Tag Archives: Hawkwood College

Wild Writing & Free-range Teaching

First published in Writing in Education Summer 2016

Kevan writing at Loch Maree Sep '12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw

Unfettered

Free

Sensual

Vulnerable

Uncensored

Secrets

Passionate

Spontaneous

Edgy

Nature

Embodied

Fear/less

Landscape

Deep emotion

Out of the box

Undefined

Pure

Untamed

Energy

Down to Earth

From the unconscious

Climate

Nonsensical

Life going wrong

Experiential

Abstract/extreme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Writing

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

Shooting Crows

I watched a man shooting crows.

I felt the recoil and fall.

I teased apart the feathers

and the little cracked hearts for answers.

All I found was the finish,

the filth and the spore.

There’s no meaning in dried eyes.

The resting of the carcasses

in the field down by the burn

where the ducks nested;

the sorrel greened on the blood.

Student 1 Prompt: write about the natural world.

Elephant in the Room                                                          

In our room there’s a jade green hippo

with carving knife teeth in a man-trap jaw

Baleful eyes bubbling from the brown

sluggish river of sewage and mud

Submerged in slurping bellicosity

it’s poised to drown me in the sloppy miasma

and amputate my manhood

Give me an elephant in the room

any vindaloo Taj Mahal tiffin

with trumpet voluntary to welcome me,

an embracing trunk to snuffle my neck

and never to forget we’re lovers

It would sprinkle me with cool paddy water

Whilst we swayed through orchards of pink mango

Student 2 Prompt: Write about something extremely improbable.

 

‘You want wild words’

You want wild words

Man made creations

Tamed by the intellect

I will show you wild Ness

In her bare foot bare faced

Nakedness

crouching low amongst the

Dank rotting earth

Student 3  Prompt: What does wildness mean to you?

 

Skep Skin

 

A hive in my hand

honeycomb hollow

oozing nectar

golden energy

gathered again and again

a lifetime’s work

in a teaspoon

stir into your tea

consciously

soothing the raw edges

of the day

sweetness delivered

by black and yellow drones

a sticky note

from the flowers

a souvenir of the sun

summer on the wing

an orchard on my tongue

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

NOTES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Walking to the Light

Last night I sleepwalked with 8 other people. Like characters lost in some surreal story – little Nemos in Slumberland – we wandered over hill and down dale, through night-forests and night-gardens. We could have been Stephen Black, following the King’s Roads (like in a scene from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell). In silent awe, we noctambulated, not wanting to break the spell. In truth, only Aurora herself could break it – for we walked from midnight til dawn, the sunrise of Midsummer’s Day no less, the feast day of St John the Baptist (June 24th), but we were pagan pilgrims, or rather walkers of many paths. We each carried with us our beliefs, our backgrounds, and our intentions. For I led my noctivagants on a mindfulness hike, or ‘earth-walk’. This was inspired by a midnight til sunrise walk I suggested to a friend, Anthony Nanson, last solstice. Then we walked from the centre of Stroud to Coaley Peak and Nympsfield long barrow, before greeting the dawn on Selsey Common. It was a sublime experience, and this prompted me to suggest it to Hawkwood College. I called it ‘Walking to the Light’, and in this simple, powerful act, I encourage the walkers to set an intention – to ‘walk their prayer’. We gathered in the eleventh (or 23rd) hour at Hawkwood, where I briefed the group to be ‘night-wise’. We shared our intentions and memorised each others’ names. We would be responsible for one another – and ‘hold each other’ on our night-journey. This forged a sense of tribal camaraderie.

We set off, like hunter-gatherers, into the night. It was beautifully mild, still and clear. A half moon hung in the sky like a Christmas tree decoration – you could distinctly see the Man in the Moon’s pointy nose. It all became a bit Winsor McKay, or Arthur Rackham – the witchy silhouettes of trees casting their hexes over us. We passed through silverine fields of wheat, and I plucked a stem, recalling how such an ear of wheat was a symbol of the initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries, one who had seen ‘the sun at midnight’. We were transgressive Persephones tempted into Hades’ shady nightclub to pop pomegranate pills, or Demeters descending to bring the wayward daughter back to the light – Angela Merkel looking for the Greek deficit perhaps!

Yet we felt far away from the world’s din. In the middle of the field, we turned off our torches and drank in the dark wine of stars. Arthur’s Wain steered us, and Cassiopoiea’s Chair. I suggested to the group that we each pick a star and name a loved one after it – to guide us on our way.

Walking in file through the wet fields, everything was sensation. The air was rich with the hot smell of summer, the fecund land. Here was plenty. Here in Gaia’s selfless bounty was a true end to austerity. We just had to trust in her. We felt safe enough to lie down on her downy bosom and go to sleep.

We crossed narrow foot-bridge, as trepidatious as Billy Goats Gruff, but no troll demanded a toll. This road was free. Tiptoed past snoring houses and barking dogs. Struck out and hoped for the best. Yet, having walked it in the daylight a couple of Sundays ago with my partner, Chantelle, my feet remembered what to do, even when we couldn’t see the way. At obstacles, we would call out ‘feet’, or ‘head’. We looked out for one another as we clambered over stiles and squeezed through kissing gates.

We stopped for drinks and snacks, contentedly chewing the cud in bovine silence. Our bodies thanked us and we moved on.

Like a line of gnomes we sat on the wall by the Edgmoor Inn – a strange sight to the rare passing driver.

We pushed up onto the Cotswold Way – ascending through Russage Common, where Paul pointed out orchids. When we reached the beechwoods on the Edge, we stopped to turn out torches off again, soaking in the primal texture of a nocturnal forest – our ancestors’ first glimpse of the world, perhaps. This instilled in us a healthy respect, and we proceeded in silence down the narrow path. This walk through the tall grey trees was the most magical moment – we had entered a fairy tale Forest Perilous. We let it speak to our subconscious in contemplative peregrination.

At a barn, the mannequin of a child eerily looked down upon us, and a white cat scrutinised us from a stack of hay-bales, eyes in the gloaming, a mirthless Cheshire Cat.

We rose through the earthworks of Haresfield Beacon, and gathered by the trig-point like the Hares’ Parliament said to meet here. We had arrived early – the darkest hour before the dawn. I suggested that we sat in meditation for half an hour, so off we wandered to find a spot. I gazed out over the Severn Vale – illuminated by the traffic of the M5 and, in the distance, the Severn Bridges. The neon constellations of Stonehouse and Dursley epitomised the prosaic world. Yet I accepted this darkness, accepted it all, in my fatigue – feeling heavy with deprived sleep, an enchantment one could not escape. Someone in the kingdom had pricked their finger.

Then, we were startled from our slumbers by a herd of curious cows, who had silently appeared right behind us. They gathered around this fascinating intrusion in their space, letting us scratch their necks and share their common ground.

We harkened to the dawn chorus across the deep vale flanking the Beacon, an orchestra tuning up for an exquisite symphony. Then, feeling the surge of day, headed towards the gathering light. By the toposcope we greeted the sunrise, a magnificent mackerel sky preceding the return of the sun king. Here, we shared poems and songs and morning praise. We had made it. We had walked the night into the day as though our feet had turned the Earth beneath us.

Unmasked by the light, the faces of our fellow midnight ramblers greeted us, weary but happy, wearing the clothes of our common humanity – souls cloaked in bodies, making their way home.

We wended our way back to Hawkwood for a hearty breakfast, well earned – joyously waking from our midsummer night’s dream.

The Colours of Britain

A selection of the works of Jamila Gavin

A selection of the works of Jamila Gavin

To celebrate the first ‘birthday’ of the Cotswold Word Centre – the platform for language, literacy and literature based at Hawkwood College of which I am the volunteer co-ordinator – on World Book Day, we hosted a talk by our patron, Stroud-based writer Jamila Gavin. Jamila was born to a mixed-raced parentage* – an English mother and Indian father, who met as teachers in Iran – raised mainly in India until eleven when her family moved to England for good – and this ‘hybrid’ status has informed everything she has written, making her an important champion for multi-culturalism. Weened on a trunk of her mother’s English classics, which accompanied them on their many travels, Jamila initially trained as a pianist, but was a gifted letter-writer. Her childhood years were spent hopping from country to country, capital to capital – Paris, Berlin, London. This combination – of rounded education, cross-fertilisation of culture and polyglot articulacy – led to her working for the BBC as a Studio Manager. She married and raised her children Stroud where she has lived for forty years. Her first book was published in 1979 – The Magic Orange Tree – a collection of multi-cultural tales; and she has gone on to write an impressive range of children’s books, short stories, autobiography, plays, collections of myths and fairy tales, and contributions to anthologies supporting causes such as Greenpeace, and Human Rights. Her most recent work is a story for an anthology exploring the First World War, and her latest collection of magical tales, Blackberry Blue – a fairy story in the European tradition, but with a female protagonist of colour in the central role (to offer her grand-daughters a positive literary heroine they can relate to). Jamila’s best known work, Coram Boy, was adapted into a stage play by the National Theatre. Her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio, and she has garnered several awards over her career.

And so we were extremely lucky to have her.

Jamila Gavin by Kevan Manwaring

Jamila Gavin by Kevan Manwaring

Despite the disappointingly low attendance she gave a fascinating talk provocatively titled ‘Why Read? Why Write?’ I managed to record most of it, and it is listenable via the links below. Afterwards, there were some good questions from the small, but engaged audience. I asked if there were any commonalities in her diverse oeuvre – ‘injustice’, she replied, the voices of the marginalised, racism, and a celebration of diversity. A second question of mine was – did her ‘hybrid’ status inform her writing in any way: ‘Absolutely,’ was her reply. I suggested that it gave her, as a writer, a distinct advantage – being able to relate to different traditions, to see beyond the provincial, to be an interlocutor, or, as I put it, a kind of ‘Suez Canal’ (as a child Jamila would travel between India and England by boat, a journey taking two and half weeks, although it would’ve taken a lot longer without the Suez Canal). She has been the bridge to link continents. She is a true transnational writer in the post-colonial tradition, and her work is more important than ever in a time of challenges to multicultural Britain by the likes of the BNP, EDF and UKip – a growing xenophobia fuelled by those wishing to exploit the banking crisis/Austerity-driven discontent. Jamila was gracious, generous and highly articulate – a pleasure to listen to and learn from. Any parent wishing to offer their children a healthy cross-section of fiction would do well to seek out Jamila’s work, as would anyone wishing to have a better understanding of multi-cultural Britain.

*as something of a global mongrel myself, this meti inbetween-ness is something that informs my own writing, especially my current novel project.

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Listen to Jamila’s talks here…. (soon!)

Jamila Gavin author talk 6 March 2015 part 1

Jamila Gavin author talk 6 March 2015 part 2

Inklings of Spring

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Last night I hosted another bardic gathering – this one at Hawkwood College in honour of Imbolc, the Celtic Festival of Spring. This always feels like a particularly poetic time for me because the festival is associated with the goddess Brighde (various spellings; Christianised as St Bridget) – goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. And words of healing brightness were certainly forged in the main hall of Hawkwood on Saturday night with a fine array of poets, storytellers and singers.

After I introduced the evening, my partner Chantelle sang a beautiful Manx Gaelic Invocation to St Bridget, sung traditionally on the threshold to welcome her into the hearth. There followed a splendid mix of bardic contributions from some of Stroud and Bath’s finest bards. Peter Adams got us to turn out the lights to do his owl poem, complete with sound FX; Fiona Eadie did a thrilling tale about the Cailleach and Brighid; Robin did a fine nature poem; Kirsten told us about her trip to a Native American reservation; Peter Please recited a scintillating vignette, and his superb ‘fly’ poem; and Marko finished off the first half with the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’.

After the break Jeff Cloves brought the evening back into the 21st Century with his tour-de-force about the bombing of a bookshop in Baghdad; next we had Kirsty Hartsiotis’ fine rendition of St Melangell and the hare; Tim Bannon followed with his mindful and affirming poem; Jehanne and Rob Mehta performed a lovely February song; Gabriel Bradford Millar shared her ‘absinthe-like’ poetry; and then we had some good contributions from the floor (including Katie’s lovely song praising an island off Mull); before finishing impressively with Anthony Nanson’s tales of St Bridget; and Marko’s stirring rendition of ‘The Bright Blue Rose’. All in all it was a beautifully gentle and heart-warming evening – one of a series of events leading up to the Bard of Hawkwood contest. We have a plethora of local talent in Stroud and the Five Valleys, and my hope is that many will step forward to either enter or support the Chair in some way. This is their platform. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood belongs to its community; and in this day and age I think it is more important than ever to champion (creative and mindful) free speech.


Hedd Wyn and the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood - an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod Chair from 1882

Hedd Wyn & The Bardic Chair at Hawkwood 9 November 2014

 A review by Katie Lloyd-Nunn

Kevan Manwaring, Cotswold Word Centre volunteer co-ordinator and former Bard of Bath (1998-1999), introduced the evening. His intention in organizing the event was to honour Remembrance Sunday and to generate interest in the new competition for the Bard of Hawkwood. This was launched at Hawkwood Open Day on Monday 5 May 2014 and this evening is almost exactly half way through the year which will culminate in the competition and adjudication on Monday 4 May 2015 at Hawkwood Open Day. The theme of the competition is FLOOD and competitors must be “within a day’s walk of the Chair” i.e. and inhabitant of GL5 or GL6 postcode, as winning the Chair includes responsibilities related to the Chair and its location in GL6 at Hawkwood. Each applicant is to perform an original poem, song or story of less than 10 minutes duration.

Richard Maisey, Holder of the Bardic Chair, talked about the Chair, saying how it has been in his family in South Wales near Neath for a long time. The plaque reads Eisteddfod Denbighshire 1882, but no name is assigned (as no Chair was awarded that year). It’s tremendous that now this unclaimed Chair will have the opportunity to be won by a local talented wordsmith.

Kevan explained how the current revival of Bardic Chairs came about. The eccentric antiquarian Edward Williams (Iolo Morgannwg) ‘found’ a list of 30 English Chairs, several of which have now been revived including Bath, Exeter and Glastonbury thanks chiefly to the vision and initiative of the late Tim Sebastian, who started the Bath Eisteddfod in 1996. New Chairs are being created, eg Northampton. What is a Bard? The Bard kept remembrances and genealogy of the tribe and shared stories of wooing, wedding and funerals. They were not Druids, though.

[Katie adds: In 1998 I met Donald McDonald, the Bard of South Uist. He wrote poems about all sorts of events, between thatching his own roof aged late 70s, including Camilla’s marriage to Prince Charles. It was huge privilege to meet him!]

A Laureate is appointed by the Queen and has officialdom attached to him/her. In contrast Bard is elected by their community, and needs to able to perform and connect to an audience, not to be just a “page poet”, e.g. performance poet, singer, storyteller.

The Cotswold Word Centre honours all the word activities in the local area.

The Chair, as its living symbol, will foster community arts engagement. It will support local creativity as each Bard represents a particular locality.

We then watched Hedd Wyn film, a 1992 Welsh-language film. Its title is taken from the bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans, who won the Bardic Chair of Birkenhead of 1917 posthumously, having being killed at the Battle of Passchendaele. ‘Hedd Wyn’ means ‘Blessed Peace’.

(see separate notes)

 13. Hedd Wyn

After the film, John Xavian, Bard of May Hill spoke:

“I am a Celt and this film upheld all the Bardic Traditions and we need to look ahead and get working on it [the 2015 competition for the Bard of Hawkwood] now! We want to see young people writing. We need to get into the schools. Spread the word from this gathering! We needpeople to respond. This is a live heritage. Everyone is capable of creation. Like painting, we can write with the Pen – we have the English Language full of shades and colours, tones, depth. Artistic creation is within everyone. Recognise what’s in your heart. People need galvanizing. By freeing the Spirit in each of us, the stupidity of war can be challenged. When the Spirit is bound, the Human is led by aggressive acquisition and short-term gain. Let us remember that music and art meet in poetry.

We want to see a Bard at Hawkwood and we want to see people who want to be the Bard at Hawkwood. The Chair is the symbol for the Spirit unbound in creativity.

Kevan added the tragedy in this film was the silencing of all the voices. The Ellis chair is known as the Black Chair and the 1917 Birkenhead festival is now referred to as “Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu” (“The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair”). A powerful symbol of all those silenced voices. Winston Churchill was asked about cutting arts budget and he said: ‘Then what are we fighting for?’

Josie Felce: It was an honour to work for 20 years in the peninsulas of Wales; to help to stimulate people who are not used to expressing themselves is inspiring. The Bard has the job of inspiring others for one year. There should be performance skills offered.

Kevan: Anyone can perform at the contest at Open Day on Monday 4 May 2015, they don’t have to compete. They will still be part of the ‘Gorsedd’ (the Circle for all those who wish to be involved in supporting the Chair).

Ways to hone performance skills:

Last Friday of the month – Black Books Café Story Supper (next 28 Nov).

Green Words – 10 week Tuesday evening writing course at Hawkwood, starting in January.

Late January – Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, an ideal way to savour the “Awen” spirit of inspiration.

Bardic Boot Camp – 28 March, 2015.

Further reflections on the film by Richard Maisey: In the Valleys if you went into the non-conformist chapel, it was to sing. Fewer chapels and no singing now, so singing at Rugby matches is no good – has no “Hywll” no heart / soul / heat/ passion. I wonder if the wood of this chair might have some resonance? Has it soaked up some of those voices?

****The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood is going to Malvern Writers Circle to be blessed by Gillian Clarke, national poet of Wales.****

£44.50 was raised for the Peace Pledge Union from donations.

HEDD WYN – THE FILM

It was the Best Foreign Language Film in 1992 (in Welsh with English subltitles). Also won several BAFTA Wales awards.

Kevan chose to show this film on 9 November on Remembrance Sunday

  1. Set at the beginning of WWI. Ellis Humphrey Evans entered the Eisteddfod under the nom de plume Fleur de Lys. We are showing this film to honour those who have been impacted by war in whatever way.
  1. Also, it’s about a Bard. It’s one of the things that made me [Kevan] want to be a Bard. It’s not just about the Celts ~ it’s about what we do now to celebrate being alive.

Katie’s review:

It is a relatively simple story of a young man wedded to his Muse who sadly dies in action in the early months of WWI. Driven by his need to write and leading a relatively undemanding farming life, Ellis Humphrey Evans is shown writing in the landscape and getting help from a more educated friend in polishing his work for submission to local Eisteddfod competitions. His poems evoke the beauty of his native land and are infused with unspecified feeling, perhaps hinting at and matched by the sensuality of the Welsh landscape and his own susceptibility to the charms of womankind.

The pace of the film is unhurried and could possibly do with cutting by 20 minutes or so – I didn’t feel the relationship with older woman Lizzie really added to the plot. The disturbing reality of the War gradually oozes into the life of Ellis and his family in parallel with his growing ambition to win the national Eisteddfod. As Kevan says, “The film illustrates the complexity, the forces bearing down on the individuals and the community portrayed.” The anguish and confusion of the mother is well portrayed and echoed by the new young school teacher who urges Ellis to write about this, saying,” Ellis we are all affected by this war.”

The camera plays upon actor Huw Garmon’s handsome sensitive features, his beauty enhanced by the fact that most of the other Welsh-speaking actors seemed to have unusually wobbly Celtic faces.

After months of inertia and avoidance, despite a visit by a War Office official, he is finally brought before a tribunal and deemed fit for war. His tendency towards being a bit of a slacker (according to younger brother Bob) and womanizer is now redeemed by his set-jawed decision to go to war instead of 18 year-old Bob in an act of maturity and honour.

He is then flung into the violent, de-humanising war machine yet still manages to make friends with his fellow Welsh tommies, write letters home and to submit his poem Armageddon to the Bardic competition.

His fatal injury occurs fairly early in the film and the clever use of flashbacks brings a subtle poignancy to the narrative. The staging and direction is beautifully done and though grueling is never gross. The mystical Celtic soul shines through in the lush green landscape and full flowing rivers paralleled by the occasional appearance of a shadowy figure representing love, conscience, Nature or perhaps Arianrhod the once-virginal moon goddess whose boat carried the dead into the afterlife.

Walking with Laurie

John Lee reads out an extract of 'Cider with Rosie' by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

Anthea Lee reads out an extract of ‘Cider with Rosie’ by Rose Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

I rounded off a glorious solstice weekend (which began with watching the sunrise over Stonehenge with 37,000 people!) by taking a group of 17 walking in the footsteps of Laurie Lee – one of the series of ‘Walking with Words’ literary rambles I’ve organised for Hawkwood College.

The weather was glorious as we wended our way up the Slad valley to the start point, overlooking Rose Cottage (which Laurie Lee purchased with royalties from ‘Cider with Rosie’). We had a lovely group – including 3 cousins of the great man himself, which was very special. I encouraged them to chip in with any info, and to take turns (alongside the rest of the group) reading out extracts of the book.

Along the way we bumped into some of then newly-installed poetry posts, which we also recited from  – they’re beautifully-designed and a great initiative from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who have created a Wildlife Way around the poet’s beloved Slad Valley. You see the landscape through his words (literally, as they are printed on perspex) – and thus you gain an insight into his world and a deeper appreciation of the natural environment. Writing can change our perception of places – and it certainly does here, enriching it enormously. Psychogeography seems a fancy, urbanish word for such a bucolic idyll as we experienced that day – but there is an element of that in the way we interfaced with the many facets: ecology, local history, literature, social history, etc.

We paid our respects at the lovely gravestone ( the man himself said: ‘I want to be buried between the pub and the church, so that I can balance the secular and the spiritual’, from Valerie Grove’s biography, p510) and then I showed the group the memorial window inside. There is an art exhibition on – and invigilating it was James Witchall, who designed the windows, another moment of serendipity! He happily told us about the commission and design. The church was beautifully decorated with flowers – it was lovely to see it brimming with art and nature, and visitors. I finished the walk outside the Woolpack, with the final section of the book, and then some of us went back to Hawkwood for a delicious lunch.

A Slad Century - performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

A Slad Century – performed by Adam Horovitz and Becky Dellow outside Rosebank Cottage, Slad, 22 June 2014

That would have made a perfect day by itself, but then I went back to Slad to explore the exhibition a bit more, and then make my way to Rosebank Cottage (Laurie Lee’s childhood home) for a poetry and music perform – A Slad Century with Adam Horovitz and Becky Dallow. It was very special to be in the well-tended garden of this famous domicile, sitting on the lawn sipping Pimms in ‘poets corner’ along with other Stroud bards: Denis Gould, Rick Vick and Richard Austin. Listening to Adam and Becky I slipped into a blissful reverie. I felt I oozed into the soil and became one with the Slad Valley, curled up in its arms like an ammonite. After an epic weekend (overnight Stonehenge tour; one hour storytelling performance in Rockingham Village Hall; over 300 miles of travel – many on the motorbike) I was exhausted but content. Laurie Lee’s writing does (largely) evoke a nostalgic, bucolic idyll – but sitting in the sun in Rosebank Cottage, enjoying poetry, fiddle, a drink and good company, I do not think that is a bad thing. Such experiences feed the soul and make life on this beautiful, blighted world a lot more bearable.

Afterwards, we decamped to The Woolpack where we ensconced ourselves in Laurie Lee’s ‘corner’. Amongst the company of fellow poets, (who all carry the torch past on by Lee and other great Gloucestershire writers) I felt a warm sense of belonging to this precious corner of the Cotswolds.

To finish with the words of Cotswold Ballads poet, Frank Mansell, who was helped into print by his friend Laurie Lee. In thanking his fellow poet, Frank wrote:

‘What we are really doing is creating a legend, leaving a landmark, a sarsen stone to show we passed this way’.

 

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

The summer solstice sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014, by Kevan Manwaring

(***on 22 July, I am running a 1-day writing workshop at Hawkwood College on Landscape, Memory and the Imagination***)

Many more events celebrating the Laurie Lee Centenary can be found here.