Workshop, 28th February 2017

Ah, the modern times we live in. In general, the daily effervescence of the news does not penetrate our underground caverns beneath Walpole Park, but one of our more recent interns (who still cannot believe it possible that down here they can receive absolutely no signal on their pocket distractor) has informed us that Her Majesty has put her seal on the plans to drive a new high-speed railway through Ealing borough, and incidentally on to Birmingham. Alas, unlike in the original plans where it would run alongside the Central Line through the North Circular gyratory, it is now to be tunnelled throughout and the hopes of a future Hanger Lane High Speed station for non-stop trains direct to Glasgow or Prague is not to be.

Plenty decidedly was to be at this week’s workshop. Danuta Sotkin-Kondycki gave us a slice of lives on the prom, with an ocean liner thrown in for good measure, and Daphne Gloag has been following a star, and so have the Magi. For John Hurley, the lost world of the plough is tilled once more, while Owen Gallagher has not been enjoying his Aussie pint quite as much now that he’s reminded of home, and Peter Francis has been musing on synchronicity and how blackboard equations can be turned into striking chords. Nayna Kumari was keen to try out a highly regarded gastropub, but found the waitstaff less tasteful, and Pat Francis has been singing the blues, just for the hell of it. Michael Harris thinks that the path to enlightenment leads from application uninstallation, while Martin Choules has been keeping a tally of everything and found it adds up to not much. Finally, moles, Old Nog and Alan Chambers have been up late of late.

Speaking of Prague, one can imagine what a thrill the sight of such sleek high-speed locomotion would be to the ghost of Antonín ‘Tony’ Dvořák, a man of as many talents as diacritics. A lifelong trainspotter, in 1885 he managed to take time off from premiering his 7th Symphony at St James’ Hall to slip off to Paddington with a notebook and platform ticket, lost in a world of Dean Goodses and broad-gauge beauties. He even made a detour to Ealing via the Metropolitan District Railway service from Mansion House to Windsor. His purpose that Tuesday was to finally meet with Bill ‘Schwenck’ Gilbert of ‘& Sullivan’ fame – the two had been enjoying a considerable correspondence ever since the latter had hit upon setting a comic opera entirely within a busy suburban platform tea room, possibly with a love affair between a well-bred housewife and a rakish doctor. He needed a train buff to make it ring true, and he knew just who to turn to.

Unfortunately, the Archives reveal that old Tony was less interested in coming up with tips about getting the porters’ uniforms right or the right kind of whistles, and more with scoring the entire show. This of course was stepping on Artie Sullivan’s toes in a big way, and besides, Schwenck secretly thought that the Bohemian rhapsodist was somewhat less than hum-able. To extract himself from a thoroughly Victorian embarrassment, he desperately observed that surely the trains would be much bigger in America – indeed, whereas poor old Britain only had railways, the Yanks had whole railroads ! “Best to take the next steamer from Liverpool…don’t worry about my little operetta…silly idea anyway…oh, don’t cry, old man…oh, I see, just something in his eye…well, try pulling your eyelid down as far as it will go…yes, thank you Swinburne, but he really doesn’t need your suggestions…oh, I see you’ve done it anyway… um, would you like to borrow my handkerchief ?”

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Workshop, 21st February 2017

A recent works excursion to the Troubadour public house in the Old Brompton Road and their Coffee House Poetry event led to two observations among the interns: 1) the lack of coffee, and 2) the surfeit of poets.  It seems that half of West London is be-mused and verse-iferous in their barditry.  Following an evening of readers who used the stage to cover all stages between bracing and whimsy, rhyming and freestyle, we managed to grab a few words with the hostess and all-round orateuse, Anne-Marie Fyfe.  It turns out that she runs her own workshop, somewhat like the Pitshanger Poets, but perhaps more of a seminar with a professor than a round-table in the student’s union.

Not that there wasn’t plenty of advice and experience at this week’s workshop, beginning with Nayna Kumari giving a fairytale a jolly good shake up and talking to, and John Hurley’s younger self attending a wake and on his way to a blacksmith’s forge.  Pat Francis recalled how messenger pigeons were yet another casualty of the Great War, while Daphne Gloag has been occupying herself with a kaleidoscope.  Doig Simmonds has been spending his nights not sleeping but listening, while Nick Barth has been people-watching at the airport and wonders how well they might climb a tree.  For Peter Francis, a union of two ends up in secession, while Michael Harris has been getting existential in Soho and Alan Chambers has found new inspiration in an amaryllis.  Finally, Martin Choules has been keeping a weather-eye on the glass and his taste buds set  to metallic.

The practice of established poets leading a workshop for laymen and shopgirls is not as recent as one may think.  Alf Tennyson held a thrice-annual session on how to write long, epic poetry, passing on his tips for making sure your verse runs to at least a thousand lines.  He would then set his pupils an exercise, give them a theme, and slip off down the Red Lion for a few hours before returning.  Tom Hardy tried his hand at teaching the art of the limerick, but inexplicably could find no takers.  And poor Gerald Manley Hopkins longed to share with the world his invention of springing a rhythm, but since he feared the creep of ego and had never published one of his masterpieces, it did make his workshops difficult when he was unable to give any examples.

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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 invited 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-Kondycki 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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