Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop, 14th February 2017

Well, that’s the compulsory day of singleton-shaming over for another year.  And rest assured that the subject will feature no further in this blog.

Anyway, down in the Pitshanger Archive beneath Walpole Park, we have been inundated by messages, requests, appointments and final demands, so much so that our unpaid interns have been unable to cope with the endless rounds of receiving, reading, cataloguing, composing and launching the necessary pigeons in reply, and we now have such a backlog of correspondence that we have one of the world’s premier stamp collections.

And what are all the Mrs Trellises of North Wales writing to us about ?  Why, poetry !  Or, in the more unpleasant ones, why poetry ?  We get letters asking how best to compose a rondeau, how best to compose a rondel, how best to round out a roundelay and how to redoublé a double entendre.  We get invites to mixed metaphors, rejected from limericks, poison-penned in rhyming couplets, and liked for our similes.  People want to know how to avoid splitting an infinitive, how to avoid people who insist one avoids splitting an infinitive, how to start a career in poetry, how to finish a career in poetry, how to finish last week’s crossword, and how to get a head-start on next week’s.  No wonder our zero-hours archivists are racking up the overtime.

Meanwhile, this week’s workshop was a world-away from such epistolic apocalypse.  John Hurley was first to break out the Basildon Bond with a touching reminiscence of a much-missed loved one, and Michael Harris uncapped his trusty Waterman to comment on the weather.  Alan Chambers has been leaving notes for us requesting some paintings, while the unpensionable Owen Gallagher has been reluctantly collecting prescriptions.  Next up we had Katie Thornton quite unable to verbalise her emotions yet remarkably able to jot them down, then Daphne Gloag using very little ink to say so much about a flying visit, followed by Pat Francis recording an imagined conversation that was never said but is now written.  It then fell on Peter Francis to write an inventory of an old master depicting an unusual love triangle, while Martin Choules has been scribbling a sestina in the supermarket, and Doig Simmonds has been looking for love in a maze and practicing his mirror writing.  And just before pencils down, we had a convalescing Anne Furneaux in a muffled kerfuffle further down the ward.

As mentioned, Pat Francis’ poem this week tells us of a meeting between Billy Blake and Mickey Faraday.  In actual fact, such a meeting did take place at the Pitshanger Poets one Tuesday evening in 1823.  On the surface, they may seem quite opposites, one looking for mystical answers where the other sought the science of the situation, but this pair were both unschooled, self-taught cockney upstarts – apprentices, craftsmen, barrow boys in the market of ideas, each with a personal, unorthodox take on religion.  Where one railed against the dark Satanic mills, the other braced up to the Great Stink.

But a little known fact is that both men were a terror to their respective postmen.  Keeping ones dispatches in timely order has always been one of the more taxing aspects to being a gentleman of letters, and the sight of a bulging sack over the shoulder of a scarlet tailcoat was enough to put all Heaven in a rage.  Blake would hang up a sign at his Broad Street residence declaring ‘beware of the tyger’, while he would hide behind the door making growling noises, while Faraday would go even further and surrounded his rooms at the Royal Institution with a mesh of wires through which he would attach a voltaic battery just as the postman reached for the letterbox.  Thus he proved the principal that his ‘Faraday Cage’ could block the passage of all signals and telegrams.

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Workshop, 7th February 2017

As the London winter limps on, unable to decide if it wants to be a proper cold snap or a damp squib, dithering its mercury around freezing without ever bringing out the snow, here in the Archives we are resisting turning on the heating to save money and maybe turn few slugs into ice-cubes as an added bonus.  Of course, there are the inevitable whinges from the unpaid interns that they have to cradle their inkpots between their hands for ten minutes each morning just to get it runny enough to write with, or indeed why do they have to use a quill in the first place, but did you ever see Bill Wordsworth waxing lyrical in Word Perfect ?  Anyway, ever since the Archives invested in the Canada Goose Quill Company it makes sense to use our own product, and to promote organic farming and localism – indeed the quills are harvested from the very geese of Walpole Park as they sleep.

International readers of this blog may be less impressed at London’s inability to have a proper Winter, and our whining while basking in a balmy one degree above zero, (or at least the Northern Hemispheroids may, while the Antipodeans just crack open another tinny and toss another prawn on the barbie), but let’s not forget that suffering is as good for the poetic soul as is pure white blankets and frozen nature for metaphors.  So blow, blow thy Winter wind of discontent !  Welcome, wild North-Easter !  Freeze the Darkling Thrush on his branch, greet the newborn lambs with a wretched width of cold, and watch the woods fill up with snow that sifts from leaden sieves.  A cold coming we should have of it, or else a Winter wonderland, but never just a hazy shade with nothing worse than all the leaves being brown and the sky being grey.

Plenty of hearthside huddling at this week’s workshop, as Olwyn Grimshaw lit our fire with her piece on tabloid sensationalism and red-blooded redtops, while Martin Choules has been spending his long evenings pondering the choosing of an English name, and Michael Harris found heartwarming inspiration despite a less than happy New Year.  Katie Thornton then flushed our cheeks with her sestina on a pair of piebald hands, followed by whistles both absent and present and a non-stop bakelite radio from John Hurley.  Owen Gallagher was in apocalyptic mood as he turned up the thermostat and started torching the earth, leaving Alan Chambers to recall the eternal Summer of childhood only to find himself back in the Winter of today.

Once the interns finally got their quills out, we were able to start looking back through the Archive to Winters past.  The obvious place to start was with Robert Frost, whose very name says it all and who once declared that “you can’t get too much Winter in the Winter”.  And indeed, we soon found evidence of his feud with fellow ex-pat Ezra Pound coming to the fore on a chilly Tuesday evening in 1914.  It seems that Ezzie’s faint praise of Bob’s poem led the latter to mutter how, when it comes to criticism, the cold shoulder is as effective as the wrathful invective: “For destruction,” he complained, “ice is also great, and would suffice.”

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Workshop, 24th January 2017

The trouble with reading poetry is that you only get to read the successes.  Look through any of the slim volumes on the 821 shelf of the local library and you will never find anything less than competent.  Maybe not to your tastes, but perfectly able to keep a metre or abandon same with obvious purposefulness.  No tone deaf hack has ever managed to hoodwink a publisher save William McGonagall, and only he because he was an elaborate joke of Thomas Hardy’s.

But for every Alfred Tennyson there are a hundred would-be versifiers who are every bit in thrall to poesy, but are unable to spread their garret-jottings to the rhythm-hungry world.  Sure, some of them would be Vogons, but a good portion must be Van Goghs only able to get a little wallspace in a sympathetic cafe.  Taking it further will require somehow getting past the gatekeepers who edit the five or six literary magazines that have any impact on publishers, but alas these days those all-powerful half-dozen are cut from the same mould and woven from the same pod.  So impress one, and there are five more births just waiting for your particular brand of brandishment.  But find yourself out of fashion or an all-round square peg and only your immediate family or readers of obscure blogs will ever know just what we’re missing.

This week’s workshop alas contained no literary agent on the prowl, but nevertheless held sufficient poetic wisdom to shame even a golden age.  Daphne Gloag has been listening to the tick-tock of time and wondering if it even exists, while for Anne Furneaux’s observations on the ward, the beat has come from machines that go ping.  Meanwhile a very ordinary day for Michael Harris has been coloured by world politics and personal matters, though not in equal proportions, while Alan Chambers has been watching the boats go by without being able to lend a hand, and Danuta Sotkin-Kondyski has expanded her poem from last week about a busy forensic doctor and her out-of-a-bottle daughter.  Then we welcomed two new unsigned balladeers to our weekly jam, starting with Katie Thornton and her guitar-playing muse whose lessons had a big impact and may even one day lead to being able to play, while Carol Thornton has been feeling as safe as a teddy bear.  Martin Choules then told us all about an arsenic-coloured pretty dress to die for, and Doig Simmonds hit us with a poignant account of mixed-up attitudes to mixed-race non-conformers.

Looking through the Pitshanger Archives, one cannot help but wonder what these records must look like in a parallel universe, where different attendees caught the editor’s ear.  Like the time when the great John Bull read his latest sonnet on wazygeese, or when Jane Doe won her bet with her unicycle, or when Joe Public was heard to comment that undertakers prefer to use both hands.  Ah, the gems we’ve lost.

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Workshop, 10th January 2017

I have never been one for holidays, keen to live my life by a mantra I learned from a favourite itinerant uncle who always claimed the last British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Zenda.  I remember him berating a woman while we were travelling by train through the Urals; ‘You are a tourist, they are on holiday but I am a traveller’.  The poor lady had only asked him if he wanted something from the trolley.  Nevertheless, I cannot help but be tempted by the glossy brochures which fall so readily from the pages of my favourite monthlies (there’s always a challenging crossword in ‘Men’s Compost’, while the year planner in ‘Christmas Today’ is indispensable).  The technicolour images of vast ships, resembling nothing more than towering Hotels bobbing in the sea should be enough for me to book my passage on a cruise which will take in The Pyramids, Lower Manhattan, The Northern Lights and heart-warming campfire scenes with a group of Sudanese pirates, while enchanted tourists await rescue by the chaps in UN helmets.

Thoughts of summer by the sea were absent this week, with several of our most of us still thinking about the Holiday just past.  Martin Choules has been noticing the scruffy forests that sprout upon the streets on Twelfth Night.  Anne Furneaux brought us a poem to her William who celebrated his eightieth birthday years yesterday.  Dunata Sotnink-Kondyck chimed with Martin and her own thoughts about Christmas trees.  Michael Harris has only recently taken up writing poetry in order to remember his mother when she became ill and this week managed to capture some terse, touching lines on the flight back from her funeral.  Alan Chambers has been thinking about the turn of the year and the comparison between art and nature.  James Priestman retold the story of Jezebel and others.  Christine Shirley and a friend were playing with a balloon in an enigmatic work.  Daphne Gloag has been honing her honeymoon memories, taking place in a dent in time.  Finally, Nick Barth brought back an old one, containing gently rotating boats.

Just in case you were wondering, I am not planning to go on a cruise.  It is a rare poetic talent that could draw anything momentous from two weeks batting quoits at heiresses while waiting for the breakfast sweats to subside.  The true poet has foam in their veins and sinews of hemp, with the occasional cleft hitch.  Their keen eye can spot a pedallo on the horizon through a force nine gale and can stand stock still on the foredeck, notebook in hand, bashing out a jolly ballad of jack-tar lads and derring-do while hardened mariners are below decks, re-acquainting themselves with their dinners.

Such a bard was John Masefield the ocean-enamoured Laureate, who first attended a Pitshanger Poets Workshop such a long time ago it’s a wonder a quinquereme was not missing a cabin boy.  It is perhaps Masefield’s visits to the workshop which inspired a trend for footnotes to poems which survives in our group to this day.  One can imagine the debates that raged over the number of apostrophes appropriate in fo’c’s’le or the lack of them in forrard, and so replete were Masefield’s early works with the vernacular of the sea that they were more footnote than verse.  Regrettably Masefield was glad to give the group the heave-ho when his writing career took off.  It seems the feeling was mutual.  As one un-named regular of the inter-war period put it; ‘Masefield was not the easiest of chaps to sit next to for two hours.  if it wasn’t the interminable maritime jargon or the sodden cable-knit clothing, it was the perennial smell of fish.  I do hope he managed retrieve his footwear’.

If you have been, thank you for reading

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Workshop, 3rd January 2017

Dear reader, I must open this week’s sermon with something of a road to Dagenham experience, by which I mean the kind of change of heart that would persuade one to eschew the Austin Mini and take up with a Ford Cortina.  It occurred this morning when, as I emerged somewhat creakily into the pre-dawn gloom and contemplated another dreach day of scant daylight, when the only comfort glimmering on the horizon is a stale mince pie and a dusty glass of ginger wine, when the warmth seeps out of one’s bones like soup through a blanket, when purposeful pine needles collect under the socks like Velcro, only to eviscerate the foot when the slipper is donned, when the toad ‘work’ is a welcome alternative to the lizard ‘abstinence’, that as a poet this really is my favourite time of year.

Perhaps I have come late to the realisation that now is the time to dig out the somewhat high-fallutin’ terms such as shard, indurate or scintillant, words that one might sensibly avoid in balmier climes.  The poet might try a coruscate or even hint at an evanesce.  Certainly, this is no time to shun desolation or crepuscular.  The daring bard might, who knows, be willing to stretch to a caliginous if the spell-checker will accept it.  Now is the time, while the twinkly-eyed nostalgia of Christmas is safely out of the way and Spring is still an Odysseyan trek across the far horizon to put the poetry editor on danger money and break the seal on the Sesquipedalian Society Thesaurus received for a credible third place  in the Warren G Harding Memorial Pub Quiz.  Poets of the world unite!  We have nothing to lose but our chagrin.

Certainly, there were a few fifty-dollar words cast about in this week’s Workshop.  Doig Simmonds let rip with a poem inspired by archaeology that sported the word oedematous with not a hint of shame.  Nick Barth followed this up with a pilgrimage through the Roman Empire fearlessly brandishing an amorphous.  Daphne Gloag then took up the cudgels with a short trip into the ever-hyphenated realm of space-time.  Alan Chambers has been working on a villanelle that hid within its sparkling clarity the word immensity, but was no less direct for that.  Danuta Sotkin-Kondycki took us back out into the outer reaches of vocabulary with a poem translated from Polish into English preserving a smidgeon of Latin.  Finally, Martin Choules brought the room back to the warmth of the English language with a tightly-argued piece celebrating the absence of gender in the mother tongue.

As always my spiritual journey this month has been guided by poetry.  I was leafing through a doorstep of Thomas Hardy when it fell open at ‘The Darkling Thrush’.  I initially took it to be a Christmas poem, but a quick spin through the PP Workshop Archive shed a little light on the poem’s gestation.  Published to coincide with the new century (the Victorians, being proper people with a need for deferred enjoyment, began the 20th Century on the first of January 1901), it does indeed herald the beginning of the year.  However, Hardy had brought the poem to the group a whole twelve months before, well in time to meet a Christmas deadline for 1899.  As an old hand at these things I instantly realised what had occurred.  The Darkling Thrush was initially written as a Christmas poem but poor Hardy became so caught up in the seasonal chores that he missed his deadline not just one but two years running.  As a result, he did what any sensible poet would do, darkened the tone, added desolate, gaunt and beruffled and re-purposed the piece for the fag-end of the Nineteenth Century, getting it in the post just in time for a poetry magazine desperate for a bit of high-class copy in a desolate January, 1901.  It was another peerless bit of marketing from the master of Gloom-Lit.

Happy New Year, and if you have been, thank you for reading

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Workshop, 20th December 2016

The Questors is always a thrive of bustleness in December, what with the the swarms of kiddies circling the pantomime, both onstage and audience, and their haggard parents downing a swift half in the Grapevine to brace up to the he’s-behind-yous.  Over in the Studio, an equally silly if more adult comedy plays to packed houses while the tea room in the Upper Foyer has doubled its bunting for the season.

Here in the Archives we are forever losing our unpaid interns to the bright lights of an evening’s theatrics.  They are especially attracted to the aforementioned Alan Ayckbourne happening in the Studio, and one of its themes in particular – the sonnetting detective.  He is the product of one of the characters’ literomania, dashing off whodunnits faster than the corpses can fall in a dozen Agatha Christie soirée.   Improbable Fiction indeed, for everyone knows that the pulp dectective, be he in paperback or DVD, must be a workaholic, alcoholic, humourless, self-righteous, divorcé.

What use has such a flatfoot for a pithy couplet or apposite bon mot ?  How can one who must dredge the depths of human depravity come up waxing on roses ?  Surely rhymes have no place in such a prose-laden world ?  And yet, such characters are always shown as rule-breakers, risk-takers and churlish romantics, so why not dabble in a little Wordsworth, Clare or Young while examining the latest body in the library ?

Lots of potential ’tecs at this week’s workshop: John Hurley opened proceedings with a poignant peace on Alzheimers, while Donata Sotnik-Kondycki spun us a likely story and Daphne Gloag examined the evidence for the Golden Fleece.  Meanwhile, Pat Francis has been keeping a watch on some masters of disguise while a thorough sifting of the facts concerning stars has been keeping Peter Francis at his desk.  Martin Choules was looking shifty as he read us his statement on Peace on Earth and lack of faith, while Doig Simmonds told us of the word he dare not tell, and Anne Furneaux suspected the famous designer William Morris of some double-dealing.  Finally, William Morton shamelessly stole a popular tune to slip in some new words when no-one was looking.

Well, just like presents on Christmas Eve, this case is about wrapped up.  But humbugs that we are, we will be meeting as usual on both the 27th and the 3rd.  And, as Inspector Morse never said, Merry Christmas one and all !

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Workshop, 7th December 2016

I was battling through the crowds swarming around Ealing Broadway the other day, a melee which appears to lose all sense of humanity when in the vicinity of a well-known pants-to-foodstuffs retailer.  I believe I know the reason for this phenomenon; stollen.  It always seemed sensible to me that of all the aspects of the traditional German Christmas Vickie and Albert brought Blighty, they kept schtum on the subject of stollen, given how dry and dusty the lumps of the stuff posted by Tante Claudia (or Claudia Spells to her friends) always appeared to be.  At first we assumed they were a ‘green’ form of packaging used to protect the bizarre wooden knick-knacks sent every year.  It took Marks and Sparks to add a little much-needed moisture to create a smackerel which could have conceivably been served with pride and a nice glass of milk of Paradise in Kubla Khan’s Xanadu Tea Rooms.

I took refuge from the M&S scrimmage, reaching Ealing Green and happened upon Pitshanger Manor, still under wraps, mid-way through her restoration.  It’s a good place for the poets amongst my readership (if any) to find a corner of a bench, whip out the old pigskin-bound and jot down a few lines for the use of, should inspiration strike.  What did strike was the realisation that the new house, being a recreation of the old house is going to be a lot smaller than the old house, which was pulled about a bit to make the new house, which has now been done away with.  I hope I have made myself clear.  Sir John Soane’s original house did not give the Tuesday Workshop a great deal of space, especially considering the large number of hangers-on the sessions attracted.

Hangers-on are not unknown at today’s workshops, but welcome they are.  This week’s meeting was another full one and I am thinking of barring the door at 20:15 to reduce the chair-shuffling which sometimes (Andrew) mars a performance.  However, professional is as professional does and we maintained a steady stream of high-quality prosiosity.   Olwyn Grimshaw got things off to a cracking start, imagining the thoughts of The Illuminati as they consider the recent series of momentous events which have beset the world.  Michael Harris brought his friend Syd to work through some memories of his Granda’ in Ireland.  Owen Gallagher remembered his mother and the dark treatment she was given in the name of mental health.  John Hurley wrote about a halcyon evening in Ealing.  Martin Choules wonders if the Black Dog of depression has a partner in the Grey Rat of paranoia.  Nick Barth is launching off on his own Grand Tour with an early memory of driving.  David Hovatter brought us a very fresh work, so fresh it was hand written and photocopied.  Pat Francis is a historian and has translated a short excerpt from ‘Saver and Spendthrift’ an extended verse written in Middle English.   Husband Peter Francis engineered a short, intricate piece without verb or punctuation.  Daphne Gloag brought back an older poem written in the light of String Theory and wondering what might be crammed into all those extra dimensions.  Finally, Donata Sotnik-Kondycki woke us all up with a rousing song translated from the Polish.

David Hovatter’s handwritten poem reminded me that PP Workshops were much more complex in Sir John’s time than they are now as a result of one of our founding rules – bring copies.  Anyone who has attended a poetry workshop featuring doyens of the form (and who hasn’t?) will tell you that though age may not whither them it may make them a touch mutton.  From the earliest days of PP, written and spoken word went hand in glove, necessitating the introduction of so-called ‘proto-copiers’, young scribes, usually students, who would do their best to copper-plate the latest drafts before the workshop began.  The building was thus crowded with youngsters with pencils, pens and sheaves of paper, ready to copy the work.  As Pitshanger Poets Workshop records show, some poets were more legible than others. The late Victorians were particularly bad, whole stretches of Browning being reduced to ‘mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm, de-dum de-dum’ by the rushed scribes.  The practice of employing local students to was put under threat when a nervous Christina Rosetti brought an early draft she hoped to enter into a competition for a Christmas Poem in ‘Scribner’s Monthly’.  One chap managed to smuggle a copy of her poem out of the building but was informed upon after being overheard boasting about the deed in the Red Lion.  We do not know whether the editor of Scribner’s Monthly would have fallen for a young scallywag street-hawking; ‘half a nicker for a simple yet powerful description of winter, featuring a personification of the moaning wind, centred around a touching Nativity Scene revealing the underlying humanity within our mysterious and detached theological doctrine, Squire?’.

If you have been, thank you for reading.

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