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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Tiger-Hawker by Martin Choules

Zigger-buzzing, flitter-flying,
To and fro and fro and to –
A dragonfly is zagging-by,
His body shiny-new.
Ready for the slaughter,
With his goggles on and paint-job dry –
For three years, underwater,
He has somehow learned to fly.

A fighter jet, a microlight,
With wings of cellophane –
Drunk yet nimble in his flight,
He circles round, and round again.
A regal blur, a day-glow streak,
Who never rests from his deploy –
But when he does, he’s plastic-sleek:
This summer’s latest toy.

I meet him, though, in hot July,
Some distance from the river bank.
So jealous in his patch of sky,
He watches for a rival’s flank –
But they won’t come, and neither will
The ladies that he’s longing for.
So here he is, patrolling still:
A soldier who’s misplaced his war

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Workshop, 28th July 2015

The builders have been in the Archive again, knocking down the old retaining walls to make way for Phase II of our expansion project: to burrow beneath Walpole Park and erect great caverns measureless to man, wherein shall be stored all human knowledge, as long as it relates to poetry, written in English, since Shakespeare, of no longer than forty lines. Just as Kew Gardens has its Millennium Seed Bank, so shall we have our Billennium nursery to raise sapling cut from the Tree of Knowledge, ready to repopulate the Earth in the event of an apocalyptic catastrophe with snippets of verse, couplets to reseed the barren literary waste lands of the future once our daily communication is reduced to tweets and grunts.

Over at the Questors Theatre, the weekly workshop took place away from such bustle. Gerry Goddin strummed us in with his song about the brief affairs of a poetess while she seeks inspiration from the greats, followed by John Hurley giving a remix to an earlier work to tease out more of the story. Olwyn Grimshaw presented us with her answer to a challenge to make quarks poetical in their strange charm, and a welcome return by Helen Baker gave us a train journey complete with token sheep that was less Portillo and more Mississippi. Martin Choules has been watching dragonflies, which can sometimes turn up in the wrong places, and finally Alan Chambers has been musing on Alexander Nevsky and his famous battle on the ice, though he hasn’t brought any flowers.

Inevitably in a project like ours there are the knockers who refuse to give us the necessary grants or permits. Even Crossrail were sadly unwilling to spare us an afternoon with one of their tunnel-boring machines. So, now that we have taken down the Archives underpinnings, we must eagerly and frustratingly wait for the funds to continue. Meanwhile, in our recently-opened Theophilus Marzials Wing the shelves are already filling up with newly pressed gramophone recordings of recitations by the poets of today, carefully recorded at readings and presentations using our new state-of-the-art portable vinyl-cutting machine. The playback can be a little tiring as one tries to crank the handle at a constant 78 rpm, but it becomes easier if one prefers their poets to speak with a slower, deeper voice.

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Workshop, 21st July 2015

A wend through the Pitshanger Archives can turn up some illuminating gossip.  We are currently re-categorising our 18th Century wing, sorting our Swifts from our Southeys and prying out Matthew Prior from Alexander Pope.  We also are auditing the many other distinguished visits we were graced by, such as the one in 1786 featuring the hottest power couple in the South Chilterns: William and Charlotte Herschel.

They had sprung to fame five years earlier with their discovery of Georgium Sidas, even if losing the PR war to the every schoolboy’s favourite, Uranus.  They were still living in the backwaters of Bath at the time, but their newfound fame soon saw them moving to the bright lights of Slough.

Slough, of course, has only one entry in the public’s poetic conscious, and it is most definitely as the butt of the bomb.  However, back in the 18th century it was but a quiet market town in the tail-end of Bucks.  It is also a mere half-day’s carriage-ride up the turnpike from Ealing, and so the Herschels soon became regulars.  “Willi” would boast of how he had the biggest telescope in the Empire in his back garden, and Charlotte loved to pass around her homemade strüdel.

Two centuries later and two planets further out, this week’s workshop was less Hello and more People’s Friend.  Peter Francis was first to muse, purring his meditations on kitty-hood, followed by Anne Furneaux’s ruminations on failing memory and cyber-veg.  Martin Choules was having no truck with these ‘Pluto is a planet’-ers, but still found plenty to marvel at, while Olwyn Grimshaw brought us her translation from the German of a charming moonlit night, complete with blossoms shimmering, and conjurers and unexpected pigeons were on the mind of Daphne Gloag.  Finally, the welcome return of James Priestman brought us an awkward moment that must be faced by many Biblical characters.

Of course, the Greek gods were no exception to extraordinary behaviour, and Pluto got up to his share of “hijinx”, which probably explains why he was banished so far away.  The Archives also reveal that not everyone was thrilled and starry-eyed by their Herschels’ presence.  Hymn-smith William Cowper complained that they had wrecked God’s perfect creation, while William Blake claimed that since this new-fangled planet could only be seen with a telescope, the whole affair was clearly a conspiracy that had never even occurred.

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Workshop, 14th July 2015

You know, we poets write about the strangest things. It’s almost as if any idea that can be dashed down in a few lines and offered up to human scrutiny is perfectly legit for a poet.   Where other creative types would be worrying about characterisation and plot, or how to get funding to turn said idea into a movie, or standing in front of the gouache rack at The Hobby Store mulling over just the right shade for the endless sky or melting clock face, a poet needs nothing more than a sharp pencil and the back of an envelope to set a thought free in the world to go where it will.

The recent hullaballoo concerning NASA’s rash decision to harass the innocent Dwarf (really? Shouldn’t that be Midget? Leprechaun?) Planet Pluto yesterday brought to mind a theme that never seems far from the minds of the poet, that of space. Not a Workshop goes by without one of our number reaching out to touch the void and bring big bangs, big crunches, pale blue dots, rocking-horsehead nebulae or the spot on the nose of the man in the moon to the table. Not that I mind, but pretty soon any hope of discussing a poet’s use of metaphor, simile, enjambment, word play, rhyme or rhythm is ejected out of the starboard airlock and we are all channelling Prof. Brian Cox to correct the poet’s wayward use of the word ‘parsec’ or conjure up the definition of a light year in old-school rods and poles, just to show off.

There was a little showing-off in tonight’s Workshop. Lift-off was handled smoothly by Peter Francis who brought one of a series of poems he is developing about the life of a Mill-Girl at New Lanark. Separation of the solid rocket-boosters was carried out by Marilyn Keenen remembering the last holiday she spent with her father. Ann Furneaux ejected the main fuel tank with a wry piece on the power of the Twitterverse to exaggerate events. Nick Barth fired his thrusters to achieve low-Earth orbit with a piece on people who like to colour in maps. Finally Martin Choules docked with the ISS with a compact piece comparing Pluto with Greenland.

I blame Carl Sagan for this obsession with the Cosmos. The great astronomer visited the Manor in 1971 and was good enough to hand out that year’s Pitshanger Poetry Prizes. He got the group all fired up with his description of the phonographic disc that he was campaigning to have attached to the planned Voyager Missions. The Pitshanger Poets, led by the Mars enthusiast, musician and lyricist Jeff Wayne, decided to steal a march on the Americans and a deputation was organised to take a copy of the ‘Best of Pitshanger Poets’ 8-track cartridge that was doing so well in His Master’s Voice at the time directly to Whitehall. It was securely wrapped in tin foil and addressed for the attention of ‘The Chief, British Space Program, Woomera, Australia.’ Within the package the poets thoughtfully secreted an exploded diagram of an 8-track cartridge player, photocopied from an article in The Gramophone Magazine to assist the aliens in replaying the recording. The Pitshanger Poets had complete faith that The British Space Program would see the sense in the exercise and have the cartridge posted aloft on board the Prospero Satellite, being prepared for launch aboard a Black Knight rocket at that time.

Quite what the Martians thought of the poetry, of course no one knows, but as Jeff Wayne used to say frequently; ‘No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.’ We hope that means they liked it. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop 7th July 2015

I am delighted to be able to relate that it is Festival time again. A heady season of beer, comedy, blues and jazz is about to be launched upon the happy breed of men who live in this blessed plot, this other Eden, this demi-paradise, this Ealing, as the Bard would have had it. As I write this I am enjoying a pint of Fuggles’ Mildly Irritating and leafing through the Ealing Festival brochure, a document extending to very nearly ten full-colour pages, while shaking my head in sheer wonderment as to how the blighted denizens of the culturally-starved outlying regions of this Kingdom survive the summer. For example, what do the country folk of Somerset living in a quiet Market Town such as Glastonbury do for musical entertainment? What lengths would they have to go to to see a group of decrepit rock musicians ‘lifting the roof off’ a marquee? Looking to the chilly North, I bet the doughty but dour Scot living in a sober, serious City such as Edinburgh would kill for the chance to see the kind of high-quality stand-up artistes we attract year after year, to our top-drawer Comedy Festival, a happening right on our very doorstep that lasts almost an entire week. As I gaze at the bubbles struggling to rise through the thick, syrupy ale in my glass I have to ask myself, where else in the world would you find a festival devoted to, of all things, beer?

Any Pitshanger Poet gazing idly out of the Library window during this week’s Workshop would clearly see the marquees being raised at the veritable Camp du Drap D’Or that is Walpole Park during the summer. Caroline Maldonado, on a brief break in London from her annual sojourn to Italy, wondered what we ought be lamenting in this day and age. Marilyn Keenan recalled noble Brian, whose body did not work but whose heart was whole. Fawzi Karim read us a poem in English and in Arabic, a treat I can tell you, concerning letters written but never replied to. Owen Gallagher brought back a memory of his mother, clean houses and tea. Nick Barth has been doing other things when he should have been writing poetry. Martin Choules is fascinated by the fish within us all. Olwyn Grimshaw is imagining a world without war and without testosterone, it’s easy if you try. Finally John Hurley told a story of the death of a child against the backdrop of a rocky coastline in Ireland.

As previously related in this Blog, the Ealing Summer Season used to include a Poetry Festival, back in those distant days when Poetry was an Olympic Sport, everything was painted black and white and people moved jerkily and a bit too quickly. The competitive poet was required to have a strong pair of lungs as he or she was called upon by the ancient rules of the art to declaim through a loud-hailer to vast crowds of baying fans. ‘Tag’ or Doubles Poetry was hugely popular and some poetic pairings have passed into legend; Eliot and Pound, for example made it to the 1919 Final reading alternate lines from ‘Prufrock’ and ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’. The Ealing Poetry Festival would breathe its last on the eve of World War Two and with it the last Doubles Poetry Competition. Whether the pairing of John Betjeman with Stephen Spender really worked is debateable, but the crowd loved the powerful combination of lines from A Subaltern’s Love Song and Spencer’s Port Bou. What is certain is that their defeat of the hotly-tipped Auden and Isherwood was as unexpected as it was crushing. Whether this precipitated the sudden departure of the young chaps to the United States and their subsequent, somewhat shameful exile can only be the purest speculation. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, Tuesday 23rd June 2015

I have to begin this week with an apology.  From time to time I like to think of the many loyal Pitshanger devotees out there in the Blogosphere, as Charles Babbage used to insist on calling it.  I envisage these fanatics hanging on to my every word, people for whom each glimpse behind the velvet curtain at the fascinating world of the jobbing poet is the shining highlight of their week.  Usually such ego-fluffing thoughts are isolated to those rare occasions when I am in my cups or struck down by some feverish malady and have only the feeblest grasp on reality.  However, even when reason is restored to her seat I reassure myself that someone must be reading this, for otherwise what in the name of all that is wholesome and one of your five a day would be the point in writing it?

The truth and nub of the butter is that, adjustments for British Summer Time aside, this week’s column is late, et je suis desole.  By rights you should be reading this on a Wednesday, but it is now, my man assures me, what hardworking British families call Thursday and you are not yet chuckling inwardly or facing the world anew, scales having fallen from your eye.  The reason for this lapse in our normal Service Level Agreement is simple; I noted in my copy of the Sydney Morning Herald, a newspaper I read for the barbeque recipes and metal ore prices, that another habitué of the Pitshanger Poets has caused a paving stone to be engraved and laid in Westminster Abbey.  I realised I had to hot-foot it to the hallowed nave and Poet’s Corner before corresponding with my adoring public.

Given the Pitshanger Poets’ illustrious history, it would not be unreasonable to expect one of tonight’s workshop to figure in the Abbey’s South Transept.  John Hurley, for his lyrical poetry, tonight giving varied perspectives on a sleepless night.  Or Daphne Gloag, for once again exploring the possibilities of a Universe headed towards a ‘big crunch’.  Owen Gallagher’s star is in the ascendant, having just published a new collection, and tonight gave us a poem missing Roy Rogers in Glasgow.  Nick Barth could perhaps be seen leering from a niche for his impressions of Duchamp’s Rotary Demisphere.  Alan Chambers should qualify for approbation for tonight’s mysterious impression of the North Pole alone.  Marilyn Keenan deserves to be recognised for her remarkable word-picture of a fish on a slab.  Finally, the consistently excellent Martin Choules’ portrait of an abbey should earn a slab, well, in an abbey.

Some frightful modern commentators have suggested that misogyny, closet racism and serial womanising would appear to be qualifications for a paving stone in Poet’s Corner, given the appointment of the Hull Librarian to that honour, but I say no, no, no, for this one-dimensional portrait is to ignore the joy he brought to so many with his heretofore overlooked traveling children’s entertainment show, Larkin About.

Alas and alack, having thoroughly enjoyed an superb evening in the company of the current crop of Pitshanger Poets, I am afraid none of them would qualify for a slab in the famed Corner, for one simple reason, and that is because none of them are dead.  I for one have never heard of a dead poet producing any enjoyable work, with the possible exception of Emily Dickinson.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 16th June 2015

Being an accomplished poet and wordsmith can be a lonely business. Even in the welcoming bosom of my club in town the chaps scratch their heads and crease their brows when I attempt to explain the subtleties of an evening workshop at the Pitshanger Poets. I am a proud member of the British East-Asian Opium Eater and Retired Schoolmaster’s Club, by the way, which was formed in the midst of the last war when a German bomb destroyed the dividing wall between two formerly separate establishments on St James’ Square. Undeterred, the plucky Retired Schoolmasters mucked in with the honoured and largely somnambulant descendants of the veterans of the Opium Wars, and a ramshackle bridge was constructed linking the two respective smoking rooms on the First Floor. The two cadres got on famously, though rather fewer Retired Schoolmasters were up and about early enough in the morning to take breakfast thereafter.

This evening’s Workshop was replete with wordshmithery and accomplishment. Olwyn Grimshaw appears to have been inspired by her subconscious self. Marilyn Keenan has been doing some pruning and has left the blossoms of spring all over the ground. Helena Catherall told us about love, and whether it isn’t all a bit of a jest. Owen Gallagher brought back a poem about a working man reaching the end of the road. We were pleased to meet Fowzi Karim, who normally publishes his poetry in Arabic. Fowzi read us a poem about a bar in Baghdad, a bar which no longer exists, from one of his collections. Christine Shirley then pulled us into the depths of the battles her father has been fighting with two notorious enemies. John Hurley told us he was being selfish, but he’s only looking for love. Martin Choules has been picking through the Magna Carta with his usual eye for detail and has found some surprising clauses in this foundation of democracy. Finally, Nick Barth bumped into a drunk in a supermarket who seemed very together for all that, for all that.

To return to my earlier theme, while there have been several Pitshanger Poets who have been proud Opium Eaters, I wonder if they felt the sense of dislocation and ennui which stems from the inevitably divided self, as the philosophies of the respective Poetry Workshop and Club could not be more different. On the one hand the British East Asian Opium Eater and Retired Schoolmaster’s Club is governed by a comprehensive and robust set of rules, which stretch to twenty volumes and are housed in the Club Library. These rules cover everything from club satchel colour, minimum mortar-board dimensions and thrashing cane tensile strength in the first ten volumes to acceptable purity levels, approved clay pipe manufacturers and effective fire prevention measures in the second ten tomes. The Constitution of the club is proudly displayed on two adjoining boards in the surprisingly airy double-entrance hall of the club. All members understand the stiff sanctions that result from forgetting one’s gym kit, losing one’s prep or dealing uncut skag on the street at a mark-up of less than 400 percent.

In complete contrast, my Club fellows are bewildered when I tell them that the Pitshanger Poets have but a handful of ‘unwritten’ rules, which are as follows; don’t be late (this is never enforced), always bring copies of your poem (assuming the photocopier at the library is working), no reading ahead (though it’s dashed hard to stop the determined read-aheader), no lengthy preambles (there is a blackboard rubber ready to throw for this one) and your first visit to the Poets is free of charge. We have no rules governing membership, workshop preparation or management structure. As I point out time after occasion, poets do not take well to being organised, unlike retired school masters who like a bit of discipline, and the very effective Opium Eaters Supply Chain team, whose organisation provides so much valuable support to independent farmers in Afghanistan, a purely coincidental side benefit of which has been the maintenance of a remarkably healthy Club balance sheet for some years now. If you have been, thank you for reading.

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