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.

 

 

 

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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.

Only the van

I’m just back from a rewarding morning making poems at Coldwells House, a care home near Hereford. Today there was a group of a dozen, quite a few of whom I’d met before, but not seen for three months.  I took in copies of an Eric Ravilious print ‘Wiltshire landscape’ (1937).

Eric-Ravilious-Wiltshire-Landscape

We all talked about the picture, and what it meant, and what everyone saw in it, while I took furious and punctuation-free notes on a clipboard. It often helps to squat down next to an older person to talk and listen, so I did quite a lot of that. I try to record exactly what someone says, in their own words.

Then I read back what we had – and there were some additions to write in.

While the group of a dozen drank their tea, I knelt on the carpet and cut up my three sheets of A4 scribbles, and began to move them around – a quick edit on the ground – literally. Then I got the sellotape out and stuck them altogether. Everyone enjoyed watching this!

Aug2018 Coldwells (1)

Then we read it all again. And again. There was so much smiling and nodding.

At home, I’ve done a final edit (I don’t add any words, but move words around and select a bit).  Then I’ll email the finished poem to the Home for them to show to the participants, and put on the wall.  I’ll be back to see everyone in a few weeks.

Meantime, here’s an extract from the end of our poem:

vi)
I’m sure I’ve been in a place like that.
Here’s the question.  Where does that road lead to?
This is a main road and this is a side road.
The sky looks rather depressing.
All these hills and only the van on its way.
We can’t see where he’s going.

vii)
But that’s nice.  I hope I can get through it.
The telegraph poles go far away.
We’ll have to wait and see.

viii)
To be honest I have to think straight through
to my mother, or father.
It’s lovely, a beautiful place.
A road going home.

And though she be but little, she is fierce

Last week I spent an extremely hot, but very satisfying day with the children and staff of Rushbury Primary School.  It’s one of the smallest schools I’ve worked in, with only 46 on roll, and so I spent the morning with KS2, and then the afternoon with KS1.

In KS2 the children have all been studying Shakespeare, and life under the Tudors.  So we started off by reading a broad selection of famous quotes, choosing the one each child liked the best, and talking together about why.  Then I set them to do some freewriting inspired by the quote, emphasising that the link could be as close or as tenuous as they liked.  So I got some enthusiastic pony-lovers responding to ‘My horse, my horse! My kingdom for a horse!’.  Then from the freewriting the children worked up a first draft.

Here’s a marvellous development from ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce’.

On the left is the writer’s first draft, only partially photographed (oh dear!) which I borrowed from her to write onto the smartboard so we could all talk about line endings, and how to decide where to put them.

Here’s her revised first draft:

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Here’s a mature, thoughtful first draft (arriving almost complete) in response to ‘All that glisters is not gold’.

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And I worked with this student on a response to ‘The empty vessel makes the loudest sound’, asking her for similes which she provided readily, and wonderfully, for me to write down –

DSCF8092

By the afternoon KS1 had already been out to a sports event, and the thermometer in their classroom measured 30 degrees.  We gratefully went and sat under a big tree in the corner of the playground, read lots of poems, joined in and made up actions.  They were lovely, and on discovering a little boy who kept bees (and knew everything) we made up a whole group poem called ‘Nine Ways to Look at Bees’, and performed it to KS2 just before home time.

Thank you for having me, Rushbury, and thank you to Wenlock Poetry Festival who provided the funding for this day.

‘At midnight, pick half a pound of hail out of a blue lake’

In the midst of summer 2018’s heatwave comes Ledbury Poetry Festival, rich with words and sunstruck sofas out on the cobbled lane as ever.  Dressed rather warmly in my best ‘medieval wise-woman’ garb, with large straw hat, I set up in the Walled Garden alongside a colourful spread of tents and stalls providing entertainment to all.

I wrote spells for all ages, requests ranging from dinosaur seeds to relief from headaches. It was an inky joy.  Thank you Ledbury!

‘A rain of sixpences and hunger’ – watch the video

We made a little video for ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ – do share, do tell us what you think!

We’re starting to spread the word about ‘Understories‘ – a new poetry and music collaborative project between myself and musicians Charlotte Watson, Steve Downs and Sarah Ibberson of Whalebone.

Understories band photo portrait

Understories’ explores the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the new show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

This poem, ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It happened in what is now Telford.  It’s a classic tale of abuse of labour in the interests of profit, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

The name ‘Cinderloo’ was coined at the time, following the notorious events at Peterloo slightly earlier. The Cinder Hills was the local name for the slagheaps.  The site of the struggle is now overlain by Telford Forge Retail Park.  Plaque needed, I think.

 

 

‘Understories’ – my new collaborative project

I’m really very pleased to see my poem ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo‘ published this week on Peter Reynard’s excellent blog, Proletarian Poetry.

‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’ explores the story of a rising by ironworkers in 1821, as they protested against draconian pay cuts.  It’s a classic tale of industrial abuse of labour, and it ended in the deaths of several of the strikers with many further injuries to women and children involved in the protest.

cinderloo

For the last eight months, I’ve been working on ‘Tom Palin’ (and another nearly twenty poems) in collaboration with the wonderful musicians of Whalebone – Steve Downs, Charlotte Watson and Sarah Ibberson.  Whalebone create eclectic instrumental music with guitar, bouzouki, mandolin and fiddle – their work’s been described as ‘delightfully and defiantly guilty of trespass across musical borders’.  Having now seen them make new music in response to a wide range of my poems, I’m in awe of their skill and imagination.  It’s been perhaps my most satisfying and challenging ever collaboration.

What we’re working on is ‘Understories‘ – a brush with the new folklore of Shropshire.  Here are both rural and urban myths, tales just out of living memory and tales re-told.   They are the common uncommon.

We’ll be performing the show in 2019.  Join us to discover Shropshire’s last wolves and cloggers,  its haunted roundabouts, railway lines and oak trees, not to mention the boy who burrowed under a church.

We’ve got a final recording of ‘Tom Palin at Cinderloo’, which at the moment you can listen to via Proletarian Poetry.  I’m trying to fix the tech…

JA recording with Whalebone
Here I am, recording…

 

“I’m going to be a poem”

I’m back from a fantastic day in Hargate Primary School.  The joy of being their Poet in Residence just grows with every visit!  This time, a tiny little girl stopped me in the corridor at break, looked up and said, “I’m going to be a poem”.  She smiled broadly, and skipped away, and it all made me so happy.

Today I was mostly in Year 4, who are learning about Africa.  The great range of nationalities in Hargate meant there were children who had relatives in African countries, and who’d been there, so they told us stories.  We read African poetry, one of which had a fierce storm in it, which gave me the chance to demonstrate my Thunder Tube* to fabulous effect, and then we employed the Elfje form (eleven words, in a set pattern, Dutch!) to write about the brilliant colours of Africa.

*Thunder Tube!

 

Here’s some more elfje poems.

And then we had huge fun performing them later!

Words from the Vaults

This spring I’ve been working with a great group of people who’ve been attending ‘Creative Writing in the Museum Vaults’.  Ludlow houses the county’s precious and extraordinary Museum Resources, and this series of workshops allowed us access to the ‘Vaults’ and the wonders they contain.  Throughout all of this we were expertly supported by Ludlow Curator Abigail Cox, and by Fay Bailey at Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

During April everyone can come to Ludlow Library and Museum Resources Centre, and read wonderful new poems inspired by some of the artefacts we met in the ‘Vaults’.  And next week, there’s a special, one-off reading – open to the public.  There will be cake.

Final reading poster #3

Here’s a glimpse (too many reflections) of just some of the work on display in the foyer of Ludlow Library and Museum Resources Centre.

And meet the handsome Dr Hickman, and Lizzie Prudence’s delicious words…

DSCF7220

What a treat
warm intelligence lighting
strong brown eyes
shining out among the dull
bewhiskered dignitaries.

If Jane had seen you
dancing across the
Assembly Rooms floor
she might have chosen
you for Darcy.

 

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