Creative Fellowship

This post was written as an article for Literature Works; but I’ve added it here as it relates directly to the Cotswold Word Centre project.

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Earth Day 2009 - organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (in blue)

Soul of the Earth book launch, Waterstones, Bath, Earth Day 2009 – organised by Kevan Manwaring, including the much-missed Mary Palmer (3rd from left), plus bards from Bath, Stroud and Frome

In the summer of 1914 a group of friends gathered in a village in Gloucestershire to share poetry, ideas and support each others’ creative journeys – they were Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, and Rupert Brooke and they became known as the Dymock Poets. The imminent First World War was to have a devastating effect on their coterie, but for a brief while the poets and their families enjoyed the fruits of creative fellowship. On their famous ‘walks-talking’, Frost and Thomas would range far over the fields and hills, discussing the intricacies of poetry and their lives. Around campfires and country cottage feasts the poets shared their poetry – washed down with plenty of cider – inspiring each other to write some of the best loved poetry in the English language: ‘Adlestrop’; ‘The Road Not Taken’; ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’; ‘The Soldier’ – many of which first saw print in their own self-published journal, New Numbers, produced in their homes, a literal cottage industry. The shadow of war reached to even this sleepily idyllic corner of England, and tore apart the Dymocks. Thomas and Brooke went to war and did not return; Drinkwater, Abercrombie and Gibson did their bit on the homefront; and Frost returned to America, where, with his reputation as a poet made by his friend and renowned critic, Thomas, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize no less than four times, reading at JFK’s inauguration and becoming known as ‘America’s beloved poet’ – and yet he never forget his time with the Dymocks and maintained his friendship with Thomas was the ‘the closest friend I ever had and I was the closest friend he ever had.’

I find the story of the Dymock Poets deeply moving and inspiring – enjoying some of that fellowship in the co-writing of a feature-length screenplay about them (with Terence James, former ITV news editor) over the last 4 years. I have been inspired by other similar creative fellowships – notably the Inklings (JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others) who met every Tuesday lunchtime in a pub in Oxford to share their work-in-progress – including drafts of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books. I wrote a radio drama about their story – ‘The Rabbit Room’ – and that has resulted in a collaboration with a Stroud-based theatre company, Spaniel in the Works, who have performed it script-in-hand at their scratch theatre nights and recorded it for an audio CD.

Of course, there are other famous creative fellowships – the Bloomsberries (Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Brooke, et al), William Blake and the young Samuel Palmer; Rimbaud and Verlaine; George Sand, Chopin and Alfred de Musset; and in popular music, the perfect storm of Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, and others.

Whatever the intricacies of these often volatile (but productive) liasons, what is the benefit to the modern writer?

Creative fellowships can offer mutual support; camaraderie; the creative buzz of sharing ideas and generating new ones; discussing theories and trends; experiencing and critiquing other creative works; a group identity and shared vision; a collective marketing presence which enables a bigger ‘pull’ and impact; and dear friends to share the highs and lows of one’s craft.

For ten years I ran a small press, Awen Publications, and I organised several successful book launch events and showcases – great evenings made more special because they are the culmination of a shared creative journey. By the time I handed over the reins Awen represented over thirty international authors on its lists – and I saw this as an artistic eco-system interpenetrating the wider communities in which the authors existed – cross-fertilising within the group, but also with the outer world, sharing out and drawing in inspiration (soil, water, and sunlight into oxygen). Such organic grassroots structures creates resilience in their communities – mutually empowered and sharing the load, we feel stronger. Our roots are deep – embedded in where we live, our love for our particular patch of Earth, our neighbourhood and local ‘scene’ – and our branches reach far, making creative connections.

Writers’ Cafes, writers’ networks (such as Literature Works, or the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network, co-ordinated by Rona Laycock), e-bulletins (e.g. Spoken/Written Newsletter, produced my Shane Wolfland), open mics, small press anthologies, lit-fest showcases, group book launches, and so forth, can help to facilitate these fellowships. If you lack one, and want one, then the best way is to start one – put the word out and see who comes out of the woodwork.

Here, in my neck of the woods I have recently created the Cotswold Word Centre, in collaboration with Hawkwood College, as an umbrella for all the wonderful word-based activity in the area – writing groups, book clubs, small presses, live lit performances, commissions, walks, etc.

And this summer I am co-organising a centenary symposium on the Dymock Poets, along with my friend and fellow poet, Jay Ramsay, celebrating Gloucestershire writers past and present. We wish to encourage creative responses to the works of the Dymocks, (who were writing in the shadow of the First World War); but more than just commemorate that vast tragedy, I wanted to focus on the creative response to conflict, and to the voices of those living in the area now – so we are not strangled by heritage, but have a conversation with it across time. It is respectful to honour the great writers of the past as long as it doesn’t turn the present into a museum, e.g. ‘Jane Austen’s Bath’. We can be inspired by the creative fellowships of the past in the stimulating connections we seek and make – helping us to survive and thrive in the modern world.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring April 2014

Cotswold Word Centre: a platform for language, literacy and literature (based at Hawkwood College, Best Venue in the South-West, Spark Awards 2013) http://cotswoldwordcentre.wordpress.com/

The Golden Room: a celebration of writers of Gloucestershire past and present, takes place at the Subscription Rooms, Stroud, Saturday, 26th July. www.subscriptionrooms.org.uk

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