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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Workshop, 22nd November 2106

“Words, words, words”, as the Danish Prince so pithily put it before tearing the Lord Polonius off yet another strip.  Words are our baggage, our currency and our legacy.  The English language is stuffed with words like some sort of alphabetised Chesterfield sofa, while other tongues get by with a narrow Chaise Longue or spindly Mies van der Rohe chair to settle back on when they want things to make sense.  Is it any wonder the world rushes to learn English, considering how many words we have to choose from?  Thank goodness the English no longer own their own language or who knows how we might conspire to ruin it.  Enough! I hear you cry.  Break off this interminable preamble and get to the point.  In which case I will.  It has not escaped my notice that this is the time of year when The Dictionary Industry of the English Speaking World likes to corral an annual crop (is it possible to corral a crop?  What would work better? Harvest a herd?  Wrangle a regiment?) of neologisms.  Now, there’s a word that must have sent ruddy-faced Colonels to their blotters to dash off a flamer to The Times.  Why the devil do we need a word for new words?  Piffle!  Yours, Apoplectic of Andover (Mrs).

Any new words appearing in this week’s Workshop were handled in the traditional and time-honoured way; humanely netted, delicately stunned, they were then pinned to a green baize board alongside a small hand-written paper label.  Daphne Gloag does not always approve of neologisms but is always inventive in her use of words, as in this evening’s Tintorreto-inspired examination of Christmas Journeys.  David Hovatter was not one to discourage new words as he traced the journey from fish hook to sushi.  Jagdish applied a new meaning or two to old words as he told us about a potted plant at prayer.  Pat Francis played with words and form as she contrasted two views of fate.  Alan Chambers returned us to fish, lines and nets with another contrast- this time of two farms in a sea Loch.  Danuta Sotnik-Kondyck is embracing the English language with a poem about wolves she translated from a piece she originally composed in her native Polish.  Peter Francis chose some disturbing words for his imagined evidence to a truth and reconciliation commission.  John Hurley rendered extraordinary ideas to paper as he imagined an Irish President’s introduction to a President Elect. Nick Barth brought us a stranded astronaut, hearing words from the ether.  Martin Choules has not got anything to say, but he chose some great words to say it.  Finally, Ariadne Kazantzis pictured an alien learning English in order to teach young Anthony a few things about our planet.

I am sure you will be familiar with the more headline-grabbing neologisms of 2016.  Brexit has followed the increasingly unfamiliar Grexit and foreshadows the hypothetically water-logged Nexit.  The alt-right have caused many people to become trumpatised following a momentous event of some moment over the pond.  The OED now recognises moobs, whether or not they are scrumdiddlyumptiousSlacktivism is joining clicktivism in replacing activism, or the messy and exhausting process of painting banners and catching agoraphobia in the company of hordes of unruly strangers.  The now over-familiar mamil is being supplanted by the much more attractive spandexual, often on individuals who are beardtastic.

Which rampant hashtaggery brings me to the word which The Pitshanger Poets will strive to bring to popular usage in 2017, if only because we strongly advocate its application in this world of chronocide (the killing of time), via wexting (walking while texting) and linkulitus (the habitual sending of web links to others).  The word is unliterate, meaning a person who knows how to read but staunchly refuses to do so.

If you have been on this occasion, thank you for doing so.

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Workshop, 15th November 2016

The workshop was bursting to the beams this week, with the committee room at Questors groaning under the weight of the students rehearsing in room above.  Does stomping and bumping really need to form part of the modern actor’s tuition ?  Well, judging by some leaden-footed turns in the West End of late, who are we to judge ?  And it all helps those who wish to perform some beat poetry.

Here in the Archives beneath Walpole Park, we have become used to the very ground moving above our feet as the transformative works continue to the Manor.  Sir John would surely approve, a man always restless with redecoration – indeed, many a Tuesday was set to the background music of sawing, hammering and swearing as his latest grand design slowly became his next underwhelming knock-through.

We started the workshop with a duet of sorts, as new member Fengfan Zhou read us a famous Chinese poem (about a soon-to-be monk saying goodbye to worldly things) in the original Mandarin, followed by Steven Cowan providing us with his own translation, full of red curtains and fatted carps.  Doig Simmonds was next, exploring a very busy delta where children are priests and fear is magnificent, whereas Alan Chambers has been finding the house only full of empty mirrors wheezy clocks.  We then had a rare event courtesy of fellow newbie Danuta Sotnik-Kondycki: a song.  About AIDS.  And really quite funny.  Martin Choules, on the other hand, has become a little jaded at a lifetime of setting the world to rights, and Owen Gallagher has been watching the latest get-ahead start-up arms-dealing entrepreneurs.

For Pat Francis, modern communication lacks a certain worlessness, while a Peter Francis told of an older time when a lonely old spinster accused of being a witch may not have been so incorrect, but was still horribly wrong.  Christine Shirley has been remembering her parents, while blasphemy was in the air for John Hurley’s take on a picnic provided by a somewhat-peeved messiah.  And although it is only November, Daphne Gloag is already thinking of January with her meditation on the Magi, Tintoretto, and the painting that links them.  Nayna Kumari, meanwhile, was looking forward to a time when we could shake off our endless hope of finding love, and finally the welcome return of David Hovatter with a tale of how an unseen beetle’s demise brought down the full wrath of Nature.

Such was the noise some weeks, that the poets felt duty-bound to complain, but being poets, they could only do so through the medium of verse.  So it was that Johnny Keats protested the round-the-clock renovations with Ode to a Nightingale, while Billy Blake’s Auguries of Innocence hinted at how even woodworms had a right to exist.  But the hammering and the harrumphing all fell on Sir John’s deaf ears, and Percy Shelley could do nothing but mutter in a sarcastic tone “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair !”

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Workshop, 8th November 2016

Depression is inevitably a depressing subject to think on, and despite great advances in its understanding, there are still far too many black dogs on the prowl.  Nor is it something one can easily make jokes about, if for no other reason than that those who most understand the humour are in no mood to laugh.  But the romantic image persists the glums is a vital component of genius, that Gustav Mahler and V.V. Gogh were only so great because they were so low, or that anyone who leapt out of bed this morning and sang in the shower will never amount to anything.

Of course, poetry has always had its sad-sacks, and sometimes they have simply been quiet, thoughtful types who tended not to smile so often.  But there have also been characters who rolled a double-one in brain chemistry and no amount of telling them to cheer up is ever going to help.  After all, what else is down-at-mouth Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven but one man’s memories about his lost love opening up a pit beneath him where his black-wingèd gloom literally glowers over him.

Nothing depressing about this week’s workshop, even when the subject matter took a more serious turn.  Doig Simmonds imagined a loss of innocence and a body the colour of iron, and Alan Chambers has been rummaging through a cupboard and turning up the most unexpected bric-a-brac.  John Hurley recounted a step-nephew with a lazy attitude and a CV unblemished by success, while Martin Choules has been foretelling the end of the world, and having a cracking time of it.  Daphne Gloag has been finding elements of the four elements everywhere, while Peter Francis has been reading some old Scots verse by both candlelight and computer screen, while the light that shone on Pet Francis’ short, tight piece has revealed a rainbow of connotations.  The Moon loomed large in Nick Barth’s living room, while Michael Harris has been out in the suburbs spotting tractors.

Needless to say, it is a mistake to assume that serotonin-shyness in the brain leads to being monolithically mopey or incapable of brightening up when the stars and the neuro-receptors align.  So the archives reveal it was with Sylvia Plath when she used to attend in the early 1960s.  This was the period of her most creative writing, bringing us The Colossus, Ariel and The Bell Jar, but also her most bleak.  However, since she would of course only attend when she felt more upbeat, so the group’s memory of her was as a slightly nervous American lady who would always apologise for not wanting to read one of her heavyweight, gut-wrought pieces.  Instead, she would inevitably declare that what she brought was “just a bit of fun” as she passed around her latest limerick or nonsense verse.  Rumour also has it that she loved a pint of Guinness and a dirty joke in the Red Lion afterwards, though this seems less likely.

But it just goes to show that depression isn’t endless blues without the odd outburst of pop, and that its sufferers cannot sometimes grab that black dog by the collar, snap on a lead and take the damn thing out for a jolly good walk.

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