Category Archives: Special Places

Belly to the Earth

Inspired by my recent wild-camping experiences on the Wessex Ridgeway, I consider how can we live a more soulful, sustainable life.

Wild camping on the Wessex Ridgeway

How can we live a more soulful, sustainable life? This is perhaps the most important question to address in the present age. Certainly, it is one that I find myself dwelling upon – an undertow to my days as I get caught up in the endless (and often vexating and trivial) ‘to do’ list of life. It is so easy to become enmired in Maya, or Samsara – the illusion of the world, and forget why we are really here. I see this ‘illusion’ not as some do: a world of matter to be rejected, denying corporeality, the body, and this good Earth — but as the surface of things. To be fully alive is to live deeply and fully – to be awake in the moment, to be present in one’s body, in one’s life. To revel in the bountiful sensorium of it all, its vivid, messy actuality. To be grounded and real. And by doing so, tapping into the ‘immanent moment’ (as I termed it in one of my poetry collections) and to realise how every embodied experience on this Earth has many levels, and can be an opportunity to awaken consciousness – to pierce beyond the veil of things (like the Arthurian fool-knight, Perceval/Parsifal, who ‘pierces the veil’ with his pure heart and cleansed perceptions and achieves the Holy Grail). To see things as they truly are: ‘infinite’, as Blake puts it, exhorting a cleansing of the doors of perception. Or as William Stafford expresses it in his poem, ‘Bi-focal’:

So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Sometimes we have to go down into the mud to see the stars, and so it was the week I spent walking the Wessex Ridgeway, a 127 mile long-distance footpath, which runs from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast. As this runs by my back-door I’ve been considering walking it for a while — it sat there expectantly, like a dog with a lead in its mouth, ready for walkies. I liked the idea of walking to the sea from my doorstep – and after the most challenging academic year in living memory I, like Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, heard the call of the ‘Grey Havens’. I wanted to change my skyline. The clean line of the chalk downs of Wiltshire are soothing, but there is nothing like seeing the horizon where the sea meets the sky to get a perspective on things. And so, with a full pack on my back, I set off. Carrying one’s home on one’s back certainly makes one feel snail-like, and that was pretty much the pace at times — especially on the uphill sections (which in Dorset were quite frequent). Yet slowing down, and noticing the details is part of the experience of exploring the world at walking pace

Resting my poor old pinkies

The highlight of my week of walking was the day I woke up at dawn in a peaceful flower meadow, and walked all day to finally arrive (with a lot of huffing and puffing up its steep flanks) to a spectacular hillfort, where I also wild-camped, watching the sunset as I savoured my simple but satisfying camp meal.  Although I was at one of the highest spots on the south coast, there was not a breath of wind. It was pleasantly mild, and I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, feeling like a king to be sleeping in such a place by myself.  That night I had a vivid dream, which was sufficiently stirring to wake me up and make me write it down. I dreamt of being part of an Iron Age tribe, no doubt influenced by sleeping in a hillfort (before turning in, I walked the impressive ramparts with their commanding view, and got a strong sense of what it must have felt like to have dwelled there, to call such a place ‘home’, and to wish to defend it – and your loved ones within – to your dying breath). Faced with the prospect of moving yet again (such is the life of the modern academic), thoughts of home have been at the forefront of my mind. And, having been carrying my humble little home all week, it was perhaps not surprising that my vision upon the hill related to notions of home, community, and belonging. The details of it seem less relevant than the messages I received from it, which I summarise below.

  • The importance of community – a reciprocal ‘ecosystem’, an entangled, resilient, co-supportive network.
  • The importance of leadership – of stepping into your power, drawing upon the authority of experience and self-reflexive insight. Creating and guiding, not controlling and censuring. This could manifest, for example, by running a space for the sharing of wisdom and mutual empowerment.
  • The importance of embodied ‘beingness’ – listening to the body, listening to the earth. Rejoicing in tactile, sensual, human touch.
  • The importance of living an ethical life, and showing the courage of one’s convictions – of ‘stepping up’, of speaking truth to power. Of being unafraid of being seen, heard, known for what one believes, what one knows is a ‘core truth’ – beyond the playacting, and posturing of much of modern life, the neurotic concern for status, approval, and ‘fitting in’.
  • The importance of place – of being ‘rooted’ in where you live, making a commitment to your community and digging in. Of belonging. And this is the essence of my phrase, ‘belly to the earth’ – an act of vulnerability and connection. Are you able to live somewhere so intimately, so lightly, that it is as though you are literally sleeping on the ground like a small child laying on Mother Earth? (try it – lay down on the grass, and feel the earth beneath you as you breathe upon it: simultaneously held and holding).
Sunrise on the hill-fort

I awoke at dawn, and with a precious mug of tea (the last of my water) watched the full orb of the sun break free of its pall of cloud. Feeling shiveringly alive, I quickly struck camp and set off on my way, keen to not forget my dream on the hill. How to manifest it felt less important at that moment than bringing it down from the heights and sharing it. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider how you can live with your ‘belly to the earth’?

Kevan Manwaring, 11th July 2021

Spirits of Place

I have been mapping place through poetry, fiction, and non-fiction for as long as I have been writing

I enjoy finding wildlife corridors of creative connection in my neck of the woods and beyond, for by knowing the land with our feet we come to know ourselves.

For as long as I have been writing I have exploring spirits of place. Recently, when preparing for a talk about my latest ‘deep mapping’ (The Herepath Project: a Wiltshire songline, Freebooter Press, 2020), I realised that genius loci have been something of an obsession of mine. My restless peregrinations – exploring Britain and beyond on foot, two wheels, and in my research – have been the inspiring companion to my journey by pen. My first published poem was one celebrating the Northamptonshire ‘peasant poet’, John Clare (in Stealing Ivy: Northampton Poets, 1992); and my first novel dramatised a thousand years of my old home town from the perspective of a tree (The Ghost Tree, unpublished).

When I moved to Bath in Somerset I won the annual Bard of Bath competition with my long poem, Spring Fall: the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath, which celebrated the rich mythscape of that remarkable city.

The winner of the Bardic Chair of Bath, 1998

Subsequent poetry collections have also charted place through a collection of paeans, and poetic ‘snapshots’: Remembrance Days; A Pennyworth of Elevation; Gramarye; Waking the Night; Green Fire; Thirteen Treasures; Lost Border; Pen Mine… I have found that a poem written in situ can capture the totality of the experience far more effectively than a photograph, and, along with sketching, is my way of tuning into the spirit of place. Often I have performed these poems ‘back’ to the site that inspired them – a form of animistic reciprocity: a way of expressing gratitude. One poetry commissioned poetry sequence, Dragon Dance: a praise song to Albion, ambitiously evoked the spirit of place as it manifested in each of the nations that comprise this ‘cluster of rocks’, the British Isles: Cornwall, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (adopting a geographical, not political, stance, and celebrating the wonderful distinctiveness of each of these neighbours, ‘thrown together by fate’). Conceiving the genius loci of these five nations as mighty goddesses, I have performed the respective sequence in each, as well has as having it performed chorally at Stonehenge in a private access ceremony.

In prose I have mapped the British Isles in fiction (The Long Woman; The Knowing), in folk tale (Oxfordshire Folk Tales; Northamptonshire Folk Tales; Ballad Tales), and in creative non-fiction (Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels; Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden).

In numerous creative writing workshops I have helped my students explore and celebrate their relationship to their environment too – in ‘Creative Writing and the Environment’ at Envolve, Bath (which led to Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words); ‘Wild Writing’ at Hawkwood College; ‘Writing the Seasons’ at Delapre Abbey, Northampton; and modules for the University of Leicester and the University of Winchester. I have hosted many ‘open mic’ events where I have created a platform for writers to share their words – often with a seasonal or local focus.

As a writing professional I have won several site-specific commissions, such as ‘Marginalia’, which explored the graffiti culture of the Cultural Quarter of Leicester; or ‘Well Heeled’, which celebrated the shoe industry of Market Harborough. I started a monthly feature for the Cotswold Life magazine, ‘Cotswold Ways’ – researching and writing 30 literary walks; I then went on to create ‘Rural Rides’ for Derbyshire Life, exploring the Peak District on two wheels; and most recently I have been contributing blogs to a website about Stonehenge, here in Wiltshire where I now reside.

For the London Magazine, I wrote about my ‘songwalking’, which I started doing while trekking the West Highland Way. And in my academic work I have authored articles for peer-reviewed journals on my experiential research.

Last year I created and inaugurated a new long-distance pilgrimage route, the ‘King Arthur Way‘, a 153-mile footpath from Tintagel in Cornwall to Glastonbury Tor, Somerset. I have made a website for it, which charts the route in detail.

No doubt my ‘field research’ will yield further foragings. This creative mapping is something I am fascinated by, for our relationship to place is fundamental to the well-being of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.

Kevan Manwaring by Jay Ramsay, Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire

Kevan Manwaring, 2nd February, 2021

Awakening the King

Walking the King Arthur Way

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Completing the King Arthur Way – made it to Glastonbury Tor, July 2020

In 2017 I conceived of a long-distance trail connecting Tintagel in Cornwall (conception place of King Arthur Pendragon, according to legend) with Glastonbury in Somerset (site of Arthur and Guinevere’s ‘graves’, and the Isle of Avalon to some). I intended it as a pilgrimage route, enabling walkers to experience the Arthurian legend in an embodied way, while at the same time reflecting upon, and possibly awakening, their own inner sovereignty – whether king, queen, or other noble archetype. In a world which suffers from many bad leaders, I saw it as a way of empowering positive leadership qualities in oneself. However esoteric or optimistic those goals may seem, I have actualised elements of that in the creation and completion of the King Arthur Way: in its initial vision, research, planning, and instigation. By physically walking the route – with a full forty pound pack, semi-wild-camping along the way – I have led by example. Literally, walked my talk. I know now it can be done. We’re not talking the north-west passage here, of course, but it good to check whether a route is not only viable, but enjoyable – with clearly-marked and passable footpaths, stimulatingly varied terrain, interesting landmarks, fascinating folklore and local history, and practical infrastructure (shops, pubs, campsites, transport links). As with any worthwhile project there was fine-tuning needed. In my first reconnaissance of the Cornish section of the route in late summer 2017, I discovered that trying to include too much was too ambitious. Then I walked from the north to the south coast of Cornwall, covering 60 miles. I found it a slog, with a lot of road-walking and miserable weather. So, I recalibrated the route, generally heading upcountry, in a north-easterly direction – this I found to be ‘easier’ (still an effort, with a full pack, especially on a hot day). I made good progress until a day of relentless rain and hard-walking (roads, urban areas, and the suitably-named Granite Way) gave me a badly-blistered foot. Fortunately, a friend lived nearby and so I appealed to her hospitality and allowed myself a rest day. I hobbled about, and realised trying to complete the rest of the route would be unrealistic. I was faced with a choice: I could abort, and complete it another time; soldier on; or compromise with a shorter version of the route – taking a train between Crediton and Taunton where I had been unable to book a campsite (many had closed for good, or were only taking caravans and motorhomes). I opted for the latter. The prospect of 3 more days wild camping without hot shower, or even a pub to hole up in did not appeal in my weakened state – so skipping those sections was a good idea. Also I booked a lovely airbnb for one night, which was a wonderful halfway ‘treat’. This was, after all, meant to be my holiday – not a SAS training ordeal. Having already walked 60 miles of (an early version of) the route in 2017, plus another 60 ‘extension’ (from my home, near Marlborough to Glastonbury) in June this year, I more than covered the ‘missing’ 40 miles and then some: by the end of the walk I completed 110 miles of the route – with the 2 other sections (60+60), 230 miles, a folkloric wildlife corridor connecting Tintagel to my home in Wiltshire.

There were, as on any long-distance walks, days of real challenge and days of reward. I am still recovering and processing my experience, but some of the highlights include:

  • Waking up on the coast overlooking Tintagel.
  • Stumbling upon the ancient rock-cut mazes in Rocky Valley.
  • St Nectan’s Glen.
  • Brent Tor.
  • Wild-swimming in the Tamar, Dart, and Shilley Pool.
  • Castle Drogo.
  • Burrow Mump.
  • Walking to Glastonbury across the Somerset Levels.

I intend to write up the route with accompanying notes, which I may make available as a paperback or pdf download (or both), but for now I have charted the route, so that others may also walk the King Arthur Way if they wish.

KING ARTHUR WAY

Section 1: Tintagel to Wilsey Down (13.66 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116595

Section 2: Wilsey Down to Greystone Bridge (17.07 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116617

Section 3: Greystone Bridge to Lydford (12.96 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116626

Section 4: Lydford to South Zeal (13.04 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116634

Section 5: South Zeal to Crockernwell (12.46 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116643

Section 6: Crockernwell to Sandford (11.87 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116651

Section 7: Sandford to Bickleigh (14.13 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116698

Section 8: Bickleigh to Sampford Peverell (11.91 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116704

Section 9: Sampford Peverell to Taunton (17.36 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116715

Section 10: Taunton to Meare Green*  (8.15 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116658

Section 11: Meare Green to High Ham (10 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116663

Section 12: High Ham to Glastonbury (10.87 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116669

Section 13 *alternative across Blackdown Hills, avoiding Taunton  (18.97 miles)

https://gb.mapometer.com/walking/route_5116718

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The start of the King Arthur Way:  Tintagel – with the stunning new footbridge,                          K. Manwaring July 2020

Happy Walking!

Kevan

PS this walk was intended as a group pilgrimage this year, but Covid-19 put paid to that – however, I may lead one in the future if there is sufficient interest.

 

King Arthur Way Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 17 July 2020

Pilgrim of Light

Kevan on Solstice Pilgrimage June 2020

On my way! Solstice Pilgrimage, June 2020

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

‘The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage,’ Sir Walter Raleigh

I have just returned from a week-long pilgrimage to Glastonbury for the summer solstice – wild-camping along the way and staying with friends. Walking in glorious sunlight (at least for the first couple of days) and holding vigil for the sunrise on the Tor I had plenty of time to think about why I was undertaking such a walk and why the solstice means so much to so many (over 3 million watched the summer solstice sunset and sunrise from Stonehenge online). We live in dark times, and having spent 3 months in lockdown I was desperately in need of a change of scene, and to feel like it was actually summer. I had also finished my teaching for the (very intensive) academic year, and needed a break to mark its end — a hiatus to avoid the relentless monotony that recent weeks have become. However peaceful and pleasant (and productive) the enforced home-stay has been in many ways (especially where I am fortunate to live) the lack of variation in rhythm, in texture, was beginning to feel stultifying. To celebrate the longest day of the year, the joy that summer (usually) brings, and the minor miracle of being (and staying) alive seems like all good reasons to make the effort to witness what of course happens every single day. I have been waking up at dawn lately, and every single time I do and get to eavesdrop upon the dawn chorus and witness the rising of the sun I feel blessed.

Pilgrimage is an act of intentionality, and stopping in a porch in Oakhill to shelter from the heavy rain I was asked by the vicar there, Rev. Richard Priestley, who was just locking up, what was undertaking mine for. I found it hard to articulate at the time, being soaked and exhausted, but it was, I realised, a journey to the light — a physical prayer to help bring ‘light’ (goodness, peace, kindness, truth) back into the endarkened world. This is not to deny the shadow — we’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider that lately — but to kindle the light that seems so fragile at the moment. On all sides we see how hard-won liberties, and humane values are being torn away or challenged by a disturbing neo-fascist discourse. Those craving power are determined to demonise the marginalised and drive a wedge between communities. It feels like the 1930s all over again. I must admit to being sick to death of social media and the news – I needed a break from it.

IMG-20190623-WA0000The End! Walking the Coast-to-Coast in ‘reverse’ from Robin Hood’s Bay to St Bee’s, Cumbria, Midsummer 2019

Every year around this time I go for a long walk and have a ‘digital detox’. I have walked many of the long-distance national trails in Britain. Last year I walked the 192 mile Coast-to-Coast (or ‘Wainwright Way’) in the north of England, and ended up on an accidental pilgrimage.* That experience made me realise I no longer wanted to do just secular geographical walks — however satisfying they can be — but to have a spiritualised experience. Having a focus, like St Bee’s on the Cumbrian coast (the monastery there celebrates its 900th anniversary this year), with its Midsummer associations (the 9th Century Irish St Bega landed there on Midsummer Eve) transformed my walk into something meaningful. And it was there I decided that this year I wanted to walk a route I had devised in 2017 connecting Tintagel to Glastonbury, a legendary trail in the ‘footsteps’ of King Arthur from the place of his conception to his grave. It felt more powerful to do synchronise this with the summer solstice – as I found that build-up of energy over two weeks really powerful and motivational. It gave one a tangible ‘deadline’ — as though one was racing the sun. Over the winter I planned the route and prepared my pack meticulously. Of course, life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, as John Lennon wisely sang. Lockdown happened, and even with some easing, all the campsites and pubs remain closed. I was prepared to wild-camp but having nowhere to get a hot shower, charge a phone, or fill up my water bottle (or treat myself to a hot meal and a pint now and then) would make the whole thing more like a SAS training challenge — far too hard-core. It was meant to be my holiday as well, and it is hard to feel very spiritual when you are soaked, chilled, hungry, and exhausted: all you can think about is getting dry, warm, fed, and rested. Also, I didn’t want to risk a 4-5 hour train journey at present. And so I decided to postpone that until it was more viable, and opt for a compromise – a ‘shorter’ walk (1 week, rather than 2) from my doorstep  near Marlborough to Glastonbury. It felt like a practical solution that also allowed me to honour the solstice, and scratch my pilgrimage itch.

Kevan on Wearyall Hill Summer Solstice 2020

Arrival! Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury, Summer Solstice 2020

I have put together this podcast to capture the spirit of my pilgrimage, and to evoke this beautiful time of year. I hope you enjoy it.

The Golden Room episode 12 track-listing

  1. Sunrise Praise – Kevan Manwaring
  2. Reverie pt1 – Rosemary Duxbury (from Thread of Gold)
  3.  The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage – Sir Walter Raleigh
  4. Reverie pt2 – Rosemary Duxbury (from Thread of Gold)
  5. In the Name of the Sun – Kevan Manwaring
  6. Reverie pt3 – Rosemary Duxbury (from Thread of Gold)
  7. Ascension Day – Henry Vaughan
  8. Reverie pt4 – Rosemary Duxbury (from Thread of Gold)
  9. Adlestrop – Edward Thomas
  10. Drifting By – Fly Yeti Fly (from ‘Shine a Light in the Dark’)
  11. The Green Rooad – Edward Thomas
  12. Serendipity – Simon Andrews
  13. A Midsummer Summoning – Kevan Manwaring
  14. King of the Fairies (trad.) – Shenanigans
  15. The Haymaker’s Song – anon.
  16. The Corn King – Jehanne Mehta
  17. In Love, at Stonehenge – Coventry Patmore
  18. Summertime – Simon Andrews
  19. Praise Song for St Bega – Kevan Manwaring
  20. The Rollright Stones – Jehanne Mehta
  21. Praise Song for a Lost Festival – Kevan Manwaring
  22. Stonehenge – Shenanigans
  23. Pilgrim’s Way – Kevan Manwaring
  24. The Sun – Jay Ramsay & Rosemary Duxbury, from ‘Thread of Light’
  25. A Pilgrim’s Joy – Kevan Manwaring
  26. The Faery Beam Upon You – Ben Johnson

Compiled by Kevan Manwaring, 21 June 2020

LISTEN TO THE FULL PODCAST HERE

*My full account of walking the Coast-to-Coast to St Bee’s,’The Accidental Pilgrim’, features in issue 3 of The Pilgrim, available here: https://www.thepilgrim.org.uk/shop

A-Conjuring Summer In

Beltane Fire Society

Beltane Fire Society Edinburgh

THE GOLDEN ROOM EPISODE 11

A-Conjuring Summer In

 Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But–we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!

 Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Tree Song’

 

To celebrate May Day, the ancient Celtic fire festival of Beltane which marks the beginning of summer, a merry selection of poems, songs, and field recordings from across Britain – featuring an archive recording from the iconic Padstow Obby Oss celebrations in 1932, the Glastonbury Beltane Celebration, Hastings Jack-in-the-Green, and the Beltane Fire Society of Edinburgh, plus original poetry and folk music. Compiled by Kevan Manwaring.

Track Listings  

  1. Dawn Chorus – a English woodland in May, part 1
  2. Padstow Obby Oss (1932) Pathé News
  3. One with the Land – Kevan Manwaring (Silver Branch)
  4. Maypole Song – The Wicker Man (1973)
  5. Beltane Fire Society, Edinburgh, montage
  6. Maid Flower Bride – Kevan Manwaring (Silver Branch)
  7. To Be Unbuttoned – Gabrielle O’Connell
  8. Hastings Jack-in-the-Green (2019)
  9. May Song – Beggars Velvet (1990)
  10. The Winning of Spring – Kevan Manwaring (Silver Branch)
  11. Lass of Islington – trad. David Metcalfe (from ‘Rogues & Ravens’)
  12. The Well – Ella Bloomfield, with drumming by Jay Ramsay (from ‘Phoenix demo’)
  13. Heartwood – Kevan Manwaring (Silver Branch)
  14. Dawn Chorus – a English woodland in May, part 2
  15. River Lover – Gabrielle O’Connell
  16. Glastonbury Beltane Celebration (2019)
  17. Prologue – Jehanne Mehta (words); Fred Hagender (harp) (from ‘Heart of Yew’)
  18. Campfire – Wiltshire downs, late April

 LISTEN TO THE PODCAST HERE

Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels by Kevan Manwaring, published by O Books , 2011

Silver Branch: bardic poems published by Awen 2018

With huge thanks to the dedicated and creative communities who have kept the celebrations in Padstow, Hastings, Glastonbury and Edinburgh going all these years. May we gather once again (when it’s safe) to a-conjure summer in.

Fool for a Fisher King

SILBURY: the miraculous balance – Peter Please & friends

Silbury Lammas 2018 by Kevan Manwaring

This beautifully-made companion piece to Peter Please’s album of the early 80s, Uffington, Silbury: the miraculous balance, released on a limited edition vinyl, completes a remarkable long-term project of deep mapping that was instigated by The Chronicles of the White Horse (1982), and extended in a singular direction by his love letter to a Wiltshire water meadow, Clattinger: an alphabet of signs from nature (2008) – unique artefacts that between them triangulate a numinous corner of the county (Uffington; Clattinger; Silbury), one replete in ancient monuments, biodiversity and a mulch of social history.

Silbury draws upon a pair of Peter’s previous works (Clattinger, and Spoken Idylls: everyday illuminations) cherry-picking key extracts and giving them new voices and sometimes musical settings. It is a fecund work of creative collaboration. Included in this bardic ark are the talents of Paul Darby (The Yirdbards), The Bookshop Band (Beth Porter and Ben Please), Richard Secombe, plus the Silbury Pop-Up Choir conducted and arranged by Masha Kastner; not forgetting the gorgeous cover art by Caroline Waterlow.

The seasonal quarter of ‘The Swillbrook Song: spring/summer/autumn/winter’, provides a loose circadian framing narrative. Instrumental pieces interweave with spoken word and songs, choral pieces, chants and ‘raps’. It is an eclectic mix – like a traditionally-managed hay meadow strewn with rare species. There is a whimsical, fey, sometimes elegiac quality that evokes the ambience of an ‘Incredible String  Band’ album. It has been released in 2018 but could have been released in 1968 – a time-capsule of re-enchantment for our modern wasteland, a fool for a fisher king, an old goblet found in a field that turns out to be the Holy Grail (possibly).

Peter describes the ‘miraculous balance’ of the album (‘Between time and eternity, earth and heaven…’ as: ‘a still point to view our relationship with a bewildering complex world.’ It offers a counter-spell to our disembodied, virtual lives, grounded as it is in place and community. In its quiet, undemonstrative way it offers a way through: ‘by making the land a sacred part of [your] community.’ By knowing the land we come to know ourselves, and each has a place in the circle. Silbury hill, mysterious chalk mound, raised by many hands 4,500 years ago, is a testimony to this kind of mutual effort and wish to connect with something greater than ourselves, and Silbury, the album, does so to, in its singular way, rising against the chilly zeitgeist, an audial and ageless ‘Winterbourne’.

Kevan Manwaring, 3 August 2018

 

Silbury: the miraculous balance is available from Away Publications http://www.peteralfredplease.co.uk

Songwalker

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Going for a song. Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring July 2018

SINGING THE WAY

Recently I walked the Pennine Way national trail – a 253* mile footpath that runs from Edale Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. It follows, roughly, the spine of England – the Pennine Hills – into the Cheviots, and crosses three national parks: the Peak District, the  Yorkshire Moors, and the Northumberland national park, as well as the North Pennine Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I walked it solo (except for a couple of days when a dear friend joined me) over 18 days, with a couple of half-day rest-stops in Haworth and on Hadrian’s Wall. I wasn’t attempting to break any records or myself – it was my summer vacation ‘wind-down’, a detox from all things digital and academic, and I wanted to allow myself time to stand and stare, or sit and sketch, wild swim or wander lonely as a cloud, as the mood took me. To keep myself going over wild stretches of moorland, dusty tracks, or hot hillsides, I sang. This is the fourth long-distance path in which I’ve found singing has really helped me to ‘keep on keeping on’ – putting one foot in front of the other for mile after mile, hour after hour, day after day, and, more, it really enriches the experience. Each day I chose a song – either learning it on the hoof, or drawing it from my repertoire. If it was a new song, I would sing each verse until I had committed it to memory, then moved on to the next, and so on, until ‘the form [had] patterned in my head’ (as the memorable poem, ‘Real Property’ by Harold Monro goes). Then I would sing it over a few times, finding my way into the song, finding the right voice for it. Often the song’s content, its mood, its message, would chime with the morning, with the landscape I was moving through, in synchronous and profound ways. It sometimes felt like a way of ‘giving thanks’ for the day, for reciprocating what I was experiencing – a praise song and a focalisation of my phenomenological interface with place and its ontological layers, or, to put it more simply: grooving on the genius loci.

Here are the songs I sang, in order (they represent the main ‘song of the day’ although others came and went organically). I selected songs that were thematically-apt or simply ‘jaunty’, amusing and morale-lifting.

Day 1, Edale to Torside: Mist-covered Mountains adapted from the Gaelic by Malcolm MacFarlane, version by Chantelle Smith.

Day 2, Torside to Standedge: Ramblin’ Man by Hank Williams.

Day 3, Standedge to Mankinholes: John Ball by Sydney Carter.

Day 4, Mankinholes to Haworth: The Skye Boat Song by Sir Harold Boulton.

Day 5, Haworth to Ickornshaw: The Boatman by The Levellers.

Day 6, Ickornshaw to Malham: Above (plus ‘Pendle Song’ shared by Anthony Nanson).

Day 7, Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale: The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl (plus ‘Scout Song’ by Anthony Nanson).

Day 8, Horton to Hawes: Green Grow the Rushes by Robert Burns.

Day 9: Hawes to Keld: Crooked Jack by Dominic Behan.

Day 10, Keld to Baldersdale: Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.

Day 11, Baldersdale to Langdon Beck: A Place called England by Maggie Holland.

Day 12, Langdon Beck to Dufton: Wayfaring Stranger (Norma Waterson version)

Day 13, Dufton to Alston: Pilgrim on the Pennine Way by Pete Coe.

Day 14, Alston to Greenhead: This Land is Our Land by Woody Guthrie.

Day 15, Greenhead to The Sill: King of the Road by Roger Miller.

Day 16, The Sill to Bellingham: Carrick Fergus (Marko Gallaidhe version)

Day 17, Bellingham to Byrness: Man of Constant Sorrow (based upon a song by Dick Burnett)  John Allen / Victor Carrera / Scott Mills.

Day 18, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm: Caledonia by Dougie Maclean; Both Sides o’ Tweed by Dick Gaughan.

I would highly recommend this way of experiencing the landscape**. To start the day with a song in your heart lends wings to your feet. It is also is very liberating for the voice. In the middle of nature you can sing your heart out, without fear of criticism or ridicule. It hyper-sensitised my hearing whenever I fell silent (which was often for long stretches of time). And time and time again I found it created interesting encounters with animals. Song changes our relationship to nature – it plugs us into the grid of Creation. Many traditions talk of ‘divine utterance’ and the way the world was sung into being. In some small way, by songwalking, one feels part of this choir – both singing praise to the world and singing the world into being as each step reveals new wonders to our reawakened senses.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2 August 2018

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Cairn above Byrness, dawn of final day. Only 26 miles to go: songs don’t fail me now! K. Manwaring, July 2018

*The route can vary between 253 and 268 miles depending on optional routes, and distances of accommodation at the end of each day!

**If you are interested in songwalking get in touch. I would be fascinated to hear of your experiences, and would love to share a walk with you. Wayfarers of all abilities (poets, storytellers, artists, musicians, sound artists, etc) welcome!

Uncanny America: Day 4

 

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U-Drop Inn, Shamrock, Texas

 

Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.

ELIZA THOMAS

Day 4: Texas

Four days into our trip and we’ve been cruising across the surreal vastness of Texas – past Amarillo out into the great empty spaces. Now and then the crushing emptiness is interrupted by a giant cowboy, eyeball, or other piece of kitsch Americana. The whole place has a Dali-esque quality to it.  Our first pit-stop, for breakfast of coffee and waffles was the Tower Station and U-Drop Inn  – an iconic Art Deco-style landmark on Route 66 (I can’t believe we’re travelling it!).  We make a slight detour for Boot Hill, the ‘Cowboy Capital of the Plains’, with its famous cemetery – and it’s like walking into a filmset. Such places are virtually ‘sacred’ landmarks in the mythologized Wild West. This is a Cowboy Dreamtime we’re entering, and I can’t but help feel a little out of place – I’m the anachronism here, the little English girl on the wrong side of the ocean. But J is a lovely travelling companion and makes me feel safe and welcome – she provides my ‘passport’. Doors just open for us, having her around – quite literally. Gentlemen know how to treat a lady round here – tipping their 10-gallon-hats to us, with a ‘Howdy, Ma’am’ and all that. J is being treated like the music star she plainly is destined to become. Texas is the place to ‘walk tall’ – to live up to your own legend. Its roots might be mired in blood and oil, but it reaches for the stars.

The journey continues tomorrow…

Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.

Walking Between Worlds

Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction

 (presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)

 

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‘Roots in two worlds’, Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring 2014

 

Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:

‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’  (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)

‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)

My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …

Creative Practice

As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences.  In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.

An Otter’s Eye View

In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:

 ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’

‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33

As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.

As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) …  walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.

Spoken/Written

In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).

The Novel

In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.

Digital Performance

Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:

 ‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]

‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]

‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L

Live Lit

One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.

Feeding Back into the Novel

All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].

Pushing the Boundaries

The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!

Full Circle

My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.

Notes:

  • Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
  • Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
  • Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
  • Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
  • Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
  • QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
  • Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015

Wild Writing & Free-range Teaching

First published in Writing in Education Summer 2016

Kevan writing at Loch Maree Sep '12

Writing by the shores of Loch Maree, Highlands, Summer 2012

Imagine turning up to a lesson with no notes, no lesson plan, no ‘learning outcomes’ – just your years of experience, skills and writer’s imagination? By adopting a more fluid, sensitized, reciprocal approach (akin to what Philip Gross describes as ‘the discipline of indiscipline’ 2006) you, the lecturer, become the author of the moment. The act of creativity is restored to the classroom. The frisson of risk electrifies the process, as with one’s actual writing practice, when, in those precious hours snatched from the demands of the week, you sit down to do some of your own writing. Yes, you do the research, you make your preparations, but when you turn up at the page or the screen to write something else happens: a different part of the brain engages – a lateral process takes over. If we wish to authentically offer our students genuine techniques or practices, one’s we use ourselves in our craft, then where better than to start with this – the white heat of the moment –– when anything may emerge? As a writer it is this moment when I am freest and most fully alive. There is a sense of being an explorer in an undiscovered continent. This is the quality I wish to bring into the classroom. As Stephanie Vanderslice suggests, ‘it is more important than ever to draw back the curtain on the wizard and show undergraduates the many invention tricks writers rely upon to get started and to keep the well of inspiration at an optimum level.’ (2011: 32)

Alas, teaching (of the ‘factory farming’ kind: I’ve personally found this worse in FE than HE) can seriously debilitate the creative aquifer. Schemes of work … Lesson plans … Set texts … Assessments … The structures of creative writing as a taught discipline can stifle the very thing they are trying to nurture – resulting in exhausted, demoralized lecturers (as informal conversations at conferences suggest and the strikes of 2016 attest) and uninspired, disengaged students (re: the dreaded Student Survey). In this article I argue for a possibly radical approach (accepting that any writing teacher worth their salt probably uses some form of ‘wild writing’), but one that can still work in tandem with existing pedagogical systems. There is a place for the lecture, the seminar, the practical focus of a workshop, tutorials, assessment … for hard pedagogy – but also, as I would call it, for wild writing (following in the spirit of Roger Deakin’s ‘wild swimming’ (2000) and the other analogous activities his approach inspired). Wild writing empowers both the lecturer and students. It credits teachers with intelligence and resourcefulness. Wild writing encourages us to take risks, to go beyond comfort zones and familiar ways of doing things.

Although wild writing is a practice I have been intuitively cultivating all of my writing life – a cross-fertilisation of my storytelling, creative writing and teaching skills, I first articulated it as a practice when I was invited to North America in September 2015 to offer some workshops privately to a small group. Wild writing spontaneously happened as we toured Rhode Island and beyond. One time, a scintillating cove inspired some ‘reflections’; another time, it was the site of an old fun fair which unearthed long-buried emotions and memories. However, I will focus on the experience of devising my ‘Wild Writing’ class, which took place at Hawkwood College, Gloucestershire, in the Spring term of 2016. In doing so I do not wish to be prescriptive, but at best inspirational – so I won’t be offering detailed activities – for the very spirit of wild writing is to be in the moment, to draw upon the actuality of the workshop, the resources and experience of the group, and your own ingenuity. This accords with what Harry Whitehead describes as a praxis of ‘nomadic emergence’  (2013).

Faced with the relentless treadmill of teaching – my life measured out in Tutor-Marked Assessments and coffee spoons, writing workshops and marking – my original motivation was to devise a way of breaking free of this cycle and reinvigorate my pedagogy. If I am bored the students will be too. Rather than regurgitate the usual saws about using notebooks, showing not telling, et cetera – which can be found in numerous books, blogs and MOOCs  –  I wondered what new approach I could offer based upon my actual practice as a writer? My USP, to use that hissing serpent of a marketing term. I don’t want to be a Mr Potato Head teacher: change my distinguishing features and I could be saying the same as anyone else. The best teachers, the ones you remember, are always the ones who do things differently. Who break the rules in some way, even if it’s just in their ‘manner’. My favourite English teacher at school, Mr Alsop, would at the drop of a hat, sound off about his pet subjects: Rugby and Bruce Springsteen. His droll delivery was reminiscent of the late comedian Mel Smith. Somehow, through his raconteur genius he enthused the class with his love of literature. We enjoyed his class and so we paid attention. He engaged our interest. And there was a frisson of unpredictability about his lessons: that we could go ‘off-piste’ at any moment.

Play is an often forgotten element of learning, but one that the poet Paul Matthews advocates: ‘Writing can become very intense and inward at times, so play and laughter (as well as tears) are a vital part of any group work.’ (1994:7)

As I was teaching two Open University modules (A215; A363) and another Adult Education evening class locally on novel-writing, I wanted to try something different, something less technical and more spontaneous. This not only provided a personal ‘call to adventure’ to my own pedagogical ingenuity, it actually helped as a counter-balance to the other classes I taught. As I put it to a friend, one approach was ‘Apollonian’, the other ‘Dionysian’: left-brained and right-brained, if you will; although such crude demarcation of our mind’s complexity is flawed – a false dichotomy – as Gilchrist (2012) and others have demonstrated. The two approaches, the creative and the critical, cross-fertilise in the best workshops and writing practice – but for now, as an experiment, I wanted to separate the methodologies and see what would happen.

The first half of my week was dedicated to traditional pedagogy, but my Wednesday night ‘Wild Writing’ class became something I actually looked forward to: a safety valve from the assessment-focused pressure of the week. A chance to take a different approach; to turn off the SATs-nav.

Unlike my other classes, I deliberately did not devise a scheme of work for my wild writing workshops. I did only the vaguest of lesson plans – a hastily-scribbled idea which would emerge on the day of the class, usually while out ‘wild-running’ in my local woodland, allowing the birdsong, running water, sun-dappled shade, and green work its magic on my consciousness. Rather than forcing a theme or an activity onto the page or screen, I would allow things to emerge – by simply being fully present in a natural environment. Taking a leaf from WB Yeats’ ‘Wandering Aengus’, I went out to a hazel wood… Soon the fire in my head was lit.

In the first session I explained my ‘anti-outline’ – each week we will see what emerged. I might have a few prompts up my sleeve, just in case, but I was determined that the workshop would be an organic emergent process. To break the ice, I got everyone to give themselves a ‘wild’ epithet, an alliterative one which provided a useful mnemonic. This also encouraged them to ‘inhabit’ the wild paradigm, to feel the wildness inside themselves. I read out the course blurb, to focalize:

Are your words too tame? Your thoughts too feral? Do your ideas need liberating? Let them out of the cage, and allow them to prowl the page! This rule-breaking writing workshop is designed to encourage you to explore the untamed fringes of your desires and fears, to express that inner howl, to give voice to that long-denied cry. You’ll be supported in a friendly, safe environment to venture beyond comfort zones and tap into words that can electrify, shock, motivate and move. All you need is a pen and paper and a willingness to be wild!

I asked them to come up with their own definitions of ‘wild’ – writing suggestions on Post-its, and sticking them on the board. They came up with:

Raw

Unfettered

Free

Sensual

Vulnerable

Uncensored

Secrets

Passionate

Spontaneous

Edgy

Nature

Embodied

Fear/less

Landscape

Deep emotion

Out of the box

Undefined

Pure

Untamed

Energy

Down to Earth

From the unconscious

Climate

Nonsensical

Life going wrong

Experiential

Abstract/extreme

This was a promisingly wide-spread demarcation of territory. A freewrite on the theme also bore fruit – the very nature of that practice lent itself to the prompt perfectly.  The best freewrites are of course ‘wild’, that is ludic, non-linear, exploratory, transgressive, and syntactically feral. In the spirit of Natalie Goldberg, I encouraged my students to ‘lose control’ (1991:3).

The first lesson’s emergent theme was summed up by this in-the-moment acronym: SOAR (Sensuality; Observation; Awareness; Reflection), something of an OCD of mine! Being fond of creative acronyms and aware of the potential can of worms I was opening I created a ‘safety net’ for the workshops using my principle of MAC: Mindfulness; Autonomy; Confidentiality.

Mindfulness: being aware of the potential impact of what you are sharing. Not to censor yourself, but if the writing contains strong language, disturbing imagery, controversial elements, et cetera, just to let people know.

Autonomy: you always have the choice about what you share. No one is expected to share, although everyone is encouraged to do so at least once in the workshop.

Confidentiality: what is shared within the workshop is confidential. If you wish to share or discuss your own work outside of the workshop that must be your choice, but respect the privacy of others.

I also emphasised that the wildness should be focused on the page, and usual workshop etiquette applied. For such a class it was essential that ‘strong container’ was created to hold the participants in their process. My wish was to encourage my students to go beyond their comfort zones (in their writing). To try out new forms or genres. To go to the edge of what they think they ‘can’ or ‘should’ say, what they might be ‘allowed’ to write about. To inject their writing with some adrenalin, with strong emotions, with a bold, embodied voice. To have the courage to show up to the page and to face its nullifying whiteness, to shatter its silence, and defy those negative voices which might have inhibited in the past. As Whitman put it in ‘One Hour of Madness and Joy’: ‘O to have the gag removed from one’s mouth’ (1959:80). In response to my suggestion to recite this poem of Whitman’s out loud, outside, a student responded: ‘Just what I needed to shout right now. Thank you.’

Over the ten weeks I tried a range of approaches, using not only the usual examples of writing (‘wild writers’ such as Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, DH Lawrence, John Clare, Ivor Gurney, Gary Snyder, Nan Shepherd, Robert Macfarlane, Ted Hughes, Helen MacDonald, and Henry Miller) but also different media and methodologies. Beyond the usual triggers of art, music, movement and objects that any creative writing teacher might draw upon I tried out the following: Using different approaches to handwriting (writing without looking at the page; writing in different directions, e.g. from the edges of the page inwards, across the margins); Using what arises (my experience of storytelling has taught me to use whatever arises as part of the performance, so, if a phone goes off, include it in the oral narrative. I applied this approach to each session. If we were interrupted, e.g. by a fire alarm test – I saw it as a gift. A news item, or the weather – anything may trigger a creative response). The details here are not as important as the general approach: be wildly inventive. What I deliberately did not do was draw upon my usual repertoire of creative writing resources – my tried-and-trusted handouts, my go-to activities. I did not want to be teaching on auto-pilot. This forced me to invest creative energy into the actuality of the workshop – what I love doing best. This is when I feel I am firing on all cylinders as a teacher – plucking ideas, quotes, activities and approaches from the air. Not as a micro-managed teaching drone. As Freire puts it, rather than being the ‘anti-dialogical banking educator’, focused on recruitment, retention and results, I wish to emphasize the ‘dialogical character of education as the practice of freedom’ (1996: 74). Student and teacher should enter into a porous space where learning can happen in any direction – where both parties can feel a sense of creative liberty within the classroom, as sacrosanct as the white page or blank screen.

Student Writing

Much of what was written in class was ephemeral by nature – composed quickly in response to a prompt, shared fresh from the notebook, and then ‘let go of’ like Buddhist sand mandalas. A few pieces were brought in the following week after being worked on at home (e.g. the prompt to ‘write about a wild time’, triggered a visceral, kinetic piece of life-writing about seeing a punk band as a student in the 70s – something the student hadn’t thought about ‘in years’). The emphasis of the workshops was on process more than polished ‘artefacts’, but here is a smattering to give some idea:

Shooting Crows

I watched a man shooting crows.

I felt the recoil and fall.

I teased apart the feathers

and the little cracked hearts for answers.

All I found was the finish,

the filth and the spore.

There’s no meaning in dried eyes.

The resting of the carcasses

in the field down by the burn

where the ducks nested;

the sorrel greened on the blood.

Student 1 Prompt: write about the natural world.

Elephant in the Room                                                          

In our room there’s a jade green hippo

with carving knife teeth in a man-trap jaw

Baleful eyes bubbling from the brown

sluggish river of sewage and mud

Submerged in slurping bellicosity

it’s poised to drown me in the sloppy miasma

and amputate my manhood

Give me an elephant in the room

any vindaloo Taj Mahal tiffin

with trumpet voluntary to welcome me,

an embracing trunk to snuffle my neck

and never to forget we’re lovers

It would sprinkle me with cool paddy water

Whilst we swayed through orchards of pink mango

Student 2 Prompt: Write about something extremely improbable.

 

‘You want wild words’

You want wild words

Man made creations

Tamed by the intellect

I will show you wild Ness

In her bare foot bare faced

Nakedness

crouching low amongst the

Dank rotting earth

Student 3  Prompt: What does wildness mean to you?

 

Skep Skin

 

A hive in my hand

honeycomb hollow

oozing nectar

golden energy

gathered again and again

a lifetime’s work

in a teaspoon

stir into your tea

consciously

soothing the raw edges

of the day

sweetness delivered

by black and yellow drones

a sticky note

from the flowers

a souvenir of the sun

summer on the wing

an orchard on my tongue

Student 4 Prompt: write about what’s in your pocket right now (a small tin of Burt’s Bees handsalve).

Conclusion

I found running my wild writing workshop one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have done in recent years in terms of my teaching. As in all teaching I learnt just as much in delivering it as I hoped my students did in experiencing it. It was a continual learning curve which forced me out of any kind of pedagogical complacency. It was challenging and engaging in the right places – making me re-evaluate everything I usually do in a writing workshop.

From my experience of running these workshops, I would advocate the following: include a ‘wild writing’ hour in your weekly schedule – it’ll be good for you and your students. Suggest it your department: see what happens. Get out of the classroom – take your group into nature and write ‘on the hoof’. Allow yourself to go to the edge of your practice, of your writing, explore those uncomfortable places, give voice to the shadows, the songs of the maniacs:

He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration, in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices, will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of the maniacs. Plato (Flaherty, 2013: 63)

Institutional bureaucracy is inevitable, but when it actually impedes teaching and, as a result, impacts upon the sacred cow of ‘student experience’, then it must be questioned. Common sense would surely suggest that we only use systems that support what it is we are trying to do, rather than force ourselves into straitjackets that over-complicate, dessicate and demoralize. In recent years much has been written about the debilitating tendency in universities to focus on the financial aspects of the process (Warner, 2015). This mindset is counter-productive to the quality of teaching and research. Students are expecting guaranteed results as the pay-off of their ‘investment’. As student satisfaction is the gold standard that we are now beholden to, there is a worrying trend which those in HE are all too aware of (the thing that should not be spoken): reducing standards to ‘please the students’, because they ‘pay our bills’. Although I haven’t had to do this myself … yet … the notion appals me. When we compromise standards for the sake of student retention and satisfaction something is deeply-flawed. The baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Surely we need to be less goal-driven and target-focused? The best writing does not emerge through narrow commercial imperatives or through a checklist of techniques, a dry naming of parts. We must create a culture of learning, knowledge, open-mindedness, exploration, and invention. Wild writing could be a small part of that: an oasis of creativity for creativity’s sake, mutually enriching to teachers and students.

NOTES:

Deakin, R. (2000) Waterlog: a swimmer’s journey through Britain, London: Vintage.

Flaherty, A.W. (2013) The Midnight Disease: the drive to write, writer’s block, and the creative brain, NY: Mariner Books.

Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos), London: Penguin.

Goldberg, N. (1991) Wild Mind: living the writer’s life, London: Rider.

Gross, P. (2015) ‘A Walk in the Abstract Garden: how creative writing might speak for itself in universities,’ Inaugural lecture, University of Glamorgan, 10 December 2006, published in Writing in Practice: 1. http://www.nawe.co.uk/DB/current-wip-edition-2/articles/a-walk-in-the-abstract-garden-how-creative-writing-might-speak-for-itself-in-universities.html  [accessed 11.06.2016]

Matthews, P. (1994) Sing Me The Creation: a creative writing sourcebook, Stroud: Hawthorn Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2012) The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press.

Miller, James E. (ed.), (1959) Completed Poetry and Selected Prose by Walt Whitman, Jr, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Vanderslice, S. (2011) Rethinking Creative Writing, Ely: Frontinus.

Warner, M. (2015) ‘Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the disfiguring of higher education’, London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 6.

Whitehead, H. (2013) ‘Nomadic Emergence: Creative Writing Theory and Practice-Led Research,’ in New Ideas in the Writing Arts: Practice, Culture Literature, edited by Graeme Harper. Cambridge: CSP.

Many more titles were used during the development and delivery of these workshops. For an extensive reading list of Wild Writing titles, or to offer suggestions or comments, contact Kevan: km364@le.ac.uk

Kevan Manwaring is a Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Leicester (Supervisor: Dr Harry Whitehead). Since 2004 he has taught creative writing for the Open University and is a Fellow of Hawthornden, The Eccles Centre for North American Studies (British Library) and the Higher Education Academy. He has co-judged The London Magazine annual short story competition and won an AHRC Essay prize for ‘The (Re)Imagined Book’. In 2015 he was a consultant academic for BBC TV’s The Secret Life of Books. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.

Wild Writing is currently running at Hawkwood College (May 2017). Limited places are available. Book here: http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/courses-and-events/arts/wild-writing—kevan-manwaring