Monday, 14 July 2014

Poetical Chester

All smiles after the hard work - photo credit Maureen Weldon

I was delighted to be asked to give a workshop with

Chester Poets, such a friendly and talented group of people! It was 

held in the Friends' Meeting House, set amid the city's truly 

arresting architecture. 


This was particularly appropriate as I'd chosen to introduce the 

work of William Stafford, who was a Quaker, and to look at both 

his poetry and his prose writings on the process and the teaching of 


When I first read him, a year ago now, his words had an immediate 

and inspiring effect. The quotes below are from two of his books –  

Crossing Unmarked Snow and You Must Revise your Life.

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say 

as...someone who has found a process that will bring about new 

things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say 


“My morning writing would begin for me by getting up about four 

o'clock. ...I lie down on the living room couch in front of a 

big...picture window which looks out on our quiet neighbourhood. 

The giant fir trees, ...rhododendrons and so on outside. I'm lying 

there relaxed, I have a blank sheet in front of me. I put the date on 

top, and I start letting whatever swims into my attention get 

written down on the page....I welcome anything that comes along.  

I don't have any standards.......I am not trying to contend for a 

place in magazines or in books. I'm just letting my attention flow 

where it wants to flow. And the relaxation of it is part of the charm 

for me.”

Among his themes are

the linking of inner and outer – the world of actual events located 

in time and place, and the world of the imagination, the river of the 

inner life.
Writing as exploration & journey. In this journey there are no maps 

but you are accompanied by your own inner compass and guidance.
The importance of being authentic, rather than 'good'.
The necessity of making mistakes/the value of getting lost and of 

developing total trust and belief in your own processes.

I used one of his writing exercises as a starting point. The road to 

your home or town or to an imagined home where you would like 

to live.

The day was humid and sultry, the windows of the room were 

open, but it was hot inside, and silent, just the sound of 

concentration, (yes, it has its own sound, like the faintest hum of 

distant bees) notebook pages flicking over, people lifting bottles of 

water and replacing them, heads bent over pages, people wrote 

quickly, without editing their thoughts first, immersed in the 

present, going where their inner river took them. Faint murmur of 

voices from people sitting outside in the garden.

When people read out their work, there was a childhood memory 

of coming home from school with 'rooks rioting overhead'. More 

than one person followed a path or came to a gate or doorway 

where a threshold was crossed, marking a boundary into another 

world, only subtly different from this one.

There were contrasts between urban 'whirlpools round the ringroad' 

and rural, 'trees [that] protect me' and there were train journeys, 

rain on windows and nostalgia, there was a character setting out 

into a completely unknown world, reminding me of Parsifal the 

innocent, about to enter life's theatre and learn, through the 

mistakes he will make, about the ways, customs and meanings of 

the world, how it differs from his own imaginings, how it will 

eventually, reconnect with the larger world, of the imagination, of 

metaphor, of soul and spirit.

'...if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide 

to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second.'

'Let me plead, not for ignoring advice from wherever it comes, but 

for allowing in your own life the freedom to pay attention to your 

feelings while finding your way through language. ….........Into the 

unknown you must plunge, carrying your compass.....You must 

make 'mistakes'; that is, you must explore what has not been 

mapped out for you......Like Don Quixote must loosen the 

reins and go blundering into adventures that await any traveller 

in this multilevel world …..and like Don Quixote you must expect 

some disasters. You must write your bad poems and stories; for to 

write carefully as you rove forward is to guarantee that you will 

not find the unknown, the risky, the surprising. Art is an activity in 

which the actual feel of doing it must be your guide; hence the 

need for confidence, courage, independence.'

William Stafford

For the second exercise, since William Stafford stresses the 

importance of 'being lost' – a remembered or imagined lostness. 

One of the enjoyable things about using a fairly broad topic like 

this, is the different ways that people will interpret it. 

Being lost in some cases involved that powerful feeling of lines of 

connection, linking trails and sense impressions dissolving, being 

rubbed out, vanishing and mocking your sense of being part of 

anything beyond you, and the acute and sudden alienation that can 

bring. This usually involved being on mountains and in unknown 

terrain. The word panic came up a few times, reminding of the 

nature god Pan, at home in his terrain and challenging your 

presence there. Will you pass the test and be allowed to find your 

way out of the wood or down from the mountain?

There was a lost object, and the blurring of a visual sense, an ironic 

take on a 'riverside walk' where 'you can't get lost' if you keep the 

river on your right, but which actually went nowhere near the river, 

highlighting the strange logic of public signs! Another involved the 

loss of a moral compass, a 'man without maps' and there was an 

atmospheric description of a 'lost' building, eerily abandoned, but 

with its own individual sense of desolation.  

In David Subacchi's Journey, we get the sense of moving fast 

through landscape, one image coming into focus then falling away 

behind, Time here has rhythm and urgency, as we move through 

history as well as space.



Cardigan Bay at my back leaving screaming gulls
And postcard sunsets behind
Climbing afforested hills
Through grey ribbon villages
Past the long abandoned spaces
Of stone churches and Victorian school rooms

Up over Eisteddfa the moon landscape
Where in winter snow descends
Like a theatre fire curtain
Blocking passage to all
On, on eastwards by-passing Llanidloes
With its ancient market hall
Following a road that once was a railway
To industrial Newtown burial place of Robert Owen
And scene of Chartist riots
A place where labour was sold to factory and mill owner
Then forward to Welshpool’s agricultural wealth
Where dignity was sold to Lord Powys

North now in and out of England’s border
Rodney’s Pillar glaring down over Criggion’s quarry
To Oswestry more Welsh than English
Yet part of red soiled Shropshire
To arrive at Bersham where high above
The last relic of coal mining
Dominates the landscape for miles
Desperate attempts to grow trees
Failing miserably to disguise
That this is a slag heap

And so to Wrexham biggest town in North Wales
Border town, garrison town, once a mining
Brewing, brick and steel making town
Now a battered town
Scrambling for its dignity
Holding the line
Between survival
And obscurity.

David Subacchi
July 2014

And in his Empty Property, while it is the house that is 'lost', the 

powerful energy of abandonment that inhabits it seems to prowl 

like a wounded creature protecting its own space.


The front door was stiff
Requiring a kick to open
The sort of kick I imagine
Policemen or bailiffs deliver
When enforcing entry

As is normal when houses
Have been vacant
For some time
The smell of decay
Hung everywhere

With pen, paper and clipboard
I made cursory notes
More to prove I had inspected
Than to record anything
That might be worthwhile

A glance at every
Decaying room was enough
To satisfy me
That this was really
A bit of a dump

Turning to exit
The door resisted
Refusing to budge
As if showing contempt
For my disrespect

In panic I forced myself
Out the back way
Into an overgrown garden
Rusted hinges
Groaning in protest

Not looking back
I stepped over a garden wall
Into the alley way
Looking this way and that
Blushing with embarrassment

Behind me the empty house
Sneered in its loneliness
As I limped back to the car
My throat dry
Every muscle aching.

David Subacchi July 2014

(Both of these were written during the workshop, and are 

reproduced here with his permission)


Here you can read about David Feela's encounter with William 


And after the workshop, there was just time to walk along 

Chester's walls overlooking the racecourse, and watch the last race 

of the day!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Land, the Saints, the Sea

Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand 

differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or 

determined by the will – whatever we may think. They flower 

spontaneously out of the demands of our natures – and the best of 

them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well.

Lawrence Durrell – Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Caves and rock formations near Cape Greco, Cyprus

Some say that life is more like a circle or a spiral than a straight 

line, and that when we are older we become more like we were 

when we were very young. I was on the bike the other day and 

thought about how much I enjoyed cycling as a child – I remember 

the wonderful feeling when I could finally balance unaided on two 

wheels. Even now I sometimes deliberately focus on that feeling of 

balance, the awareness of the many and varied muscles used for 

this quite miraculous balancing act. I still enjoy it so much. Such a 

sense of freedom.

Today was the first day this year in this country, when I could cycle 

in a sleeveless top and shorts, enjoy the breeze, the waves of warm 

air and then cooler air in the shade. It was not as hot as it had been 

in Cyprus, where I was lucky enough to spend a week last month, 

but there, it was so hot that the first day when I went out on the 

bike I'd forgotten how fiercely the sun could burn my 

unaccustomed skin. So my first excursion was shorter than I had 

intended because of the intense heat, and the cycle paths had 

hardly any shade. On the second day I plastered myself with sun 

block and wore a long sleeved shirt.

The first journey was to Cape Greco, a promontory on the south 

east, then I followed the road, and cycle path, further north, to 

Konnos Bay.

Cape Greco

Although there were plenty of gorgeous flowering bushes and small 

trees, even the occasional palm, by the path side, the bushes were 

so small and the sun so high in the sky, that there was hardly any 

shade. When I reached a patch, I would stop for a while and drink 

some water, so most of the photographs are of friendly and 

welcome trees. The earth is dry and rocky, the plants spiny and 


Cape Greco in the distance

The following day I took the road north to Paralimni, then 

branched off east on a minor road, which led to the church of the

Prophet Elijah, perched on the top of a hill. I parked my bike in the 

shade of a tree in the car park, and climbed the steps.

All the trees are wrapped in colourful wish ribbons.

After climbing down I had a coffee at the small café beside the car 

park. There was a lovely atmosphere to this place, no tourists, no 

inflated prices, only one other customer when I was there, a local 

person who stopped for a sandwich. Run by a friendly middle aged 

couple, this café was shaded by trees, serene and unpretentious, 

tucked into the rock at the foot of this vivid little church.

On the way back I noticed another little church by the roadside. 

Dedicated to Saint Pantelimonas. There were no cars parked beside 

it, and no one inside either, though the door was open. Among the 

paintings of the saints, I was struck by one – or two rather – in 

particular, who wore turban-like headgear. Surely this is what 

people wear in hot countries, at least in this part of the world but I 

didn't remember seeing saints, disciples, or even Jesus himself, 

depicted as wearing a turban. Would he have worn one? I'm no 

scholar of dress in Biblical times, but I find it strangely exciting to 

see these people with haloes round their turbans.


Cyprus emerged from the sea, from volcanic lava, dried with time 

into bubbled rock and at the sea-edge, these hollows are filled with 

warm sea water, washed by tides, over and over. There are caves 

hollowed out from the shore. The soil is dry, the land is bony, the 

shrubs flower magnificently, and there are few trees. You notice 

this, cycling in the hot sun, needing shade. You notice it in the 

blessed shade of eucalyptus and pine, planted round the church of 

Saint Pantelimonas (the all-compassionate). A truck in the nearby 

field, trailed by a cloud of pinkish dust.

This landscape seems to have leapt inside me, settled there. 

Someone asks me why and I don't know. Its stoniness, its aridity, 

has gripped me. The few trees are all the more magnificent when 

you reach their shade. And, any direction you go in, you would be 

bound to reach the sea, its clarity, its changing colours, pale blue, 

turquoise, deep blue and that purple that Homer must have been 

referring to, when he called it 'wine-dark'. Sometimes smooth as a 

reflecting mirror, sometimes stormy.