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, 5th February 2019

Some people, although ostensibly regarded as employed in a clerical nature, are rarely to be found at their desks.  Some work extensively from ‘home’, although this appears to cover everywhere from the sofa to the neighbourhood coffee shop, but others it seems are always on the go – conferences, trade fairs, client presentations, big lunches, racking up the air-miles while their cats and houseplants are left to fend for themselves.

However, here at the Archive we prefer to let the world come to us.  Despite the keen requests of the unpaid interns that they might be let out of their monkish cells for have a few days of sunlight, there is really no need.  Newspapers, journals and slim volumes all make their way down our post chute to be catalogued, bound and filed on the miles of waiting shelves lining our caverns measureless to man, so who has time for jaunting around airport hotels and brutalist convention centres ?

Well…actually, next week we do, as we prepare to exhibit our latest indexing methods at the All-Anglia Amalgamated Archivist and Allied Almanac Association Annual Assembly.  It may surprise you to learn, dear reader, that even we can feel down sometimes when we have to spend all day counting syllables or censoring Limericks, and it will do us good to meet fellow-librarians and to be reminded that we are not alone in our lonely profession of word-herding, and that our work means more than simply curating commas and fattening bookworms.

Of course, documenting the weekly workshop also gives us a chance to poke our heads above ground, and this week’s was certainly worth the seven-storey climb.  Doig Simmonds has been seeing a vision of loves past, while Michael Harris has been watching the watchful eyes.  However, the unexpected sighting that haunts Niall Cassidy is the ghost left behind by dementia, and who knows what uncanny apparitions Alan Chambers saw in Fingal’s Cave – certainly not him, who has no memory of it, just like Owen Gallagher cannot recall what befell him one time in the cinema of his youth.  Pat Francis has found out the life doesn’t deal in denouements, while husband Peter has been weaving a tale of Latin American weavers, soldiers, and inevitability.  Next came a requiem by John Hurley for a moonshiner who was rather fond of his own wares, and finally Martin Choules has been wistfully remembering his student days as he fills in his tax return.

The life of a poet has always been one of constant conferences, networking and sales pitches, and they would often not appear for many Tuesdays in a row as they were yet again taking the packet boat to the continent (business class, of course) or were wiling away the wee hours in a coaching inn between connections.  One of the grumpiest gadabouts was Tommy Eliot, who having crossed the Atlantic once saw no reason to do so again.  When he did finally reappear from some sonnet symposium or unconventional-forms convention, it was with a litany of lamentations: “A cold coming we had of it !  There wasn’t even the funny little basin we’re supposed to wash your in face in !  Alas, we shall not cease from exploration…”

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Workshop, 29th January 2019

When it comes down to it there’s no more worthwhile thing to do on a winter’s evening in January than to cram the corporeal form round a wobbly folding table in a draughty meeting room in Britain’s foremost amateur theatre and discussing a spot of poetry, or at least this is what is insisted to my Uncle Archie when he sat me down for an ‘and how are you my dear boy’ conversation at his club a few days back.  It was delightful to be able to spend time with Uncle Archie, an experience made even more piquant by the failure of extradition procedures by the United States Justice Department against him.  Archie was recently accused of maple syrup running, the Americans becoming aware of large quantities of the stuff seeping out of Canada and sloshing into backstreet bottling plants.  There is huge concern in the US about the addictive properties of maple syrup, particularly at breakfast time, and Canada is being blamed for the interminable expansion of the American waistline.  Archie tells me (while pleading his innocence), that if the redoubtable Trump gets a second term, he will propose a wall along the Canadian border to stop the flood of the sweet accompaniment, though even now, smugglers are digging trenches and laying sophisticated maple syrup pipelines using garden hoses with Hoselok connectors. 

Given the Canucks’ reputation for niceness and general fair play, Trump’s new wall will likely only need to be a simple low picket fence with the occasional notice with a neatly-lettered ‘just stay out now, eh’ notice in neat red lettering.  Given America’s northerly neighbour’s growing irritation with the wavy-haired wonder, the likelihood is that they will happily nail that fence together themselves one Sunday afternoon between smashing each other in the face with ice hockey pucks.

Of course I told Uncle Archie that I am not the only person in Ealing who feels that joining fellow poets on the trail of discovery is a worthwhile thing to be doing on a Tuesday evening.  For example, there is Martin Choules, whose inventive rhyming and rhythmical verse regularly stretches its fingers to a wide range of subjects.  This week he presented a plot against Brussels Sprouts on a vegetable patch, a Brexit metaphor if ever there was one.  Caroline Am Bergris is an enthusiastic Pitshanger Poet even in this grim season, describing her perspective of a flat she lived in and lost- rather like the other lost wonders of the ancient world.  Pat and Peter Francis braved the cold to bring their own individual oeuvres to the group.  Pat described the effect the lengthening day has on the dawn chorus as it rolls up the country.  Peter drew a metaphor from a finger dipped in a pond for the effect our own lives have on the universe.  Michael Harris’ work is characterised by enigmatic short forms – though perhaps this weeks’ piece was as short as he can comfortably get while staying away from the dreaded haiku.  The presentation of the self-affirmative, skinny twelve-line poem on the merest skinny strip of paper was not lost in the other poets.  John Hurley braved icy pavements to return to a recurring theme, remembering old flames.  Clearly John took to poetry late in life as he must have had little time for writing in his youth.  Doig Simmons appears to have been writing a lot longer than John, but this week chose to bring us something both new and reflective on taking time while there is still time to take.  Owen Gallagher is no stranger to the cold and the flurry of snow which splattered on to Ealing must have seemed trivial compared to his childhood in Glasgow.  This week Owen took us back to the era of the public baths and the tradition of a regular Friday night scrub up, whether he needed it or not.  Daphne Gloag could be forgiven for wanting to stay at home on a rough night in late Jan, but she has been working on her own bath time piece, charming the group with an odyssey by tub, visiting constellations and galaxies before the water got cold.  Nick Barth gets to PP by bike and claims not to need snow chains just yet, but we think he will.  Nick tells us he has been working an epic poem, but because it is about Britain’s most talked-about subject, it may never be finished.  In the meantime he brought us a pithy descrIption of a mysterious, unwelcome observer.

Uncle Archie asserts that there are a great many other valuable activities to occupy one on a sleety evening in January.  He tells me his current passion is boats, and that in the last few months he has acquired quite a collection of small craft capable of crossing the English Channel.  He spends his evenings exploring the Kent coastline, looking for obscure coves and inlets accompanied by his crew of contract maritime experts.  I of course began to wax all lyrical about the broiling, wine-dark sea, lonely unspoilt beaches and romantic seascapes, but Archie was at pains to emphasise that his was no leisure pursuit.  Although he kept his cards close to his chest, I strongly suspect that he is looking for investment in a new venture, something to do with freight services.  Archie is clear that come the end of March there will be no end of people wanting things to be sent over the channel, things that have suddenly become much more difficult to obtain here in Britain.  I did ask Uncle Archie what would possibly cause this huge change in normal trading conditions, but he just sighed at me and shook his head.  What do you think he has in mind, trusted reader?

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 22nd January 2019

No sooner had last week’s Proceedings of the Pitshanger Poets been transcribed by quill onto a sheet of finest Basildon Bond, taken to be set into blocks of moveable type and printed, photographed, digitally scanned and finally uploaded through whatever strange alchemy these computers use, than its entire thrust was undermined by events dear boy.  It was commenting on the mildness of the modern London Winter, only to find an actual snowstorm falling as this week’s attendees were in the process of attending.  But on closer inspection, the thesis still holds good, for it did allow for a smattering of slapdash snowfall that has come and gone before we’ve found where we left our scarves – and sure enough three days later we were (just) into double figures.  Will we get an other ?  Possibly, but don’t except to break out the sledges.

Of course, aside from ocean currents, what gives Britain its don’t-make-a-scene approach to weather is the fact that it’s on an island – not for us the sweltering Summers and subarctic Winters found in the depths of a continent.  Likewise our wildlife is rather less wild, with only three snakes and absolutely no bears, while our rivers are hardly torrents and our mountains are a somewhat on the short side.  So does all this mean that we’re a middle-of-the-road, nothing-wrong-with-beige, have-you-seen-my-slippers sort of culture ?  Hardly.  We’ve got a long and proud history of eccentrics, almost as if we’ve had to put in some extra effort to compensate for our unresounding surroundings, make up for the shortfall in snowfall.

Not in any way delayed for this week’s Workshop were John Hurley with a study of a freelance healer living on the beach, followed by Daphne Gloag thinking about the stars with her fingers in the cookie dough.  Natasha Morgan has been eyeing up an old master’s rendition of a doomed lady, a big black block and an itchy snickersnee, while Alan Chambers has been hearing music in his sleep.  For Steve Burchell the Autumn comes on slowly, one leaf at a time, while Shuko Mfaume has been breaking her spectacles and broadcasting to aliens, and Martin Choules has been learning his Latin plurals by ignoring them and just adding esses.

One suspects that poets don’t write much in Winter, when even their festive verses are knocked out by October.  It is a time for meeting with publishers, correcting galleys, and writing in to newspapers to remind the public that you haven’t died yet (the modern equivalent is appearing on Radio 4).  Sensitive creatures that they are, all poets suffer from seasons, perking up in direct correlation to the average temperature.  Some might liken this to opening up like a blossom, others to their being cold-blooded.  Consequently, the Winter workshops of the past tended to be a time of digging around in the back catalogue, bringing in minutely-changed redrafts, or even risking a verse one suspects is not quite upto par.  So it was one cold Winter Tuesday in early 1913 when Ezra Pound once again read out his familiar thirty-liner In a Station of the Metro…but hang on, something had changed.  Where were the other twenty-eight lines ?  It seemed our Ezzy had been tinkering…

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Workshop, 15th January 2019

In one sense, mid-January is the middle of Winter.  Not according to the solstice-equinox approach to season definition, of course, which sees Winter kick off a mere four days before Christmas, and neither by the Westeros-prophesy reckoning, and well, the less said about the Southern Hemisphere the better – but in terms of actual temperature, the start of Advent also marks the start of the big freeze.  Except in globally-warmed London, that is, which most nights so far hasn’t got close to a decent smoky breath, let alone frost.  For, despite being a respectable 51.5˚North (on a par with the Viking-visited Northern tip of Newfoundland and the polar-bear-infested Southern tip of Hudson bay), it is bathed by both the freakishly warm Gulf Stream and the worryingly warm concrete heat-island effect, all of which means that the days of the frost fares on the Thames are as unlikely to return as a return to the rolling glaciers of the ice age.  Australians hoping to see their first ever snowfall will need to venture out of town to the Pennines, or wait around till February for that one-flurry-a-year that London puts on just to keep its hand in.

Which brings us on to the ongoing crisis in poetry.  The problem is…well, a lack of problems.  Bards are creatures of extremes, of great awe in the face of relentless Nature, and nobody wants to read an Ode to a Bit Nippy Dawn, or a sonnet on a season of damp.  Given us a bracing minus 20 to really get a good whinge going, but decrying the implacable gale force one-and-a-half just sounds pathetic.  Here in the Archive, we have even turned off the heating, much to the howling and chattering-of-teeth of the interns.

There were plenty of possibly-superfluous scarves at this week’s workshop, but once everyone had unwound themselves it fell to Doig Simmonds to break the ice with a lament to golden sunlight and silver clouds, handing over to Michael Harris listening out for the space between words and watching the mortar between bricks.  Martin Choules next, relishing most than just that new book smell as he runs his fingers over the page, and Daphne Gloag has been talking with a wood pigeon using the same old words, but thinking about new ones.  Then came new member Shuko Mfaume who recounted meeting a wolf in the pubs and folktales of Ireland, and Owen Gallagher who found unexpected solidarity on a picket line.  Natasha Morgan, meanwhile, has been sharing a dance before the politics begin, and Pat Francis has been spotting a new use of a very old word and off into a reverie with Yeats and Anglo-Saxons, while Peter Francis has been watching the woman who watches the trains.

Back at the tail-end of the Little Ice Age, Pitzhanger Manor saw many a bitter new year.  Sir John could always be relied upon to lay on a three-log fire in his salon, and Mrs Conduitt was a stickler for drawing the curtains the moment dusk set in to keep the cold out in the dark where it belonged.  The attendees, arriving with a cold blast through the front door as St Mary’s struck eight, were by no means at home as the cycle of the seasons swung to its lowest point, and would take a good fifteen minutes to defrost before in any state to wax the lyrical, a time taken up with the smallest of talk: Georgie Byron (a man far more at home on a sunny Greek isle) would grumble how he had read in The Times with incredulity how the Astronomer Royal had said that the Earth was actually closest to the sun in early January, greeted by a snort of agreement by Johnny Keats, who’s natural palette tended to the Autumn, and who would always grousing how his intended Ode to the North Wind was again delayed due to his ink freezing in its well.  Bill Wordsworth was no Southern softie, having been hewn from the Lakeland granite, but even he saw little of cheer before the daffodils sprouted, and often exclaimed to Bisshie Shelley (would have far rather just hibernated for the whole season) how much he envied the latter’s traveller from an antique land.  Indeed, the only one present who seemed alive to the frigid beauty was young Mary Wollstonecraft, who marvelled at the prospect of sailing to the North Pole.  “Best leave that to the esquimaux” would mutter Sammy Coleridge, “they’re used to the cold”.  “But I could become used to it too” she would retort, “it’s simply a matter of acclimatisation.  I could start off in the Alps, perhaps, near Lake Geneva…”

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Workshop, 8th January 2019

As my loyal readership know, I am a true Renaissance man, a polymath (-glot?, -gon? I can never be sure).  I am as likely to turn my attention to the latest news from a probe investigating a vast rock model of a peanut on the edge of the solar system as a social novel on the struggle to be an open-minded, educated window cleaner in Barnsley during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or for that matter the latest attempt by the kazoo orchestra of South Brisbane to set the poetry of Elizabeth of Aquitaine to music.  In Medieval French.

As a result, I am an enormous fan of the Enlightenment, and never let a day go by without being even a little bit enlightened.  I like to think that if I was around in those enlightened times I would have made sure I was on visiting terms with the Herschels, perhaps to chat to William about the music of the spheres or to shin up a ladder after Caroline into her viewing loft to get an eyeful of her refined optics at first hand.

Of course, that also makes me an enormous fan of the equinox we have just passed and the beginning of the long climb out of the darkness of winter that we experience at this time of year, as far as I know a thing that happens almost every year without fail.  Even now I am looking forward to the end of March when we move the clocks forward in order to give our gardens and crops an extra hour of sunlight, a prospect made all the more vital by the prospect of entirely cutting ourselves off from any European imports, a subject I will not dwell on here.  Suffice it to say I have been purchasing refrigerators and stocking up on the essentials; to whit, Orangina and Haagen Dasz.

This Tuesday saw the return of the Pitshanger Poets Workshop after a two-week hiatus over the Christmas and New Year period.  I suspect that some of our number did not respect the express instructions to desist from all poetry-related activities in order to maximise the opportunity for excessive consumption.  We have to regard this as cheating as it can be seen as gaining an unfair early start to the year.  I have to admit to taking a little time out to sketch out a Spring Sequence on Boxing Day but it is now almost illegible due to an accident with the brandy butter.

Christine Shirley got proceedings started with an enigmatic winter poem recalling a lost friend.  Michael Harris followed with a pair of typically short poems on the theme of cutting cords.  We cannot help feeling Michael is moving on in 2019.  Martin Choules has been thinking about jellyfish, more precisely the word itself.  Caroline Am Bergris wants to learn to fly for Christmas, simply in order to do less walking.  Natasha Morgan brought a reminiscence of a cathartic New Years’ Day to her first visit to Pitshanger Poets.  Nick Barth imagined a moment of parting caught on a wave of time for his first poem of 2019.  Pat Francis also alluded to a wave and a moment in time, in this case based on the sea.  New poet Steve (my apologies for neglecting to note Steve’s surname this week) found the perfect time to wear his father’s old jacket in his piece.   Peter Francis brought an iPhone into his post-modern poem, though he claims not to know what an iPhone is.  How post-modern is that?  Finally Daphne Gloag advocates taking a sail around the Universe the next time you take a bath, which brought us back to astronomers and the enlightenment.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Counting Magpies – Martin Choules

One for nada,
Two for nowt,
Three for a shrug,
And four for a doubt,
Five for zero,
Six for oh,
Seven for knowing there’s nothing to know.

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Spring List – Nick Barth

Cherry blossom, check.
Book of verse, jug of wine, check.
Loaf of bread, thou, check.

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