Category Archives: Spoken Word

Bard of Hawkwood 2017

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Centre – Madeleine Harwood, Bard of Hawkwood 2017

3 years ago I set up the Bard of Hawkwood contest to promote community creativity. This, along with Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly spoken word showcase I founded – offers a way for budding bards to hone their fledgling talents in an inclusive, supportive way. It is not the only way of doing things but it works here in Stroud and the Five Valleys, where there is a wealth of local talent and traditions of artistic heritage, alternative lifestyles, radical thinking, and grassroots activity. The Bardic Chair tradition and revival is something I have explored in my book, The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation (1st published by RJ Stewart Books in 200, a new edition of the book is forthcoming).

RJ Stewart Books, 2008

The revival of English Bardic Chairs is largely down to one man, Tim Sebastian. The Arch-Druid of Wiltshire and the Secular Order of Druids. I had the pleasure to know Tim during my time in the city of Bath. I won the Bardic Chair he set up in 1996 (becoming Bard of Bath in 1998). He died in 2007 and the book is dedicated to him. This book, and the others I have written about the Bardic Tradition (Speak Like Rain: letters to a young bard, Awen, 2004; The Bardic Handbook, Gothic Image 2006; The Way of Awen, O Books 2010), as well as my training and experience in Arts in Community Development, inform my endeavours – providing platforms for creativity that celebrate local distinctiveness, diversity, and transcultural empathy. Now more than ever we need to hear one another’s stories and sing the songs of soil and soul.

 

Here’s the Press Release announcing the new Bard of Hawkwood – feel free to reblog, tweet or share….

The New Bard of Hawkwood Announced

After a gripping contest at the Hawkwood College May Day festival Monday 1st May, the new Bard of Hawkwood has been announced: Madeleine Harwood, who won with her original song, ‘Right Way Up’.

Madeleine said afterwards: ‘I shared the room with some extremely talented individuals and so I am very humbled to have been chosen as this year’s Bard. I look forward to working hard over the coming months to really promote everything the the Bardic Chair stands for.’

The Bard of Hawkwood contest – an annual competition for the best poet, singer or storyteller in the Five Valleys area – was founded in 2014 by Stroud-based writer Kevan Manwaring (a previous winner of the Bard of Bath contest). The theme, chosen by the outgoing bard, Anthony Hentschel, was: Contentment (or Resistance). Each entrant also had to read out a ‘bardic statement’ describing their plans if they were to win. The role lasts for a year and a day.

Madeleine will get to sit in the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod chair, dating from 1882, kindly loaned by Frampton-based solicitor Richard Maisey, in whose family it has been for generations. It is on permanent display at Hawkwood College. The new bard will get to set the theme for next year’s contest, announced in the winter. Future contestants then have until 23 April to enter an original story, song or poem, and must be able to perform at next year’s Hawkwood May Day Festival.

Kevan says: ‘The Bard of Hawkwood becomes the ambassador for the Bardic Chair, Hawkwood College, and their area. Having been a winner myself I know how empowering it can be – not only for the individual recipient, but also for their respective community. It is about celebrating local distinctiveness, fostering civic pride, and loving where you live.’

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If you would like to be involved in the Bard of Hawkwood contest, Stroud Out Loud! or creative community in the Stroud area, get in touch.

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

Jupiter the Great and the Little Women

Once there was a great king, at least he was great in terms of his size and ego. He was known by many names but let’s call him Jupiter. King of the Gods (he acted like a petulant god so hell he must be!) Jupiter had usurped his father, Saturn (some said killed, but those voices were hushed up) from the throne, and lorded it over all, the most important man in the solar system, galaxy, universe – at least he liked to think so. He had a pet eagle, a shield called Aegis. Shiny thunderbolts made by his son, Vulcan. But he was particularly proud of his swirling orange hair – he thought it made him irresistible to women. 

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Giuseppe Cades, Juno discovers Jupiter with Io

He loved the women, or the girls, as he liked to call them. He like to talk to them, he liked to touch them, and loved it when they stroked his … ego. But, stop right there – he had a wife, lest we forget – Queen of the Pantheon to his King, her name – Juno. Jupiter thought her oblivious of his shenanigans, but on the contrary, she knew alright, and kept a close watch on him.

He loved to conceal his infidelities in clouds of mist – sometimes he descended on unsuspecting nymphs in the form of a golden shower – but Juno was able to pierce through his miasma.

One day Jupiter having developed a soft spot for a beautiful young nymph called Io, went a-calling, hoping for a bit of frolicking. He wooed her, her fondled her – thinking he was the one doing the seducing … But his wife was swift to follow and nearly caught them at it – but he was quick. He turned Io into a cow. ‘Husband! Husband! What are you up to!’ Jupiter feigned innocence. ‘I’m trying to get back to nature. I’ve been too high and mighty. I wanted to shed the trappings of power and taste the life of a cow-herd. And look at this lovely heifer. Her beautiful udders. Her smooth horns. Her big dark eyes. The swish of her tail.’

Juno, this time accepted these alternative facts, though in her heart she knew she’d been deceived. So she left.

Another day, Jupiter’s eye fell upon another lovely nymph, skin like alabaster, called Europa. She refused his advances, and so he came to her in the form of a bull – and carried her off to have his wicked way with her. Some say to Crete, some say to a crate.

But Jupiter’s good luck ran out one day when he was cosying up to another nymph called Callisto. Juno appeared, and this time there was no hiding – her husband just shrugged ‘What can I say. She was a five!’ – In her wrath Juno turned Callisto into a bear, and stormed off.

Finally Jupiter took a shine to a handsome young lad from Troy called Ganymede – he had if nothing else Catholic tastes. The lad was a bit reluctant to accept the advances of the horny old goat, I don’t know why. And so Jupiter descended upon him in the form of an eagle and carried him off to the stars to be his cup-bearer, or so he says.

Well, Juno had had enough. She decided to teach her pathetic husband a lesson. Instead of confronting her husband directly, which she knew would be pointless. He was so self-deceiving he wouldn’t realise he’d done anything wrong. So she went to Io, Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. They were frightened when they realised who she was. But she said, ‘I’m not angry with you, only my stupid husband – are you happy being treated this way?’ They all felt they had been wronged – but at the time it was hard not to be swept along by Jupiter’s magnetic personality. They agreed to help teach the king a lesson. Yes, he had thunderbolts – but Juno made some powerful allies.

She recruited Venus and Mercury to her cause – love and eloquence. War-like Mars, with his buzz-cut and PTSD twitch, was Jupiter’s right-hand man, so no luck there. Saturn certainly had a bone to pick, but was bit of a deadweight. Neptune, who ruled the sea, and Pluto who ruled the dead, also joined their cause. Together, led by Juno, they caused chaos in the heavens, disrupting the cycles and orbits, with their non-violent direct action, until enough was enough!

The allies confronted the bully – who turned out to be nothing more than a gas giant. All bluster. As they confronted him with his misdemeanours and crimes, he started to shrink. He spewed out toxic cloud in his defence, but got smaller and smaller. One by one his layers of deceit were stripped away, until there were none left – and what did they find behind it all? A Little Boy sitting on a rock, sulking, sticking out his bottom lip. He tried to throw his thunderbolts, but they were like sparklers now. He had a toy shield and stuffed bird. So much for Jupiter the Great.

After that Juno and the ‘girls’ took over running the Heavens and they did a far, far better job of things. The Solar System became a lot more peaceful, pleasant and respectful place to live.

Jupiter was given a nanny and a nice big play pen, where he could build imaginary walls all day long without causing any harm.

The End

 Kevan Manwaring © 2017-01-27

 

Feel free to use this story to protest against Trump’s outrageous abuses of his presidency, the US Constitution and human rights. Bullies must be stood up. The vulnerable must be defended. Raise awareness. Resistance is fertile.

For tips on Storytelling Techniques, check out The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st century bard, by Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2016; or Storytelling for a Greener World, Gersie et al, Hawthorn Press, 2015

Shaking the Silver Branch

 

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The foliate mouth, Kevan Manwaring 2016

 

Twenty five years ago I published my first collection of poetry, Remembrance Days, which celebrated the wheel of the year. It was crudely produced, typed up in upper case (why? Was the shift key on my typewriter stuck?), photocopied and stapled together, and yet three of the poems within it – The Bride of Spring, One with the Land and Summer’s Wake – I still perform today. I had worked late into the night high in the ‘art block’ of Coventry Polytechnic typing it out … one finger at a time (no wonder it took so long!). By the time I was finished I found myself locked in. Everyone else had gone home and I had spend the sleeping under my desk to be awoken in the morning by the cleaner’s vacuum cleaner humming near my head. An auspicious start! My first print run was modest – I printed 20 copies off to force upon friends and family as Yule presents; and have been inflicting similarly ever since, albeit with better production values. Over the following two and half decades I have put together around a dozen such collections – from chapbooks to professionally published volumes. To celebrate this anniversary I have decided to gather together all of my bardic poems together in one volume, entitled Silver Branch, it is to be published by Awen next year. I discovered very early on that few people are willing to read poems from an unknown poet, so the best way to ensure an audience is to perform them – which I started to do at ‘open mics’. I quickly realized that learning them by heart is far more effective than merely reading them out – there is no barrier between you and the audience, and there is a level of kudos about committing work to memory. Folk appreciate the effort. So, the essential criteria for this next collection – what defines them, in my mind, as bardic poems – is the fact they have been performed in public, from memory, at some point. And many were written with that in mind – thus I embedded within them the kind of mnemonic devices that have served bards, scops, skalds, mimesingers, etc, for centuries: alliteration, assonance, consonance, end-rhyme, anaphora, refrains, imagery, and other kinds of oral/aural patterning. Some have been commissioned (e.g. Dragon Dance), some have been composed as part of a book (e.g. The Taliesin Soliloquies, for The Way of Awen), or for a larger collaborative performance (e.g. material for the Fire Springs shows ‘Arthur’s Dream’, ‘Robin of the Wildwood’, and ‘Return to Arcadia’). One sequence won me the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon (Bath) in 1998: Spring Fall – the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath. They have been written for protest (e.g. ‘The Child of Everything’, performed from memory spontaneously in front of thousands of people at an anti-GMO rally, on a podium by Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square); for celebration (e.g. ‘The Wheel of the Rose’, for a friends wedding in a castle in Scotland); for healing (‘Heather’s Spring, for a friend dying of cancer and used several times since); and for ceremony (‘Last Rites for John Barleycorn’, and several others in my previous ‘bardic’ collection, Green Fire). Common themes running through all of the poems include an evocation and honouring of the sacred as manifest in all living things; a celebration of numinous places and remarkable people; the passionate defence of the fragile web of life and the precious glory of this planet we call home; and a mythic sense of negotiating reality.

Poetry has been there from the start of my journey as a writer and it has informed everything I do. First and foremost it is an act of perception – a way of seeing and being in the world. I find it effective at capturing the little epiphanies of existence, moments of heightened awareness, of beauty and truth. It has enriched my prose, my performances and my life.

I look forward to sharing my awen with you. May it inspire your own.

SILVER BRANCH: bardic poetry by Kevan Manwaring forthcoming from Awen Publications 2017

www.awenpublications.co.uk

THE CASTLE OF WORDS

ON WRITING RETREAT AT HAWTHORNDEN CASTLE

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Hawthornden Castle, Midlothian, by K. Manwaring, 2015

The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle was founded to provide a peaceful setting for creative writers to work without disturbance …’ So begins the official leaflet describing the international writers’ retreat situated in Midlothian, the Scottish Lowlands, in the former home of the poet William Drummond (1585-1649). The original castle dates from the Middle Ages, but Drummond made alterations (dismantling some fortifications as though in defiance of its former status as a Border Castle, and adding a new range), and others were added in the 18th Century – the dining room, drawing room and additional bedrooms. Built upon a crag riddled with ‘Pictish’ caves, it dominates a dramatic bend in the river gorge of the Esk, which tumbles jauntily below. With its turrets, courtyard, balcony and ruinous tower, it is the very picture of a Romantic retreat, a fortress of quietude and literary industry.

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The Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

Since The Alchemist playwright Ben Johnson walked from London to Edinburgh in 1619 to visit Drummond, who recorded their Conversations, Hawthornden has been a place of colloquy and inspiration. From its fastness the esteemed Hawthornden Prize is administrated (founded by Alice Warrender in 1919 for works of imaginative literature in poetry or prose by writers under 41 years of age, its prize-winners reads like a who’s who of wordsmiths from the last hundred years) and its magnificent library hosts many signed first editions by both winners and retreatants – the latter are invited to stay for a period of one month to work upon a literary project of their choice in the company of (usually) 5 other writers. Each retreatant (selected by the admissions committee based upon published works, references and project) is allocated a snug room named after presiding geni literati (Yeats, Shelley, Pope, Johnson, Bronte, et al) and adorned with the names of previous guests whose project has gone on to be published … Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew Greig, etc, etc … the roll of honour is impressive and a little daunting.

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After breakfast, retreatants are expected to spend the day writing. Lunch is brought up to the rooms in Fortnum and Mason hampers – delicious soup, sandwiches, fruit and the obligatory babybel, which became almost a bartering currency during my stay. There are no phones and no wifi. Any research needs to be done in advance or in the old-fashioned way – from books (the library has an extensive reference section among many enticing novels and poetry collections, art books, biographies, etc … one could easily spend hours if not days there and I half expected to stumble upon a skeleton of a former guest, bony digit forever pointing at a suitable epitaph). If not for dinner, when guests are expected to gather for a pre-prandial sherry in the luxuriant lounge, then make small-talk or exchange literary bon mots over beetroot soup or one of the Cordon Bleu chef’s famous fish pies or puddings, one could spend days without seeing another soul, or hearing another human voice. It is a profoundly peaceful place – with none of the white noise of the apparent world we anaesthetize ourselves to – traffic, roadworks, TV, CDs, youtube, ipods, phone-calls, neighbours, emergency services and parties. Hawthornden truly lives up to its motto: ut honesto otio quiesceret – to be at peace in decent ease.

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My desk overlooking the Esk. K. Manwaring, 2015

 

From mid-November 2015 I spent a month as a guest writer at the Castle to work on a 2nd draft of my PhD project, My Big Fairy Novel as I fondly call it. I was there with 4 other published writers: two poets (Irish; English), a playwright (American) and a short story writer (German). We were supported in our writing by being fed, watered and undisturbed in our rooms. Apart from dinners, no socialising was expected.

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Dinner is served at Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

Using the extensive feedback received from my supervisor, my partner, and an American friend I redrafted my novel dramatically. I began with a MS 146,396 words in length. After removing the last 100 pages (!), as Harry advised (never let it be said I can’t take feedback. I happily murder my darlings) the MS was 120,00 in length. By the end of my time at the castle, I had written an extra 40,000 words, and edited 160,000 words in total. To be so industrious was testimony to the powerfully conducive environment. To have such headspace and focused writing time was, in hindsight, a real privilege and rare luxury (as I know all too well, trying to write another novel in the midst of a busy academic term).

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Retreatants await the feast. Hawthornden 2015

 

On top of this, I wrote 3 new poems (The Corvine Tree; Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood; The Apprentice Pillar) to add to my poetry collection, Lost Border, which I copy-edited while there. It was published by Chrysalis upon my return in time for Yuletide, a two week turnaround. It seemed I had brought some of that focus back.

I also undertook extensive research in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh Library. There I examined the original 17th Century archives of Kirk’s work: the various known versions of his 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; his notebooks and Book of Hours. To hold these works was thrilling – to examine Kirk’s actual handwriting, his thoughts, musings and marginalia, was like looking down the well of time.

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The well in the courtyard, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

I appreciated being able to escape the ‘writing monastery’ of Hawthornden once a week for a trip into Auld Reekie, a 30 minute bus ride away. There I availed myself of caffeine and wifi whisky and good company! I performed stories at the Gude Craic Club (in its old home of The Waverley) and at the Story Café in the Scottish Storytelling Centre (an excellent resource designed to make a sassenach bard like me green with envy); attended a talk on the seminal author, scholar and folklorist John Francis Campbell (best known for his 4 volume Popular Tales of the West Highlands), and met David Campbell, a Scottish storyteller/tradition-bearer, as well as contemporary practitioners with whom I felt at home. Being away from ones friends and loved ones for over a month (I had presented at Literary Leicester and the NAWE Conference in Durham before going onto to Hawthornden) was a challenge – even for a habitual hermit like me – one can feel lonely and isolated, even in or especially in constant company (sharing two meals a day with five strangers can be a strain, however nice they might be individually – and sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day’s writing, is talk shop), but with my fellow storytellers I felt an immediate warmth and affinity.

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Tree of Life evening, Story Café, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, KM 2015

 

I delighted in visiting some of Edinburgh’s fine museums and galleries, cafes and bars, but ultimately the focus was always the novel and to it I would return like a dutiful husband to his spouse every day – my constant companion for a moon’s turning (and the rest – 3 years and counting). And the castle itself was the most evocative, ideal space for my project – which is partly set in a castle … in Scotland. It even had a dungeon, and caves within its grounds associated with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie (although most caves in Scotland seem to be). Only a brisk four miles walk away is the breath-taking Rosslyn Chapel, which inspired Dan Brown whose bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, has helped to substantially boost its revenue and preserve it for future generations. Even genre, then, has its place at the high table.

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Rosslyn Chapel, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The power of words echo around this ancient, atmospheric landscape – in its ballads and odes, sermons and histories, romances and novels. In an Age of Stupid, such civilised eloquence is an oasis. Long may Hawthornden resist the prevailing tide of barbarity and be a sanctuary for literary excellence, for works which expand and deepen our knowledge of the human condition, cultivate compassion for our fellow dwellers upon this planet, inspire future generations, and for all who wish to gather beneath its Corvine Tree (the ‘company tree’ which once stood outside the castle, where the poet greeted the road-weary playwright after his long journey north). As Drummond himself put it:

The world is full of horrors, falsehoods, slights;
Wood’s silent shades have only true delights.’

Thank you to the admissions committee, to Hamish our host, Mary the cook, and, of course, to Drummond!

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Memorial Plaque in Courtyard, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring 2015

 

A New Awen

 

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(From left) Jay Ramsay, Lindsay Clarke and Anthony Nanson, Awen Book Launch, Black Book Café, Stroud, 1 December 2016

 

On the first day of December towards the end of the slow-motion car-crash that is the year 2016, a small group of kindred spirits gathered together to rekindle hope.

The setting was Black Book Cafe, the book-lined refuge from the mainstream, which sits at the top of Stroud high street, cocking a snook to the world. This is a popular venue for spoken word events and mindful convergences – in the past it has hosted Story Suppers and Acoustic Sundays, a Death Cafe and a chess club (which in my mind blur in surreal ways!). Tonight it was the location for a book launch hosted by Awen Publications – the ecobardic small press founded by yours truly in 2003 and now run with aplomb by Anthony Nanson.

The chilly Thursday night saw the culmination of substantial effort behind the scenes by Nanson and Hartsiotis, the husband-and-wife literary powerhouse, situated in the town since relocating from Bath (where once upon a time four storytellers met and formed Fire Springs, now augmented ably by Richard Selby and Chantelle Smith: Awen Assemble!).

Three years ago at the end of November (so almost to the day) I held a tenth anniversary event in the same cafe, where I announced the end of Awen – for me at least, for I was embarking on a Creative Writing PhD and, after a decade at the helm, had found myself burnt out and nearly bankrupt from publishing some thirty titles by authors from across the world. I had given my all and had nothing left to give, so it was time to move on.

After the aftermath of that book-pocalypse had settled, a glimmer of hope emerged in a conversation with Anthony – long-term friend, walking companion and Fire Spring. He was willing to take it on and I couldn’t think of a safer and more competent pair of hands, and so I passed the whole business to him, for what it was worth, sans lock, stock and barrel (it had been running at a loss since its inception). With the spirit of a new broom, he has been busily consolidating the back catalogue and is now starting to publish new work. The first of these is A Dance with Hermes, a themed poetry collection by Lindsay Clarke (my old mentor from Cardiff University). An award-winning novelist, this was something of a departure for Clarke, although he revealed in his introduction that he had started out with hopes of being a poet, until a woman in his first audience observed: ‘You’re a good storyteller, but definitely not a poet.’ Dear Reader, he married her – there followed forty years of marriage and a successful career as a writer of literary fiction with an esoteric flavour. His best known work is the masterful The Chymical Wedding (Picador 1990), although his latest, The Water Theatre (Alma 2012) shows him getting, if anything, even better with age.

dwh-front-coverAnd so it was with a sense of fan-boy excitement I went along, happy to be a punter for once, although the seating meant I didn’t end up lurking at the back as I’d intended – but found myself inadvertently thrust into the limelight as each of the three readers kindly name-checked me.

First up was Anthony to kick things off and after he said some very heart-warming things about my input into the press, he read a poem by the late Mary Palmer, ‘Black Madonna’ (from Tidal Shift, her 2009 collected works which I published shortly after her premature death).

 It was incredibly poignant to have one of Mary’s fine poems start the proceedings – as she had performed at the first launch of Jay Ramsay’s collection, Places of Truth: journeys into sacred wilderness, a showcase I had organised and hosted at Waterstones, Bath in 2008. It felt like full circle in some way, or rather, a spiral, because we had not simply returned to the beginning, but overlapped psychic and physical spaces as we move into the next cycle.

 Anthony then welcomed up Jay, who performed a confident and eloquent set of his poems from Places. These poems inspired and impressed me the first time I read, edited and published them, and they did again. It was like visiting old friends – his Sinai sequence had kept me company while I was in residence at El Gouna, on the other side of the Red Sea in 2010 (prompting my poetic reply, ‘Desert Brother’).

And Jay and Lindsay were similarly sympatico as the ‘Alchemical Brothers’, both having written on the subject in prose fiction (The Chymical Wedding), non-fiction (Alchemy: the art of transformation; The Crucible of Love) and poetry – the latter manifesting most recently in Clarke’s ‘debut’ collection, A Dance with Hermes.

The author decided the best way to introduce the poems was … to read the introduction, and I am so glad he did, because it was like sitting in on one of his lectures – which I remember so fondly from my Masters). A Cambridge-trained, Classicist, this was no mere display of erudition or elitist knowledge, but a download of wisdom. In the Q&A that followed I likened it to an invocation to Hermes, for it really felt Clarke had manifested the god of communication and cunning in the room by the end of the evening, with his ludic and lucid poems, which danced with form and content in delightful and daring ways.

A Dance with Hermes, crafted with care and handsomely published, boldly announces Awen is back in business – with wings on its heels.

I left the bookshop fired up by a reconnection to the profound triple-aspect mystery which had inspired me to start Awen in the first place: fellowship, inspiration, and art.

Kevan Manwaring, 8 December 2016

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Publisher and MC Kevan Manwaring (far left) with Peter Please, Mary Palmer, Richard Selby, Jay Ramsay, Anthony Nanson, Kirsty Hartsiotis, Helen Moore, Ken Masters, and David Metcalfe at the  original launch of Places of Truth, Waterstones Bath, 2008.

FFI: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Wild Honey for the Empty House of the Stare

Appalachian Wonder Tales

Loughborough University

17 November 2016

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Professor Joseph Sobol performs Jack and the Least Girl, Loughborough University, November 2016, by Kevan Manwaring

In these bleak, mean-spirited times it is good to be reminded of our common humanity, and of the great, bubbling cauldron of tradition which we can all draw nourishment from – that heady gumbo of story, song, poetry, joke and riddle.

Let the stranger be welcome by the hearth, gather round and hear their story. They might not be so different from you after all.

I travelled to Loughborough Uni for the first time to see a visiting American professor, Joseph Sobol, from East Tennessee State University, who was performing his Appalachian Wonder Tales show, Jack and the Least Girl. This was an impressive medley of songs and Jack Tales. I was impressed by how much musicality he wove into the show, using singing and cittern playing to animate, engage and punctuate. He used call-and-response to encourage audience participation. He used a lot of topical reference about benefit ‘checks’, social security numbers, IRS and so on. He began with a movingly resonant rendition of WB Yeats poem set to music, a cri-de-coeur expressing the current zeitgeist in the States. Then he offered a ‘warm up tale’ about Jack trying to find gainful employment in hard times. Jack had no specific skills so could ‘turn his hands to anything’. He’s our classic Everyman. Then Joseph did this tour-de-force medley of Jack nursery rhymes, songs and references, all woven into the same meta-song, which he got us to join in with. Then, after these epistemological preliminaries, we got down to the stories proper – three fully realised tales: one of Jack the fool; one of Jack the giant-killer; and one of the Least Girl – Jack’s counterpart and more-than-match. He wove these narratives together in lively, unexpected ways, in the spirit of Sondheim’s Into the Woods – fairy tale characters bumping into one another in the story forest and having ‘unofficial’ conversations, commenting upon one another’s story or performance (number of giants’ heads being a good indicator!) in a meta-narrative way. The professor used sing-song refrains, in different registers (or keys) throughout. At one point he shook my hand as ‘Mr King’. Throughout his performance he worked the audience, making sure they were on board. He did exceptionally well, despite the aisle breaking the ‘energy field’ of the audience down the middle, and the frequent interruptions (late comers; a Shakespearean ‘rude mechanical’ janitor coming in to ask when he would be finished so he could lock up; my early exit).None of these noises off derailed him as he responded in a spontaneous way. Overall, the performance was funny, kinetic and acoustic, resonant and timeless.

I had to dash early but got to ask him a question about the musicality and topicality – I was interested to know if it was his ‘USP’ was endemic to the culture of the region (eg there’s a well-established Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro). He answered that there are 2 traditions: the traditional tradition, where tellers tell ‘em straight; and the contemporary personal anecdote tradition. Professor Sobol does them both and also changes his style according to the audience, as any good storyteller does, eg telling them in a traditional manner for school-kids, and making the style more complex, multi-layered and politically aware (NB not ‘correct’) to adult audiences. I felt I was given a fascinating insight into the Appalachian storytelling tradition; and made some useful connections, especially the research cluster of Arts in the Public Sphere at the Uni, which includes storytelling, poetry, and other forms of live lit, as well sculpture, murals, etc. I asked to be kept in the loop. Professor Sobol will return in the early Spring, and I look forward to hearing the second half of the show after hearing ‘the trailer’, as he jokingly described his adventures in long-form storytelling.

Storyteller, music-maker, folklorist, and author Joseph Daniel Sobol is an artist and scholar of wide-ranging accomplishments.  An artist-in-residence for many years in North and South Carolina, he received a Masters in Folklore from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern University. In 2000, he was appointed coordinator of the graduate program in storytelling at East Tennessee State University, where he is a tenured professor in the Department of Communication and Performance. He tours internationally as a storyteller, lecturer, teacher, composer, and virtuoso musician on cittern, guitar, and various fretted instruments (visit http://www.josephsobol.com).

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

 The bees build in the crevices
 Of loosening masonry, and there
 The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
 My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We are closed in, and the key is turned
 On our uncertainty; somewhere
 A man is killed, or a house burned.
 Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 A barricade of stone or of wood;
 Some fourteen days of civil war:
 Last night they trundled down the road
 That dead young soldier in his blood:
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 We had fed the heart on fantasies,
 The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
 More substance in our enmities
 Than in our love; O honey-bees,
 Come build in the empty house of the stare.

— William Butler Yeats

FFI: http://www.josephsobol.com/http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/aed/