19 Jul 2009

CRB checks, and what is really precious...

I disagree with Michael Morpurgo’s viewpoint about enhanced CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks for writers/poets/artists who work in schools, being 'insulting'. I think that being famous has nothing to do with anything on this matter (remember Gary Glitter?)

I do not doubt that Michael Morpurgo’s response is that of a good man, shocked by his close encounter with a painful reality. But people who want to hurt children are cunning and devious, and children’s needs are paramount and sacrosanct.

I occasionally visit schools as a poet/writer: sometimes performing, reading, collaborating or teaching, and usually with a class of around 30 and with at least 2 adults. I am not in the slightest bit insulted by CRB checks. The £64 is a bit pricey for any impoverished artist, but it is a legitimate, tax-deductable business expense, so never mind.

Even with strongly held anti-ID card, specific anti-establishment views, I do not oppose being ‘checked out’ for this work. The process isn’t about me, me, me, and the offence it may be to the wonderfulness of my work. It is about the children.

Schools, which are an environment primarily for children, function best when there is a relaxed as well as secure atmosphere. As a parent, I would challenge a school’s ability to care for my children if it did not provide either of these qualities, or both in good balance. This means that staff should not have to work in an environment where they are expected to worry about, or act with reckless habitual nonchalance towards people from outside the school coming into it.

Recently, when I arrived in the foyer of a school where I was to spend the day writing and recording sea-shore poems, the teacher who greeted me was suddenly diverted by a safety/discipline issue with other children. Consequently, a small girl was instructed to lead me up two narrow flights of stairs to the classroom, before I encountered another adult.

With another group, working on Dartmoor, I enjoyed being alone with 5 children for a few minutes, to write about our observations: green beetles, blue-black feathers, far skylines and the sound of skylarks and stone-chats.

On another occasion - a woodland walk - I responded with a mother’s instinct rather than a poet’s voice and quickly lifted a distressed girl from the large, gravelled puddle into which she had just stumbled, face-first.

I have been sent to choose the stationery I required for making poetry books, from a cupboard in another part of the school, and passed a child reading unattended in the corridor.

None of the staff in any of these schools would have allowed these ordinary events to happen if I was not so thoroughly cleared by the Home Office every 3 years. Without CRB checks, any visitor would have to have a constant chaperone, or the school would be violating their duty of care and potentially be placing children at risk.

If I was the parent of any of the above described children, I would be relieved to know that the visiting writer had had a thorough CRB check. Especially if that child had already been assaulted and was re-learning boundaries; or if that parent, assaulted as a child, was learning to let go and heal their own past.
These frailties are too common, too important to overlook in favour of the naïvety or vain preciousness of artists – no matter how reputedly brilliant, saintly or famous.

12 Jul 2009

Hearing Voices - Dartington, 11th July 2009

Yesterday, Mim Darlington and I performed at a ‘poetry walk’ in the beautiful grounds of Dartington Hall, Nr. Totnes. It was an event hosted by Ways With Words Literary Festival, and despite a constant drizzle of rain, we enjoyed the company of a fifteen audience members. Our walk takes in views and vistas founded by gardener Dorothy Elmhirst, and maintained exquisitely since.

Mim & I have been leading poetry walks regularly at Ways With Words under the moniker 'The Honey Tongues'. Mim read some poems from her book ‘Windfall’ (publ. Oversteps Books) and I enjoyed reading mostly new ones of my own.
Mim Darlington reading from 'Windfall'

In the afternoon, I attended the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture, given by Sir Andrew Motion. Sat on the high gallery of the stone built Great Hall, surrounded by the oak beams of its vaulted ceiling and amidst a crowd of Hughes devotees, I tried not to fall asleep. Not for any fault of Andrew Motion, but there were a lot of people in that room, it was a muggy day, and heat rises…

The Great Hall, Dartington. photo from Dartington Hall website

Andrew Motion’s lecture kept my soft brain sharp. He discussed the rivalry between Hughes and the poet Phillip Larkin, citing quotes from personal letters from each to close relatives, and press articles, written throughout the decades of their fame.

It seems that each perceived the other as a manifestation of their own shadow, worthy opponents in each other’s artistic quest: Larkin’s uptightness, Hughes’ wildness.’ Hughes embraced modernism, Larkin scorned it.

Hugh’s creative process involved him keeping the channel between conscious and unconscious, open, finding connection with wildness. Motion quotes of Larkin’s poems: ‘their rage or contempt is always checked by the ... energy of their language and the satisfactions of their articulate formal control’.

Motion used the phrase ‘the librarian and the shaman’.This inner-world and outer-world conflict, projected or not, is what significantly helped to shape each poet’s unique voice.

I enjoyed the lecture immensely. I am deeply interested in writers’ creative processes. In part as I live out the myth of my own, and in part because I teach creative writing classes with adults and work with children in schools.

It is something that I enjoyed discussing with other writers on the Isle of Arran residential, last month; and enjoy discussing often with Mim Darlington and other poetry peers. Each conversation is as valuable as any lecture by one former Laureate about another; though I’ve yet to experience a ‘worthy opponent’ of the Larkin-Hughes style.

I don't think it's necessary. Cooperation and appreciation breed a stronger, more positive culture in which to work rather than one undermined by blind projection and self-limiting rivalry. Identifying the nature of one's own inner shadows is an opportunity to grow both into them and out of them.

After leaving the Great Hall, I had two hours until a short performance of two of my poems, with the group Moor Poets.

Moor Poets logo, Artwork by Petra Tilly

I had bought a book of poetry with me to read: Planet Young, (Flapjack Press) by Liverpool born poet Gerry Potter; but there were all these lovely new poetry books to be bought at ways With Words, so I browsed, bought one. I will not say here by whom it is written, but someone of academic proportions and whose work, as I have come across it, has been very enjoyable.

Sat in the Roundhouse Café with tea and cake, I read my new book, its posh pages smelling of delicious poetry secrets. I enjoyed a couple of contemporary sonnets, then Gerry’s book began to jangle from my bag. A silent jangle, yet with a strong sense of scouse accent.

Jangle, I have learned from the introduction to Planet Young, is a Liverpudlian term for a particular kind of gossip. I carried on reading my new book, enjoying the thoughtful adaptations of traditional form, appreciating the subject matter and poetic insights within the carefully, consciously edited verses. But by now, Gerry’s book was hollering from the depths of my bag as if it didn’t give a shit about sonnets, and The Sons of May Butler demanded my heart to give it a second read that day.

The ongoing inner conflicts of the poet are an interesting phenomena en route to each finding one's voice, but it is another thing when the conflict in a poets psyche occurs between two others.

The new book went back in the bag. Out came Planet Young. Half an hour of reading later, I found my pen and a petrol receipt from the depths of the bag, and was inspired to write. It's about a voice finding its feet...

I was interrupted delightfully by the arrival of Jackie Juno, poet, singer and comedienne and good friend. We are both in Moor Poets, and exchanged stories of our recent adventures (she’s been to Ireland while I was in Arran) before going to the Moor Poets performance (I will write about Moor Poets quiet a lot in other blogs) in the Duke’s Room.

Each of the twelve of us present, read two poems from our recent, stunningly good (if I do say so myself) compilation CD ‘Uncharted’.

'Uncharted' CD, artwork by Sean Hellman

Apart from Mim, Jackie and myself, there are more than a dozen others on the CD – a delicious assortment of voices that illuminate vibrant and unexpected worlds. Many of us read a more recent poem, too. I am always surprised by and grateful for the brilliance of my peers; I especially enjoyed John Daniels and Rebecca Gethin’s new poems, and wonderful to hear and to meet with all the others again. To buy the CD, details/enquiries via the Moor Poets website. £5 well spent.

After the performance, our good-sized audience asked intelligent questions; and then a perve made inappropriate comments about some of the poets and I was gripped again by inner conflict: whether to speak harshly or just to cringe and shudder. The cringe and shudder won instantaneously; and a few moments uncomfortable silence was well managed by compere Jennie Osborne. After the performance I managed not to make eye contact. Disturbing men are not that common at Moor Poets readings, thankfully.

Two of the audience had also attended The Honey Tongues poetry walk, and requested a copy of a poem I had read that morning. Its new and I couldn't think of a title so have called it 'Zen Poem'. It began life with a exercise based on the I Ching, facilitated by John. G. Hall.

Hunt opportunities under shadows.
Stalk the impossible -
teach it to fly.
Learn soft landings in broken places.
Take up the martial art of the pen

and circle the circle of thought
that defines: you.
Close in on every

moment upon moment.

Capture it -

savour every


I went out that evening with my family to hear Siberian Nenet singer Tatiana Lar performing with Nigel Shaw and Carolyn Hillyer, in a large marquee in the middle of a rainstorm on Dartmoor. It was an awesome end to a surreal day.

Planet Young has just started whispering from my bag.

Shhh; I’m writing a blog.

7 Jul 2009

Isle of Arran adventure, poetry workshops

Isle Of Arran Poetry Adventure, June 2009

I have recently returned from a poetry writing residential week on the beautiful Isle of Arran, Scotland. Needing to clear my head of chasing paid work as a poet, writer and educator; and the rigidity of academic studies, and craving space for my own 'voice', I just had to get away.

The week was organised by Manchester poet and poetry magazine editor (Citizen 32, Cadre) John G. Hall. Although I had not previously met John, I have been reading his poetry via Myspace for a few years, and his poetry and online workshops via Facebook, this last year.
I enjoy his unique style, and am in awe of how prolific his work is; so the opportunity to meet him and to learn, and learn from other poets around the infamous and vibrant Manchester scene, was very appealing.

My friend Mim Darlington, also from my Devon locality, attended too. She is also a poet, but is currently researching otters for her forthcoming book, and doctorate, in nature writing.

photo: Matt in poets window, St. Columbas. By Daniel Brocklehurst

photo: Poets in St Columba's Chapel by Daniel Brocklehurst

...and so we arrived on Saturday after many tiring hours travel to arrive at the comfortable, spacious, tasteful living accommodation in the converted St. Columba’s Chapel in Whiting Bay. This sanctuary was to be our home and workshop space for the week. Both Mim and I felt an immediate need to explore nearby places of interest so we went to the pub. We also met up with the rest of our clan, some of whom were staying in another house in nearby Lamlash village.

Sunday was a grounding and group-bonding day; a long walk in the mizzle from the tiny harbour and exquisite beaches of Blackwaterfoot, beside a calm quicksilver sea. Along the coast path past past basalt cliffs, rock pools, oystercatchers, curlews, fulmars, eider-ducks, plovers, and watched by an inquisitive seal; and on through fields of flowering reeds, foxgloves, varieties of stonecrop, lichen, and orchids amongst countless other flora, and a glimpse of wild hares; and on to the King's Caves, so called because Robert the Bruce once watched a highly influential spider make its web in that same place.

Photo by Vanessa Fay: Gerry Potter, Mim Darlington and Steph Pike on the beach near Blackwaterfoot, Arran

Photo by Vanessa Fay: Gerry Potter in King's Cave, Isle of Arran.

Then, high up a cliff path and through enchanting woodland, back the waiting minibus; and then on to the Machrie Moor Stone Circles.

We got there a bit late for the moment of Solstice but midsummer magic did not elude us. As we approached the tallest of the stones, we noticed a curlew sat atop it, shrieking at us.

Photo: curlew on standing stone, midsummer 2009, Isle of Arran
She must have had a nest nearby, so we stepped carefully. She eventually flew away with effective distracting-tactics before we continued to explore the stones and their mysteries, some of us enchanted by our encounter with this usually shy species.

The week of workshops and activities unwound tensions and nourished the senses. Spontaneous activities included abundant feasting, drinking, and all kinds of merriment, including two of our number swimming the mile-or-more across to Holy Isle, and back, surviving sunburn and jelly-fish stings. We all thrived on a week of what turned out to be scorching summer. We endured Scottish midges, and possibly one or two hangovers. And collectively, wrote some stunning poetry.
The Unsung crew (Unsung is a Manchester based poetry magazine) organised and compered a gig in a pub in the nearby village of Lamlash. An unforgettable night, (especially for the locals, I would imagine).
Photo: Poets performance & night out. Lamlash

It was great to have an opportunity to meet John, at last, extending our on-line exchanges to an inexhaustible rapport – sharing insights and extracts of life-stories, philosophies and book-lists, plotting future performances and poetry proliferation. A renga-party is still to be done...

Photo: (below) John facilitating haiku workshop

There is much to be written about the Isle of Arran, about John G. Hall, and the other poets – especially those whose workshops I really got my teeth into. I’m still energised by everyone’s work, by the residential living experience, and the teeming flora and fauna of that island. It was an unforgettable week, and another sharp string to my poet’s bow.
Instead, I am letting the experience catalyse, cogitate, settle. I am sending some Arran-born poems to both the Unsung and to John’s upcoming Arran Poetry compilation. I hope that these few pictures each speak their thousand words, for now.Except these:

Midsummer: curlew,
sentinel on ancient stones,
shrieks like a fish-wife.

Arran on myspace: www.myspace.com/c32isleofarranworkshops
Unsung: unsung.manchester@gmail.com
Citizen32: http://citizen32live.moonfruit.com/

Photo by Michelle Green: Arran's haiku students