Today I was The Spellwright for the Hay Meadow Festival in a cool and beautiful field below The Stiperstones in Shropshire. Whenever I looked up I saw people scything meadow grasses, tossing haybales over a high bar with a pitchfork, making flowers, drinking beer, listening to a spot of jazz and swing. All very lovely.
Worth clicking on this one…
Meantime, I wrote spell after spell, for people of all ages, requesting everything from help to catch a Shetland pony to spells for invisibility, for wings, for a tree house, for Silliness… Here’s a small selection.
I’ve started work on a new project. It’s called ‘Words on the Water’ and it’s a course of creative writing inspired by Newport Canal. Funding for this project has come through Public Health at Telford & Wrekin Council, in support of social prescribing through GP surgeries. Every week our group of friendly people come along to Cosy Hall on Water Lane and we set off down the towpath to observe, talk and make notes about what we see.
So the place is the same, but each day’s different. As someone wrote last week: Distances are short but thought is long.
Here’s a flavour of what we’ve created so far:
here’s willow branches dipping kissing the canal
I saw a frog, he was playing dead
a lovely green body and a shapely head
at the black gate we’re locked out behind the black gate, the black dog
lilies stand up like yellow lollipops & children’s voices shrill out
Since October, I’ve been working on a wonderful creative writing project in Telford. ‘Songs of the Trees’ was funded as a pilot project for health and wellbeing in older people, and managed by the excellent Creative and Cultural Development Team at Telford & Wrekin Council. The project attracted a core group who have stayed with the project throughout – requesting it to be extended.
Every week we meet in Southwater Library, and then take a walk into Telford Town Park. We see the same trees, the same lakes, the same paths again and again. And they’re different every time. We’ve written Telford Town Park from autumn into winter, and now we’re writing winter into spring. We’ve been out in warm sunshine, frosty sunshine, thick mist, east winds and a couple of different kinds of rain.
I encourage the group to write notes as we walk, and there’s a lot of conversation. Back in the library, we listen to everyone’s notes, and I borrow a line or two from each person, which I take home and edit into that week’s collaborative poem. Members of the group have taken to working and editing their notes into finished writing at home. Most rewardingly, this group of people who didn’t know each other have become friends, laughing together and developing in-jokes.
Last week, on a day with a distinct October nip in the air, I walked back to the woods with Bucknell Primary’s Key Stage 2 class, as part of my project ‘In woods we forget things, at the wood edge we tell stories’. We carried laminated copies of the children’s poems, and cameras to film their performances under the trees they chose to write for.
Once we were in the wood, the children scattered to find their trees. No-one had any trouble remembering exactly the right place. Indeed more than one pair showed me the precise knot or bulge or bark pattern that had inspired a particular line or phrase.
Everybody practised, and then we all trooped round the wood, alternately being the performers, and the audience. The performances were moving and joyful, and the quality of the listening was just as good.
We left the laminated poems tied onto the trees for Toni and Ru to find later. (And we also left a poem for the Composting Toilet).
This project is funded by Shropshire Hills AONB and Shropshire Housing Group. More on the project blog here.
At 8am this morning I was on the phone to BBC Hereford & Worcester, talking about making poems with people living with dementia, and later on, I was in Highwell House Nursing Home in Bromyard, really making poems.
I shared printouts of a painting by Joan Eardley around the room of ten people. Not everyone has dementia, though several have it quite badly. I’ve been working with this group for over a year. Today, Joan Eardley’s painting of 1950s children on the streets of the Gorbals proved very popular with everyone. I write down (a desperate scribble) exactly what they say:
“Oh they’re joyous! They’re real children”.
“You can see your own children in there”.
“Look at the mum’s tired face”.
“I love the little boy in the braces. His trousers are too big. His face is too thin”.
After a while I read back to them my scrambled notes, ‘so far’. Everyone listens, and then I go back round the room, speaking to individuals and persuading further contributions.
Later, at home, I put together a group of poems. I don’t add any of my own words, but I restructure the ones I took down in my notes. I think this is today’s favourite.
Red hair, red cardigan buttoned at the top. What’s that dark in her hair? Oh, is it the shadows? I was always knitting cardigans for my own children.
Mother’s tried to brighten the windowsill by painting it pink.
Words from Jean, Jim, Peter, Iris, Cecil, John, Isobel, Margaret, Jean, Stella
Next week I’ll take the poems back to the group and we’ll read them and enjoy them slowly – and probably twice.
So delightful this morning to have the chance to share poems made with residents of Highwell House Nursing Home on BBC Radio Shropshire with the wonderfully enthusiastic Jim Hawkins.
The link is here: and the clip is at 1hr: 39 (or listen to the show from 1h for more on poetry in Shropshire, including Jonathan Day‘s new work ‘Lyric’).
Here’s one of the poems I read. It was made by writing down conversations with the group as they happened, which then I worked into the poem, using only the residents’ words, but finding a form and line-endings for the poem. These are the voices of Jim Cecil, Eddie, Vera, Wilf, Peter, Stella, Margaret and Iris.
We’ve all scrambled through life. We don’t know why we go through it, but we do. It’s called experience. It’s been an amazing life. We don’t know how wise we are.
The children sat in front, legs crossed, looking up. You want to be a bit scared, then brought back into the real world again. He had a trail of children following him, just like the Pied Piper, all bewitched.
This week I was working in a Herefordshire care home with a large group of elderly people, many of whom are living with dementia. I work regularly with this group, and this time I took them my grandpa’s Punch and Judy puppets to look at.
The puppets were passed round, their fragile condition much remarked on, and soon the conversation was flowing. I keep the ball rolling, and do my best to write down as much verbatim, of what people say. No punctuation! Doing this work has made me inventive with a personalised shorthand…
Later, at home, I work on these notes to make poems, using only the words actually spoken, so adding none of my own. Here are some photographs and extracts from the poems.
Mr Punch looks sly. You wouldn’t trust him. He’s on the make. The Policeman did a lot of shouting. He wags his finger at Mr Punch.
This ghost is a bit menacing. Feel that rough carving. It’s been handled such a lot. That skull’s all shiny with people smoothing its head. He’s bad before you look at him.
Next week I’ll be back in the care home to read the group the poems we made together. And make some more.
I turned off the engine. The car informed me it was 9 degrees outside on the Stiperstones. Visibility was down to 20 yards, but I could just see a few cold-looking people pulling on extra layers in the car park.
#5Sites5Senses is a collaborative project which takes people with severe disabilities, with their carers, out into the nearby countryside in the Shropshire Hills. It’s called Five Sites, Five Senses to reflect the nature of the places we’ve been out to visit, and bearing in mind the various and differing capacities of the service users. My role is to make poetry with everyone, capturing voices and creating a record of our experiences together in these beautiful places.
Unsurprisingly, the state of the weather had put off some of our regulars, but here we all are (except me, behind the camera) at the start of our expedition along the all-access trail.
We told stories of the Stiperstones, of how the devil comes to sit on the Devil’s Chair when the cloud is down (so yes, he must have been in residence), of 11th century Wild Edric, who it is said sleeps with his soldiers under the hill, ready to protect this place from harm. Bob the artist, who comes along as a volunteer, asked if we knew how to make a fairies’ handmirror.
Do you know how to make a fairy’s handmirror? His waterproofs crackle as he bends to pick one green stem from flowering reeds beside the path
& twists it to oval. He grips the flattened swirls of his handmirror’s handle. He dips it, once, twice, & a third time, through rainsilver folds of cobweb
while out on the steeps & crinkles of the moor the fairies tread the heather, unseen in fog: Cherry, Tamarisk, & Toadflax Pug.
Jenni Tibbett from Natural England, was walking with us. She told us about the three Exmoor ponies that graze on the Stiperstones. Their names are Cherry, Tamarisk and Toadflax Pug.
We focussed on what was close at hand. The marvellous September cobwebs. The brilliant strangeness of Fly Agaric fungus. The brightness of rowan berries.
When everyone was starting to feel cold, we scarpered down to the Bog Visitor Centre, who gave us a most warm welcome, hot tea, and homemade cake, while we told stories and sang songs. Later, I put this together. Maybe we’ll sing it together next time we meet.
When dragons died of fighting on this hill they smashed down on the ridge & left their bones for Shepherd’s Rock, for Devil’s Chair, for Manstone Rock, for Cranberry Rock, for Nipstone.
When simple giants were tricked and shamed they dropped their loads of stones along these paths for Shepherd’s Rock, for Devil’s Chair, for Manstone Rock, for Cranberry Rock, for Nipstone.
When Devil was fooled his tears of molten lead seeped down through hill to mines. He flies in cloud to Stiperstones by Shepherd’s Rock, by Devil’s Chair, by Manstone Rock, by Cranberry Rock, by Nipstone.
Men last no longer than snowflakes in summer. Nights fog tugs at your clothes, you’ll catch a stink of sulphur by Shepherd’s Rock, by Devil’s Chair, by Manstone Rock, by Cranberry Rock, by Nipstone.
For three years I worked as a freelance poet for In The Pink, a poetry and dementia project managed by Courtyard Arts in Hereford. As the project reached the end of its funding cycle they made this little film, which focuses particularly on the work I was doing in one of Herefordshire’s care homes. I like the film because it demonstrates the joy and engagement of these very elderly people with words, and with each other.