X marked the spot in the hall behind
the Burnett Arms, where our class danced
on Thursdays over crossed swords
to bagpipes skirling Ghillie Callum,
a seventy-eight on the Dansette.
The turntable turned, and so did we,
twenty kilts fanning out like accordions
swung up like tartan wings behind us
and our black laced pumps
pranced plump pas de basque
up and down, round and round,
Whirling high with bonny smiles
we had no thought of edges
sharp as Sheffield knives
under our feet.
Later I learned
that to touch
in flat, black shoes
and sky-blue suits
dispense clear liquids that drip, drip
from innocent plastic bags, incinerated after use.
Do not talk to me of battles.
Let me dance through the door with nothing
but numbness of neuropathy
in my toes,
Where did that blog go? Things have been looking a bit quiet on Harping On, as I’ve been busy with the OU’s new MA in Creative Writing. Writing about writing has therefore taken a back seat. Along with that has come a little bit of a desire to do less in the way of social media – it’s good to create a bit of space sometimes.
In the meantime, the German version of my story ‘Ships that Pass’ has been published in the anthology ‘Vierertreffen’, which means a Meeting of Four. I haven’t met the other three authors in real life, but perhaps I will some day. Two of us are from Scotland, two of us are from Ireland – hello to Brian McNeill, Rita Kelly and Micheál Ó Conghaile – and many thanks to Karin Braun and Gabriele Haefs for compiling this volume of four ‘long short stories’.
I’m half way through the first year of the MA course, where I’m studying Poetry as my primary genre and Fiction as my secondary. This is the opposite way round from what I originally intended – I just thought it would be more interesting to develop the poetry side, as I felt I had a lot to learn about doing it better. So far, the course material has been stimulating and people are contributing some interesting stuff in the online tutor group. I’ve been challenged, pushed in a few new directions and received some home truths about improving my focus. The downside is that it is all online – you don’t meet the tutor or participants, and there is an awful lot of screen work and clicking, which has given me some RSI problems … another reason for being a bit quiet on the blog.
In the pursuit of more poetry-sharing with real people in the real world, I’ll be co-leading a poetry workshop with local poet Geraldine Green on 25th February. This workshop is one in Geraldine’s ‘Write on the Farm’ series which I’ve been attending for a year or two. When someone discovered I had a harp they wanted me to bring it to the party, and this workshop is the result! We’ll be looking at the origins of the instrument, talking about lyric poetry and writing in response to harp music. Time in the outdoors is always a part of Geraldine’s workshop, as is some quiet writing time in the afternoon. It is already fully booked!
I’ve needed a summer break – a chance to reflect on the ups and down of the last year since my cancer diagnosis, and to consider new projects. I feel very well and apparently look great on my treatment, but I’m constantly monitored and checked, which inevitably makes me edgy. However, I’ve worked out the best way forward is to Keep Calm and Be Normal. Going out and doing stuff with others and having a project or two helps me forget for increasingly long periods what happened. Onwards!
Sometimes a special time comes along and all your interests and ideas converge, and this past weekend has been just like that. Geraldine Green, Writer in Residence at Brantwood, Coniston, who also runs writers’ workshops at a local Cumbrian farmhouse, says it is ‘full moon magic’. On the day after the full moon, the sun shone for us for the above the Lune valley, lighting up this year’s particularly prolific rowan berries and plump blackberries in the hedgerows.
Among other things, we wrote to prompts on memories and fruit using Marsha de la O’s ‘UnderThe Lemon Tree’. In the afternoon we wandered out with ‘The Earth is a Living thing’ by Lucille Clifton; the path took us on to the hills overlooking the Lune Valley to pause, contemplate and write.
There were more riches for me the following day at a Harps North West workshop. Over the past year our composer in residence, Karen Marshalsay, has been working with us on a suite of music specially written for Harps North West – all ability levels will be able to join in, and the idea is that the music will reflect who we are and the landscape in which we live. We have had two workshops in February and June where Karen has tried out her ideas for melodies and taught us some interesting techniques such as bee’s plaits, finger plaits, shoogly finger and gurgly two handed variations. We now have the finished piece.
It has been fascinating to share in the creative process over a long period and to see that it is very much like writing a poem – the ideas and themes, the refrains, the motifs. And then there’s the putting away of a work and letting it bubble and marinate, the taking it out and reshaping until it finds its final form. Karen’s finished suite is entitled ‘The lay of the land’ and her opening section ‘Approaching Lune Gorge’ is about that landscape in which the poets walked on Saturday.
Karen said that getting to know the landscape over the year and in different seasons helped her round the finished piece.
The lay of the land for me is somewhat different from what it was a year ago. During the year of my illness and recovery, copies of ‘Shifting Sands’, my book of short stories, have sold well, and I’d like to thank everyone for all the positive comments I’ve received. I’m delighted to say you can now even buy it on the shops on CalMac Ferries, so check it out over a CalMac cooked breakfast the next time you are sailing to the Hebrides.
But now it’s time for a new challenge. I’ve been offered a place on the Open University’s new MA in Creative Writing, and I’m excited to be starting soon. Initially I thought I would major in fiction, but lately I’ve been pulled in more by poetry and its connection with music, and this past weekend has underlined that choosing poetry as my main genre will be my way forward. I have some new ideas, and among other things I will be doing a workshop with Geraldine in February on connections between harp and poetry.
Thanks go to Geraldine and all who contributed to the poetry day, particularly Jane Moss-Luffrum for letting me use her wonderful photographs on the blog. Thanks also go to Karen and all at Harps North West for all the fine music we make together.
Following on from our teamwork on the great NaPoWriMo challenge in April, Divyam and I were invited to write a blog for Bec Evans at Write Track on Targets and Teamwork. Follow the links and enjoy Divyam’s wonderful cartoons!
I am THRILLED to be featured on the Write-Track blog, together with my writing buddy, the fabulous Christine Cochrane! Join us for a conversation about taking part in this year’s NaPoWriMo, including the challenges we faced and how we supported each other along the way. Plus: CARTOONS!
What keeps us going as writers? Staring alone at the blank page doesn’t always work; sometimes it’s about targets and teamwork. Christine Cochrane and Divyam Chaya Bernstein are two writers who recently completed the daily writing challenge NaPoWriMo. They tell us how they supported each other along the way.
Read the full article here: Targets and teamwork: how to complete a daily writing challenge
It’s that birthday coming up soon, the one in the Beatles song, somehow no longer ‘many years from now’. How did I imagine, in years past, that I’d be spending this milestone day? I thought there would be a bit more to life than ‘knitting by the fireside’ and ‘Sunday mornings go for a ride’, but I never imagined I’d be in a state of excitement watching my hair grow back after cancer treatment. Since I finished chemo back in March it’s been a slow but interesting process to observe. What colour will it be? Will it be curly or straight? My hair has sprouted in tune with the seasons, with a few shoots in spring and a more steady growth now as we move into summer. Miss Wiggy has been ditched in favour of scarves, and soon those scarves will go for the big reveal! At the moment it’s only ready for half a reveal:
As someone said on Episode 1 of the BBC Programme, The Big C and Me, coming through cancer treatment is like being reborn, because things are not the same again; the carpet of normality could be swept from beneath your feet again, so you cherish and enjoy the things that really matter. This uncertainty makes us want to be labelled, to know what category we’re in. Is it remission? Am I cured? I am, apparently, now a Cancer Survivor, and what better day to announce it than on National Cancer Survivors’ Day. My condition is ‘under control’. I am still on Avastin, a biological therapy aimed to deprive any remaining cancer cells of blood supply. Things will remain like that till January next year, with scans and check ups every three months. In between these I lead a normal life. I’ve adjusted and reduced some of the things that I do so that I’m not rushing or putting myself under pressure, but this last week has been a wonderful kaleidoscope of activities, all played out under sunny skies –walks and lunches with friends, a choral workshop, a poetry-writing day, a concert at the Sedbergh Festival. Lucky me.
So how will I spend my special birthday? I will be forever grateful to the medics that are treating me and have given me my life back, but now’s the time to take more control, so I am attending Penny Brohn UK’s course ‘Living well with the impact of cancer’, just to help me with the wobble moments and to give me some pointers on diet, lifestyle and mental attitude. No alcohol or coffee, and I’ll be switching off my mobile phone. Wish me luck! It’s being held in a conference centre on the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond which looks wonderfully relaxing.
After that we will be escaping to a cottage on the Isle of Islay and enjoying all life has to offer.
Here’s the final prompt from Napowrimo http://www.napowrimo.net/ who have kept me entertained and my brain sharp throughout the month of April. Big thanks go to Divyam Chaya Bernstein, who has been a great writing mate and written some pretty good poems too over on her website at https://divyamchayabernstein.wordpress.com/ Thanks also go to all of you who have dropped in and ‘liked’ and made comments!
So here’s the final prompt:
Because we’ve spent our month looking at poets in English translation, today I’d like you to try your hand at a translation of your own. If you know a foreign language, you could take a crack at translating a poem by a poet writing in that language. If you don’t know a foreign language, or are up for a different kind of challenge, you could try a homophonic translation. Simply find a poem (or other text) in a language you don’t know, and then “translate” it based on the look or sound of the words. Stuck for a poem to translate? Why not try this one by Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska? Or here’s one by another Laureate, Tomas Transtromer.
What a great way to finish! Because I know a foreign language! I remembered that about 20 years ago I’d translated a poem by the German writer Klabund (1890 – 1928) for a competition run by the Association for Language Learning but I no longer have the obscure journal in which it was published (it won!) so I tried to redo it. Maybe it’s better this time! The title might on first sight appear unseasonal, but I only have to look out of the window at the snow on the hills to realise it’s not inappropriate for this freezing weekend. And also, after a month’s poetry writing it’s time for a rest…
Here’s the original by Klabund
Indem man sich zum Winter wendet,
Hat es der Dichter schwer,
Der Sommer ist geendet,
Und eine Blume wächst nicht mehr.
Was soll man da besingen?
Die meisten Requisiten sind vereist.
Man muß schon in die eigene Seele dringen
– Jedoch, da hapert’s meist.
Man sitzt besorgt auf seinem Hintern.
Man sinnt und sitzt sich seine Hose durch,
– Da hilft das eben nichts, da muß man eben überwintern
Wie Frosch und Lurch.
And here’s my translation. I have stuck as closely to the original as I could, with a little leeway here and there.
The year now turns to winter
and a poet’s lines come slow –
the summertime is over
and flowers do not grow.
What are we now to write about
with things in iced up state?
Into the soul we now must go –
that’s where we hesitate
With troubled brow we sit and think
till trouser seats wear through –
perhaps it’s best to hibernate
as frogs and toads all do.
Two more to go! Here’s today’s NaPoWriMo prompt:
Poet and artist Joe Brainard is probably best remembers for his book-length poem/memoir, I Remember. The book consists of a series of statements, all beginning with the phrase “I remember.” Here are a few examples:
I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.
I remember how much I cried seeing South Pacific (the movie) three times.
I remember how good a glass of water can taste after a dish of ice cream.
The specific, sometimes mundane and sometimes zany details of the things Brainard remembers builds up over the course of the book, until you have a good deal of empathy and sympathy for this somewhat odd person that you really feel you’ve gotten to know.
Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem based on things you remember. Try to focus on specific details, and don’t worry about whether the memories are of important events, or are connected to each other. You could start by adopting Brainard’s uniform habit of starting every line with “I remember,” and then you could either cut out all the instances of “I remember,” or leave them all in, or leave just a few in. At any rate, hopefully you’ll wind up with a poem that is heavy on concrete detail, and which uses that detail as its connective tissue.
Shocking-pink knitting wool
behind a draper’s window covered
with yellow cellophane: my mother said
it was too bright for a jumper.
Shilling blocks of ice cream with
three stripes pink, brown and white:
they were wrapped in cardboard
which we peeled off and licked.
Glass bottles of limeade
standing on the shop floor
engraved with Bon Accord, Aberdeen:
we savoured green fizz at parties.
My brownie uniform and
the smell of its leather belt:
it was important to tie the yellow tie
with a reef knot.
Blue nylon party dresses
they had to be worn with shoes
painted with Meltonian EasyWhite.
Shoe shops with
brown Start Rites and Clark’s Sandals:
they had an X-ray machine
that made your feet green.
The lash of skipping ropes
in the school playground and
the flash of a shocking-pink jumper:
I was envious of it.
This started with a recollection of the corner shop where I was sent as a child for a shilling block of Walls ice cream; I always wanted a jumper made from the bright pink wool in the window and never got one. I followed on with random recollections of that time, then shaped them into a poem where colours seemed to pop up in every verse. I remember in colour! In my first version, I began each stanza with ‘I remember’ but in my final version I decided it was better to trim it.
Here’s today’s prompt from the NaPoWriMo website:
Today I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that tells a story. But here’s the twist – the story should be told backwards. The first line should say what happened last, and work its way through the past until you get to the beginning. Now, the story doesn’t have to be complicated (it’s probably better if it isn’t)!
For this prompt I’ve tried to write a poem that is the Hurtigruten Norwegian Coastal Voyage backwards. If you start with the first line and read down you will get the Classic Voyage South. If you start with the bottom line and read up you will get the Classic Voyage North. Take your pick!
Hurtigruten – The Voyage South
Feet planted east of Cairo
at the north of Europe
wind-blown we touch the globe
Nordkapp’s towering cliffs
the straight road
past reindeer herds
cloudberries, rock, bog,
shops of Sami goods
moor and rock
Near pungent cod drying racks
we fall asleep to sucking of waves
fishermen’s cabins red and gold
dark mountain spires
Blue, bare mountain
green water reflecting
red wooden houses
pines cling by waterfalls
the fjord finger
Arietta on Grieg’s piano
seven hills round a fish market
at the harbour
Hurtigruten – The Voyage North
Here’s today’s NaPoWriMo prompt:
Today’s prompt comes to us from Megan Pattie, who points us to the work of the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who increasingly writes using very long lines. Carson has stated that his lines are (partly) based on the seventeen syllables of the haiku, and that he strives to achieve the clarity of the haiku in each line. So today, Megan and I collectively challenge you to write a poem with very long lines. You can aim for seventeen syllables, but that’s just a rough guide. If you’re having trouble buying into the concept of long lines, maybe this essay on Whitman’s infamously leggy verse will convince you of their merits.
My poems usually have short lines, so this was a challenge. I reworked a draft of a poem I had written about the German city of Dresden, which I visited five years ago. I was inspired by this photograph of the reconstructed Frauenkirche and the statue of Martin Luther.
What the guide said
The dark stones are from the original church, the guide said. Dirty stones
salvaged, sorted, bonded to bright new ones, machine cut. Many died here;
bones crushed, homes destroyed. Silence and smoke drifted over chaos.
We lift eyes to the dome’s bulk against blue skies where our planes,
pregnant with bombs, once droned in black night. The dome dominates,
too large for the church beneath, dwarfing the statue of Martin Luther.
He spoke the language of the people so that all could read the word of God
in their own tongue, the guide said. Behind us cameras click; a thousand voices
speak different languages; spoons clatter on silver metal tables of street cafes.
The church stands firm, symbol of peace and reconciliation, organ music
singing through open doors. And in this film set of buildings, this city
sanitised, reconstructed, reshaped, we try to comprehend the invisible past.