Category Archives: Spoken Word

In Search of the Littoral

On 1st February, the Celtic festival of Imbolc sacred to the Goddess Brighid, I post this account of a journey around Ireland instrumental in the evolution of a new ballad & tales show co-created with folksinger Chantelle Smith inspired by the sites we visited: Brighid’s Flame.

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The beach where Finn mac Cumhaill was said to have defeated the King of the World, Dingle, Ireland, by K. Manwaring 2015

In a poem written by WB Yeats during his time running the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, he expressed his exasperation with life’s complexities, while simultaneously encapsulating what has defined him: ‘The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.’ He uses the pegasus as the symbol of creative inspiration, but ‘There’s something ails our colt’. The difficulties of creative (and nationalist) endeavour make it seem to: ‘Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road metal.’  Yeats vows to emancipate it in the final line: ‘I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt’. And yet, despite this defiant affirmation Yeats spent much of his adult life in the thrall of the ‘difficult’, in obscure esoterica and the complex magical systems and rituals of the Golden Dawn and his own occult order, but chiefly in the form of Maud Gonne, the nationalist figurehead whose unrequited love possessed him for decades. Even her name suggests an alluring evanescence, an unattainability. She was his ‘glimmering girl’, which he searched for like wandering Aengus, in the eponymous poem:

‘Though I am old with wandering,

Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

I will find out where she has gone…’

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Wild and delicious! K. Manwaring 2015

In August 2015 I headed into the west, to Ireland to search for the littoral. I wanted to ride the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW), which stretches from Old Head, Kinsale, south of Cork, to Malin Head in Donegal. At 2500km/1553 miles it is the longest continuous coastal route in the world, so the marketing claims. I had been meaning to tour Ireland on my Triumph Legend 900cc motorbike for sometime, and this new route, created in 2013, was the thing that clinched it. I set off with my partner, Chantelle Smith, an archaeologist and folksinger. We were keen to visit prehistoric sites, as well as literary and musical hotspots. We booked off two weeks’ holiday and camped along the way. We were to experience the littoral in many ways over the next fortnight: physically, mentally, and metaphysically – the ‘shores’ of our comfort and consciousness.

Initially it was literally in the crossing from Wales to Ireland – from the prosaic ferry terminal of Pembroke Dock, waiting in the queue to board the ferry at 2 o’clock in the morning, rain glistening on the cold tarmac; to arriving at Rosslare at dawn in the clean sunlight.

Once on the N-4, roaring west, the mundane world of the entreport was soon left behind as we headed to our first destination – Blarney, where we had booked a campsite which would be our base for the next three days’ as we worked our way along the southern stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way. My partner insisted we did the tourist thing and kiss the blarney stone. Even this corniest of Irish clichés had an element of the ‘littoral’ – hanging upside down, 100 feet in the air. The moment proved elusive to capture on camera, so I ended up doing it three times. So, according to the folklore, I should be blessed with especial eloquence!

The castle and grounds proved to be far more attractive than I was expecting – the first of many pleasant surprises – this was no Hirstian Dismal-land. Even Ireland’s clichés are beautiful. They have just been so overly packaged and exported (almost literally in the case of the famous stone) that it is easy to be weary and wary of them, but in actuality they are often satisfyingly charming. The effort of reaching the source of the meme is often reciprocated, although beyond that phenomenological experience, there is often something deeper that draws us to these attractions – a yearning, a glimmer of beauty, a feeling … which slips through our fingers the more we grasp for it.

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The sublime majesty of Glendalough which no photo can do justice to. K. Manwaring 2015

Rainer Maria Rilke captured it perfectly when he advised: ‘go to the limits of your longing.’ He might have written his challenge while walking the cliffs above Duino Castle, near Trieste (where I have too walked), but he could have penned it about the west of Ireland. And this line of desire drove us farther on. The fact that the route was packaged and well signposted with distinctive blue wavy lines, (echoing the initials, waves, and the pictographic chevrons of burial tombs like Newgrange), made it no less beautiful and dramatic – indeed, without the signs pointing the way, I doubt we would have alighted upon so many obscure coves and dramatic, cliff-top roads. I use the term ‘roads’ euphemistically, for many were little more than gravel tracks, pot-holed and very bumpy. The contrast with the N-roads was dramatic – and the two became the twin-notes of our journey, the straight and the winding dancing in tandem up the westerly coast like a 1500 mile long caduceus. Off the main route there were many opportunities to take even longer detours to headlands, coves, beaches, and attractions – but we soon learnt to do attempt all would have been too exhausting, time-consuming and unnecessary. The WAW offers multiple possibilities. There is fixed route beyond the main one. As with the famously festooned signposts along the way, there are a myriad of possibilities. The route is a melody to riff around. One creates ones’ own version of it, depending on your whim, the weather, and mode of transport.

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Hazel Wood (as in the WB Yeats poem) looking across to Lough Gill, K. Manwaring 2015

Having recently performed our show, ‘The Bonnie Road’- tales and ballads of the Border (Scottish) we found ourselves feeling like Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland confronted by three roads – the narrow, the broad and the bonnie – as we traversed hair-raising mountain passes again and again. Roads seemed to lead into the middle of nowhere, and it was often a leap of faith to keep going, and hope the road will rejoin the main route eventually.

 

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On the Tain Trail, C. Smith 2015

After the first couple of epic days – when we averaged 200 miles of touring, arriving home about 10pm, exhausted and famished – we quickly learned to curtail our ambitions and faithfulness to every little nook and cranny. Following the coast north, we would pick and choose our itinerary according to our interest and energy levels. Nevertheless, we spent most of two weeks riding up the coast. Our days settled into a rhythm of stillness and motion, sea and land, sunshine and rain, night and day, camping, packing, moving, camping. On the long rides I would slip into a non-verbal space – one where thoughts would drift in and out of my head without trying to think about anything in particular. It became a meditation in serenity – in focus and surrender (Carr-Gomm, 2015). To stay alive on the motorbike requires absolute focus – you have to fully present. But, at the same time, because much of driving is about muscle memory and ‘motor functions’ one can slip into a rather Zen-like state of mind. One had to learn to trust in the Way – (I rarely use sat-nav on the bike, preferring to work it out on the atlas in advance). It’s a dream-like experience, not quite knowing where you are … between somewhere and … somewhere. That sense of being ‘meaningfully lost’ is delicious. There’s no rush to get anywhere in particular. No deadlines. So it doesn’t matter if one wanders a little, takes the long way round, improvising a route as one goes along. There is a sense of being self-created, like a character in a Creation Myth, forging the land before them. And it was to this mythic level we soon found ourselves becoming immersed in…

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Medb’s Grave, Knocknarea, K. Manwaring 2015

We visited a lot of prehistoric sites – all interesting in their own way, but the ones that really captivated me had mythic associations, chiefly connected to The Tain (Táin Bó Cúailnge). It was thrilling to visit sites connected with this early oral epic – an Irish Dreamtime sequence, mythologizing the landscape – Cruachan; Emain Macha; Tara; the Cooley Peninsula. The most jaw-dropping was Knocknarea, site of Medb’s Cairn (an impressive mound of stones situated on a hill overlooking Sligo’s coast and surrounded by equally stunning sites – the megalithic cemeteries of Carrowkeel and Carrowmore to name two). Even though it is unlikely Queen Medb is buried there, if she ever existed, it seems the fitting monument to such a mighty queen. WB Yeats, whose childhood family home was situated in county Sligo, waxed lyrical about her, perhaps projecting his own idealised warrior queen, Maud Gonne, into her shoes. In such places, where the mythic and historical overlap, literature and archaeology, the past and the present, I feel an electrifying frisson. They are charge-points for poets like me, where I feel plugged into the grid of creativity.

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Ireland is very much embroiled with my own ‘creation myth’ as a writer. In the early Nineties I had hitchhiked across it in my gap year. My primary goal was Croagh-Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, which I had glimpsed on Frank Delaney’s TV series, ‘The Celts’. Every year on the first Sunday in August (‘Reek Sunday’) thousands of Catholics climb it, some bare foot, in penance. Being not of that persuasion (or at least an unrepentant young man) I climbed it in my walking boots. For me it had significance because of its association with a chthonic deity, Crom Craugh, and the fact the annual pilgrimage seems to be a Christianisation of a Lughnasadh custom (Celtic fire festival falling on 1st August). Many of these sites straddle the worlds between the pagan and the Christian and that is often what makes them so numinous. In Celtic Christianity there seems to be a lack of conflict between such paradigms. In these thin places, the differences fall away – and we are just left with a sense of the sublime. The feeling of immanence increased the further west we went – the land thins out until one is left just staring at the vast horizon of the sea. This happens in other directions – each coast has its beauty and mystery – but so hard-wired into our cortex is the symbolism of the setting sun and its apparent death and rebirth, that the ‘west is the best’. Over its hazy horizon we fling our longing, project islands of immortality, lands of milk and honey, Americas of the imagination. And one can see why, standing on the top of Croagh-Patrick – on a rare clear day you can behold the plentiful Arran Isles, shoals of possibilities awaiting to be explored.

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Near the summit of Croagh-Patrick – as clear as it got this time. K. Manwaring 2015

From this formative epiphany I had descended, and headed south to Gort – ostensibly to call in on my father’s best man. He hadn’t met me before but with typical Irish hospitality he welcomed me in and showed me around, taking me to Thoor Ballylee, where Yeats created a summer sheiling; and Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s bohemian demesne, a gathering place for poets, painters, and mystics. Here, in 1991, I contracted the poetry virus and haven’t stopped since. The themes that grabbed me then still haven’t let me go, a sentiment Yeats echoes: ‘I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find…’ (Four Years). I passed through on this trip, returning like Yeats himself, not 19 years later, but 24. I parked in Gort marketplace, remembering the young man who had rocked up there on a wing and a prayer. This time I had arrived from the southwest, from the dramatic Cliffs of Moher and the awe-inspiring moonscape of the Burren. I felt an astronaut returning to an Earth beyond recognition – a space-age Oisín on my silver steed.

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A Bard in Bodhran Town, Connemara, C. Smith, 2015

Before I turned to dust I wended my way further west, past Galway into Connemara’s epic landscape. My destination was picturesque Clifden, home of the Marconi towers, where aviation pioneers Alcock and Brown first made landfall after successfully crossing the Atlantic for the first time by powered flight. Here, I cooled my engine, enjoying a jar in a local bar where a merry session was taking place. My partner pitched in a couple of songs, and we felt part of the narrative.was in Swansea last year for his centenary). Riding past the roadside banners it was moving to finally make it to his modest grave in Drumcliffe graveyard, where his father had delivered sermons from the pulpit. And then onto Glencar, the beautiful waterfall that inspired ‘The Stolen Child’ (and our own writing as we sat in earshot of its soft thunder). This ‘pink noise’ is most conducive to creativity – affecting the brainwaves from alpha to theta, making the synapses leap like Irish dancers.

 

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Where the wandering water gushes/From the hills above Glen-Car’, Glencarr Waterfall, Sligo, K. Manwaring 2015

Most thrilling of all for me was the visit to Lough Gill, the site of the ‘lake isle of Innisfree’. Here Yeats played as a child, but it was in London, on Fleet Street, that he was inspired to write the poem of longing, after the sound of a fountain reminded him of the  ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore’. Also in the cauldron of his imagination at the time was Thoreau’s Walden, which describes the American’s attempt to live a ‘life in the woods’ for a year, building his own cabin. And when ‘Innisfree’ is read in this context, it echoes across the Atlantic, from Sligo to Massachusetts, where Thoreau built his small cabin and lived alone (except for visits from his mother who lived close by) in a ‘bee loud glade’. That dream of independence, however realistic, resonates with many of us who find ourselves like Rilke, ‘alone in the world, and yet not alone enough/to make every moment holy.’ The shore-line presents the possibility of escape from a world that places its demands upon us; and it can appear in unexpected places. Yeats stumbled upon the littoral in the middle of a busy London street. It can occur in any place, at any time, and is ultimately a state of mind, a moveable feast. Such routes as the Wild Atlantic Way provide a tangible visual analogue for this quality – but the littoral can be experienced wherever you are. All we have to do is, in the words of supertramp poet, WH Davies, ‘stand and stare’ and notice what novelist Colum McCann phrased: ‘the miracle of the actual’.

 

Kevan Manwaring ©2015

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Our Claddagh rings and handfasting bracelets by Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin, K. Manwaring 2015

References:

‘Leisure’, WH Davies http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/leisure/ [accessed 11/09/15]

Carr-Gom, Philip, Talk at Druid Camp, Glos., August 2015

Clements, Paul, Rough Guide to Ireland, Rough Guide: London, 2015

McCann, Colum, TransAtlantic, Bloomsbury: London, 2014

National Library of Ireland, Dublin, The Life and Works of WB Yeats: http://www.nli.ie/en/intro/exhibitions.aspx

Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Selected Poems of, Picador: London, 1987

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Wordsworth Poetry Library: Ware, 1994/2000

The Tain, trans. Thomas Kinsella, Oxford Paperbacks, 2002

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, or A Life in the Woods, 1845

Wild Atlantic Way http://www.wildatlanticway.com/

Yeats Society/WB Yeats Memorial Building, Hyde Bridge, Sligo, Ireland: http://www.yeatssociety.com/

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Bríghid’s Flame (Kevan Manwaring & Chantelle Smith) are specialists in bardic tales and song who have been performing their unique blend of storytelling, ballad-singing, poetry and music (harp, guitar, shruti box, bodhran, bones) since 2014. Their love of mythology, folklore and prehistory informs their performances.

http://brighidsflame.co.uk/

 

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/

Bard of Hawkwood 2016

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The winner of the Bard of Hawkwood contest 2016, Anthony Hentschel, sits on the Bardic Chair. Behind stand fellow contestants & judges (from left to right): Katie Lloyd-Nunn, Anthony Nanson, Chantelle Smith, Dominic James, Steve Wheeler, Richard Maisey.

Founded by Kevan Manwaring in 2014, the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is part of a modern bardic tradition stretching across Britain and beyond. The Bardic Chair belongs to its community, the winner is its steward, and the gorsedd (i.e. the bardic circle which supports it) its guardians. It is a celebration of local distinctiveness, and a platform for creative expression. 

The 2nd Bard of Hawkwood contest took place on May Day bank holiday Monday at Hawkwood College’s lovely annual Open Day. The dark clouds gathered but didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. However, we wisely chose to hold the contest inside, as opposed to the front lawn where it has been held (and in 2014, announced) in previous years. This was a smart move as we had a full house in the Sitting Room as everyone piled in out of the rain! The judges this year were outgoing bard, Dominic James, folksinger Chantelle Smith, and our ‘chairman’ Richard Maisey (who kindly lent his original Eisteddfod chair from 1882 for the contest, kickstarting the whole thing off). They each took a turn, showing they know their stuff – with Chantelle getting everyone to singalong – then the contestants were introduced and took turns to perform, according to lots. I conjured up some awen with an excerpt from my poem ‘Dragondance’, then the bardic gloves were off. First up was storyteller, Anthony Nanson (author of Gloucestershire Folk Tales and co-author of Gloucestershire Ghost Tales with Kirsty Hartsiotis), who performed a gripping tale from New Caledonia with great gusto, voices, and gestures. The expressions of the younger members of the audience were priceless! Next up was creative powerhouse Katie Lloyd-Nunn, who shared a lovely song with a heartfelt introduction and accompanying statement. Katie was followed with dignity by Peter Adams, well-known local homeopath, activist and poet, who shared his wise owl poem complete with night-sounds! The penultimate performer was wordsmith Steve Wheeler, with a very engaging and amusing story about his childhood home and that yearning is shared through the generations. Finally, we had Ruskin Mill’s own Anthony Hentschel, who performed a barnstormer poem on the theme (The Way Home). From toddlers to senior citizens, the audience were mesmerized throughout. The judges left to deliberate and I MCed some impromptu floor spots. We had an impressive green man praise song from our resident jack-of-the-woods, Paul; a punchy poem from Jehanne Mehta; a bold contribution from Gill; and I shared my ‘Robin Hood’ poem, Heartwood. Then the judges summed up, praising each of the contestants in turn, before announcing the winner with a drum roll from me: Anthony Hentschel, who had impressed them all with his tour-de-force. The awen had been clearly with him, and the choice seemed to be popular.

Bardic Chair of Hawkwood 1882The new bard was robed, and holding the silver branch of office, sat in the Bardic Chair while everyone blessed him with three awens – and so we ended on a note of harmony. Anthony Hentschel offered a Shakespearean sonnet as his winning piece, and the spirit of The Bard was very much with us (along with the shade of Blake). Anthony will now serve as the Bard of Hawkwood for a year and a day, honouring his bardic statement, and choosing the theme for next year, when the contest will be once more held at Hawkwood’s Open Day. Anyone who lives in the Five Valleys around Stroud can enter an original poem, song or story on the theme. Details will be announced by October 31st. The Hawkwood College website will post information. An anthology will be produced of the contest. All contestants and judges from this contest and previous years are invited to be part of an ongoing bardic circle. Anybody else who wishes to be involved are asked to get in touch.

Finally, the winner of the Bard of Hawkwood 2016, Anthony Hentschel, gave the following statement:

I believe, as John Cowper Powys put it, that “Man should be capable of believing Everything and Nothing.” Thus the rational insights of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens and the mystical insights of Rumi or Llewelyn Powys are to be equally applauded. The title Bard of Hawkwood will hopefully furnish me with the confidence to carry the living Word of Poetry into local schools, prisons and Retirement Homes. If anyone out there would like to invite me, and perhaps some of my friends, to such institutions, please get in touch via my email: anthonyhentschel@hotmail.com.

Awen for All

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Founder & Grand Bard of Hawkwood, Kevan Manwaring 2nd May 2016

http://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/

The Bardic Handbook: complete manual for the 21st Century bard 

by Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image, 2006

http://www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk/the-bardic-handbook.html