I recently led a holiday for HFHolidays, to the Words by the Water Festival at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. I stayed at Derwent Bank, one of their country houses and took my party in by taxi to events of my choice, giving a talk to prepare them for each event the night before.
On Saturday we went to the talk by Edmund Gordon, the author of a new biography of Angela Carter, the first ever done about her. She died tragically young, aged only 51, but left a prodigious amount of work. She lived a very interesting life, travelling all over the world, and remained an avid reader throughout her life. I prepared my group my giving an illustrated talk with examples of her work and interesting facts about her writing themes and approaches to fiction. The event on Saturday took the form of a Q&A. The most fascinating part of it was when Gordon explained his methods of research and his careful corroboration of facts, because he had been told stories about her which belied actual events, and had had to sort out the truth from embellishments, including those from Carter’s own hand. Having written a book myself on Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (for my money her best work), I was in a strong position to introduce her to others.
The guests went to other talks, but I made myself available to them all day, eating lunch with some and showing others around Keswick. We returned to the house at 4.30 and I gave a talk on the next day’s even at 5pm. The event I had chosen for the second day was very different. It was Christopher Somerville, discussing his most recent book, The January Man. My talk for the group included points about the genre of creative non-fiction, a multi-media presentation about the new book, including Mike Harding singing the song which inspired the book, The January Man, by Dave Goulder, and an article by Somerville from his A-Z of walking. The event with Somerville on Sunday was wonderful. Again it took a Q&A format, though I’d have liked to have heard more from Somerville himself. He sang the song for us and showed photographs, and gave us many insights into the charms of the different locations he had explored. The idea of his book was to experience different parts of the UK which has special memories for him and show them across the seasons. We had done some sharing of our own special places as part of my talk the previous evening, so I think it all resonated very well with the guests.Somerville is the sort of person that one could imagine having as a friend.
The holiday guests had booked tickets themselves to additional events, as the holiday company includes two, giving them the choice for others, so because I wasn’t needed so much, I bought a ticket to Kathryn Hughes’ talk , ‘The Victorians Undone’. This proved to be fascinating. Hughes spoke from the lectern, after a short introduction, and it was easy to see her passion for history. She focused on a few case studies, such as why George Eliot’s family were embarrassed because she had one hand bigger than the other. In the book, she has written about even more case studies, including Lady Flora’s belly, which some might have seen a plotline about in the recently televised ‘Victoria’ drama, on the early life of the Queen.
Myself and my group returned to Derwent Bank in time for a feedback chat before dinner and some literary quizzes and puzzles which I had created for them after dinner. It was our farewell eventing, and there was much laughter and warmth between us and some wanting to keep in touch, which I welcomed. When I saw the guests off after breakfast, they were all very positive about what a good time they had had. I was very pleased that my first experience of being a holiday leader had gone so well.
I would have liked to have seen more poetry at Words by the Water. The events I attended were good, but there was a heavy focus on creative non-fiction, on politicians and critics. Being a poet myself, I was disappointed there was so little poetry on the menu and none of it on the weekend chosen by the holiday company, though Helen Mort had been on the previous weekend, reading from her new book.
The bookshop was doing well, however, with expensive hardbacks being bought and taken to the book signing table. It was good to see such enthusiasm for book purchasing. The theatre itself was, as usual, hospitable and comfortable. It was a pity the weather was rainy and chilly, but nonetheless, it was good to be back in Keswick.
I had wanted to go to StAnza for a long time, but there was very often a clash with schools work around World Book Day, for example in 2013, I was away working in Cornwall for a fortnight, doing some outreach work for Falmouth University and a primary school day in Saltash for Able Writers, the scheme dreamed up by Brian Moses.
In 2014, my first time at the festival, I was booked to take up The Lightfoot Letters exhibition of my poetry and Maria Walker’s art, which was shown in the Preservation Trust. Because we had to mount the exhibition, with the help of one of their curators, we went up for the full duration and I was able to attend workshops with John Greening and Brian Turner.
I was not expecting to know so many people and to feel among friends. But now I know that StAnza is one of the friendliest festivals. This is partly because the Scottish poets are very welcoming and partly because the hang out for everyone is The Byre, where many of the events take place. It’s a place where one can find oneself bumping into poetry friends and publishers, making new friends or casually striking up a conversation with one of the headline poets. No-one has any airs and graces, there is a sense of all of us engaged together in the serious game of writing, and trying to learn from each other.
2017 was my third time, and it will not be my last. Eleanor Livingstone and the committee set fascinating themes every year and invite poets from all over the world, giving the festival a really global buzz, bringing people together into a shared world with poetry at its heart. There is poetry in the street, in gardens and museums, all shared in imaginative ways like sound installations and exhibitions, all free to enjoy.
This year I particularly enjoyed the Katherine Towers poems at The Preservation Trust, and had to go and buy the book straight away, because I love herbs and natural remedies. There were also wonderful poems in the garden, displayed in lot of imaginative ways using natural materials.
Because of work commitments (the life of a jobbing poet always seems crammed), we couldn’t arrive until Friday, after staying at a friend’s house en route at the halfway point. There were events I would have liked to have attended on Friday but I contented myself with evening ones in case the journey took longer than anticipated. Instead, we spent some time looking at the exhibitions before going to the evening reading, with Jacques Darras and Kathleen Jamie. I particularly relished the French poems, which we listened to first in the original, wonderfully performed, and then translations were read with clarity and precision by Claudia Daventry. Afterwards I was brave and read two poems at ‘Risk a Verse’, which had always seemed a little scary, because the Byre is full of people talking, whereas I am more accustomed to rapt concentration at readings. But Andy Jackson did a great job of hosting it, making everyone feel valued.
Some of the events I’d have loved to attend sold out very quickly, so I make a mental note to be better organised next year. Saturday’s highlights were the ever-buzzing Poetry Market, where I had some great conversations with poets and publishers too numerous to mention by name. Unfortunately, we missed the launch of New Boots and Pantisocraties, because of an emergency at our digs but caught the Imprisoned Poets Reading with Scottish Pen, which was moving and fired me up to join the English one. The empty chair to represent writers in prison really brought the message home. I particularly loved hearing Patience Agbabi read.
The Saturday night reading, with Sarah Howe and Jackie Kay, was such a delight and a real highlight for me. Howe told us some of the stories behind her poems, and gave an enchanting reading, and Kay is always so warm, funny and loving. I caught her as she was leaving, as I just happened to be standing by the exit, having come downstairs, and she grabbed hold of my hand as I was saying how much I loved the reading. Myself and a poet friend had been sitting in the studio live screening and it was so nice that she referred to us and included us.
After that, we went to the slam, mostly to support friends like Sally Evans and Jill Abram who were competing. I have to be honest and say slams are not my thing. I hated the panto as a kid because of all the shouting, and I don’t like slams for the same reason. But some of the poems were very good, and thought-provoking. I’d personally prefer a slam where the audience made a poetry noise instead of screaming, but I suppose I am alone in preferring mmmmms to woowoowoos at the top of voices.
Sunday morning was the masterclass with Sarah Howe. It is like being at a critique group where other people’s poems are being dissected, so one can relax and listen and learn, unless one wants to chip in – there were people with roving microphones – but I preferred to glean nuggets from the discussion for my own consumption later.
We had to hit the road after that event, but I had had some wonderful conversations with so many poets, from booked guests to attendees, that I fell asleep in the car on the way home, tired but happy, as my husband drove. Huge congratulations to the whole team and every poet who took part, for another marvellous festival, a poetry party that lasts and lasts, and keeps one going for months.
Roll on StAnza 2018.
When I started this feature my aim was to let poetry shine some light into the darkest time of year. 2016 was a very difficult year on the world stage. We are all aware of the results of two very important votes which rocked the fabric of society as we know it. The sense of hopelessness has been hard to cope with. Protests and anger have their place become exhausting. Like many people I personally am affected by cold, dark days both physically and mentally. I would like to thank the many poets who submitted poems for the feature, whether I used them or not. I was amazed and very grateful for the interest in this feature which some people have shown. It has been a lot of work to put it together but when people tell me it has helped them, that makes it all worthwhile.
I have been saving this poem by Sally Evans for the last day, because it expresses exactly what I was hoping to do. Sally was attending a Very Peculiar Burns Supper. organised by Ian Maxtone. Surrounded by friends, sharing poems, in difficult times – that is the notion of hygge I have been working with.
My own poem shared below, is a fairly recent one, which was first published on I am not a Silent Poet. I too was sharing a meal with poetry friends, but it was a different kind of anniversary, one of war and death. It reflects on Brexit and Trump, and has no answers. Art provokes questions. And sometimes all we can do is hunker down with our tribe and practise a little kindness.
Photo of Sally Evans by Sweet Pea photography
“I don’t want to read a poem”
I don’t want to read a poem
for the simple reason I don’t want to write one.
I want to sit quietly watching
this part of the world go by
because it is hygge and simpatico,
complex words I have collected
for a warm presence of people
in a room that does its best
against the winter, against the horror
we have mostly experienced
in the past weeks,
the political maelstrom
that all deplore except those
who run with it,
crying Amen to decisions
we cannot countenance.
I want to sit among cheerful friends
looking across the tables
at broken crackers and candles,
tumblers with orange juice,
and the rich coffee we have ordered
but has not yet come –
writing away in a notebook
someone has actually given me –
they are these sorts of friends –
writers and those who understand them,
protesters and analysts,
recorders and accepters,
while windows onto the darkened winter trees
are ranged round the room between paintings,
bold coloured, abstract posters,
brightening this troubled time,
consoling the old, encouraging the young
and holding its own, this room
in a world of fascism and illiberalism
out of tune with our writing,
a world neither the old nor young
expected or deserved.
I have written so many poems
and this is where it brought us
so I do not want to read a poem
but to sit here and be content.
Remembrance Day 2016
The train manager requests two minutes silence
as benevolent morning sun touches
middle England’s fields with gilt
while across the Channel, the Somme’s
sweet rolling hills are healing over
despite zig-zag trenches and craters
where paper poppies decay and fall
like blood-stained confetti.
Leonard Cohen has sung his last gravelly elegy,
so long Marianne and all the rest of us.
Obama leaves the White House,
Britain turns its back on the EU.
What vultures are hovering we do not know.
Over Mexican food three poets
talk passionately of politics, uneasy isms.
The papers continue to report things we cannot stomach.
Valentine’s Day is not hygge, as such, because it’s about impressing the one you love with a dozen red roses and champagne, and other expensive gifts. It’s about romance. Love for me is what’s left when romance has gone and we are caught up in supporting each other through everyday life, good times and bad times, and in the routines we devise over time for our comfort and relaxation. That is hygge. This kind of love endures through years of togetherness, and does not go when the partner dies, but stays as long as the memories do.
Photo by Angela Topping
Tea is a hug in a china mug
hot and strong, without sugar
and only the merest whisper of milk.
First thing in the morning
it is the kiss for sleeping beauty
brought to the bedside as the sky warms up.
It can be dressed in finer clothes
but the everyday chipped mug,
after all these years, is enough for me.
first published on Nutshells and Nuggets
You Help Me Fly
‘He is my rock.’
as if with pride.
You, my love,
are not my rock.
For rocks immovable
smack too much
round my neck.
Nor are you my anchor,
holding so tight
ride with the tide
of my desire.
You are the string
kite-like I fly
and soar to heights
I could not reach alone.
And if I fall,
that you’ll be there,
and hold me close.
Suddenly I’m old.
You never saw me like this:
the little wounded eyes,
the fleshy wrinkles
or the wayward wiry hair.
I’m not the woman you once loved.
Grief damaged me
but I survived,
the woman who loved you
and loves you still
but goes on, anyhow.
First appeared in Poems for Survival, The Fat Damsel
There is comfort in a special way of doing things, even, or perhaps especially, a quotidian task like making tea. Both of these poems are about relationships with female family members and passing things on, whether objects or wisdom or memories.
No silver spoon, Grandma Connelly dispenses
with a practised eye; upends a quarter pound of loose leaf,
stokes the teapot’s fire-cracked belly, silences the kettle,
scalds the dried black heap, then stirs.
Her tincture eddies, adds a further burnt sienna lining
to the elephantine Betty. Left to mash in a hand-knit cosy,
brown spout raised, this worker signs our Sunday afternoon
in paisley swirls of aromatic steam
then genuflects to each in turn as Grandma pours
her benediction on the mismatched china. I serve
the bottled milk and sugar cubes, take up the offertory
in tea cards – my Brooke Bonds.
Super Strength, this stand-your-spoon-up-in-it brew
has muscles; vulgari-tea, my mother calls it. Still, we sip
its tannin, bitter through the Tate & Lyle scree.
I swallow my displeasure at the unstrained leaves.
Tea cups drained, returned to their saucers, Grandma swoops,
swills the dregs, reserves the residue, peers
into our far futures. As she ruminates
I wonder when she’ll teach me housewives’ runes.
Previously published in pamphlet, Beyond the Tune (Soundswrite Press 2014)
The watch was old
it had counted the lives of three women
had seemed their cycles
of joy and sadness.
On my grandmother’s Edwardian ruffles
it timed tiny stitches
as she crafted her boy’s suits
her girl’s intricate dresses’s.
sitting by her husband by the open fire.
My mother, her orphaned daughter
wore it pinned to her suit
for a wartime wedding
in a strange country,
when hymns were conducted
by spiraling arcs of Spitfires,
given to me
I tied it to my wedding dress
the face turned revealing a disk
of silver, tiny chiseled flowers,
links of gold string so small
only a caught hair reveals them.
Now it lies with its chain curled
like two bodies folded together
in my daughter’s white bag
that I hold for her
the man who waits at the altar.
To mark the 30th post in this series, I have decided to give you all some ideas for an emergency hygge kit for difficult days. The kit is designed to carry around with you, to be used if you can create even just five minutes to experience some hygge.
Wear a cosy scarf, which feels soft and warm, in a bright colour. Warm socks are very hyggelig too.
Carry the following items in your bag: a few fruit tea bags (if you have access to a kettle, if not, a small flask of hot water); a nice lip balm; a small bar of chocolate; a small book which comforts you, such as a little poetry book, or a book of positive quotations; a small tube of hand cream; a photo of someone you love, or of a happy memory or place; a lavender bag.
Make some time. Even five minutes can be enough. Find a hyggekrog, which might be a quiet corner, a cafe, or even your parked car. Treat your senses with the hand cream and lip balm, let the chocolate melt in your mouth while you read a few pages of your book. Warm the lavender bag in your hand to realise the scent. Close your eyes and breathe in deeply, enjoying the relaxing aroma of lavender. Enjoy a hot drink. Look out of the window and appreciate your surroundings.
Here are some brief poems and quotations which you could read on screen, or better still, print out and take with you, or collect your own and write them in a little notebook which lives in your bag.
“One must maintain a little bittle of summer, even in the middle of winter.” Thoreaux
“Expect trouble as an inevitable part of life and when it comes, hold your head high, look it squarely in the eye and say, ‘I will be bigger than you. You will not defeat me.”
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
“Throw your heart out in front of you /Then run ahead to catch it”