Surprising

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what might turn up on the page after flexing our fingers and moving the pens across the page in workshops.

For various reasons (probably mostly the naysayer in my head) I’ve not tried my hand at fiction very often. But Mark Iliss’ workshop yesterday prompted an afternoon producing over 1,000 words of a short story.  When we met for our tutorial he mostly asked, “what happens next?”  Off I went back to the laptop to figure out the destiny of the family of characters that had turned up in my head.

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The biggest problem was moral.  I felt bad about wanting to kill one of them. And worse if any of the others murdered him.

All of this was revelation, the words spooling out from what was quite a sketchy character exercise in the morning, the characters taking life in my head (was this how Zeus felt when he birthed Athena?), the morality of plot decisions (this may be why not many Quakers are counted amongst top fiction writers.) One of the biggest mind blows this week was that I need to  completely reassess how I see myself as a writer.

The poetry workshop with Carola Luther was stimulating without exciting any  of the short fiction moral dilemmas.  My walks around Lumb Bank have me pondering geology, rock and water.  The well stocked library can’t answer these queries.  One thing I will be checking on Google when we get to Manchester wifi land.

One exercise took me rather nostalgically back to my own lane.

Arvon Lumb Bank

Hag’s Chair

You think of me

Not at all

Just another

Piece of limestone

Furniture.

Glacial erratic.

Both true.

Skidding in on ice –

A one off.

Distinct.

Impervious of weather.

Imperious to some.

My view.

My sun. My moon.

My chair.

You know nothing,

Mortal!

For as long or longer

Than these mountains last

Here I’ll sit.

Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts and the Social Inclusion Unit offices.

Remembering

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One of the reasons I was inspired to become a poet involves Sylvia Plath. Indirectly. But really, this is about remembering that my elder sister was a writer. A poet. And shared my gender.  In a time in the sixties when you would be hard pressed to find many woman poets in anthologies my sister was a walking, talking, frequently irritating but also motivating factor in my knowing that it was okay for a woman to write.  And you didn’t have to kill yourself over it.

Sylvia Plath has loomed large in my creative formation partly because my sister was working on one of the first MA thesis on Plath’s poetry back in 1970 when Plath was barely seven years in the grave and I was barely a teenager.    Plath, along with Anne Sexton, were the contemporary woman writers that were in college syllabus in the 1970s when I was at university.  I’d open my college text on American poetry and literally count the women who were included.  There was Amy Lowell (lesbian), Plath (suicide), Emily Dickinson (recluse) and Anne Bradstreet (professional Puritan wife).  If you didn’t fit into any of those categories then it often felt likDSCN1205e you were making it up as you went along.

I knew I did not want to grow up and be like Sylvia Plath. But I did write poetry from age eleven.  I still wanted to write poetry.  But I felt I owed it to Sylvia Plath to make a pilgrimage up to her grave.  In a kind of reverse role modelling she helped mould me as a writer.  Her life embodies many of the contradictory tugs and shoves and pulls on a creative woman’s life: children, marriage, domesticity, equal partnership and creative partnership. Virtually all women who write have confronted those life elements and made choices, compromises and confronted conflict of interest.

I made the pilgrimage to Heptonstall parish churchyard to visit Plath’s grave. It lies in the newer cemetery  behind the parish church, across a cobbled lane.  I begin to quarter the cemetery, scanning for a 1960s style headstone.  I find a Greenwood with the surname an odd echo of Plath’s Bell Jar alter ego.  A local woman walking a ancient Golden Labrador comes into the graveyard. I ask if she knows which section I should be looking in for Plath.  She very hospitably leads the way, chats the exact number of minutes for politeness sake and then leaves me to pay my respects.

Crocuses are blooming on the grave. There is a pile of coins that have been left on top of her headstone.  Jewish custom would have one leave a pebble but wherever this custom originated I added my own twenty euro cents to the pile.

At bedtime I leaf through one of the Lumb Bank’s library books (no sign of Ted Hugh’s Birthday Letters on the shelf).  It’s a Bloodaxe anthology Modern Women Poets. I have tattered copies of some of the 1970’s first anthologies of women poets, obviously with a strong American bias. The publishing climate has changed considerably since then and the UK poet laureate is  a woman.  Reading Elizabeth Bartlett’s poem “Stretchmarks” the bitterness over the discrimination women poets and writers faced in the late 20th century drips off the page.  I am reminded of the quote ascribed to John Ciardi (who was a tutor at Breadloaf Writer’s Conference when my sister attended) disparaging those women poets who “wrote with their ovaries on their sleeve.”

Women can choose to write and not be mad, bad, sad or dangerous to know.  It can be a strategy for sanity and life affirming and for the higher good of many. It can be a moral choice, too.  Although since poets always seem to be the first political prisoners to be sent off to the gulag perhaps all poets, regardless of gender, are a little dangerous to know.

Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts and the Social Inclusion Unit offices.

Committing

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First full workshop day at the Arvon Lumb Bank with South African born poet Carola Luther. We start with some creative writing limber up exercises  that involve writing a collaborative poem, which segues into our own solo efforts.  Carola then introduced several poems that come under the category of list poems.   This is my take on the list poem.  You could also  take it as advice for future Arvon Lumb Bank participants for packing or preparing to embark on an Arvon course at Lumb Bank.

What Every Arvon Participant Should Pack for Lumb Bank

A plaster. Prescription and over the counter drugs.

Travel is hazardous business.

A torch. A torch?! Well, it’s on the website.

A small, wind-up torch. In it goes.

Pens (6). iPad.  Laptop.

Too many wires and leads.

Flashdrive. Camera. Batteries.

Wires and leads tangling asymmetrically.

Layers- singlet, long T’s, light sweater, heavy sweater.

Many pairs of socks.

The indoor shoes. The hat and gloves.

The waterproof coat.

It’s the Pennines. It will rain. Definitely.

No more than three books. They have a library.

Many blank sheets of paper.

An open mind.

A truce with silence.

The guardrail down on real life.

Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts Office.

Landing

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is not quite the same as arriving.  Muscles sore from pulling wheely cases and toting laptops finally come to rest at Heptonstall. I unpack. My office for the next week. My business is writing. That is what the Arvon Foundation provides. Space for writers.

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And it is Perfect. Private. Ground floor. Sensitively providing a wetroom for the slightly lame and halt. Arvon’s  Lumb Bank could not be more astute in providing me with made to order writing space.

The train pitches up at Hebden Bridge where we disgorge  and decant our plethora of baggage before exploring the nearest ‘big town’ to Lumb Bank.

Which is a town that seems to be the product of Posy Simmond’s magical thinking. Not only has it a Little Theatre, a Picture House, a Quaker Meeting,enough organic bakeries and cafes to fodder an army of hippies, you can also buy yourself some bamboo or hemp socks and get a recycled cycle. It has buses and trains  with posted schedules. Which appear to run on time! It is like a sustainable living model village with Fairtrade written in its stick DSCN1170of candy rock.  It feels almost Scandinavian.

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It has the Calder River and  the Rochdale Canal. The soot has been blasted off the mellow sandstone facades mostly.  There is some soot about though to authenticate its mill town past.

Not only is it certified hippie haven it’s also dedicated to dog comfort.  We need caffeine, wifi and lunch.  We find a cafe with wifi that also makes muffins for dogs that are gluten, salt and sugar free.  There are dog beds scattered around the cafe as well as water bowls and little tether points where you can hook your leash. Various dogs come in with their owners for lunch and both chow down.  I eat a puy lentil and butternut squash salad and have the best brownie east of the continental US. Not for dogs since chocolate is toxic for them. So The Lamppost likes two leggeds, too.

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I have landed in a place designed by English Eccentrics. But it works.  I buy a pair of socks. And some incense.  I can work this look.

I’m definitely not in Ireland anymore.

Bee Smith is travelling in March 2014 with the Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning Programme “Developing Creative Practice Across Borders” to Yorkshire and Lancashire organised by the Cavan Arts Office.