Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 15th May 2018

Last week these venerable pixels displayed a pithy anecdote concerning William Butler Yeats.  But alas, and with all due etc to my erstwhile what-have-you, he never even attempted to discuss the most pressing question about that great poet – why did he have two surnames ?  The easily cynical amongst you might be tempted to answer ‘because he was a Victorian, dur !”, but here in the Archive on a ling Friday afternoon when the sun is out but we alas are very much stuck in, this is precisely the sort of question whose lack of answer has driven poetry to its current lamentable state.  As T S Eliot once commented, nobody names their child ‘Stearns’ out of love.  We might add that poor Gerard Hopkins’ parents seemed determined to encourage him to be suitably macho, and one suspects that poor Percy Shelley’s parents were really taking the Bysshe.

Anyway, no silly names at this week’s workshop: Anne Furneaux came closest, but produced an impeccable family tree to prove her fully justified right to end her name with a silent ‘x’.  She also read to us a rather fine tale of one thousand bombers and one excitable little boy.  Alan Chambers next jogged upto his poem about running down that hill, and Michael Harris has been finding his inner voice to the liking of his inner ear.  The state of the -isms have been exercising John Hurley of late, but at least he’s still got his star sign to fall back on, while Nick Barth has been finding the oncoming Summer far too interesting for his liking.  Then followed some griping about nuts by Martin Choules, who subsequently won’t ever be offered a slice of Bakewell tart again, and Owen Gallagher told us how he almost became the last human alive in rural Donegal, before Daphne Gloag gave us an exclusive when she interviewed the Sun, which had us worried, until it turned out she meant the star, not the rag.

Anyway, a search through the Archives revealed perhaps the most be-saddled poet of all: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Now before we are accused of sniggering at his twice-entendered last-name, let us assure you that we consider it a fine, upstanding moniker.  Likewise, Wadsworth by itself is perfectly dignified and would rouse no further interest except possibly making the denizens of middle-Wiltshire a little thirsty.  No, the problems begin when his parents decided that poor dear little Harry needed every help he could get, whether he wanted it or no.

Now, it should be noted that Wadsworth was his mother’s maiden name, and why should it only be the father who gets to wave his handle in the air ?  And once that decision was made, why not also slip the Wadsworth in there for company ?  And this would have been fine had they also loaded up the christening certificate with plenty of good solid Johns and Edwards until the Wadsworth was very much the middle-name of last resort.  But no, just three names was all they could afford.  Ah, if only they had had more confidence, they would have realised that any son simply named Henry Longfellow was always going to stand out.


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Workshop, 8th May 2018

The Pitshanger Poets have never been ones for what those bright people with coloured frames to their spectacles call ‘marketing’.  I only have to hint that I might be considering the vague possibility of mulling over the idea of dropping a hat, for Parsonage, my resident geek to knock up a stack of punched cards for the Ferranti Pegasus which will calculate how many poets have joined workshops past, their average tenure, word count, the number who have stormed out in high dudgeon, those who have been forced to leave us because they were secretly smuggling dead mice for the PLO or guns for the Cats Protection League, published poets, unpublished poets, published poets on a single-minded mission to destroy every remaining copy of their work, I could go on. The extent of his growing numeromania would be more alarming if it was not so immensely useful, for it offers the chance to dip into the data banks and pull out an intriguing factoid or two.  For example, did you know that the thirteenth least popular theme for a summer poem in our hallowed halls has been the humble beach towel?

We had a comparatively small attendance at this week’s Workshop (and where were you?), meaning there was no need to nip into the library before time and drop one’s beach towel onto a spare seat.  Martin Choules stretched out and let us know what a great talent he has for sleeping.  Anne Furneaux has been remembering London’s Blitz.  Michael Harris was enigmatic about that thing that he used to do, but not any more.  Daphne Gloag recalled a letter she wanted to write, although for her recipient it was probably too late to be read.  Doig Simmons gave us his Swan Song, though we will not be at all surprised if he’s with us again next week with another poem.  Nick Barth rounded things off with a meditation on things seen on a long night flight.

According to Parsonage we should be staking our claim as the premier poetry workshop using Social Media, going viral, spiking the influencers, dropping clickbait, attracting disruptors, introducing gamification, focusing on the hyperlocal, targeting the low hanging fruit, creating an omnichannel presence, becoming thought leaders, leveraging ideafication and developing an immersive, storyscraping on-line presence.  I do ask Parsonage what he thinks the venerable institution of Pitshanger Poets will receive in return for all this sparkly-sounding intellectual labour.  He retorts that the K-Means cluster chart emerging from the dot-matrix printer clearly shows that we will generate an upswing in loyalty from our target age group of between 25 and 50 percentage points, which revelation raised only one question in my mind; does this mean we will need to fetch another chair?

We all know that the dedicated poet eschews self-promotion and involvement in the sordid world of commerce, which makes uncovering a writer eager to involve themselves in the murky business of business all the more fascinating.  I am sure you are all familiar with the fact that WB Yeats lived in Chiswick for a number of years but what drew him from Ireland to these frantic streets?   Yeats was a keen, if unsuccessful entrepreneur with strong memories of trips to the seaside, playing on the beach and the damp, sandy feet which are the unpleasant and debilitating result.  He hatched the idea of profiting from the growing craze of bathing and partnered with a mill back home to create a range of fetching blue and gold beach towels.  Unfortunately, his poetry, while worthy of a Nobel Prize did not equate to attractive advertising copy and his products failed to make an impact on Britain’s leisure market.  He eventually took his downtrodden dreams to New York where the beach towel industry was much more mature and he could focus on his writing.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 1st May 2018

This week’s Blog begins with an apology.  I am writing it even later than usual and I know how many of you are sticklers for reading this week’s Blog before the next week’s meeting.  In case of any confusion, Madame Underzo of Montreille-sur-Mer, I mean you.

The fact is that with the improving weather prospects this week I have been somewhat overdoing it.  We British are a staunch breed, well suited to the wind and the rain, with a hey and a ho, as I seem to remember the Bard put it, but a glimmer from the big bright glowing thing in the sky is wont to put us all athirt.  In my case I saw it as an opportunity to lie on the grass by the water in Walpole Park and delve into some of Auden’s longer poems.  I do remember finding a bank of Soane’s fishing lake where the wild thyme grows, now the landscaper chappies have finished their improvements, and I do remember making a start on A Letter To Lord Byron, but then everything becomes hazy.  I came to face down in the aforesaid bank and had to hie myself off home where my man diagnosed sunstroke and sent me to bed.  I am not certain that I am built for reading longer poetry in the wild.  Writing the Blog had to wait until I got over it, I’m afraid.

Which was a shame because it was a fine meeting (and where were you?).  Peter Francis made a fine start with an examination of the soul.  Alan Chambers personified the moon in a fine piece from the body of his oeuvre.  Daphne Gloag also brought an oldie but a goodie, inspired by Tintoretto’s Adoration of the Magi and with more than a hint of a Christmas theme.  Well, you can never plan for these things too soon, can you?  Martin Choules alerted us to the presence of another foreign invader, a Lady Bird of the Harlequin variety this time.  Nick Barth brought back a metaphorical piece on memory, which could probably do with a bit of a polish.  Finally, Pat Francis gave us a second piece on her memories of the death of her father, and the adults that could not face up to a child.

With Auden and long poems in mind, I caught myself wondering how long is too long for a submission to a long-running, world-renowned poetry workshop?  The current Pitshanger Poetry etiquette has arrived at a rough limit of no more than two sides of A4, though from time to time we do see longer pieces.  The Chair is thankful for a bit of warning in these circumstances.  The question for the archive is who has read the longest poem at our Workshops?  It turns out that Auden is the likely winner of this dubious garland.  To my mind even some of his short poems are quite long.  My research has revealed that only the packaging limits of the international tobacco industry prevented his poems from getting longer.  Auden was famously an epic smoker.  In those far-off days when he visited the Workshop, smoking was not only tolerated, it was actively encouraged, as the fug of a room of closely-packed poets was quite something before better living through chemistry developed effective deodorants.  In addition, Auden’s personal contribution to this atmosphere was legendary, such was his aversion to bathing.  Circumstances conspired therefore to impose a limit on any Auden poem brought to the workshop to read, which was the time it took to smoke one packet of 20 cigarettes of his favoured brand, the East German F6.  Auden was reluctant to carry more than one packet, such was the paucity of supply of this brand anywhere but East Germany.  That packet being finished, he would make his escape to go and fetch another, much to the relief of his fellow poets, no doubt.  I was delighted to uncover this story as yet another boon that the Pitshanger Poets have given to the world – of all the constructive criticisms that are commonly made about poetry, ‘too short’ is very rarely one of them.  If you have been, thank you for reading.

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Workshop, 24th April 2018

As regular readers to this blog will be aware (fear not, I know only as much about you as my old university chums are able to find out through Zuckerberg’s Magic Database), on holiday I’m more of a Grand Tourer than a Beach Dweller.  This perhaps stems from childhood memories of being packed up in the palanquin and hauled off to some god-forsaken hole such as Biarritz or Cap Ferrat and told to amuse myself for a month, with nothing but a retinue of servants and a succession of glittering social events to help fill my time, which puts me off.  I was always envious of tales of old London – of brave, ordinary folk wearing heavy, inappropriate clothing trundling down to Kent on stuffy trains to forget their cares and worries during a week of back-breaking toil in a labour gang picking fruit or using little buckets and spades to sort all the beaches into pebbly ones and sandy ones.

It seemed strange then to find myself in the trusty two-seater, carrying only the bare necessities (my man obliged by bringing everything else in a panel van) on the long winding road to Margate, where I had booked myself into a very civilised Hotel, with the singular resolve to enjoy a week at the seaside.  I was attracted partly by the resurrection of Dreamland, the somewhat chintzy fairground in that reborn resort, and partly by the information I had gathered on one Thomas Stearns Eliot, who made this trip some ninety-seven years ago in a bid to unblock the Twentieth Century’s greatest poem written about teeth.

As far as I am aware none of the Pitshanger Poets at tonight’s workshop ever had to do anything as perilous as spend a week in Margate to gain inspiration, but perhaps I am mistaken.   Owen Gallagher is known to take the odd trip, he unfurled his beach towel with a development of a piece recalling his evolution into adulthood.  Doig Simmons cast about for a clear space without too many rocks in order to introduce an enigmatic poem on the subject of fear.  John Hurley made sure he had a clear path to the ice-cream van in order to reduce the level of confusion he is feeling about the world today.  Martin Choules took a deep breath of the ozone and prepared to return us to the hymns we rarely enjoyed singing at school.  Alan Chambers was also thinking of music, but his are the tunes that live in the ear and refuse to leave, such as those being played by the brass band on the front.  Christine Shirley continued the musical theme (it’s funny how that happens) but focused on the spaces between the notes in her piece.  Daphne Gloag has been standing on the shore staring at sunsets, as she evoked the time-mangling effects of supersonic air travel.  Pat Francis spent her time on the excursion train out of Victoria Station thinking about her Aunt Min and the terrible news she refused to break.  Finally, Nick Barth decided it was high time for a ride in the charabanc and a trip down memory lane, a very specific memory lane which keeps coming back.

The cultural mavens among you will have guessed that my journey to Margate was inspired by the recent exhibition at the local branch of the Tate Gallery, taking ‘The Wasteland’ as its theme.  The events surrounding this dense, almost impenetrable work are well known.  Eliot was recovering from a nervous breakdown in 1921 and being stuck at section three, set about packing up some of his best vocab in a porte-manteaux and trailing down to Margate for a dose of light and air.  According to received wisdom he found a seafront shelter near his hotel and sat and shivered his way through the remaining sections, and references to rocks, sea, Margate and whelks are cited as clear evidence of this.

Except that this image of a thin, mournful man in a greatcoat two sizes too big for him, trilby pulled down firmly over his ears, scribbling lines in a salt-spattered notebook are contradicted by a cache of postcards recently located in the Pitshanger Poetry Archive.  Eliot was a regular at the Tuesday night Workshops by this point and he was keen to keep his fellow poets up-to-date with progress on the great work.  According to this correspondence, he lost no time in getting himself along to the Dreamland Fairground and availing himself of the many amusements therein.  He reports himself enormously fond of the Scenic Railway, a form of early roller-coaster, and its stomach-churning motion may well have been the inspiration for the references to the District Line between Richmond and Kew, which has always given me the collywobbles, I can tell you.

It is somewhat heart-warming to read of the many happy hours he spent reinventing English Poetry while gently orbiting in the sunshine on the Ferris Wheel over Margate.  At the end of the weeks’ stay he was so enamoured with the place that he approached the management of Dreamland offering the use of quotes from his new poem as mottos for their fairground rides, though I feel they may have been put off by Eliot’s ideas for an Old Tiresias Fun House and a Death By Water Boating Pond, as they politely declined.  Even more remarkable is the postcard Eliot sent to Ezra Pound suggesting the whole thing be renamed The Dream Land and have an image of a gold fish in a jam jar on the cover.  What could have been, eh?  If you have been, thank you for reading.


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Workshop, 17th April 2018

Apparently, the sun has got his hat on.  Not that we’d ever know, down here in the bowels of the Archive.  But it’s good that to know that the Earth is still orbiting the sun and not careering recklessly through interstellar space.  You see, we poesy-philes are observant like that.  Ever since Izzy Newton dropped in one day during his nationwide book tour to promote his hot new hardback Principia (pronounced with a hard ‘c’, just to give the pedants something else to wet their pants over).  Except ‘nationwide’ in those days meant Cambridge and London, without even the Other Place getting a look-in.

But he did find time to drop in one Tuesday evening in 1687 to join Richie Slaney and guests, and to give an informal reading from his new blockbuster, available at all good bookshops for a mere few times the average tradesman’s annual wage.  (Well probably, but in truth the best efforts of the Archive’s unpaid interns and their alleged internetting expertise have failed to turn up the actual price on release.  Perhaps we would have had more luck if we actually paid them…)

And a word of redemption is necessary here for the late Francis Willughby and his De Historia Piscum (The History of Fish, for those not pseudy enough to know Latin).  Forever the butt of snarky undergraduates as the unstoppable momentum that ate up the Royal Society’s finances, and caused the inevitable opposite reaction of preventing them from being able to afford to publish Mr Newton’s dense and impenetrable work on falling apples and gyrating planets.  But the fact that the Piscum did not sell is not to diminish its radical attempt of an observational classification, nor its glorious illustrations.  It is true that his editor after his untimely death, John Ray, was obsessed with trying to use natural history to prove Creation, but then Newton himself was a Numerologist in his spare time.

Anyway, this week’s workshop was unconcerned with either planets or fish, more’s the pity.  Michael Harris has been eyeing up his shadow, trying to bring it into the light, while Anne Furneaux has been thinking about Bomber Harris while eavesdropping on the mess room gossip in the wartime RAF.  Daphne Gloag has been finding a poem about apples in a scientific journal, though seemingly they were quite stationary, leading into some Springtime sartorial advice from an unchilly Martin Choules.

Alan Chambers has been meeting a ferryman who was almost (but not quite) mythical, followed by a reflective Owen Gallagher and his father’s sad, quiet death.  The other end of the spectrum (of both subject and volume) was unleashed by John Hurley’s riotous folk song to artificial insemination, which could honestly be described as full of bull, teeing up Peter Francis’ own nature study into snails, though he perhaps missed a trick when he rejected his original title The Life of Brian.  Finally, Pat Francis has written a border ballad that has raided the themes from the lyrical reavers of old, but given them her own treatment to cunningly foil the bailiff.

Izzy’s visit to the Manor was not a great success.  His reading was in Latin, and full of algebra, and went on for far too long, not helped by his monotone delivery, nor breaking off midway to complain that there was a nasty draught and could the window be closed.  At the end, a perplexed Johnny Dryden asked him where did the turtle and elephants fit in, and Matthew Prior commenting that he much preferred Willughby’s Fish.

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Workshop, 10th April 2018

It’s Spring, both officially and in spirit, which means it’s submissions time again.  Spring is the traditional time for poets of all stripes to start thinking about writing that powerful and incisive sequence, a love story centred on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union’s Reinforced Concrete Industry, for example, so that one can really get going on it during the long summer break from the comfort of the garden recliner when one should really be taking care of the leylandii infestation.  So, while one is sketching out the structure and conjuring up some really powerful similes around forests of steel rods and the hopelessly intertwined affection Yuri discovers he has for Olga on the 7:30 tram to Magnitogorsk, what should one do with the treasure chest of encapsulated veracity that one has been creating all winter?

Now, I would not demean my devoted readership by suggesting you simply send stuff to poetry magazines, that is not the cut of my drift, heaven forfend.  First there is the sheer drudgery of printing out and packaging ten of one’s best recent works to as many as 300 national poetry magazines.  Fortunately, my Man is happy enough to take care of this Sisyphean task for me, and he gets on with it so well that it has been quite a while since I last noticed him printing anything out or stuffing an envelope.  When I last queried him about this, he told me he prefers to carry out the whole ugly business during the late hours, after I am safely tucked up with my Homer and my Horlicks.  He assures me that as soon as one of these hateful organs responds with anything which resembles an acceptance he will let me know, though it has been a while now since we got any form of response from any magazine.  Rotters.

No, what I am alluding to is the growing plethora of specialist on-line publications and web sites springing up all over the world wide wonderweb.  Narrow, and hopelessly dilettante some of these sites may appear but they often serve a discerning group of connoisseurs who would never succeed in getting a publishing house interested in their subject, although some might argue there is a good reason for this.

This week’s Workshop was anything but maven-like.  Pat Francis got us going with a theme familiar to any urban denizen; the neighbour one never gets to know.  John Hurley spun an intriguing tale of the secret left to him by a Great Aunt, but did he tell us what the secret was?  James Priestman, continuing his drive to open the Bible’s stories to people who might count themselves as philistines, told a story of Abimelech, who was, er, a Philistine.  Peter Francis brought us a poem with more than a nod to ‘In The Time Of The Breaking of Nations’.  Alan Chambers is one with the spirit of the season, with his new piece describing a slow walk into Spring.  Nick Barth keeps coming across the same stretch of road, no matter where he goes.  Owen Gallagher conjured the recurring memory of parting in the mind of an Irishman abroad.  Finally, Daphne Gloag reprised a piece centred around an Assyrian lion in the British Museum, captured at the moment of death.

I came to the conclusion that nothing would improve some of these earnest discussion groups more than a poem from your faithful correspondent.  I am certain that there is nothing that Pylon of the Month would desire more than my angry tirade against the ruination of the skyline by the electricity transmission industry.  I am certain that the peaceable and light-hearted Moustache Waxer’s Companion will jump at the chance to publish my wry castigations on the exploitation of bees by the haircare industry.  Likewise I have written pieces for Cheese Monthly, Cravat Club, Crevette Club and Clavier Club just to mention a few targets in the cees on my planning spreadsheet.  Of course, the administrative burden of identifying and sifting all these fine, specialist web sites is considerable, and I am already of the opinion that it might be another area where my Man can assist me with the day-to-day nitty-gritty of actually sending stuff out.  As always, I am sure will be eager to step in.  If you have a gentleman’s gentleman or other staff I hope you have found this idea helpful, and if you have been, thank you for reading.



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Workshop, 3rd April 2018

Anyone reader who might be concerned that the presence of the Archives in our vaults beneath Walpole Park are a obstruction to the well-being of the arcadian beauty above can rest easy.  Let us assure you that our concrete tunnels certainly do not hinder tree routes, as evidenced by their many incursions through our ceilings.  Nor are we an obstruction to the local mycoflora, whose moulds and mushrooms are perfectly at home upon our precious manuscripts.  Over our long dwell in subterrania, we have also faced invasions from woodlice, ants, worms, and one occasion even moles.

But the most common and least invited visitor is always water.  Whenever there are heavy rains, so surely come the drips, the puddles, and eventually the stalactites.  The interns soon learn to arrive for work in wellingtons for their shift on the treadmill that operates the pumps.  So it is a relief to come up into the dry on a Tuesday evening to lurk in the shadowy recesses of the Questors Library and record the latest instalment of literary loqutions.  Michael Harris shook out his umbrella and got down to telling his exciting news to the female side of his psyche, while James Priestman imagined the clouded brow of a dying patriarch.

For Pat Francis, the new year drizzle put a dampener on the new life in her life, and husband Peter was showering us with his thoughts on the ignorance of a dying tree.  It was all rainy days and Mondays for Owen Gallagher’s old man, the raindrops forever falling on his head, but perhaps constant precipitation is just the right tone for Martin Choules’ graveyard.  John Hurley was far more thunderous at the plight of the homeless on a night like this, while Alan Chambers well knew from his mountaineering that with climbers, like evaporation, that what goes up will soon succumb to gravity, which left us Daphne Gloag in a riddling mood to while away the hours stuck indoors.

One artist who always enjoyed a good downpour was Johnny Constable.  “You can’t paint rainbows without the rain” he liked to say, until one Tuesday when Frankie Beaufort pointed out that actually you can.  But the man was obsessed by them, as if every cathedral and windmill were a secret Noah’s Ark.  Leigh Hunt somewhat bitchily wondered if he had just acquired a new paintbox, and was determined to use every colour therein.  Indeed, he even observed what a relief it was to see his new 6-footer Landscape: Noon to be as free of rainbows as was its wain free of hay.

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