It's time to register for the annual jamboree of poetry postcards organised by Paul Nelson and Lana Ayers. The countdown clock shows there's only a few days to go before registrations close. Once you've signed up you'll receive a list of the other 31 members of your group and it will be time to start writing cards to them.
This will be my third year of taking part and it brings such joy to August. I'm usually the lone UK participant in my group and sometimes have a little bit of a wait before the postcards start arriving from the USA.
This year I am much better prepared and already have more than enough postcards to allow me to write a postcard a day. I learned from my experience of the first year that only having just enough cards meant that I kept putting the less inspiring cards to the bottom of the heap. Since then I have been collectiong (stockpiling?) cards during the year so I have plenty. Heck this year thanks to Amy Souza I even have some hand-made cards.
For me the most poignant part of the Somme Commemoration from Thiepval was Charles Dance, standing under the great arch and reading Aftermath by Siegfried Sassoon.
Aftermath Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you'll never forget!
Time for a catch up about what I've been up to during the last month. In the middle of June I went off to leafy St John’s Wood and the Liberal Jewish
Synagogue for 'The Poet’s Quest for Peace', a one day festival of poetry and
conversation. I’d volunteered to help with the English PEN stand which gave me the chance to engage
with the invaluable work that they do as well as hearing some of the talks and
The event was like an Aldeburgh festival in miniature. The emphasis was on how contemporary poetry can
perhaps help people to understand each other better. It came at the end of an appalling
week with the killings in Orlando and the murder of a British member of
parliament so I found that sitting and listening to poetry like a small oasis of calm and a chance to draw breath. The PEN stand
was alongside the stall for Modern Poetry in Translation and the
evening became about how writers can speak up for those who are silenced,
oppressed, in prison and facing death sentences. I really enjoyed
hearing Sasha Dugdale’s close reading of Anna Akhmatova’s July 1914, written as
Russia was mobilising and on the brink of being engulfed by the First World
War. Two million Russians were killedand in the poem is a prophecy uttered by a one-legged man
“Terrible times are coming. Soon
The graves will crowd out the living
Famine, pestilence, cowardice
And the lights of heaven will grow dim.”
Through English PEN I've been introduced to the work of poet Mahvash Sabet, who is in prison in Iran and one of PEN’s writers at risk. She began
writing poetry after her arrest in 2008 and a collection of her Prison Poems
was published in 2013. Part of the campaign to support her includes writing
postcards with messages of hope which are taken to Evin prison and showed to
her through the glass. I don’t know how I would keep going if I was locked up
and subject to solitary confinement but she does so with great faith in the human spirit.
On the evening of first July my fellow poet, Neil
Beardmore and I held a poetry reading at All Saint’s Church in Wing to remember
the men killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. In choosing which
poems to include we went back to the words of the men who fought from the
well-known Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney to the less familiar David
Jones and Noel Hodgson and included in the programme are the voices of
women who did not have to go over the top and had the task of coping with the
consequences of the war. We also included response poems written by Neil,
myself and Vanessa Gebbie. This was a small scale local event and not a grand
affair like some of the other commemorations which took place across the UK and
France but I wanted to do something quietly and by means of poetry to mark the
day and to share it with other people.
The poems were as follows
by William Noel Hodgson, MC – read by Caroline
Base Details by
Siegfried Sassoon – read by Neil
The Dug-out by
Siegfried Sassoon – read by Caroline
Does it Matter
by Siegfried Sassoon – read by Neil
Sassoon talks to
Hardy – written and read by Neil
Extract from In
Parenthesis by David Jones – read by Neil
Copse to Mametz Wood – written and read by Caroline
In Hospital by
Edith Nesbit– read by Caroline
To His love by
Ivor Gurney read by Neil
First Time In by Ivor Gurney -read by Caroline
Ivor – written
and read by Neil
The Medal andThe King’s Shilling (for my father’s
father) – written and read by Neil
Edward Thomas – read by Neil
Edward Thomas at
Gidea Park – written and read by Caroline
Playing Trains –
written by Vanessa Gebbie and read by Caroline
Extract from Vera
Brittain’s Testament of Youth – read by Caroline
I am most grateful to Vanessa for allowing us to include
Playing Trains about two brothers from Adlestrop. As I explained to the
audience before reading, I find it difficult to read dry-eyed at any time and
especially when reading it aloud to other people. It did seem, however,
entirely appropriate to shed a few tears on the evening of the day we were
remembering more than nineteen thousand menwho were killed on the opening day of the battle. We ended the reading
with two minutes of silence.
One of the poems in Voices from Stone and Bronze inspired by
the work of historian Peter Barton has been commended in the Sentinel
Literary Quarterly Competition. Judge Roger Elkin comments
"Peter Barton’s Lessons of Historyadmirably celebrates the photographic
and archaeological research into the mass graves of soldiers and tunnel
excavations at the Somme by First World War historian and author, Peter Barton.
Each of the four short verses begins with a negative “A trench is not just a
trench”, “A tunnel is not just a tunnel”, “This passage is not just a passage”,
“A map is not just a map”. This connective structural device, while echoing the
cataloguing of historical findings, gives the poem a factually-unsentimental
tone, but without any dilution of sentiment. This in turn endorses the
celebratory nature of the soldiers’ work “dug out spade by spade”, and with
“perfectly square shaft”, while recording the fact they “have no headstones” or
just “a cluster of crosses”. This is a moving poem, made more moving by the
fact that it does not tug at emotional strings."
A poem I wrote more recently “From Whitsbury Copse to Mametz
Wood” about following in the footsteps of David Jones, author of In Parenthesis
is being included in the anthology ‘A way through the woods’ being launched at
the inaugural Binsted Arts Festival. I will post more details in June when the anthology has been published.
I’m looking forward to Ouse Muse in Bedford this evening and
a chance to hear Anne Berkeley read and then on Saturday I’m off to London to
take part in the Poetry and Visual Art workshop led by Tammy Yoseloff. I really enjoyed the workshop in the autumn term, and
having been unable to do the spring term, I am pleased to be doing this again.
Recently Sarah Selecky has published series of articles recently about writing retreats, both the tutored and non-tutored kind
and I’m starting to make plans for a week on retreat in North Wales later in
the year. The person I’m currently mentoring with Cinnamon Press recently been
on a retreat with Arvon so I’ve been thinking about retreats and whether they
I came across an article by Max Dunbarwhich takes a critical look at the whole idea and comes to the conclusion that
they are not worth the expense. I disagree as in my case it would have taken
far longer to complete the two poetry collections which I’ve had published were
it not for the opportunities which Cinnamon Press provide at T’yn y Coed. I
want to make the distinction between going away to do a week’s course on
writing with workshops and tutor-led sessions (often described as a retreat)
and having a week away from home in which you focus completely on your work.
The article makes the point that you don’t have to go away
to deepest Devon or elsewhere to enable you to write. You could save the money
and do the writing at home. Whilst this is true there is something effective
and efficient about having that week away which I would find hard to replicate
whilst doing runs to school, hanging out washing and other domestic errands. Of
course I write at home but at crucial stages in the development of both books I
have needed to get away to spend time with the book and nothing but the book.
The other interesting thing which happens psychologically is feeling that you
should come back with something to show for the week’s absence. With Convoy I
wanted to tackle the difficult subject matter of the final convoy, Operation
Pedestal, which reached Malta in August 1942. I found it the hardest part of the book to
write because of the number of ships that were sunk and men killed and also
because of the volume of research material I had amassed. The week away gave me
permission to get on with the writing.
With Voices from Stone and Bronze I used the time on retreat
in April last year to take a critical look at how the manuscript was shaping up
and to make decisions about the order of the poems and which ones to leave out.
The social aspect of writing weeks should not be
under-estimated. I am still in regular contact with the writers on the first retreat
I did organised by Cinnamon Press. It helped that the numbers was limited and
you got a chance to get to know other people’s writing reasonably well and we
were all writing work of a similar near publishable standard. I only have one experience
of Arvon which was a long time ago and the group size was about twenty which
seemed to lead to a rather competitive atmosphere with people being keen to
impress the tutors. Nonetheless I did get a lot written during the week. I
think that with the more long standing organisation like Arvon it is your
responsibility to make the week away productive and to focus on what you want to
You do not have to free up the whole of a week to go away. You
can just escape to a nearby library for the day as Rachel Lucas
does, although she has Gladstone’s library up the road from her.
Of course the ultimate in retreats has to be Haworthen
Castle, which offers fellowships for a month away. I have that in mind for the
book after the next one by which time my household will be finished with A
levels and GCSEs and the guilt factor about taking a whole month out will have