Thursday, 20 June 2019

"Homeopathic doses of poetry!"

.. that's a quote from Tony Curtis, the wonderful Dublin poet, talking about the series of pamphlets from Candlestick Press designed to introduce poetry to those who wouldn't usually read it. You may have seen some of the series in bookshops, museums or tea shops, "instead of a card" greetings, inexpensive but beautifully produced and a delight to read.

Yesterday evening saw the launch of "Ten Poems About Horses" edited by Alison Brackenbury, held in (appropriately enough!) Alison's Bookshop in Tewkesbury - appropriate too because it's Independent Bookshops Week this week and Alison's is an excellent independent one. A very appreciative audience were treated to wine, cake and some tremendous poetry, read by Alison and my old Cotswold colleagues Sharon Larkin, Iris Ann Lewis and Christine Whittemore. Tony Curtis opened proceedings with a musical setting of Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening" and closed them with more songs and his own poetic take on horses, both humorous and profound. A lovely evening.





Monday, 17 June 2019

We're taking a break ...

After a year of fortnightly programmes on NHSound - twelve months that have introduced me to some great Monmouthshire writers - The Writer's Room is taking a break over the summer. I've so enjoyed meeting and interviewing local poets, novelists and biographers, to say nothing of booksellers and librarians; as a relative newcomer to the area (or, more accurately, a returner after several decades), they've eased me in to the local scene and have been so welcoming. When we resume broadcasting in the autumn, I hope to see lots of them again - and plenty of new faces and voices too of course.


My final guest for the series was Sue Hatt, a member of the Caldicot Writers Group, who - like me - came rather later to creative writing after a career in academia. It was so interesting to hear about her current project, which had its origins in the war-long correspondence between her mother and her prisoner of war father; the remaining members of his battalion were captured after facilitating the evacuation at Dunkirk. Sue's meticulous research into events, combined with the intensely personal story of a young couple separated for years by war and hardship, is producing a fascinating story that should appeal to a wide readership - certainly one to watch out for.


Sunday, 9 June 2019

Loud and clear?!

With Jean Aitken and Chloe Garner,
Director of the Ledbury Poetry Festival

Well, until yesterday I couldn't say that I'd ever done a poetry reading using a megaphone! But at Hellen's Garden Festival in Much Marcle our intrepid band of troubadour poets, led by Jean Atkin, the  current "Troubadour of the Hills", was issued with one to do battle with the elements and the clamour arising from several hundred (if not more) festival goers. Fortunately the awful weather of the previous day had abated - though  I was kitted out in wellies just in case - and the sun eventually deigned to come out as we read a variety of "hill" poems in the beautiful old gardens within sight of the Malverns. It was a very pleasant afternoon that hopefully saw a good amount raised for St. Michael's Hospice in Hereford.


This morning I was having coffee in the cafe at the Millenium Centre in Cardiff and was taken with the above Roald Dahl quote inscribed on the wall there. It struck me that you could put a lot of others words in place of "magic" - success, for example. It's all too easy when you're struggling with something - a piece of writing perhaps - to feel that you'll never achieve anything with it, the poem or the prose will never go anywhere;  I've learned that indeed it won't go anywhere unless you have a firm belief in it, a belief that gives you the determination to keep going, to put everything you can into it. On Wednesday evening this week I saw that exemplified a dozen times over. I was privileged to be a guest at the Inspire! Adult Learning Awards in Cardiff, where individuals and groups who had had the desire to challenge a variety of health, social and work difficulties, who believed that they could change lives for the better, were recognized for their achievements in doing so. My own daughter was among them; it was a moving and a humbling experience.


Monday, 27 May 2019

"The water that is past.."


Recently I've been reading some of the work of Katrina Porteous, a poet who writes a lot about changing landscapes and vanishing communities. So it was interesting last week to visit Clencher's Water Mill on the Eastnor Estate near Ledbury, on a workshop organised by the Ledbury Poetry Festival. It's one of a series of mills that stood along the Glynch Brook and it milled flour for almost two and a half centuries before becoming redundant in 1939. Now it's been restored to full working order and we were shown around by a real enthusiast, who demonstrated the milling process and explained the technicalities.

What struck me very forcibly on the visit was the language of the mill, the words and phrases that must have been in common use in our great-grandparent's day but that are quite foreign to our generation - wallowers, brayers, layshafts, tuns, many more. Although I've written before about the tragedy of a language loss when a community becomes displaced or dies out, I hadn't paid a great deal of attention to the importance of individual words and their associations - some real food for thought there (and material for more than one poem).

In the afternoon we had a walk on the Malvern Hills, the stamping ground of much of my childhood and adolescence. It was interesting to hear the variety of poems that came out of the group's short time there - again a lot focusing on the history of the hills, the lives of the people who have lived, worked and walked on them over the centuries. Perhaps you'd like to hear them too - Jean Aitken, the "Troubadour of the Hills", will be launching a celebration of them at the Ledbury Poetry Festival in six weeks time; do join us for a poetry breakfast under the Market House, 09.30 - 10.30 on Sunday July 7th. Coffee and croissants included!


Friday, 17 May 2019

Mental Health Awareness Week


Commemorating a journey of creativity 

How appropriate that my guests on The Writer's Room broadcast this week should be members of the creative writing group at Newport MIND - it was a great way to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, to celebrate their writing and to give some publicity to the anthology "More Than My Mind" which they produced last year to mark 40 years of Newport's branch of the organisation. On the programme, along with their facilitator Helen McSherry, they read extracts from the book and other work and talked about their lives and their experiences of mental health problems; they spoke eloquently of the value they placed on the group itself and on the power of creative writing to help overcome problems that they faced.

The group's anthology came about through collaboration with a renowned Newport poet, Paul Chambers, and a National Geographic photographer, Daniel Alford. Some of the poems within it were written by members of other organisations the group connected with, including Age Alive, a Black and Minority Ethnic organisation. Under Daniel's tuition, the MIND Photography Group produced superb photos to complement the writing and the hard back book is really beautifully presented. Copies are for sale through Newport MIND and they're also available at the Riverfront Arts Centre in Newport - they're well worth a look at.

Helen McSherry with Giles Hibberd, Patrick Jeremy,
Mark Haines, Eamon Sweeny and Mark Vrettos


Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Poems and places


Women Aloud
Judith van Djikhausen, Christine Griffin, Gill Garrett,
Belinda Rimmer, Frances March, Angela France.

Last week was "one of those weeks" - when your feet hardly touch the ground and you skid from one thing to another. All enjoyable activities but no time to process what's going on and quite exhausting!

The Cheltenham Poetry Festival was as fantastic as ever, with a hugely varied programme and some tremendous poets participating. Women Aloud, the group I so value belonging to, started off the Sunday afternoon activities and we had a great, very appreciative audience. We were followed by Duncan Forbes and Ann Drysdale; Ann launched her latest publication Vanitas (Shoestring Press) last week and that's really worth investing in. My Catchword colleague Derek Healy was up next with Roy Marshall and Steve Walter; as ever I loved hearing his work, especially the poems from his collection "Made Strange By Time".  And it was back to Cheltenham on Wednesday to read with the Poetry Festival Players.  Our theme this year was "Water" and the programme encompassed  poets and topics from Shakespeare to Alison Brackenbury, The Lady of Shalott to the floods of 1947 and viewing the Severn Bore.

Then activities of a very different nature over the weekend; a Welsh learners course at Glan Llyn, the youth centre on Llyn Tegid. The saying goes of course that to be Welsh is to have poetry in your blood and music in your heart. There was certainly plenty of music, both on site and at the local pub. On Saturday morning we visited Yr Ysgwrn, home of Hedd Wynn, the shepherd poet whose poem was announced as the winner at the 1917 Eisteddfod before it was realised that he had been killed at Passchendaele six weeks beforehand. The "Black Chair" - the chair that had been draped in black as the Archdruid spoke of "the festival in tears and the poet in his grave" - is prominently on display in the house. I had visited and seen the chair a few years ago but the story bears telling many times over and the experience this time was just as poignant.

North Wales was beautiful in the spring sunshine and as inspirational as ever. There is so much history in its industrial landscapes, its towering mountains, its deep cut valleys. No wonder it has generated such a plethora of literature and poetry. This time I was very aware of the sadnesses, the injustices in much of that history, especially when standing by Llyn Celyn in the Tryweryn Valley, created by drowning the village of Capel Celyn in 1965 to provide a reservoir to supply Liverpool. Beneath the now peaceful waters lie 800 acres of land, the homes of forty eight people, a school, the chapel, post office, a Quaker Meeting House and its cemetery; the protests of every single Welsh MP, every member of its small Welsh speaking community and their neighbours could not save the village from destruction. "Cofiowch Dryweryn" (Remember Tryweryn) wrote the singer-songwriter Meic Stevens, a sentiment echoed around Wales; how much today we need to remember - and to act on that remembering - with so called "progress" threatening ever more communities and their ways of life.

Llyn Celyn



Monday, 22 April 2019

Back in harness

Not a great month with health and family issues (hence the long gap) but life is back on as even a keel as it can be - and summer appears to have overtaken spring. I can't remember so hot and sunny a Bank Holiday weekend; I do hope everyone's making the most of it. I'm now way behind on a couple of deadlines but I've taken a few days out to enjoy things - then it's back to the desk with a vengeance tomorrow!

It's certainly hard to think that we only recently had to postpone a Writer's Room broadcast because of thick snow. But last Thursday saw us not only back in harness at NHSound, but also in our brand new studio in Tredegar. There were the inevitable teething problems with the technology of course, but overall it was a good start and an interesting morning; the programme had a "Tales from Wales" theme and we had three guests making very different contributions. Peter Dimery from Caldicot Writers spoke about his Pembrokeshire stories which are currently in preparation and we heard two from the series. Valerie Thompson and Nigel Daft both belong to Cwmbran Writers. Valerie's memoir of life as a small child in a Welsh village spoke, I'm sure, to a whole generation who grew up "up the Valleys" in the early post-war days; for something completely different we then turned to Nigel's "Tin Dog" series of books which feature a robotic canine faced with the bewildering scenarios of everyday life in South Wales. I'm still smiling at the description of a game of snooker!


Valerie Thompson
Nigel Daft








Peter Dimery