Monday, 27 April 2015

Battleaxe tries to be a poet

Battleaxe is getting into writing poetry, and last week was particularly poetic. On Wednesday I went up to London to read some of my poems at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden.

     I was part of a team of six poets representing the Hastings Stanza Group, together with our MC and group leader, +Antony Mair.  Stanzas are a nationwide network of groups under the umbrella of the Poetry Society, and are for poets at all levels to meet to share and discuss their work.
     We were competing informally against another group from Cambridge. It was all a bit scary but in fact it was fine. We thought that coming from Cambridge, the other group would all be desperately earnest, academic and talented. Beautiful, intense young people doing PhD's in  Poetic Forms in Renaissance Italy or whatever. In reality, they turned out to be ordinary people like us. Better still, it turned out that as well as being a talented and diverse group, our team included two experienced, and very cool, performance poets. I'd never done anything like this before but I don't think I let the side down.
     The Poetry Cafe, in Betterton Street, turned out to be a friendly, informal little place with cafe upstairs and performance space in the basement - not daunting at all.

     Despite messing about trying to write for most of my life, I had never written a poem before moving down here and joining the Hastings Writers' Group in 2012. 
     A good thing about the Writers' Group is that the regular internal competitions encourage you to try genres you would never otherwise think about. I wrote my first poem to enter one of these, and it came fourth in that year's competition. I didn't write another one until the following year, and that, to my surprise, won first prize. After that, I thought I might try a bit harder....
     I heard that Antony Mair was starting up a Hastings Stanza group, so I joined. Antony lives in the Old Town and is a talented poet. Our group meets monthly, upstairs at JD's Bar in Claremont. Here's an article from Antony.
     To digress into Local Reviewer Battleaxe mode for a moment, JDs is  a friendly little place that does perfectly OK, reasonably priced food.
    
JD bar
     When we are reading out our poems we often get strange looks from bar customers who come up to use the loos and pass our earnest little huddle.  Battleaxe is very conscious of strange looks when it comes to poetry. I'm actually very anxious about my efforts. Each month we have to bring a poem of our own, read it to the group, and then it is discussed and dissected. I find the group  challenging but very helpful, as most of the others are more experienced poets than me, and certainly more 'serious'. However, they are very encouraging and positive.
     As you can probably tell from the style of these blogs, Battleaxe tends more towards the light and distinctly un-serious, and this is reflected in my poems. It is only gradually dawning on me that humour could be a valid poetry 'voice', and I sense that in the poetry world, humour is not valued as highly as work that is perceived as serious.
      Finding good examples of humorous verse is hard. Most is filed under 'comic' or 'funny' verse, and I don't want to be like Pam Ayres, or write about hippopotami in the bathtub or suchlike. Search Amazon, and you mostly find mostly children's stuff. I don't want to write that either. I like American poet Billy Collins, former US poet Laureate, but I see that even given his popularity and his many poetry accolades, he attracts this sort of comment:

      'It is appalling to me that this man was awarded the highest poetry honors in the land, with lines that seem to be exploring banality and passionless, inconsequential chatter.'

      So what of Battleaxe's poetry? 
      I find writing poetry very absorbing - too much so. I can look at one of my efforts when I turn the computer on in the morning, thinking I'll just spend a few minutes on it, and the next thing I know, two hours have passed and I am still sitting here in my dressing gown.  I can spend half an hour just searching for one word.
      I was a very solitary, introspective child, living mostly in my own imagination, and I do sometimes think that the busy, outgoing, person most people see as me now is actually an acquired, learned construct I developed as I grew up, to enable me to 'fit in'. As I become an older woman, I wonder if this construct is slipping, and if I am beginning to revert.
      Writing poetry seems to make this reversion more pronounced, and spending hours sitting in my dressing gown lost in my head does not fit with the rest of my life. The adult me has a husband, a family, many friends, and umpteen other activities including being WI President.
       Talking of the WI, the next poetry-related ordeal I have to face is going to the WI national Centenary AGM at the Albert Hall in June, and walking out on stage to collect something called the Lady Denman Cup, in front of over 5000 women in the hall, and thousands more watching in cinemas round the country.
       I won the cup for a poem called 'What my WI means to me.'  I did think my poem was possibly a bit...banal, and was quite surprised to win even the regional heat, and then gob-smacked to win the whole thing. I first thought the judges were probably the likes of Olive Ponsonby-Fortesque from Heckmondwike WI, who would have had a poem published in 'People's Friend in 1959 or something, but turns out they were Oxford University academics and poets Jenny Lewis and John Ballam.  
       Anyway, to finish, against my better judgment, here are two of the poems I read out last week. One is quite serious, and the other plain ridiculous.

ACANTHUS


I tipped her gently, folded into waiting earth.
A quiet day, no ashy cloud drifting on the breeze
To shock the neighbours, who watched us plant
A tender yellow rose, well-staked and watered in.
‘Yellow means Remember Me,’ they said.

I threw away the flimsy plastic urn,
Unable to forget those final, painful years
Trapped in a body that betrayed her.
Blessedly, her mind departed, until, at last,
Nothing but an empty husk remained.

Next spring, the rose was shrivelled, brown.
I snapped off brittle, bone-like twigs
And threw them on the bonfire.
At first, the earth lay bare, reproachful, then
Shrugged on a shroud of soft green weeds.

Uninvited, a spiky star of leaves appeared.
An alien stranger, it pushed aside the shroud,
Erupted, expanded, a mass of glossy green
Dark plant energy, with soaring from its heart,
A triffid wand, a twisted whorl of flower.
 
Acanthus. Old familiar of its damp Victorian bed,
Or ancient sun-warmed stones, tumbled in an olive grove.
On dank Byzantine basilicas, soaring Gothic spires.
From leafy frames for letters in Medieval Books of Hours,
To William Morris fabrics in ‘Country Living’ homes.

Acanthus. Apollo’s healing helper at celebrations for the dead.
Pagan symbol of renewal, the eternal wheel
Of life. Ash to Earth, earth returned to life again.
Vibrant, strong and spiky, it now dominates its space.
‘Forget that feeble rose,’ it shouts. ‘Remember Me instead.’


                                                                                             
WRITERS’ BLOCK 

I need to write a poem today. In fact, I have to find 
Up to forty rhyming lines. The deadline’s near, it niggles, cold. 
A wet patch on the mattress that passes for my mind. 
Where thoughts, like naughty children, tumble, roll and play. 
I try to pin them down, but they laugh and run away.

I feel Ghasal’s hot breath. ‘Forget Pantoum,’ he hissed. 
‘Triolet, Villanelle, Sestina, let me touch your Terza Rima…’ 
‘Another Chant Royal?’ ‘Large one, darling, with a twist…..’ 
It’s all too hard. A-B-B-A… Was I once the Dancing Queen? 
Young and sweet and seventeen?

I’ll check my emails. Junk, delete, home insurance due. 
Shall I go ahead and pay? Or ‘Go Compare’, the prudent way? 
No time, I have to write. Click the box that says ‘Renew’. 
New messages appear. Delete. This junk’s a pain… 
What’s this now? News from old friend Sal in Spain.

She poses, white teeth and crepy tits, beside a villa pool. 
Glass raised, brittle bright against the blue. Is that stranger, 
Strident, tango-tanned, the skinny girl I knew at school? 
The scorching Spanish sun has made her skin just shrivel. 
Get back to the poem. How can I write such drivel?

Too late. Slippers slopping down the hall, the fridge door closes. 
Ice cubes chink against a glass; a pause, and then he’s calling: 
‘Your G and T’s outside, and there are greenfly on the roses.’ 
‘I’m coming down,’ I shout, ‘I’ll find the spray.’ 
Save, shut down computer. No more work today.

I have to write a poem, it’s true. Tomorrow I must find 
Up to forty rhyming lines. The deadline’s near, it niggles cold… 
Hang on, I’ve said that once. That repetition undermines. 
Or does it strengthen? Looks alright, but I don’t know.
Where did I put that greenfly spray? Downstairs I go.



     
      

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Is it summer in Hastings? The Church in the Wood.

The weather has gone beserk this month. It is incredibly dry and the garden is like a desert. Despite quite a chilly wind, the sea-front is full of ice-creams and quivering masses of post-winter pale flesh.
     Battleaxe's garden is a strange mixture of spring flowers and things that should be out later in the season. Birds are also very busy. Here are a few flowery pictures, and our regular goldfinches eating their nyger seed. Where do they build their nests?
Pansy

Persistent narcissi

Snowflakes with forget-me-nots

Tulips and daffs...

Dicentra


Violets
Goldfinches
     Yesterday, we were over in Hollington.  Just before you get to that horrendous cathedral of consumerism, the Tesco megastore, you pass the sign pointing to 'Church in the Wood'. Thought we'd have a look.
     The little church is set in the middle of a very large, peaceful graveyard, full of old and interesting graves, with indeed, many beautiful trees, and woods all around.
     Unfortunately, the church itself was locked, with no indication about when it might be open or where to find the key. So many churches are like that these days. What if you were suddenly caught short with a need for spiritual sustenance? What if you are a Battleaxe trying to write about local churches?
     We had a prowl round outside. The wildflowers in the graveyard were beautiful - wood anemones, celandines, primroses, violets, narcissi and bluebells, all out together.

Church in the Wood

Wood anemones in the churchyard


Old and interesting graves
And primroses
The little church dates from the thirteenth century, although there was a chapel on the site from pre-Norman times. The reason for its isolated position is unknown. The church was comprehensively  restored/rebuilt in Victorian times. It is a romantic place, supposedly haunted, and the site of miracles. It has been extensively photographed and painted over the years. Here are a few examples. The first two are old postcards:

Before restoration and rebuilding
Charles Lamb visited the church in 1823, and wrote the following:
'The best thing I hit upon was a small country Church (by whom or when built unknown), standing bare and single in the midst of a grove, with no house or appearance of habitation within a quarter of a mile, only passages diverging from it through beautiful woods, to so many farm houses. There it stands, like the first idea of a Church, before parishioners were thought of, nothing but birds for its congregation...'