Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 11th September 2018

Spend any time in the company of a poet and you will find that they talk an awful lot of guff about sonnets.  For some, the early de Lentini form, in the original rhyme scheme, in Italian, preferably discussing the relative merits of different grades of olive oil, pesto or nduja is the only thing that can truly be called a sonnet.  For others, the syncopated rhythms of the Shakespearean sonnet, together with the Petrachian volta on line nine is the classic, resolved form.  For many poets in this all too modern age, the mere fact that the poem appears to occupy fourteen lines on the page is enough, even if the last line is a slightly suspicious-looking single word all on its lonesome.  It is of course very rude to point out that the poet might be stretching things a little – the politest reaction is an encouraging; ‘and it’s a sonnet!’ as if meeting a proud new parent’s tiny offspring for the first time.  In response, no points are earned by the poet reacting with a surprised, ‘is it?  How can you tell?’

Perhaps this very versatility is the reason why poets continue to explore the form today, long after the Sestina, the Ballad and even the Limerick have faded as serious forms.  Parsonage was kind enough to insert a few queries into the Ferranti Pegasus’ busy workload concerning the longest sonnets that have appeared at the Pitshanger Poets.  Of course, no one likes to admit to have written a long sonnet – they’re all supposed to be the same length, more or less.  However, we suspect that some poets did do their best to smuggle longer works into workshops by turning the page to portrait and running on the lines to an inordinate length.  ‘How sophisticated, long lines, and how clever, an internal rhyme scheme’ would be among the most playful comments from the chair.  Robert Frost, WB Yeats, WH Auden, we are looking at you.

There were no sonnets in tonight’s Workshop, though it’s not been unknown.  Pat Francis pulled together a compact 21-line form for her celebration of elusive moments of pleasure that just appear in the day.  Peter Francis flexed his stanzas in a loose collective, gathering memories of the Reading Room in some enigmatic library.  This week Michael Harris revealed thoughts about his mother – we are almost certain that he has a sonnet or two in him, so accomplished is he at the short forms.  Doig Simmons is also an accomplished writer of poems which do not take up too much room upon the page, this one concerned itself with the great spirit.  Nick Barth regularly claims that he could write an epic or two if he had the time, but found only enough of it to produce five stanzas concerning a man whose greatest achievement is his use of hairspray.  Alan Chambers’ piece this week was written for an eightieth birthday celebration, did not out-stay its welcome and encapsulated the achievement of a long marriage.  Daphne Gloag, also commented on a long relationship, this time in twelve lines, while describing a trip in Concorde, an aeroplane which regularly bent time.  Anne Furneaux brought us one of her dearest childhood memories, that of travelling in her pram, in a mere eleven lines.  Finally, Martin Choules conjured up his local street preachers with their rack of comforting unread magazines in a mere twelve.  Surely tonight’s workshop represented something of a lost sonnet opportunity?

However, we are not the sort of gathering to issue directives, ask for poems on themes or guidelines on structure.  If we were, we might initiate a sonnet week, but my betting is that our members would find something better to do, like washing their socks in soda water or sorting their writing pencils in order of seriousness rather than be boxed in to a subject or format.  I personally find the sonnet a hugely useful form, if for no other reason than you know when you have damn well finished the damn thing.  If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 4th September 2018

Time is not our friend this week, but then of all the allegorical concepts Time is always the loner.  Love and Beauty are busy holding hands, while Honour and Duty are off playing soldiers, but poor Time is the one left quietly stealing away.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a suitable statue to represent her, unless it is one that is showing definite signs of erosion and verdigris.

This week’s workshop should have started promptly at 8pm, but before we knew it it was already ten past and not a single couplet had been uttered.  Determined to get us underway was Doig Simmonds and his musings on the soul and the afterlife before it was too late, swiftly followed by a requiem to supernovas by Martin Choules.  Pat Francis has been listening to the galloping morning from the last moments in bed, speedily accompanied by a light-footed Peter Francis dancing with the sun.  For John Hurley, the Art World is not repaying the time he invests, but Owen Gallagher is glad he has spent some of his to polish up his peon to the peatland.  Anne Furneaux has stored up a whole lifetime’s worth, and now has time to spend on her reminiscences of her previous names, and Michael Harris escaped from his metaphorical cage just in time before the chimes of ten brought the meeting to a close.

Jimmy Leigh Hunt, receiver of Jenny’s peck, spends an entire two lines of his scant eight to comment how Time keeps a list of treats.  What else is on this list, we might wonder, and to what purpose is it kept ?  Is it mayhap adding up the duration of each activity in a double-entry system against minutes paid out ?  What would happen if the two columns do not balance ?  Or is it to timestamp the last time such a treat was experienced, to enable the ever-expanding gulf between that last happiness and the present misery to properly weigh down on the conscious ?  After all, we each have never been as old as we are right now.  Mr L-H’s own thoughts on the matter are not divulged, as ironically in such a short piece he did not have enough time to elaborate.

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Advice for Lovers in an Age of Screens – Nick Barth

When in doubt of love in some long black night,
when her voice cracks, threatening to distort,
her expression obscured by lens flare light,
the subwoofer’s thunderous retort
signals your pleasure dome’s demise;
when the sparkling dialogue becomes lacklustre,
a weak romcom plays out before your eyes
where once there was high action blockbuster;
when you’re this close to storming off the set, stop.
Lay down those phones, turn off your screens.
There’s no way your epic tale should be a flop;
a little empathy will fix this sorry scene,
to put you back up there as idols without equal
with love like this you’re sure to get a sequel.

©Nick Barth 2018

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Workshop, 28th August 2018

I have never been in love, at least not in the Biblical sense (which description I understand to mean that the person one is having a relationship with is eventually turned to a pillar of salt by God for looking the wrong way at a busy junction).  I do remember a pleasant sunny afternoon a few years ago; I was sitting at a table at a very fine Ealing Beer Festival with a half pint of Trumper’s Proper Porter and thought I was in love for a few moments, but it turned out to be wind which dissipated by the time I had consumed a second glass.  The reason for me mentioning this is that, in a bombshell of an opinion I will be willing to take to my grave, I would like to state that it is hugely unpleasant to be in the company of a poet in love, and if you ever find yourself in the company of two poets in love my heart goes out to you.  Bearing in mind all those sonnets he scribbled out it’s no wonder that Bill Shakespeare was so unpopular with his fellow scribes and had to pretend to be Francis Bacon for long periods.  He must have been insufferable to drink a pint of mead with.

We have experienced the abject misery of poets in love at Pitshanger Poets Workshops.  Discretion and a poor memory for faces (or names) prevents me from mentioning any of the recent visits by the mutually-obsessed but it is interesting to observe the conclusion slowly dawning on the normally stern, gruff poets that there are a couple of love-birds at the table.  We might notice a twinkle in the eye of one of them, or quite unnecessary physical contact between them (it is almost never a requirement to touch a poet, unless of course you have volunteered to do their feet).  Then we get to the poetry itself and one realises that all sense of decorum and good taste has flown out of the sash window.  There are allusions to happiness, to delight in the company of another human being.  Standard metaphors such as bare trees in winter or the fateful call of a crow at dusk are absent, to be replaced with images of long, healthy limbs, or shining skin, work which is much more appropriate in advertising copy for cosmetic products.  Under these circumstances it is difficult to know what to do.  A loud discussion of cricket or rugby (depending on the season) is usually advisable, sport being a subject which is notorious for its ability to dampen the ardour of even the most rococo human being.

I am delighted to be able to report that none of the poets at this week’s Workshop showed any signs of being in love.  Perhaps Daphne Gloag showed some affection for the swifts which strafe the trees in her garden.  Alan Chambers shows no love for the fly which prompted him to activity when thinking would not.  Christine Shirley clearly appreciates Frida Khalo, in another revision this week.  Anne Furneaux discussed the names and nicknames she associated with growing up, but no pet terms were revealed.  Michael Harris is looking forward to a gradual change of perspective as he gets older, however one feels this is likely to be a solitary transition.  John Hurley admitted being in danger of falling in lust with an elegant someone seen across a crowded room, but love might be taking things a little too far.  Martin Choules brought us another clinically clean exposition, this one on the subject of titles of address.  Owen Gallagher has shown us his peat door before, this revision captures his Narnia-like portal to the old country with greater power.  Nick Barth insists he was obliged to write a sonnet to those in love in this time of screens, but he claimed this is merely advisory and had no implications for himself.  Finally, Niall Cassidy came very close to showing genuine love for his children, but his lack of sentimentally means we can let this one pass.

I had our Information Technology specialist Parsonage question the Ferranti Pegasus concerning romance at Pitshanger Workshops past, and a fascinating list of names spewed forth from the venerable daisy-wheel printer, some of which I have posted with my lawyer just in case of trouble, as we say in the trade.  However, a stand-out was Muriel Spark, the celebrated novelist and poet who must have been the Editor of the Poetry Review on at least one of the occasions when she visited PP and was probably treated with more than usual reverence by the poets in attendance as a result.  Yet these were the late nineteen-forties and dangerous times for anyone of too cheery a disposition.  The poets must have recoiled in horror at the behaviour of Spark and her fellow-poet and lover Howard Sergeant as they canoodled under the Georgian architrave.  Being gay was against the law in those dark days, and anyone found being gay was at risk of trial, prosecution and even imprisonment.  Clearly no one wished to be associated with the happy, the flamboyant, the contented, or in fact anyone who was anything brighter than mildly sanguine.  It’s not surprising that Spark was given short shrift (if she received any shrift at all) and the Pitshanger Poets’ subscription to the Poetry Review was cancelled that very week and not renewed since.  We much prefer her novels.  How did it go?  ‘My pupils are the cream of the crop, the top of the heap.’ That was the line.   If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 21st August 2018

I am certain that like me, dear reader, you cannot stand fine weather.  Warm conditions are discombobulating and damaging to the thought processes.  Heat prevents clear thought and bright sunlight confuses the eye.  The very notion of leaving the house without donning the usual number of cumbersome outer-layers terrifies me.  It was therefore gratifying to me that not long after I had returned from my satisfying holiday in damp, cool Iceland, this despicable period of hot weather brought itself to a sensible close.

The way I dress is important to me.  It is not that I set myself up as a fashion icon, although I cannot help but notice how the gaze of fellow Ealing residents sometimes lingers on a pair of plus-fours or a Homberg I happen to be wearing.  It’s not that I regard myself as having particularly fine taste, though the number of times I hear the question ‘where did you get that?’ leads me to believe I must have a unique eye for colour and form.   To continue, it’s not that I consciously choose to emulate others, though when I am asked, ‘who did you come as?’, I naturally assume that my outfit must be reminiscent of one of the greats of stage or screen.  Still, my fundamental guide for clothing is that a poet must have presence.  A poet needs to be looked at when entering a Lounge Bar or crossing a street, since a poet should be listened to, now more than ever. How can a mould-breaking, game-changing poet with their finger ready to take the pulse of a wan-looking zeitgeist going to carry any influence with an audience of rioting alt-right proto-fascists in a t-shirt and jeans?  Jeans indeed.

A number of poets ready to impose their views on the creaking edifice which calls itself society attended this week’s workshop.  Anne Furneaux took us back to another grandmother, one slightly more erstwhile than her others, and with disappearing relations.  Christine Shirley reprised her view of Frida Kahlo, with revisions.  Alan Chambers brought us a disconcerting view from an uncertain pier, though it came with welcome blustery winds.  John Hurley did a grand job of encapsulating his relative, ‘Mad Mike’ in a mere three point five verses.  Doig Simmons went on to examine solitude and whether it is possible to appreciate the emotional state.  Owen Gallagher tried out two cuts of his poem celebrating his taciturn father on the workshop, this being just the challenge that we relish.  Niall Cassidy took us back to a dusty schoolroom of his childhood, one occupied by the headmaster, with a twist.  Daphne Gloag reprised a poem bringing us the dilemma of which memory of a friend she should write to.  Finally, Martin Choules has been seeing red, Crimson Lake, to be precise, along with green (Brunswick, Apple) and Malachite, although he was reluctant to associate an emotion with that particular locomotive hue.

Poets of not so long ago would not leave the house unless they were wearing appropriately insulating clothing.  Loius Macniece could not remember Spain without donning fatigues, puttees and a Sam Browne.  Stephen Spender, it is said could not read aloud to an audience large or small unless he was wearing workman’s garb and hob-nailed boots.  C Day Lewis confessed that he found it difficult to lament the fading glory of the England he knew so well in anything less than a tweed suit and waistcoat.  As we know John Betjeman was unable to recall endless summers, balmy days and breathless games of tennis while wearing anything less than a grey suit, black greatcoat and hat.  WH Auden was always a natty dresser and admitted that he found it impossible to write about the vital place love has within an alienating society without a three piece-suit and Argyll socks, even when staying in a villa in Greece.  However, such care in presentation was not without its drawbacks.  Patently a sufficient quantity of well-wrapped poets crammed tightly together in the Dining Room of Pitshanger Manor during the summer months will create a heady fug, and it’s reported by the archivists that an open window and frequent breaks for fresh air were de rigeur procedures for a tolerable PP workshop.  Given the need to avoid over-warmed poets it’s not surprising that no attempt was made to install any kind of heating system at Pitshanger Manor until well into the 1970’s and the arrival of less formal, more practical dressing habits.  Shame, I say.  How can a modern poet take a stand against populism in anything less than an uncomfortable suit with shoulder-pads and a sweat stain the shape of Brazil between their shoulder-blades?  If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 7th August 2018

Life at the Pitshanger Archive is never easy, which is as it should be, and the sooner the unpaid interns learn about the dignity of labour then the happier they will be at the prospect of cross-referencing all of our Limericks by gender, town and smut. The work of the word-hoarder must never cease just because the sun has got his hat on – for a start, we must ask why the sun would even need to wear a hat – as protection from sunshine ? And wouldn’t a hat just serve to dim his output ?

Of course, such a sloppy metaphor as the example above is only to be expected from a mere lyricist. Not to be too snobby about it, but their often leaden rhyme-led couplets don’t have the best reputation, from “and then you’re in the man from Mars / you go out at night eating cars” to “there’s a killer on the road / his mind is squirming like a toad” (not to mention the latter song’s placing the beat on the article in the line “take a long holiday”). But truth to tell, even proper paid-up poets in their desperation to chime are wont to drop a clanger. Take Phil Larkin’s risible “It deepens like a coastal shelf” or Bill Wordsworth’s overly-precise “I measured it from side to side / ’Tis three feet long by two feet wide”.

No such howlers at this week’s workshop, despite its was bursting-at-the-seams, beginning with Christine Shirley eulogising Frida Kahlo, followed by Peter Francis taking the high road to Ireland, Doig Simmonds recalling the death of a soldier and newcomer Michal Svobada reaching us via many paths. James Priestman has been chronicling the last prayer of Moses, and Daphne Gloag contemplated the tide while introducing us to a new form of Japanese poetry. Michael Harris has been getting a philisophical haircut, while Niall Cassidy has been remembering having breakfast with an old friend. For John Hurley, it can be difficult to go on holiday these days, but maybe her could join Pat Francis for a night at the music hall, even if the better sort of lady would disapprove. Owen Gallagher has also been sampling the nightlife, albeit of a rougher sort, while Martin Choules has been weighing up our chances and finding us lacking.

But calling out the odd duff simile is churlish stuff (although the Archive naturally keeps a catalogue of them as a warning to others). If we take the average poem to be twelve lines long, and the average output to be three hundred published works, then that is three thousand six hundred chances of a dud. Best not to dwell on them, when those self-same wordsmiths have hammered out so many classics. And yes, that includes mere lyricists – Bobby Dylan, Johnnie Lennon, Fred Mercury – they’ve all been lauded for their poetic pop, but perhaps the bays should go to Hal David for the sheer ballsiness of “What do you get when you kiss a guy ? / You get enough germs to catch pneumonia / After you do, he’ll never phone yer”.

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Workshop, 31st July 2018

This summer it seems is never ending, particularly now that the workshop does not break for August but power on through with sheaves of past poems used as fans.  How is the modern poet expected to whinge about the commercialisation of the seaside if they never get the chance to go there and be appalled ?  Meanwhile, their de-schooled children are nagging them for a proper holiday and not some writers’ retreat in the Welsh mountains yet again – honestly, how are they ever to understand the unbearable tragedy of being if all they can think about is ice cream ?

Here at the Archive is no different, with the interns on the works placement scheme turning out to be a bunch of schemers, carping on all day about how it’s not fair and they want to be outside in the park, not down here in a cavern all summer filing all known occasions that Phil Larkin was observed to smile.  Honestly, for all the useful work we get out of them this month, we might as well send the lot of them to Brighton for the day to count cravats and berets.

Anyway, on with this week’s workshop – John Hurley uncapped the sunscreen and told us about an old woman who had been waiting for a very long time, and Anne Furneaux has been gathering what scant family lore she has on grandmother number two.  Michael Harris donned his mental pith helmet to visit the colonies of his consciousness, while Niall Cassidy has been going outside to soak up the heat.  Owen Gallagher then told us how he could always tell then his mother was being assisted by mother’s little helpers, and Pat Francis has been admiring an admirable tree.  Meanwhile, Peter Francis has been dreaming the Summer away, and finding it makes little sense, while Martin Choules has been both in awe and in regret at skyscrapers.

For Sir John it was much the same – each August he longed to close up the Manor and take himself off on an improving month in Greece or the Veneto in order to brush up his architecture and Italian, only to be faced with the prospect of finding the piazza full of the booming, moaning English voices of grand tourers complaining about how hot it is.  Just as a teacher cannot hope to slip away in the Summer without running into her work in the hotel dining room, so the society salonier couldn’t hope to ever visit a fashionable resort without running into the fashionable.  And so it was that Sir John would find Georgie Byron in Florence, pointing and laughing at the statue of David, or Bysshie Shelley randomly popping up in the middle of the Egyptian Sahara.  He wasn’t even safe by holidaying at home, unable to spend a quiet week on Exmoor ruined by a smashed and loutish Sammy Coleridge.

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