not have been watching the crowds of people he was watching and in any case has no idea what they were doing. Owen Gallagher has strong hair, thanks to his father. Finally Martin Choules is planning his own version of ‘Antarctica Watch’ even though there are only two native plant species to discuss.

Thinking of on-line security, I was reminded of a potential breach of National Security at a PP Workshop long past.   These were the days of politician poets and while some MPs would argue that poetry is at the heart of every speech they utter, we need to look to the Nineteenth Century to find MPs who were truly ‘outed’ poets. The Victorians were highly enamoured with poets, not least those doughty Victorians the Perceval sisters, daughters of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval and latterly owners of Pitshanger Manor, who continued the Tuesday Poetry Workshop with gusto, even when subject to the unwelcome intrusions of the gutter press. The archive relates that William Henry Hyatt, Whig MP and Poet was reading his extended Heroic Ballad ‘The Countless Benefits Bestow’d Upon The People Of India By Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, And The Great Aid To The Subsistence Of Members Of Parliament Proffered By The East India Company In Return For Pertinent Enquiries’ when a loud coughing sound alerted the company to the presence of a Manchester Guardian journalist with a notepad, pencil and Davy Lamp discreetly suffocating while attempting to hide in the Ottoman. The hack was ejected from proceedings and his notes retrieved and burned and thankfully lasting damage to the fabric of the British Empire by the exposure of the inner workings of the Parliamentary system was avoided. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 17th February 2015

Ah haikus, the tweets of the poetry world. And yes, that is haikus with an s. There are many snobs who will tell the unwary of how in Japanese the singular and plural utilise the same word, which is jolly useful advice the next time we are speaking Japanese. Meanwhile, when adapted to the gently rolling and sometimes rainy landscape of the English Language, they must necessarily adapt themselves with suitable hiking boots and umbrella.

But even when fully naturalised into every culture around the globe, these far-Eastern immigrants will always bare the distinct trait of their origin: their length. These telegrams of condensed wordsmithery are a crash-course in concision and a byword for brevity. Nobody ever complained that a haiku was dragging-on. The downside to such packets of pithiness, of course, is that they’re over before they’ve really started. Just as our ear is getting attuned to the reader’s accent and cadence and we start to pay attention, the seventeenth syllable has been and gone and we’re wallowing in the reflective silence that inevitably follows.

There were plenty of words to be chewed over at this week’s workshop. Martin Choules cast off with a bit of a rant against the bloody Tudors, followed by Caroline Am Bergris charlestoning to the simple pleasures of the flapper. Olwyn Grimshaw made a welcome return to the group with a potent piece about one who the war has left behind, and we had a small yet perfectly-formed bon mot from new member Andrei Russell-Gebbett concerning bedders and shellfish. Next, we were lied to, denied and evaded by Nayna Kumari, or rather her poem, and on a similar theme John Hurley has been mulling on politics, for ill and good. Our second newcomer of the night, Ben Lawrence, brought a meditation on invalidity and appetite which might be called purple prose, but only on account of his choice of stationery. Finally, Daphne Gloag recounted magic apples and the now of Now in a verse that was as cryptic as it was brief, and Marissa Sepas mused on lust and love and invted us with her eyes into her secret abyss.

Here at the Pitshanger Poets there have been occasions when several attendees have between them brought fewer lines of verse than would fill a sonnet. Here in the recently expanded Archives, our state-of-the-art punch-card filing system reveals that following Ezra Pound’s introduction of the oriental form into English in 1913, they became all the rage. In some weeks, the poets would be in the Red Lion saloon bar by twenty-past eight. John Betjeman, surprisingly, took to the form with gusto, although he did bridle at the stricture never to continue on to a second stanza. Ah, what might have been…well, actually the Archive gives us a glimpse throught this early draft he presented: Oh come friendly bombs / And fall on Slough, it isn’t / Fit for humans now.

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Workshop 10th February 2015

Rivals, rivals. You may have heard on the grapevine that the Pitshanger Poets have been putting themselves about a bit. Through no fault of our own we were graciously invited to read at ‘The Story So Far’, a pixelated event that took place throughout the breadth and length of this fair Borough. On Saturday the 31st I rolled back the hood and released the dickey to cart a small gang of poets to the Southall Library, while on the dot of sometime in the early afternoon last Saturday we were to be found ready for action at Acton Library/Swimming baths (a wonderful municipal combination only made possible by the invention of the laminated book) to bring welcome declamation to the huddled, dripping masses. Warm thanks go to Daphne Gloag, Caroline Maldonado, Owen Gallagher, Caroline Am Bergris, Martin Choules and Nick Barth for donning their cagoules and packing their flasks, meat paste sandwiches and penguins to make the trip.

Both events were made all the more enjoyable by the presence of fellow poets in the audience. Perhaps to draw parallels with the duelling banjos scene in ‘Deliverance’ is to stretch the truth a little, but there’s nothing that raises a Poetry Workshop’s hackles more than knowing there’s another Poetry Workshop in the room just itching to jump on a protracted trochee or flaccid metaphor. Fortunately the Acton Poets were delightful company and there was no call for the Lord Byron signature extra-heavy Sovereign rings that I keep handy in the poetry satchel ‘in case of trouble’.

There was no sign of trouble at the week’s Workshop and a peaceful time was had by all. Nick Barth kicked things off with a rueful exploration of life in an unjust world. Alan Chambers made a welcome return to the happy throng with a similarly rueful exploration of infirmity. Christine Shirley brought a rare jewel of a piece reflecting the threads of light and colour that Rembrandt wove into his self-portraits.  Marissa Sepas made her debut with something of a tour de force concerning the deeply remembered sound of war from her native Afghanistan. Daphne Gloag brought a revision of her poem wandering into and through a rarely-straightforward past. Finally Martin Choules brought up the rear with a Valentine’s Day themed Love Song for a misanthrope.

Regular readers of this column may be under the impression that Pitshanger Manor held something of a monopoly position for an honest working poet knocking around circa the 17th or 18th centuries, but little could be further from the truth. Other poets watched the rich camaraderie and gay banter of the Manor’s Dining Room with envious eyes and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us (or am I thinking of the Martians?). Some say it was the over-tall lectern provided to Alexander Pope on his first visit to Pitshanger Poets that inspired him to make his fortune by publishing a translation of Homer, secure a fine house in Twickenham, discover a spring flowing into the River Thames, construct a Grotto over that spring and establish his own Tuesday night Workshop in brazen competition. Whatever the truth of it, the dark and damp conditions of Pope’s Grotto were not at all conducive to the recitation of poetry written on long scrolls of paper with water-based inks, and despite considerable investment in guerrilla marketing with street urchins paid to accost wan young gentlemen scribbling with quill pens in country bowers, the Twickenham Poets was a flop. To this day however, a poet from Ealing never feels entirely safe on a Tuesday in Twickenham and is strongly advised never to adopt a contemplative pose, toy with a writing implement or gaze cogitatively at nature’s wonders as the early evening approaches, just in case, just in case. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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