‘Understories’ with Whalebone

This is such a wonderful project! I’ve been working with hugely talented band Whalebone for the past 18 months, building a collection of poems and music with them, all focused on telling the new lore of Shropshire. We’re proud to have Arts Council England support.

Here are urban – and rural – myths, and tales just out of living memory.  They are the common uncommon.

Discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers, its haunted roundabouts, pigs, railway lines and long-memoried oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

Whalebone and I will be offering free daytime performances of Understories between March and July 2019 in Shropshire libraries. Click here to see the Gigs and Tickets page on Whalebone’s website. As well as these gigs, there is a CD featuring 10 new tracks and a poetry pamphlet available with 14 of my poems. These are available to buy at the gigs and from Whalebone’s website right here.

Understories is a delightful, grounded and musical collection of poems that reminds us – through its brightly singing stories – how history is ravelled around memory, community and habitation: that ‘this is living, this is.’ Professor David Morley, winner of the Ted Hughes Award

Jean Atkin gathers her ‘common : uncommon’ hoard of Shropshire stories, memories and folk myths to magick them into strange, beautiful, haunting poems. Atkin’s language is delicate, precise, filmic: she brings worlds together, honouring the dead.  Unsurprisingly, these lilting, imagistic poems are being set to music: they are ideally suited for performance. Spanning the seasons of human life, Understories is a stunning achievement. Pippa Little (Carcanet, Arc)

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Troubadour of the Hills does Radio 4’s Ramblings!

On a glass-clear day at the end of January, I set off with David Armitage of Malvern Hills AONB, Karen Gregor, producer of ‘Ramblings’, and the one and only, marvellous, Clare Balding. We were taking a poem for a walk, as part of Ledbury Poetry Festival‘s Troubadour of the Hills project,
which is a joint venture between the Festival and Malvern Hills AONB. Also with us were Dimitri Houtart (BBC Head of Rural Affairs) and Peter Sutton, translator of ‘Piers Plowman’. Our programme will be aired during the new series starting mid February. Watch this space for the exact date!

We left from Hollybush car park and turned south, skirting Ragged Stone Hill on a path through the woods to its west side. Here we paused (to get our breath) and I read –

I’m lit along the wood-edge. 
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light. 
In one ear, press of hide on saplings, 
the unseen deer retreat

Raggedstone, steep, sallow

Then we climbed to the ridge, and Peter Sutton told us about the Malvern Hills known to William Langland back in the 14th century, and the connections still to be found here.

We greeted a friendly golden retriever who was obviously a Ramblings fan, then stopped before the fine views of Chase End Hill. So I read –

Banked with shades and shadows
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
forgets remembers.
I misremember everything, I know

Chase End Hill, white cumulus, concrete trig

At this point I have to admit that we missed the turn in the wood (talking, talking) and so yes, we actually did lose Clare Balding on the Malverns. She was extraordinarily nice about it, (she was just extraordinarily nice, in fact), and we did retrieve the situation within a few minutes, and made our way down to show her the extraordinary meadow ants field.

Here Ramblings’ director Dimitri sprang to and saved a sheep who was cast on her back, and meantime we mused on the internal intricacies and simplicities of anthills.

We walked on to reach Hollybed Common, where Karen produced a welcome bag of doughnuts, Clare asked the geese to be quiet and they instantly were – and then I read –

A bellwether sheep 
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common

Hollybed, pale, trodden

From there uphill to The Gullet, with its dark lake under the ancient rocks of the quarry.

Here I read –

Come out at the car park 
red car, yellow car, sweet,
seedy blackberries. 
Rain runs down me, 
down the hill, and down the hour

The Gullet, fogged, viridian

And we climbed (some more) up through the throat of The Gullet to reach the ridge below Midsummer Hill. And up again, past natural windows in the bare trees, showing us glimpses of Hollybed Common far below, and long, clear views away to the Lickey Hills and the Cotswolds. On top of Midsummer Hill the wind was fresh, and the views in every direction utterly breath-taking.

I read –

The hills are always here. 
They wear away. 
They stay, grip close 
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out

Midsummer Hill, bedrock, bowl-sky

Troubadour of the Hills

Happy New Year! It’s 2019, and the Troubadour of the Hills project is filling my thoughts.  It’s such a lovely poetry job to be asked to do.  The project is a joint venture for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB, and it was launched on National Poetry Day in October.  I’ve already done some schools work, taking local children into the woods under the Malverns to make poetry – and there are more walks and workshops coming up before Ledbury Poetry Festival in July.

I’ve written my first commissioned poem for the project.  It’s based on a 7 mile circular walk, which you can plot on the map by following the poem. Here it is.

One uncertain history

Wide horns and white
medieval flanks.
Heavy as sighs,
the park cattle linger
by a shrinking pool.

Bromesberrow, oaked, milky

I’m lit along the wood-edge.
Blond light off corn stubble,
a sky full of rain and light.
In one ear, press of hide on saplings,
the unseen deer retreat

Raggedstone, steep, sallow

A bellwether sheep
leads a long file past me,
roman nose to soiled tail.
They beat the cloven common
into the common

Hollybed, pale, trodden

Come out at the car park
red car, yellow car, sweet,
seedy blackberries.
Rain runs down me,
down the hill, and down the hour

The Gullet, fogged, viridian

The hills are always here.
They wear away.
They stay, grip close
the patience of the igneous.
Their fossils sit me out

Midsummer Hill, bedrock, bowl-sky

Banked with shades and shadows
winding up inside a slope
the deep lane remembers everything
forgets remembers.
I misremember everything, I know

Chase End Hill, white cumulus, concrete trig

You can find a recording of me reading it on Ledbury Poetry Festival’s website here, and please do contribute your own poems about hills to the same page. There are lots there already, and we’re really enjoying them!

Wishing all kind readers of this blog a happy Solstice, a merry Christmas – and all warm wishes for a peaceful, kinder, saner 2019!

 

A new project – Creative Conversations

I’ve just started work with Creative Conversations, led by Arts Alive and Media Active. This three year partnership development links experienced agencies for arts and health to help establish new creative opportunities for people aged 55 and over. Participants may want to develop their own creative ideas, acquire new skills that can be shared with others, or may simply wish to try something new.

This is a really exciting project, collaborative and specifically in search of new ways of working. Professional musicians, poets, writers and digital artists will regularly visit various groups and venues to have creative conversations, gather stories, share music, write songs and poems, make films and digital drawings.  Over the next two years we will be collecting these and feeding them into the production of a touring Variety Show and exhibition; this will tour around to many small community spaces and village halls across the county, celebrating older people and putting their creativity quite literally centre stage.

I’ve just done the first ‘taster’ sessions at Shropshire day and community centres – and we’ve had a wonderful time making poems together from stimuli such as a heavy horse bridle –

On Clee Hill there was a Shire
across the railway line.
Sometimes my cousin’s husband
would put a saddle on that horse
and ride it 
like a medieval knight.

I saw a Shire horse in a field,
before our time.

and on a different day, from a painting by Anthea Craigmyle –

I write down what people say, trying to keep up, trying to keep the way and the exact words they choose, then we read them back.  Maybe add a bit more.  When we’re done, I chop it up with the scissors, do a swift shuffle and edit, then sellotape the bits back together.  Then we read it all again, much clapping and laughing.  Here’s one:

I thought it were one of them roundabouts.
Can you write Yorkshire?
I said a leprechaun, but no,
a unicorn by the river.

We three kings,
being as it’s coming to Christmas,
and a spotty dog, all
on their way to Bethlehem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spell to be a Unicorn for one day only

Christmas is coming! I’ve just been The Spellwright again for  glorious Ludlow Medieval Fayre, wearing my best big dress and thermal underwear, writing spell after spell in the Hands on History tent.  For two days my fingers have been soaked in black ink, and I’ve used up an amazing amount of sealing wax.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a selection of requested spells:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Start 2019 with Café Writing!

Start 2019 with some Café Writing! Join me for six weekly sessions of inventive prompts, ideas and lots of encouragement, not least being fuelled by Ludlow Kitchen’s exceptional coffee and cake!

This will the third series of Café Writing at Ludlow Kitchen. I love teaching this course, always a joy.

Stir a pint of midnight into a sack of fog

I had to lie down on the sofa and hold onto a cup of tea afterwards, but I had the most amazing weekend at Shrewsbury Museum in the company of a seemingly endless stream of inventive young witches and wizards #MuseumsAreMagic.

Staff at the Museum had done a stunning job lighting the staircase with candles, providing a hatstand to leave your portkey on, a wand shop, a potions chamber – and provided me with a vast wizard’s throne and a high table decked with quills and sinister pots. I brought my own skulls.

Here’s a selection of Spells:

and more below.  I always ask the customer for their thoughts on the spell, and then incorporate their words where I can.  Sometimes I can get their age, or their birthday month in there too, as with the Spell for a Mermaid.  You will notice one of the Shape Shifter spells (above) was very effective.

 

 

 

Troubadour of the Hills

I’m delighted to tell you I’ve been appointed the first-ever ‘Troubadour of the Hills’ for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB.  The project launches next Thursday 4 October at 10am when I’ll perform at a National Poetry Day event at Ledbury Books and Maps.

But today was a less public, but (I reckon) more energetic Troubadour happening, in the marvellous company of Y5/Y6 of Bosbury Primary School at Old Colwall.  A cold night was warming to golden sun under the Malverns when I turned up.

We were welcomed into an attractively dilapidated 19th century conservatory beside Old Colwall’s extraordinary Cloud Hedge. The plan was to work with the children so they had the chance to respond in poetry to both the Cloud Hedge and Old Colwall’s 1000+ year old yew on the hillside.ToTH Bosbury Sch_Sept2018 (1)

We explored the Cloud Hedge, which dates back to the 18th century (at least). Children raced through its passageways, stroked its bark, discovered the strange red sap of the yew that helps associate it with blood and death. We talked about yews in churchyards, yews cut for longbows, yew that lasts longer than an iron post.

ToTH Bosbury Sch_Sept2018 (2)

Then we went back into the conservatory and wrote. Each pair of children provided me with a line for a collaborative class poem which I scribbled down then edited over my sandwich at lunchtime. Here it is:

The Cloud Hedge
has leaves like bubbles in air
has twisted faces that mutter in the wind
The Cloud Hedge
is shady like a tent and stormy like the Channel
is a mysterious tunnel stretched like a witch’s broom
is textured like bubbles outside, and inside dark and poisonous
The Cloud Hedge
has branches that flow through an everlasting maze
has branches that flow like water
has branches that reach to sky like hands reach to the heart
The Cloud Hedge
is ancient spindled roots
is green patchwork silky leaves
is puffy and shady like a comfy dream
The Cloud Hedge
has spooky spidery branches
has hot air going in but cold air coming out
is fat like a hippopotamus tree
The Cloud Hedge
is a dark sharp spike, a pin that blows in the wind
is as grumpy as a cloud
The Cloud Hedge
swallowed us like flies
never stopping to wait for us
the dark green silky dim curved green long stretched-out
Cloud Hedge

We had enormous fun performing this, with everyone doing ‘The Cloud Hedge’ each time I raised my pencil!

Then there was cake.

And after that we all set off through a field and up a steep hill to visit the great Yew of Old Colwall.

The Yew is simply massive, a vast core trunk that sends tremendous branches out to all sides. The branches arch, re-root and grow further great spurs.  The tree must have a radius of 40 yards or so.  It was wonderful to see the children clamber into the tree, scrambling along branches, wriggling into the forks, feet dangling down, Poem Notes in hand and in use.

Back in the conservatory we wrote tankas about climbing in the Yew.  Some absolutely outstanding writing – here’s some:

We finished the afternoon with a poetry reading, and shared so many wonderful and brand new poems about the yews. Huge thanks to all at Old Colwall, not forgetting Hetty the extremely popular dog.

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